04/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Inside U.S. Prisons, a Wealth of Wasted Potential

A visit last week to the New Hampshire State Prison for Women provided an exhilarating as well as a heartbreaking experience. I had been invited to take part in a writer's forum with inmates, many of whom had read two of my books, which a reader had donated to the prison library. They were of course particularly interested in my book about the prison system.

I donated copies copies my other books including my latest novel, which is about an entire population imprisoned by a Communist dictator and its struggle for freedom.

Over 50 of the 140 inmates dressed in red or green T-shirts and blue pants showed up to the forum. They were an attentive, engaged, intelligent and committed audience. In fact, they compared very favorably to the students I encountered at a nearby college, at which I also conducted several classes during my visit to New Hampshire last week.

Despite their tough circumstances, the women who greeted me were for the most part articulate and intelligent. Some wanted to speak about the prison system in general and prospects for reform. I fielded questions about bringing down recidivism rates, lowering prison costs and fixing the parole system. Warden Joanne Fortier encouraged inmates to bring ideas on how to make life within the walls of the facility better for inmates and staff. "We may not be able to carry out some of your ideas and I may not even be able to tell you why we can't -- but you should all know your ideas will find a listening ear in my office," she said.

Other women wanted to talk about the writing process and their own efforts to write. "Sometimes I'm writing and I get too emotional to continue. How do you deal with that?" one asked. I told her to focus on the nuts and bolts of the sentences she was writing and the words she was choosing. Some wanted to use writing to reach out to loved ones. A few had real ambitions and dreams of reaching others through their writing. Yet others wanted to talk about some of the books they were reading and the impact literature had on their lives. They talked about writing down their own experiences and also of retreating into imagination as a way of coping with their circumstances.

For these women who do not have access to the Internet, or to many of the trivial technological ways that Americans now have to amuse themselves, reading and writing play such an immense role in their lives. Many of the rest of us who live in freedom have lost that sense of literature as a medium that still matters.

A high proportion of women in U.S. prisons including this one are victims of sexual, mental and/or physical abuse. Often, this abuse begins in childhood and continues into adulthood. Around 70 percent of inmates have children or their own, being looked after by relatives or in foster care. Some have been in jail for decades and may never be released. They have never seen a webpage or held a cell-phone.

In recent years, the number of women in the U.S. prison system has been rising even faster than among men. According to the Department of Justice's statistical bureau, there were 114,852 women incarcerated at the end of 2008, a 7 percent increase since 2000.

Looking around the room, listening to inmates' comments, feeling their passion, it was impossible not to be impressed by the wasted potential in that room. Yet U.S. prisons generally do a poor job of rehabilitation. Many incarcerated women face poor prospects after their release. Mostly untrained and unskilled, the best many can hope for is a minimum wage job without benefits with few opportunities to advance.

Every one of the women in that room had gone off the rails to some degree or another. A few had committed horrendous crimes. Yet they retained their humanity, their interest in the world, their desire to live a worthwhile life. Such potential. Such a waste.

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