Finding Freedom: In Struggles We Gain Strength, In Truth We Find Peace

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The nightmare that is the U.S. prison system has the largest inmate population in the world - over 1.57 million inmates, many sentenced for minor drug crimes, plus another estimated 12 million cycling through county jails for shorter periods - and a recidivism rate that tops out at around 70%, particularly in the first year of release. Amidst ongoing debate about the meaning of those appalling numbers - which reflect, in part, the ineffectiveness of incarceration and the impact of broader social, economic and educational inequities that led to it in the first place - a number of initiatives nationwide try to help inmates abandoned by a broken prison system get on with their lives once they're "freed," albeit woefully ill-equipped, from that system.

Thus does Chicago's Episcopal Charities run St. Leonard's Ministries, a halfway house for newly released inmates. For the last seven years, their programs have included a monthly poetry class run by volunteer and copywriter Brandon Crockett. Moved by the hundreds of poems of pain, grief, hope and healing he has overseen, Crockett is now collaborating with Chicago photographer Sandro Miller on "Finding Freedom," a book combining Miller's stark portraits of inmates juxtaposed with their often harrowing tales. Many, but not all, describe a hardscrabble passage to arrive at a place where, writes one, "Slowly, the darkness is fading away." Miller photographed 65 residents over 12 months in what he says were emotional and instructive photo shoots: "I wanted to save them, hold them, and listen to them. Instead, they saved me with their words of life, broken dreams, new dreams, uplifting dreams, and dreams of a new beginning." To help those dreams see the light of day, a Kickstarter campaign is now underway.


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