When we sent our last report, the young readers of Free Minds were just receiving their copies of the Books Across the Miles (BAM!) book club selection, Prison Noir, an anthology of stories by incarcerated or formerly incarcerated authors. Now the responses are in:
“It was nice to read and a lot of the stories, I have some just like them that I would like to use to help keep the kids off the streets when I come back home.” – DeAngelo
“Thanks for Prison Noir. I loved it!” – Muquan
Several Free Minds members told us that it wasn’t their favorite BAM! book because it felt too real, and they didn’t want to read about prison.
“On the book Prison Noir, I did not enjoy this book because it really showed some of the ugly faces of incarceration,” Marquis wrote. He went on, “I felt the story “Shuffle” because I’ve seen firsthand how jail can mentally mess you up. I understood “Tune-Up” because when you do things in here that you love, while you’re doing them, you feel like you’re not locked up.”
The next BAM! selection is If You Can See It, You Can Be It: 12 Street-Smart Recipes for Success by Chef Jeff Henderson, whose previous book, Cooked, has been a long-time favorite of our readers. That’s going out next month, and we’ll let you know how they like it!
In the meantime, Free Minds members are reading up a storm:
“Thanks for the books. I’m on lockdown 23 hours a day so all I do is read. If it’s not too much trouble, can I get a few more books? I’m looking forward to the new Connect [newsletter] too. I love it and can’t wait to read it.” – Wayne
“I’ve started the book The Maze Runner and it’s very interesting. I can’t wait to see how it ends. I want to thank you for all the books I have received from you guys. It really means a lot to see how the staff at Free Minds cares about its members.” – Aaron
“You all do not know how much you are helping us out. You all helped me at first when I did not even want help. Thank you for saving a soul that could have been lost. The books you send me show me another world and make me look forward to living a good life when I come home. You changed my way of thinking.” - DeAngelo
Our Free Minds poets are showing off their new writing skills. Volunteers at our Write Night events continue to inspire with their wonderful feedback. Five Free Minds members were published in Tacenda Literary Magazine from American University’s BleakHouse Publishing. Keep an eye out for our own literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison, which we’ll be publishing in May.
Thank you once again for making our work possible.
“You know I’ve been meaning to thank all you guys at Free Minds for allowing me to be a part of the Book Club. I once read that if everybody in China jumped at the same time they could shake the world off its axis. It would be an overstatement to say the same about you guys, but I’m sure people would feel movement. You know, it was through you guys I learned writing was a way to calm my inner self. What I appreciate most though is how you guys have always been there encouraging me to keep writing…One of the greatest ideas you guys had was the public reading our poems (Write Night). I like the comments people leave. It gives me that extra push to keep writing!” - Doug
Dear Free Minds Friend,
Although the days have been short, we’ve been busy and our members have been reading up a storm! Since our last report, we have mailed approximately 300 books to the incarcerated readers of Free Minds “Books Across the Miles” virtual book club! Our members are incarcerated in different federal facilities across the United States, but they are united by the written word.
“I know I’m a good writer, so that’s what I’m going to focus on for now.”
Our previous “Books Across the Miles” (BAM) title was the riveting memoir Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor, who also visited the teenage Book Club members at the DC Jail to discuss his memoir.
One reader, Everett, wrote this in a letter from federal prison when he heard that Senghor would be visiting the DC Jail:
“That’s great! I wish I was there to meet him. He sounds like a really experienced guy and I’m loving his book so far. Be sure to tell him hello and welcome him to the Free Minds family.”
Everett is not alone! So far, all the responses to Writing My Wrongs have been overwhelmingly positive. The memoir is an account of the choices and circumstances that led a young Mr. Senghor to a jail cell, and the journey of transformation that he went on while spending over four years in solitary confinement.
“I could really relate to what Shaka was saying when he said that we wear masks. He said we are hurting on the inside and it’s true. On the inside I’m a little boy that’s crying. But you won’t see that on the outside. I’m acting like I don’t care. But I’m crying because I’m in pain and I want attention.” – Melvin
“When Shaka said that you have to gain mastery over your thinking? Man, that really sunk in. I know I need that. I react off of my emotions too much. I’m going to work on mastering my thinking!” – Demetri
“I liked what he said about finding out what you’re good at and then focusing on that as your way out. I don’t know what that is for me yet, but I’m working on it. I know I’m a good writer, so that’s what I’m going to focus on for now.” – JoeNathan
“I admired what he did. He’s a cool dude. I mean he did 19 years behind bars and he never gave up. Most of all, he never gave up on himself. That right there is a lesson and an example. He did exactly what he said he was going to do. I want to go to college and I will do everything I can to get there.” – Christopher
“I wanted this book to be 1,000 pages long!”
In December, we sent out the anthology Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, which collects short stories written by authors who are or have been incarcerated. Like with Shaka Senghor’s Writing My Wrongs, our Book Club members are excited to read books from incarcerated voices.
Free Minds member Marquis read the book immediately, and told us about his favorite stories in the anthology: “I felt the story “Shuffle” because I’ve seen first hand how jail can mentally mess you up. I understood “Tune-Up” because when you do things in here that you love, while you’re doing them, you feel like you’re not locked up. Then “Immigrant Song” really hit home. Coming to the jail for the first time is something mind-blowing, especially if you can’t understand the language. Then on top of that a lot of us are ignorant about the law.”
Free Minds members have been broadening their minds with other literature as well. Demetrich, one of the teenagers at the DC Jail, has been raving about the novel Something Like Normal by Trish Doller. Doller’s novel tells the story of a young soldier returning from Afghanistan and healing from trauma.
“I wish these books could all be longer,” Demetrich said. “I wanted this book to be 1,000 pages long! It was just so good I didn’t want it to end. When I started reading it, I knew I was going to be up all night and I was. I started to panic in the morning when I realized this book is about to end!”
“This month’s newsletter made me remember I still have friends.”
An essential part of our Books Across the Miles virtual book club is our bimonthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, which we mail out to all of our members incarcerated in prisons and jails across the country.
One young man, Delonte, is in a facility that does not allow him to receive books, but he eagerly reads every issue of the Connect, where he finds his fellow Free Minds members as well as staff and volunteers discussing books, writing, education, politics, and many other topics.
“I wish I could get books here but I can’t. I would have loved to read Writing My Wrongs. I have been struggling on how to do that and now that it’s a New Year I am just trying to put the pain of 2014 behind me…I don’t even know where to start but this month’s newsletter made me remember I still have friends and Will’s poem about his child was great. It made me remember my son and just missing him so much. So I just wanted to say thank you for everything and I do appreciate everything you have done for me.” — Delonte
Marquis also expressed his appreciation for the latest issue of the Connect (titled “Hope”): “I was really stressing and then I got the Connect about Hope. Everything in the Connect I needed to hear. It actually boosted my morale. I appreciated other people showing their struggles and hopes because it helped put my own situation in perspective.”
Our members show us every day how books and writing can bring hope and inspiration, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Thank you for helping us in our mission to empower incarcerated youth through literature and creative expression!
Dear Free Minds Friends,
For many people, fall means Back to School, but here at Free Minds, school is always in session! The Free Minds family (both staff and Book Club members) is constantly learning and growing, and we cannot thank you enough for helping us fund our Book Club for incarcerated youth.
“It Feels So Good to Have Something to Read”
This summer, our members in federal prison read Hill Harper’s Letters to an Incarcerated Brother, and next on the list is Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor, a memoir about a formerly incarcerated citizen’s journey to success and happiness. But in the meantime, they are seeking inspiration and knowledge from all sorts of literature:
“I read a lot of books that have knowledge I can use for the future, like Nonviolent Communication by Rosenberg, Ph.D or Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude by Napoleon Hill. They’re great.” – Brandon
“Thank you for the books you sent me. They kind of came right on time. I’ve read 16 on the Block [by Babygirl Daniels] and that book really kind of put you right smack dead in the struggle, and it’s real. Because it’s a lot of people that grow up without their peoples and they are forced to become a grownup before their time because they have nobody but themselves or a sister or brother, so it’s mostly them fending for them self.” – Stephon
“I got the two books, thank you so much, they were a great read, and I really thank you for the poem book [Songs for the Open Road]. I love poems and this book helped me out in a lot of ways. For the Walter Dean Myers book It Ain’t All for Nothing, it has been so many times that I have felt that way and been through some of those things he went through in the book…So again, thank you all. You guys do not know how much this means to me. It feels so good to have something to read.” – DeAngelo
“When I was studying for my GED exam, I did use text books to help. I would bring them back to the unit and study with a friend for at least one hour a day. Of course there was days when I wouldn’t be in the right state of mind for studying but I’d still pull it off to the best of my ability, and I guess I can say it paid off.” – Aaron. Congratulations Aaron on your GED!
“I feel like I’ve been able to cultivate myself mainly through reading, and interacting and building with different people. Writing has definitely played a big role though because it allows me to creatively express all that I am learning.” – Jonas
“When I Read Over My Poems It’s Like I See Who I Really Am”
Meanwhile here in D.C., our volunteer base has continued to grow. In addition to monthly Write Nights at George Washington University, we also have bimonthly Write Nights in Takoma Park (check our website for more information). It is truly amazing to see how the community has rallied to support these young poets. As our members are incarcerated in federal facilities in over 20 states, many of them are separated from their friends and family, and rely on the mail to feel connected to the outside world. Write Night comments show these young writers that they are not alone, and that they do have a voice.
“Thanks for the missive and all of the compliments pertinent to the expression of my spirit via the poem I created. I try to render enlightenment and genuine sentiment in my work and I’m glad both endeavors were accomplished, seemingly impactfully, in that particular work.” – DeAndre
“I like the poetry blog and Write Night where everyone comments on poems. That’s very inspiring and I look forward to sending more in the future.” – Immanuel
“Truthfully, my writing is all I have besides my family. When I read over my poems it’s like I see who I really am and it helps me accept that person the poems talk about.” – Antwon
If you are interested in reading poetry by Free Minds members, head on over to our poetry blog, and remember that all comments will be printed and mailed to the poets, who love hearing from you!
On behalf of everyone here at Free Minds, thank you for your support and your belief in second chances. As we say to our members, keep your mind free!
Dear Free Minds Supporters,
As students all around America delve into their summer reading books, here at Free Minds we are engaging in a different sort of summer reading program: our Books Across the Miles! (BAM!) virtual book club in federal prisons. For the incarcerated youth in our program, books mean so much more than an assignment for class; they are a way for them to engage in new ideas and perspectives, to escape the pressures of a prison environment, and to imagine new futures for themselves. In the spirit of summer and the transformative power of books, we are thrilled to share with you our recent accomplishments and updates.
Bronxwood inspires members to overcome obstacles
Our last BAM! selection, Bronxwood by Coe Booth, told the story of a young man named Tyrell coming to terms with a brother in foster care and a father coming home from jail. The book was a huge hit with our members, who identified with Tyrell’s struggle to stay on a positive path despite the challenges of his environment. Here’s what some of them had to say about the book:
“Coe Booth really depicted a realistic description of the plights the youth face growing up in the hood. Tyrell was the 1% who didn't succumb to the peer pressure and problems he faced on a constant basis. Bronxwood is definitely a story that can encourage a lot of young people to always stay positive even in the shade of negativity.” –KB
“What I love most about the book is that it shows how children who are neglected from their parents and raised in a hostile environment can still have the ambition to be something worthy out there in the world. You can still strive for a better life even though there is someone's weight piled on top of you, trying to hold you back.” –NH
Our next BAM! book will be Letters to an Incarcerated Brother by Hill Harper, CSI: NY actor and author of many successful books such as The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in its Place. Our member Wayne already started the book and had this to say about Free Minds Book Club:
“The book I am currently reading, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother, [I] can’t describe how inspiring it is. I want you to know you are changing people’s lives by just a simple inspirational book. I have grown a lot since the juvenile block and I have more knowledge on things all from studying and reading.”
Write Night outgrows its original location
Big changes are happening with Write Night, our popular program that brings people from all walks of life together to write feedback to our incarcerated poets! With an average of 50-60 attendees, the monthly volunteer event has outgrown our original office location. Thanks to a new partnership with students at a George Washington University sorority, Write Night will now be hosted in a bigger space on the GWU campus to accommodate our growing volunteer base. This new location coincides with the transition of our Write Night Coordinators, as we say goodbye to longtime volunteer Ellen and welcome in longtime Free Minds friend Seana as our new Write Night/Volunteer Coordinator.
The feedback our poets receive from Write Night is a source of strength and support for our members, and a reminder that they are not alone. A few words of encouragement go a long way for our incarcerated poets. One member, Curtis, recently wrote to us about how receiving write night comments have inspired him to write his own book! He told us:
“I would like to write a poetry book, what do you think? I’m kind of shy but I felt good after the one I sent you.”
A New Poetry Journal in the Making
We are happy to share with you that Free Minds is working on a new literary journal! After the success of our first journal, They Call Me 299-359, it is time once again to start gathering the prolific writing of our young poets for a new journal that will explore the root causes of youth incarceration. The journal will be used in classrooms and community events across DC and beyond and will serve as a tangible connection between incarcerated youth and the larger community.
For Free Minds members, the positive effects of writing and seeing their work published are countless. Along with serving as a tool for self-expression and a connection to others, writing is a medium through which our members can take pride in their talents and turn toward a path of success. Our member Antwon recently wrote to us to explain how writing allowed him to break free of the negativity of his past and turn his experiences into something positive. As he puts it:
“I never did too much of nothing good in my life but write.”
Know that every time you give to Free Minds, you are giving the gift of change and transformation to our members. We cannot thank you enough!
Sarah MintzIncarcerated Youth Programs Manager
Happy spring from Free Minds! The cherry blossoms are in full bloom here in DC, and with the warming weather we are reminded of one of our favorite Free Minds themes—renewal. Free Minds is all about transformation and the possibilities of change, and we are happy to share our recent achievements with you all.
BAM! Books Continue to Inspire
Our Books Across the Miles! (BAM!) initiative continues to inspire Free Minds youth incarcerated in federal prisons across the country. Though they are far from their families and communities, the BAM! program provides a means for Free Minds members to connect through a common book. Our last BAM! selection, The Pactby Sampson Davis, George Davis, and Rameck Hunt, tells the true story of three young men from the streets of Newark who became successful doctors. One Free Minds member, Alvin, wrote us a long letter about what the book meant to him. He told us:
“I have many words to describe [The Pact], but the main two words are ‘Challenging’ and ‘Motivating.’ Truly what these three guys went through and overcame to be successful was totally mind-blowing. Throughout all their success, they never forgot where they came from. This book showed me that you don’t have to let your childhood struggles determine your future. Instead, you can use it as a stepping stone and beat the odds against you.” –Alvin
Our upcoming BAM! title is Bronxwood by Coe Booth. The novel tells the story of Tyrell, a young man trying to navigate difficult choices with a father just out of jail and brother in foster care.
Incarcerated Youth Honored for Their Poetry
This spring, Free Minds members were honored with two different awards for their poetry. Four Free Minds members were published in Tacenda Literary Magazine, a publication dedicated to sharing stories about incarceration. Free Minds member Alisha won a “best poem” award for her poem “Colors.” In the annual Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, 17-year-old Muquan received a “Gold Key” designation for his poem about a friend who was killed by gun violence. The Gold Key is the highest award you can receive in DC before moving on to the national level of the competition. Muquan, who is currently incarcerated, wrote a letter to be read at the awards ceremony on his behalf. He said:
“You don’t know how excited I was to learn that I won this award. I just can’t describe the feelings in words! This poem is very important to me, due to the fact that it’s about one of my best friends. I lost my friend back in 2010. It’s a shame when we lose people we love the most to violence and petty crime. That’s why I love writing. It helps me to express all of the anger, the hate, the joy, and the pain. And when I bundle all these emotions up and put them on paper, the outcome is all beautiful.” –Muquan
Write Night Expands to Satellite Locations
We are excited to announce that our Write Night program is expanding to new venues! Write Night, our popular volunteer event that brings the community together to respond to poetry written by incarcerated youth, has outgrown our monthly meeting space. We are thrilled to be partnering with community groups such as Seekers Church and companies such as The Advisory Board to bring the voice of Free Minds poets to wider audiences.
As we continue to expand and improve our programs, we want to extend a special thank you to all of you who have contributed to our success. Thanks to your support, more incarcerated youth are sharing their stories and writing new chapters in their lives.
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