Formerly Incarcerated Youth Poets Take the Stage

WHAT: Stories of Strength: Beyond Bars, an evocative performance that will showcase the struggles, insights and successes of formerly incarcerated youth from Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop through their original poetry.

The event will also celebrate the release of BleakHouse Publishing’s latest book of poetry, Up the River, written by inmate Chandra Bozelko. All audience members will receive a copy of the book.

Tickets are available for purchase online for $5.


WHO: Poetry will be performed by Free Minds Poet Ambassadors, a group of formerly incarcerated young adults. Through their introduction to reading and writing through Free Minds in the DC Jail, the poets have gone on to become avid readers, dynamic writers and community changemakers.


WHEN: March 17th, 7-8:30 pm. Doors will open 15 minutes before the show.


WHERE: Busboys and Poets, Langston Room, 2021 14th St NW, Washington, DC

Street parking is free after 6:30 pm.

To arrive by metro, take the Green Line to U St/13th St and walk one block West and one block North to 14th st entrance.


CONTACT: For press related inquiries, please contact Nora Kirk at

Hard Work From Hassine Scholar Pays Off

Chris Miller, former Hassine Scholar, is finding out that being passionate about public service pays off. Miller recently met Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an individual that has inspired his belief that working hard can effect huge change in the world.

Miller is a highly driven individual. Currently in his third year at Georgetown Law, he received his undergraduate degree from American University. In his time at AU, BleakHouse Publishing also named him a Hassine Scholar. This most recent summer, Miller was a research assistant and delved into Justice Ginsburg’s story and Supreme Court decisions. He was beyond excited to meet her.

Ginsburg biographer Wendy Williams accompanied Miller to the Supreme Court. As they entered the private areas of the building, Miller was struck by the stately décor of the justices’ offices. Ginsburg’s office in particular fascinated him. The office showcased abstract art alongside photos of Justice Ginsburg during prominent moments in her career. A photo of Justice Ginsburg at her Senate confirmation dominated the room.

More enthralling than her office was Justice Ginsburg herself. Miller found her soft-spoken, yet mesmerizing. He remembers her “regal presence, akin to Maya Angelou”, but relatable enough to make small talk with.

Miller asked Justice Ginsburg about her ‘exceedingly persuasive justification’ defense of Title VII, which requires a very strong argument to justify employment discrimination. “[Other justices] can gut Title VII or the VRA,” replied Justice Ginsburg, “but they can’t get us on the Constitution.” Ginsburg went on to say that she believes her decisions may outlast some laws and continue protecting rights even if the laws are modified.

“I write my opinions to last,” she reiterated.

Professor Wendy Williams interjected during the hour-long meeting to explain what a fan Miller was of Justice Ginsburg. Miller followed up with a statement to Ginsburg that captures not only his conviction as an individual, but also why BleakHouse was proud to name him a Hassine Scholar: “You inspired me to pursue public service. You taught me that anything is possible, even in the face of great obstacles.”

“Good,” said Justice Ginsburg. With the utmost sincerity, she added: “Because it is.” It was a truly memorable meeting for Chris Miller, one he will never forget.


From Prison to Us: A Theater Review

From Prison to the Stage is heavy. This new play explores the inner demons of prisoners. Their guilt, their haunted memories, and their will to carry on take center stage. Written by inmates from around the country, this compilation of plays debuted at the Kennedy Center Saturday night. These interwoven tales expose audiences to new voices, to new truths.

The show was part of the Kennedy Center’s annual Page-to-Stage festival, which features developing shows from around the D.C. region.

Interspersed between the ten plays of From Prison to the Stage are selections from Faces. Director of last night’s show Betty May adapted writing from female “lifers,” women in prison for life, to create Faces. For both of these works, the goal is to transform incarcerated people through art and to transform audiences through the perspectives and experiences of these playwrights.

The language of the show sounds like poetry. Natural, nostalgic images are paired with brutal scenes of abuse and hopelessness. Sifting through stories, the common themes reflect the cyclical nature of crime. The line between victim and victimizer blurs. Much of the show is hard to watch. You will cringe. And that is the point.

Actors Raoul Anderson, Melanie Boyer, Brandy Facey, Ed Higgins, Lisa Kays, Tommy Malek, and Maxton Young-Jones play many roles, bringing painful realities to life.

Among the most striking short plays is “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” by Craig Ellis. Two children roughhouse in what starts as a funny scene. It reflects the universal feel of the show. We can all relate to the impulsiveness of these boys, just as we have all felt loss and loneliness. Their fun turns tense, when one of them reveals his father’s gun. Ellis gives us a poignant picture of America’s gun culture through the eyes of the innocent. Like other moments, this play is difficult to watch and impossible to forget.

On a somewhat lighter note, “Tuesdays with Mortie”—an obvious pun on Mitch Albom’s famous book—shows how a dying man can change. Written by Patrick Cox, Mitch Gooldy, Gary Green, Kevin Henry, Jon Ornstead, and Steve Pigg, the play presents prisoners writing a play. Go figure. This play-within-a-play pairs the prisoners’ story with that of Ted, a dying Vietnam War vet. A bitter man, he lost his wife to a cold-blooded murderer. With the help of a comical talking dog, played by a lively Maxton Young-Jones, Ted learns to forgive.

This artistic collection demonstrates the humanity in prisoners. But it is important to remember their victims. People go to prison because they steal and kill. From Prison to the Stage does not run away from this, and the characters admit to their sins.

An important project, the effort of everyone who worked on From Prison to the Stage shone through at its weekend performance. Let’s hope for many more.

We at BleakHouse Publishing were proud to sponsor From Prison to the Stage.


Human Rights Article in Italian Social Science Journal

Robert Johnson, Max Looper (AU, CLEG) and Maya Barak (AU, Doctoral student in JLS) recently had an article on human rights accepted in a refereed Italian social science journal (Sicurezza e scienze sociali). One of the translators is an AU student, Alessia De Vitis. The article is entitled “Riflessioni sulla dignità umana nel contesto carcerario americano: alcune considerazioni preliminari su una classe speciale di emigranti e rifugiati,” which translates to “Thinking about human dignity in the American prison context: Some preliminary reflections on a special class of migrants and refugees, Robert Johnson, Max Looper, and Maya Barak; in C. Cipolla, S. Vezzadini (a cura di), L’ambivalenza della in-sicurezza nei processi migratori, Sicurezza e scienze sociali, Anno 1, n. 1/2013 (Forthcoming, Summer 2013).

Honoring Our Authors: BleakHouse 2013 Annual Awards Ceremony

Recognizing exceptional creative work and insights into the criminal justice system
by Alexa Kelly

Charles Huckelbury is an ex-convict. He is also a husband, a dreamer, a miniature-poodle owner, and an exceptional poet. We were there to hear him, to award him. We awarded him as we awarded so many artists who advance awareness of criminal justice. On a quiet Thursday evening, BleakHouse Publishing hosted its annual awards ceremony.

Professor Robert Johnson presenting Charles Huckelbury with the “Best Book” award.

The awards ceremony began with a reading from Charles Huckelbury, the author of Distant Thunder. When Huckelbury was 27 years old, he was sentenced to 38 years in a maximum security prison for murder. While in prison, he developed his creative writing talents, going on to teach English literature and win numerous writing awards. Distant Thunder is his collection of powerful poems that blend humor, wistfulness, and hope. At the ceremony, Huckelbury reflected on the quirks and difficulties of adjusting to life outside prison. His wife, Susan Nagelsen, also present at the ceremony, often encourages him to slow down when he eats – in prison, eating is for fuel; it is not a social occasion.

Huckelbury was awarded “Best Book” for Distant Thunder. He also received the Victor Hassine Memorial Scholarship, for works that educate the public on the pressing issues affecting the criminal justice system and society at large. This award honors the memory of Victor Hassine, who tragically took his life after 27 long years of confinement, and is accompanied by a five hundred dollar stipend, courtesy of the Hassine family.

“Best Poem” went to “Home” by Sarah Bousquet and to “Accommodations” by Cienna Breen. The audience heard Sarah’s passionate reading of her award-winning poem, a chilling piece on murder and family. Joanna Heaney received Honorable Mention for her poem “Too Little, Too Late” and presented it with sarcastic flair. Other award categories included Short Story, Play, Essay, Distinguished Writers and Artists Guild and BleakHouse Fellow.

The Social Justice Advocacy Award went to Talila Lewis, founder of Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD). Lewis accepted her award without acknowledging her own achievements. Instead, she spoke of the need for change in the justice system and the need to advance the rights of disabled inmates.

Talila Lewis, founder of D.C. HEARD, accepting the Social Justice Advocacy Award.

Managing Editor Sonia Tabriz delivered closing remarks. She spoke of how BleakHouse and its founder Dr. Robert Johnson have made an indelible imprint on her life. In its awards ceremony, BleakHouse honored those who speak out for the voiceless.

Professor Robert Johnson and Managing Editor, Sonia Tabriz.

Distant Thunder is available for purchase on

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