One answer comes to mind when Keith LaMar thinks about what could have helped him avoid the juvenile system at 13 years old: books.
“What could have changed the trajectory of my life?” said LaMar, 53, who is currently imprisoned at Ohio State Penitentiary.
LaMar believes reading works like Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace encourage empathy.
“You see the connectivity and pretty soon the way you look at people and the way you respond to that reality is different,” he said.
LaMar’s passion for literature and poetry has allowed him to host book clubs in schools across the country. He released his memoir Condemned in 2013 which follows his experience being accused of the murder of five inmates during the Lucasville Prison Uprising in 1993. The memoir was the focus of Northwestern’s Undergraduate Prison Education Program April 4 Book Talk. This literary passion has melded with his interest in music: He performed spoken word in collaboration with jazz producers for his 2022 LP album Freedom First, the first album in history recorded by an artist on death row.
On April 15, UPEP will host a jazz benefit concert for LaMar where he will be performing spoken word alongside pianist Albert Marques and other jazz artists. This event will be hosted in collaboration with the Justice for Keith LaMar campaign which hopes to petition Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio to intervene on LaMar’s verdict and release him.
LaMar was convicted of murder and incarcerated in 1989 when he was 19 years old. He has been on death row since 1995, spending 33 years in solitary confinement at the Ohio State Penitentiary. During the earlier years of his incarceration, LaMar met older prisoners who encouraged him to pursue his education. He earned his General Education Development Certificate and enrolled in a college program.
However, LaMar could not continue his education in the college program because the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The law prohibited those who are incarcerated from receiving Pell Grants, a federal source of educational aid. So instead, he studied on his own.
“[Books] changed the way I not only looked at myself but at the world and opened my mind to a whole new way of seeing and being,” LaMar said.
LaMar started to read books with youth in the juvenile justice system and eventually with high school and college students.
“That’s where it started. Just a desire to kind of go back and undo some of the damage caused along the way,” he said.
He was sentenced to death despite maintaining his innocence and his execution is scheduled for Nov. 16, 2023. Lawyers and activists have urged the state to reopen his case, stating LaMar’s initial trial withheld evidence that proved his innocence.
LaMar wrote Condemned as a testament to his side of the story about the Lucasville Prison Uprising. He typed out his words on a typewriter, then read his pages over phone calls to a friend.
“Writing my own story was a way for me to take control of my life, because at the end of the day, if worse comes to worst, I’m the one who will be strapped to a gurney,” he said.
LaMar’s book clubs discuss themes ranging from misogyny and patriarchy to economic inequality. Jiyoon Yang, the events coordinator of UPEP describes LaMar as well-versed in different theories and books.
“The biggest draw is just listening to Keith speak for himself and his story,” Yang said. “I’m hoping that when people show up to the event, they can just appreciate how much of a poet he is.”
Clark University student Elsabet Franklin describes him as someone who is willing to have and lead any conversation. Franklin, who was eager to participate in his book club at her high school in New York, said she now visits LaMar with her family.
“As time has gone by he's basically become family,” Franklin said. “I think about [prison abolition] more than I did before because he's a really big part of my life. Everything I do, I'm kind of doing it for him and have him in my mind.”
Now in college, Franklin said the book club encouraged her to have open conversations about prison abolition and LaMar. She wrote an opinion piece about Juneteenth and the continuing issue of mass incarceration for Teen Vogue in 2021.
According to the NAACP, the U.S. has about 6.8 million people incarcerated with 56% of the incarcerated population being African Americans and Hispanics. The Death Penalty Information Center records 2,414 prisoners on death row in the U.S.
LaMar feels there are misconceptions about people within the incarceration system.
“I’m representative of a whole body or whole mass of people who have been ostracized and pushed to the margins, who have been buried alive in these places as part of mass incarceration,” LaMar said.
His campaign manager, Amy Gordiejew, hopes the book clubs will help students become more aware of the impacts of prison.
“I think that the most powerful thing that happens is that students realize that Keith is a human being, just like they are, and he is none of those things,” Gordiejew said. “You just can’t trust what’s given to you by the media.”
Gordiejew said book clubs held at other colleges roused excitement from students regarding the Freedom First jazz benefit concert that performs at different universities in the Midwest. The benefit aims to raise money to reopen LaMar’s legal case before his execution this year.
Ultimately, LaMar hopes his conversations with students will humanize incarcerated individuals.
“When you go and you start reading Foucault and talking about the ideation of prison, incarceration and all these different concepts, you can put a real life, voice and story behind [books],” LaMar said. “Start reading that information with the awareness that these things are talking about real human beings.”
Thumbnail image courtesy of Justice for Keith LaMar / Youtube