Dear Anne Frank: Writing Diaries Behind Bars

Dear Anne Frank: Writing Diaries Behind Bars, in progress.



The story of Anne Frank is richly embedded in the contemporary cultural landscape, reaching across time and generations. So it should come as no surprise that prisoners in U.S. correctional institutions would respond positively to an invitation to read Anne’s diary, and, in turn, to keep diaries of their own.

These writings, along with commentary, descriptions and interviews, create riveting reading in Dear Anne Frank: Writing Diaries Behind Bars, a new nonfiction book by Cynthia L. Cooper and Maureen McNeil. The book evolved from the Prison Diary Project, a bold program that offers inmates a copy of The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank and a blank diary to return with their own observations to the Anne Frank Center USA in New York.

The experience of reading Anne’s diary, penned while in hiding in Amsterdam during World War II, is shared by millions. Her book stands as one of the best-selling books of the last half-century. Although the circumstances of 21st century prisoners are obviously different from those of an innocent Jewish girl trapped in the ugly times of the Holocaust, a palpable sense of connection emerges from diaries written by those behind bars who use Anne’s diary as a springboard. The struggles, challenges and hopes form a mosaic that reflects humanity itself.

Dear Anne Frank: Writing Diaries Behind Bars opens readers to a new understanding of the human rights ideals of Anne Frank, her commitment to a world free of intolerance and prejudice — and even to the power of diary writing itself. At the same time, Dear Anne Frank: Writing Diaries Behind Bars offers first-hand insights, rarely-seen, into the lives of those in prison, a matter of frank curiosity to many and deep concern to others.

This 270-page volume includes carefully chosen excerpts, organized by theme, from the diaries of Anne Frank and the diaries of prisoners who participated in the Prison Diary Project. The prison diary writers are from 30 states and, contrary to expectations, are mostly men; some prisoners addressed their diaries as if they were writing directly to the young Anne Frank, although most had not even been born during her lifetime.


Charles S., a prisoner in Michigan, describes welling up with emotion when, during a visit from his elderly mother, he presses his hand up against a glass visiting wall, unable to touch her.

Joseph M., an inmate in a Massachusetts institution, shares his pride in leading a demonstration of dogs trained at the prison for Iraq war veterans, only to have the moment erased when guards summarily sweep away the “thank you” leftover plates designated for the prisoners.

Patricia P. reveals the celebratory feelings she and other women prisoners in a Missouri correctional institution experience when a baby is born to an inmate in a cell and is named after the guard who handles the delivery.

Florida lifer Charles N. writes of his cellmates’ astonishment as he sits on his bunk and weeps openly upon reading The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank.