Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

Free Minds uses books and creative writing to empower incarcerated teenaged boys in Washington, DC to transform their lives. By mentoring and connecting them to supportive services throughout their incarceration into reentry, Free Minds inspires these youths to see their potential and achieve new educational and career goals.

Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop
2201 P Street, NW
Washington, DC 20037
United States
202-758-0829
http://www.freemindsbookclub.org

Executive Director

Tara Libert

Management Team

Tara Libert, Keela Hailes, Sarah Mintz, Julia Mascioli

Board of Directors

Jessica Sandoval, Tiffany McClenton, Phil Andonian, Allen Chin, Tara Libert, Andrew Ferguson, LaKeesha Fox, Keela Hailes, Sarah Mintz, Julia Mascioli

Project Leaders

Tara Libert

Mission

Free Minds uses books and creative writing to empower incarcerated teenaged boys in Washington, DC to transform their lives. By mentoring and connecting them to supportive services throughout their incarceration into reentry, Free Minds inspires these youths to see their potential and achieve new educational and career goals.

Programs

Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop (FM) was founded in 2002 by journalists Tara Libert and Kelli Taylor to serve teenage boys charged and incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system, a critically disadvantaged segment of youth. FM awakens our members to their own potential and inspires them to transform their lives through the use of book club discussions, creative writing exercises, peer support, group affiliation and community outreach events. We are the only organization in DC that follows them from the time they are arrested and housed on the juvenile unit at the DC Jail through their time spent serving their sentences in federal prison, to when they return home and reenter the community. Through the power of literature, self-expression and strong connections to caring individuals our members undergo a major internal shift, turn away from a violent street life and pursue positive futures. Our program has grown from conducting only a book club and writing workshop to providing a continuum of services during all phases of incarceration, a strong reentry support program and a community outreach component. The core strength of our program lies in Free Minds' long-term sustained relationships with our members and our ability to connect them to a supportive community outside of prison comprised of diverse DC residents. Book Club (60 members at the DC Jail ages 16 and 17): This is where we first meet the young people who become Free Minds members. Any teenage male aged 16 or 17 who has been arrested and placed on the juvenile unit of the DC Jail is invited to join Free Minds. FM is 100% voluntary and we achieve a 99% participation rate. We engage in a book club and writing workshop twice a week and excite members about reading and writing through book selections reflecting their own lives and with guest author visits. Guest authors this past year included Freedom Writers teacher Erin Gruwell (Freedom Writers Diary) ,acclaimed young adult writer Walter Dean Myers and former NBA players and writers Etan Thomas and Travis Garrison. Research has shown that access to educational and arts programs while incarcerated are proven factors in reducing recidivism. FM member D'Angelo writes "I can dream of being the character in the book and see myself living in new ways." Even those youth who cannot read are able to participate in book club as the discussions relate to their own lives and personal choices. Youth are coached in creative writing exercises and given powerful feedback from the community with comments written by readers of our Writing Blog. (www.freemindsbookclub.wordpress.com) and by DC volunteers as part of our monthly "Write Night" gatherings. We've seen a tremendous increase in the quality and quantity of our members writings after they receive the personal feedback on their poem from a stranger. An example of the power of the feedback occurred recently when regular volunteers noticed a change in attitude in a poem from Book Club member Christian who had been writing consistently about his desire to leave the street life and his hopes for a positive future without violence. In the poem he wrote on the anniversary of his friend's death by street violence he voiced that he was sorry he could not retaliate for his friend's death by finding his killers. In their feedback to Christian, Write Night volunteers asked why he had decided to believe in revenge after all that he had written about its harmful destruction of lives. Christian responded with a revised poem and an apology that he was overcome with "old emotions" on the anniversary of his friend's death. He was able to accept the challenge of people he had met only on paper to hold on to the positive changes he had been making. This year we will also include poems and writings from inmates who are not in the Free Minds program with a new partnership with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights (www.washlaw.org/projects/dc-prisoners-rights). They will bring letters from their clients, DC inmates in SuperMax prisons and our Write night volunteers will provide feedback showing them they are not forgotten. Through these activities, the boys and young men feel heard and understood and strong bonds are formed. These events create connections between diverse segments of the DC community and serve to not only support our members but to educate the public on the root causes of youth incarceration. Continuing Support (205 members in federal prisons across the US, ages 18-27): When our members reach age 18 they are sent to federal prisons across the country because DC does not have a state prison. Currently we serve youth in 39 prisons in 22 states. We continue the love of reading and writing first fostered in Book Club by sending books, letters and our newsletter "Connect" throughout their entire incarceration. Many receive no letters or moral support from home and the resulting isolation can be crippling. Contact from Free Minds is a lifeline. As Decario shares, "Y'all were there when nobody else was. You feel so alone in that situation, and then to hear your name called by the CO at mail call when everyone else has forgotten you. Well, that's an awesome feeling! You feel alive again. It means so much." Our initiative Books Across the Miles (BAM!) allows FM members to read the same book and to engage in a written dialogue with other members throughout the Federal Bureau of Prisons via our newsletter Free Minds Connect. BAM! allows FM members to continue to build on the peer support that began at the jail as they feel part of something bigger than themselves and identify as Free Minds members not just as inmates. One Free Minds member, Jonas, is an example of the transformation that occurs when our members are able to express their hopes and dreams in a supportive environment. When we first met Jonas he was extremely volatile and told us he didn't want anything to do with school until he started participating in the Book Club and writing poetry. Now he is a columnist for the Free Minds newsletter. He is writing a novel and working as a tutor for other inmates while incarcerated. He told us how proud he was to be able to get his high school diploma while in federal prison: "I was thinking a lot while I was grading papers about how happy I made my mother right before she passed because she was able to hang my high school diploma on the wall. That was one of the main things that she wanted me to do in life, is get an education. My mother only had a 9th grade education and my dad couldn't read at all. I'm glad that I'm able to help other dudes now to get their GED." Family members and DC residents also submit articles and poetry to the Connect newsletter, building a strong community of support for everyone. We also work closely with our members to work on plan of action for their reentry. This preparation is essential for a successful homecoming. Reentry Support (53 members, Home in the community): When our members are released from prison we provide one week Program Support Apprenticeships in our office so they have a safe, stable place to go and can get a foothold back in the community. They gain valuable job readiness and life skills while we are able to assess them for referrals to appropriate community resources and programs that provide continued education and vocational training. They also participate in our violence prevention initiative On The Same Page: Free Minds Poetry in the Community and the Classroom and facilitate writing workshops and discussions with high school and college students on the causes of youth violence and the healing power of poetry. As lead facilitator Mike shared after speaking with youth at YSC, DC's juvenile detention facility, "I get to show the young'uns how to express their feelings through poetry and talking rather than putting a hand on someone. I share my personal experiences so they can learn from my mistakes and run with it. One of the big problems today is that there are no role models out here for these young'uns. I like to help other people, and not enough people do that out here."

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