Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor
In the world of juvenile justice and reform, the news isn’t always good, and the struggles and failures often seem to outweigh the successes. The publication of seminal works like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has opened more minds and hearts to the inequities many young black people face in their encounters with and punishment by the criminal justice system. A recently-released national poll conducted for Youth First Initiative reveals that 92% of people believe the top priority of the juvenile justice system is to do “a better job of making sure youth get back on track so that they are less likely to commit another offense.” People like Tara Libert and Kelli Taylor have believed and acted on this sentiment for almost twenty years.
In 1996 a 23 year old black man wrote a letter to Kelli Taylor. He was on death row in a Texas prison, and she was a news producer in D.C. Glen Charles McGinnis shot and killed an employee at a dry cleaners store when he was 17, and he had written to Ms. Taylor about the high number of black and Latino men on death row. After producing a documentary film about Glen and others like him on death row, a surprising friendship ensued which centered around their common interest in books and writing. Kelli sent Glen books which they discussed together via letters. Two years after the state of Texas executed then-27 year old Glen in 2000, Kelli and Tara formed the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop.
Today the program operates on the same basic premise and in essentially the same way it did when it was brand new. Sixteen and 17 year old inmates at D.C. Jail who were processed and sentenced as adults read books they choose and meet every week to discuss what they’re reading. They also are given time to write their feelings and thoughts in poetry, and to share those feelings with the group. According to testimonials* by these young people, this experience changes their lives by restoring hope, providing needed self-reflection, and clarifying vision and goals for their future.
“…[W]henever the cell doors closed for the night, I’d start writing. And the crazy thing was, I was in jail, but when I was writing, I felt safer than I ever felt at home.” Sergio
“I remembered I did want to change. I wanted to give back after taking so much from so many.” Phil
“Before I came to Free Minds, I knew how to read, but until I read and talked about the books you brought me, I didn’t know how much I could love it. Now, I may be locked down for 24 hours a day, but if I have books, I can take my mind to another place, and see new ways of living.” Kuron
The book club and writing program are but one of the components Free Minds offers. In D.C., there are no long-term prisons. When an inmate turns 18 he is transferred to a federal prison which means he loses the opportunity to participate in the face-to-face meetings of the book club. Those who choose to continue can do so through the Continuing Support program of Free Minds. Books, discussion questions, and writing assignments are sent to the inmates, and they are able to have running dialogue through letters sent and received.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Free Minds is the publication of literary journals which showcase the work of the group’s emerging poets and writers. In 2011 the group published its first anthology volume of poems and essays completely written and produced by young people being held in D.D. Jail or a federal prison. They Call Me 259-399: Writings by the Incarcerated Youth of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. The most recent volume followed in 2016: The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison. The writing, growing, and healing doesn’t stop there.
Once a Free Minds member returns home, he is able to transition from a survivor to an Ambassador. Ambassadors share their stories and their writing, along with the writing of their still-incarcerated comrades, with the community through outreach in schools and events called “On the Same Page: Free Minds Poetry in the Community and the Classroom”. This is a critical bridge between incarceration and successful reentry because it addresses the common-sense objective of creating meaningful bonds and connections between those returning to their communities and the communities to which they return.
Free Minds provides a holistic approach to reform by targeting not just the systems and institutions but also the individuals who often need transformation, too.
Check out this promo video for Free Minds. It speaks for itself about the effects of incarceration on mental and emotional health, and the Poet Ambassadors are living proof of the great work of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop.