April 23, 2015
According to the Pew Research Center’s Public Safety Performance Project, the United States priosn population has risen by 700% since 1970.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, on any given day, nearly 7,500 young people are locked up in adult jails.
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. makes up 5% of the World population yet it has 24% of world prisoners.
The healing brotherhood of a book club behind bars story by Mariam Jiffar
ixteen-year-old Marcus Bullock stands handcuffed in court; the judge has just read him a 23 and a half year sentence in prison for robbery. But his first concerns aren’t about the hardships of prison life or what his future will look like – he wonders how he’ll get to his upcoming basketball game. This is the experience Bullock shared when he visited Blair’s International Human Rights class with Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop as part of the organization’s educational outreach program. Free Minds serves juveniles in the D.C. jail who are charged and incarcerated as adults. Hearing the stories of people who have lived through the sorts of criminal justice dilemmas that they’re studying in class gives students a new kind of perspective. Anne Manuel, the teacher of the Human Rights course, saw this clearly when Free Minds came in. “The kids have studied how the juvenile brain isn’t the same as an adult brain and you can’t quite understand consequences,” Manuel explains. “But then to hear this guy describing that in such vivid detail – it’s not just words on a page, all of a sudden it’s really real.” “The original free mind” Free Minds has been around for 13 years now, but it’s evolved drastically over that period of time. In fact, the catalyst for the book club was completely unexpected. “The idea for Free Minds began with an unsolicited letter from
a stranger,” reads the beginning of Free Minds’ history description on the website. This stranger was Glen McGinnis, a Texas inmate on death row who sent a letter to then-journalist Kelli Taylor, co-founder of Free Minds. McGinnis had been incarcerated for over five years for a crime committed when he was 17 years old. “In response to this contact, Kelli produced a television documentary about Glen and other juveniles on death row in America,” reads the website. McGinnis loved reading and writing, and Taylor sent him books so they could both read the same text, relate to each other and grow. “[They were] ‘on the same page,’” co-founder Tara Libert says. However, even after the airing of the program and four years of correspondence between McGinnis and Taylor, he was executed in 2000. McGinnis’s execution motivated Libert and Taylor to take action: so in 2002, Free Minds was born. “It was really a response to powerlessness,” admits Libert. The program actually began as a small volunteer project on the side, but it quickly became Taylor and Libert’s full careers. “It was an amazing response! Overwhelming!” claims Libert. “It has completely surprised me, where it is now.” Getting the pages turning Libert explains that there are three parts to the program while Free Minds members are still in D.C.: reading, writing and connecting. The books that the inmates read and discuss are oftentimes about people in similar situations to their own, like Game Over by Azie Faison or Makes Me
Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall, who served three years in prison but went on to become a journalist for the Washington Post. “[A success story] gives them a real road map they can follow,” Libert says. “And then they start writing about their own lives.” This writing usually manifests itself in poetry inspired by why they ended up in prison, how they feel and how they stay strong. These poems can be read and appreciated once a month during an event called “Write Night” in a humble classroom at the Funger Hall of George Washington University. The lessons taught on Write Night aren’t academic, but the ‘students’ are intensely eager to respectfully learn and participate. The ‘teachers’ are former prisoners sharing their journeys of self-discovery and success that they’ve achieved through Free Minds. The assignment? Writing vibrantly-penned, encouraging commentary on the poems of Free Minds members still in jail – along with uplifting “hang-in-there” notes, holiday cards and quirky fun facts. It’s a learning experience like no other, and it leaves no doubt that the activities are helping people “in the real world.” This is a distant but deeply meaningful interaction for Free Minds members. “When I read what the people at Write Night wrote on my poetry, I saw that they didn’t think I was an animal, but just a human being who made a bad choice. It made me want to keep on writing!” says D’Angelo on the Free Minds website. The atmosphere of Write Night is relaxed, friendly and warmly supportive with frequent smiles and nods of encouragement from the audience. People of different backgrounds and ethnicities take in the pain of foreign experiences and sit in awe of the beauty that came from it. However, it’s an uphill battle to get many of the inmates who came to the meetings to start writing in the first place. Free Minds is an attractive option just to get time out of one’s cell, but the staff is determined to make the program mean more to all the members. “Y’all made me participate!” Jerome recalls at a Write Night, smiling at Libert and Seana Drucker, the program director, who both laugh along with the audience. Diane Nicks, a Write Night attendee, was extremely appreciative of how former inmates continued to help out with Free Minds, especially since at-risk youth oftentimes only see negative male figures in their lives. “What these guys are doing is positive,” Nicks says. “You’re connecting with people who have lost connection.” The phases of freedom Free Minds currently has several stages for its members,
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but none of them were pre-meditated. “It grew organically through every phase,” Libert insists. “Totally led by members.” The program originally was confined to the D.C. jail. However, once the inmates turn 18, they are transferred to prisons all over the country. When Will Avila, the first member of Free Minds to turn 18, was moved, he refused to let his membership end there. “[He said] ‘Um, hello? You got me excited about reading and writing; you can’t just leave me hanging!” Libert remembers with a smile. So, the Continuing Support phase of
“Your change, it starts from within.” - Will Avila the program began, including written correspondence with inmates and a monthly newsletter, The Free Minds Connect. Similarly, once Avila got out of prison, he turned to Free Minds for assistance in reentering society, which inspired the Reentry Support phase of the program. This phase offers paid apprenticeships to learn job readiness and life skills as well as stipends for members to participate in the teaching side of Free Minds, telling their stories and sharing their poetry. Members in Reentry Support who take on this teacher role are called ‘Poet Ambassadors’; these are the members who speak at Write Nights. Poet Ambassadors are given the opportunity to educate youth in schools with their own experiences to discourage them from violent behavior and urge them to apply themselves. The vision statement on the Free Minds website is quite ambitious: “That every young inmate receives the necessary tools, inspiration and community support to pursue education and follow a positive new path in life.” But with its dedication to community service education and enduring personal attention, Free Minds
UNLOCKING CREATIVITY 1. A Free Minds poet composes his next piece. 2. At Write Nights, members of the community write encouraging feedback on the work of Free Minds poets. 3. Co-founder Tara Libert talks to Blair’s International Human Rights class about Free Minds. 4. At a book club meeting in the D.C. Jail incaracerated youth read and discuss literature. 5. Free Minds Poet Ambassadors join Libert to share their stories with Blair students.
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design by Grace Woodward
is making progress on this goal one success story at a time. “Living proof program” The impact that Free Minds has made on everyone involved – from the participants to the staff to the community – is apparent in every phase of the process. Libert notices these differences soon after inmates start participating in the book club and writing process. “We see a profound change in how they view themselves and their future,” she insists. Also, the rates of recidivism, or “relapse into criminal behavior” according to the National Institute of Justice, for Free Minds members are dramatically different than the overall rates. “From 70 percent to 90 percent... reoffend within one year [on average],” Libert says somberly. “We are about 24 percent.” That statistic applies to the members of Free Minds who remain active participants throughout the different phases of the program. “Some don’t stay in touch,” Libert concedes, “but the ones that do... they’re changing their [lives].” Libert herself is surprised by how successful this book club has been in turning people’s lives around. “Such a simple tool...but so powerful. That continually amazes me. [It’s] really profound,” she says in awe. However, Libert knows she can attribute much of the success of Free Minds to its ‘secret sauce,’ as she calls it: “A sense of belonging to a positive group that has your back,” Libert says. “To leave the street life, you have to leave everything you’ve known – pretty lonely.” Not only can it be lonely to avoid the ‘street life’ and find a better path; it can be humiliating. One of the Poet Ambassadors who visited Blair, Charlie Curtis, told the class about how acting out helped him hide the embarrassing fact that he was illiterate. “In first grade, he couldn’t read, but because they had social promotion, he was promoted to second grade and still couldn’t read,” Manuel says. “He was acting out in class all the time because... he was trying to cover that up, and when he got to high school he was just skipping all the time and robbing people.” Another Poet Ambassador, Phil Mosby, spent 10 years in prison and had to spend some of that time in the Special Management Unit, where violent inmates are locked in a cell for 23 hours per day, either alone or with one other person, with one hour for recreation, five days per week; the other two days, he was locked in all 24 hours. However, both Mosby and Curtis transformed from troubled teenagers to inspirational and charismatic mentors with the help of Free Minds. Curtis is thankful for the program and cites it as a large source of motivation. “Reading and writing inspire you to come out here and do better,” says Curtis. He participates in Free Minds’s violence prevention program -- named “On the Same Page,” after the correspondence between Taylor and McGinnis -- by talking to the students at middle schools and high schools about his experiences and convincing them that it’s all right to open up. The impact that Curtis has already had on some children is apparent. “A kid came up [to the teacher] and said, ‘Charlie said it was okay to ask for help,’” said Libert at Write Night, which was met with raucous applause and many smiles from the audience. Avila had the goal of giving back from early on in his involvement with Free Minds as soon as he was in a stable enough position in his life to do so. “First, [I thought] ‘How can I help myself?’ Then, ‘How can I help others?’” he shares at Write Night.
I am like concrete People always try to walk on me But I never break Like the concrete When it rains or snows I get the leftovers But still I am strong Like concrete - Demetrius Once he was out of prison, he sought help from Free Minds with reentry into society; however, opportunities were scarce with his criminal record, so he started his own business: Clean Decisions, a D.C. business that cleans restaurant kitchens and only hires re-entries, according to the Washington City Paper. “Your change, it starts from within,” says Avila – that inner change is what he’s been trying to facilitate for his employees with 20 hours of work and 20 hours of life-coaching per week. The future of freedom Additionally, Free Minds has touched other people’s lives by spreading awareness about the experiences of juveniles who are tried as adults and inspiring people to get involved. Some of the stories that the Poet Ambassadors told Manuel’s class were particularly moving and eye-opening, like Bullock’s worries about his basketball game after his arrest. In addition, Free Minds helps to elucidate how the racial biases of the criminal justice system affect real people. “A lot of the kids came in this year interested and wanted to learn about mass incarceration and about lots of different issues about discrimination in the criminal justice system, so this fits into that really well. Free Minds has never had a white member,” Manuel says. “The D.C. jail is full of minorities.” Some Blair students have already contacted Free Minds in the hopes of contributing to the organization. “A bunch of them have applied for internships,” Manuel remembers. Though Free Minds has come a long way since its humble beginnings as volunteer work, Libert knows the organization still has much more potential. “I just see so many cool future possibilities and collaborations,” she says, excited for what is come. She also expects that young people will be the leaders of the social and criminal justice movement now. “They’re not as stuck in the old stereotypes; they’re willing to give people a second chance,” says Libert. “[They’re going to] make the big changes.” Libert expresses her thankfulness for those who attend Write Nights and support Free Minds with a catchy mantra: “Whenever a Free Minds poem is read, hope is spread, so thank you for the hope!”
Learn more about Free Minds at freemindsbookclub.org
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