Eau Claire Ministry Helps Inmates Express Themselves Through Unique Magazine

Tom Giffey, photos by Shane Newman

513FREE staff members (left to right) Michael Sandvig, Jesse Hamble, and Jonny Stoll look over works of art submitted by inmates for The Pen Project magazine.
513FREE staff members (left to right) Michael Sandvig, Jesse Hamble, and Jonny Stoll look over works of art submitted by inmates for The Pen Project magazine.

Flip quickly through an issue of the Pen Project, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d encountered a well-produced zine full of Christian-themed art and literature. There are paintings and photographs, essays and poems – some of them written by hand or typewriter, giving the publication an old-school DIY vibe.

“Most of these guys behind bars, they don’t have a way to use their talents and their gifts.” – Jesse Hamble, 513FREE executive director

This first impression is entirely accurate – the Pen Project is indeed a well-produced Christian art and lit magazine – but that’s only part of the story. The missing part, in fact, is the most important part: The Pen Project is created for – and largely by – people behind bars.

The magazine, the third issue of which is coming in April, is produced by 513FREE, an Eau Claire-based ministry that began a decade ago as a Christian rock band. The group evolved into its current form, which encompasses the magazine, music, mentorship, and other programs for at-risk populations.

The magazine’s slogan – “Faith. Art. Purpose.” – is an accurate summation of the Pen Project’s goal. “Many of them actually find purpose,” Jesse Hamble, 513FREE’s executive director, says of the inmates who have been involved in the magazine. “Most of these guys behind bars, they don’t have a way to use their talents and their gifts.”

Inmates from four or five correctional institutions have contributed poems, paintings, testimonials, and more to the two already-published issues, and 513FREE has plans to expand the magazine’s reach. They’ve published 3,500 copies of the first two issues, the majority of which have been distributed inside Wisconsin. Eventually, they want to turn the Pen Project into a quarterly magazine that reaches nationwide. As far as they know, no similar publication exists.

After Hamble and some friends formed 513FREE as a band in 2007, they began to perform shows in places typically untouched by such performances: homeless shelters, rehab facilities, and eventually jails and prisons. Soon, the volunteer music ministry was performing 100 gigs a year, many of them behind bars. Visiting these institutions – from Wisconsin state prisons to the Cook County Jail in Chicago – opened the band members’ eyes to the needs of the incarcerated, many of whom struggled with addiction and worried about what life held for them once they were released.

By 2015 the performance schedule had become exhausting, and Hamble and his partners considered closing the book on 513FREE. Eventually, however, they decided to change its tune, and 513FREE was reborn. The group evolved from a music ministry into a nonprofit group offering youth mentorship, prison outreach, and support for ex-offenders. (Music hasn’t gone away entirely, however: Last year the group produced a hip-hop infused EP, Real Thing, and they have plans to record a live album in prison in the near future.)

For more than a year, a group of inmates at the Jackson Correctional Institution, a state prison in Black River Falls, have worked with members of 513FREE on The Pen Project, a magazine by and for the incarcerated.
For more than a year, a group of inmates at the Jackson Correctional Institution, a state prison in Black River Falls, have worked with members of 513FREE on The Pen Project, a magazine by and for the incarcerated.

Around the same time, men who had heard the group’s music in prison began to write asking for lyrics and chord sheets. Seeking a way to disseminate these easily, Hamble and his partners struck upon the idea of creating a magazine. This idea grew into the Pen Project, which allows inmates to share their creativity with each other and the world at large.

“It’s healing for them to feel they’re not forgotten,” explained Michael Sandvig, who directs the Pen Project. He’s heard inmates say that taking part in the project helps them get some of their dignity back.

And regaining that sense of purpose can help inmates once they’re released. Hamble says 513FREE hopes to make a dent in the share of ex-offenders who end up behind bars again. Nationally, he says, the recidivism rate is about 70 percent.

As you might have guessed, 513FREE takes its name from a Bible passage, Galatians 5:13, which says, “My brothers and sisters, God chose you to be free. But don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do what pleases your sinful selves. Instead, serve each other with love.” It is this loving service that 513FREE tries to embody, despite society’s tendency to marginalize and dehumanize those in prison.

“There are a lot of guys in there who made bad decisions,” Hamble said. “The heart of it is, we say whether you believe in what we believe or not, if we do our job right, it helps everyone.”

A group of 14 inmates at Jackson Correctional Institution, a medium-security facility in Black River Falls, have served as something of a pilot group for the project. One of them, Anthony Scholfield, has contributed writing and artwork to the magazine. In a recent issue, he wrote that 513FREE was “working to blow the roof off the misconceptions and fears the public has about prisoners and unite Christ’s body by working with inmates.”

“This publication provides an opportunity for inmates to have a voice, work with the public, and participate in the body of Christ as a whole,” he wrote.

513FREE is supported by donations and by several local congregations, including Valleybrook Church, which provides them with office space. The group has 10 staff members, five of them full-time. They don’t charge for the magazine because they want inmates to be able to receive it for free; however, they encourage people on the outside to subscribe to help raise money.

“We’re all creative, and we love art and the culture behind it,” Hamble said of making the magazine in partnership with inmates. “We’ve seen how it’s positively impacted these guys and allowed them to express themselves in a unique way.”

To learn more about 513FREE and its programs, visit 513free.com or search for them on various social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. In addition, 513FREE is holding an evening of worship 6-9pm Friday, March 31, at Valleybrook Church, 412 S. Barstow St., Eau Claire.

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