Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison

 
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Apr 18, 2014

"I bundle up these emotions and put them on paper"

Alisha accepts the Best Poem Award from BleakHouse
Alisha accepts the Best Poem Award from BleakHouse

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.

Muquan
Muquan's "Gold Key" certificate from Scholastic
Community members respond to poems at Write Night
Community members respond to poems at Write Night
Our next BAM! selection, Broxwood by Coe Booth
Our next BAM! selection, Broxwood by Coe Booth
A page from our newsletter to prison, The Connect
A page from our newsletter to prison, The Connect
Write Night poems with feedback from supporters
Write Night poems with feedback from supporters

Links:

Jan 16, 2014

Something like Superheroes

Hill Harper after visiting the DC Jail Book Club
Hill Harper after visiting the DC Jail Book Club

Dear Free Minds Friends,

Happy New Year from Free Minds! We have big plans for 2014, and can’t wait to continue our life-changing work of bringing books and writing to DC’s incarcerated youth. Our latest Books Across the Miles! (BAM!) “virtual book club” selection was The Pact by Sampson Davis, George Davis, and Rameck Hunt with Lisa Frazier Page. The book tells the true story of three young men who grew up in the streets of Newark and made a promise to each other that they would beat the odds and all become doctors. The book was a big hit with our book club members in federal prison! Here’s what some of them had to say:  

“I like how they had each other’s backs. Wish I had some homies like that to go through life with.” –Robert

“The book was good! They all went through the same thing so they knew how to overcome obstacles. It made me want to go to college even more when I get home.” –Luis

In addition to the success of our BAM! reading initiative, we’ve been very busy introducing new and exciting programs to keep Free Minds members engaged and on a positive path toward change. Here are some of the highlights:

Famous Author and Actor Visits Jail

This past November, Free Minds Book Club welcomed a very special guest to our regular book club session at the juvenile block of the DC Jail: Hill Harper. Most well-known for his film career and role in the CBS crime drama CSI: NY, Harper is also the author of many successful books, including a Free Minds Books Across the Miles! Favorite, The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place. Harper’s most recent book, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones, offers words of advice and support to inmates and their families. During his visit to the jail, Harper shared his own life stories and encouraged the young poets in the Book Club to become architects of their own lives, rather than allowing their lives to simply happen to them. Throughout the whole session, Harper stressed the importance of reading and education. He said:

"Do you know why I'm successful?  I'm successful because I got my education.  That is the number one reason."  

17-year-old Muquan was particularly impacted by the book Letters to an Incarcerated Brother and the visit from Hill Harper. He told us:

“That book tells it like it is. It’s a lot of good advice in there to help me better myself and my life. And now that I met [Harper], I know he’s for real.”

A Small Note with a Huge Impact

When Free Minds members turn 18, they are often shipped to federal prisons across the country. Far from their families and home community, many of our members express feeling deep loneliness and isolation. Here at Free Minds, we know first-hand the impact that regular and reliable contact can have on incarcerated youth and their chances of future success. That’s why we are teaming up with Flikshop, an innovative mobile app that allows individuals to send postcards to incarcerated loved ones directly from their phones. Flikshop founder Marcus Bullock is a Free Minds member who spent several years of his youth behind bars; while incarcerated, he and his co-defendants promised each other they would each be successful in their chosen field. So far they have all kept their promise! Through our Flikshop partnership, Free Minds will be able to send all of our incarcerated members high-quality postcards every other month in addition to our regular communication. As Marcus Bullock explains:

“We at Flikshop have fully committed ourselves to bridging the communication gap between inmates and the communities they left behind when they were incarcerated. If we can help support them when they are inside, it makes it that much easier for organizations like Free Minds Book Club to foster support for inmates when they reenter the community.”

Free Minds member Joe, who is currently incarcerated in North Carolina, wrote to us recently to share how Free Minds support has helped him through his incarceration period:

 “During the time I been in you guys was always there for me. I always receive books, letters, and birthday cards. You guys are awesome—something like superheroes, always there to save the day when I’m down.”

Windows from Prison

This fall, Free Minds members had the unique opportunity to participate in a collaborative community art project organized by local artist Mark Strandquist. The project invited prisoners from DC to answer a simple question: If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would you want it to look out to? The written responses to this question were then handed over to local photography students, who took pictures of the requested locations and sent them back to the inmates. Both the photographs and the writings will be used in a public art exhibit that will give the general public a “window” into the hopes, desires, struggles, and histories of inmates. Here is an excerpt from Free Minds member Gary’s essay:

“6702 Hamilton Street…This place reminds me of my early childhood. My father would take me to football practice. Whenever I wasn’t at football practice, my friends and I would play football in the street, or tag. If I could see anything out my window, I would choose this. It reminds me about the days I would have to come home from school and do my homework before coming outside, before I grew up and started getting into trouble. I remember those days like it was yesterday.”

As Free Minds member Juan puts it:

“I believe that we all learn a lot from each other and Free Minds has helped us find and explore hidden talents that we never knew we had. You all helped us develop a voice and also helped us be heard. And I applaud and appreciate Free Minds for that.”
 

From all of us at Free Minds, thank you for helping us give incarcerated youth a voice. 

Until next time,

Sarah Mintz
Program Coordinator

FM Member Gary
FM Member Gary's "Windows from Prison" Photograph
Our most recent BAM! Book, The Pact
Our most recent BAM! Book, The Pact
Write Night volunteers commenting on member poems
Write Night volunteers commenting on member poems
FM Member Muquan
FM Member Muquan's "Windows from Prison" Photo
Our first Flikshop postcard to Free Minds members!
Our first Flikshop postcard to Free Minds members!

Links:

Oct 15, 2013

"Through rain, sleet, hail, and snow"

FM member Antonio introduces our college fund idea
FM member Antonio introduces our college fund idea

Dear Free Minds Friends,

We love fall for so many reasons, but chief among them is that it is a season for reflection, and for gratitude. We are so thankful for all that we have accomplished this year, and we are looking forward to continuing our programs this autumn. With your help, we are reaching more young inmates to show them that change really is possible. Here are some things we’ve been up to recently: 

Books Across the Miles

Our Books Across the Miles! (BAM!) initiative continues to inspire our Book Club members to stay engaged and in touch even as they are transferred to federal prisons across the country. Through the program, we choose a common book for all of our members to read, regardless of their facility location. Our members then share their thoughts, comments, and questions in our monthly newsletter, The Connect. Thus, our members are truly able to “connect” with one another and with a larger community of learners and writers.

This month, in a Free Minds first, one of our members stepped up to the plate to pick our next BAM! reading selection. His choice, Keep Going: The Art of Perseverance by Joseph M. Marshall III, follows a young Lakota man’s path to growth and peace after his father passes away. The young man’s grandfather sits with him under their family cottonwood tree and shares his wisdom on life and the pain and pleasure that comes along with it. 

An avid reader, Marquee not only chose the book, but he also wrote an article in our newsletter explaining to his fellow Free Minds members what the book meant to him personally:

“My reason is simple. I’ve soaked up a lot of inspiration from it that I wanted to share with you all, my Free Minds brothers. The book’s message as I see it is this: We need to stop pitying ourselves and crying about things that are out of our hands. This book has given me a better understanding of patience.” –Marquee

Behind Bars But College-Bound

We recently received a heartfelt letter from a Free Minds member Donald, who asked us to help him fulfill his dream of attaining a college degree. Through correspondence programs such as Ohio University’s College for the Incarcerated, prisoners have the opportunity to pursue higher education from behind bars. The bad news is that these programs all cost money, making them inaccessible to the majority of our members, who come from some of the poorest neighborhoods in DC. However, that wasn’t a deterrent for Donald. As he wrote:

"I know how popular and LOVED Free Minds are, and I was hoping, praying, pretty much begging, that you could refer or recommend some people, groups organizations, anyone for me so I could write and try to get some help.  I know it's kind of farfetched.  Even the college said it would be difficult.  However, I'm willing to give it all I got. I gotta try. I have to!”

We are awed and humbled by Donald’s dedication to continue learning and growing, and so we have begun plans to create a college scholarship fund for Free Minds members committed to taking their education to the next level.

A Community of Support

A unique aspect of the Free Minds program is our focus on mentorship and support. We know more than anyone that education and change are only possible with a supportive community who believes in your potential and ability. This emphasis on community allows our members to learn not only from us and themselves but from one another:

“I believe that we all learn a lot from each other and Free Minds has helped us find and explore hidden talents that we never knew we had. You all helped us develop a voice and also helped us be heard. And I applaud and appreciate Free Minds for that. I also want to thank you all for typing my poems and sending them back with response from people. It really helped to boost my confidence and encourage me to write more.” –Juan

And as another Free Minds member puts it:

“Free Minds is a miracle. The whole structure allows us to look through other people’s lives, and see the difference between ours and theirs, and we come to find out things isn’t that bad as we thought they was considering the things others around us have endured.” –Shawn

Support extends well beyond the Free Minds members and staff. We are so thankful for all that we have accomplished this year, and we couldn’t have done it without your generosity. One of our Free Minds members wrote to us recently to express just how much that support has meant to him over the years. Incarcerated as a juvenile for an adult crime in 2006, Phil came to the book club with a lot of anger and pain, but changed dramatically as he began to express himself through writing.  

“I’ve been thinkin’ a lot lately and really just lookin’ back at myself. And I’ve really grown up and matured. At first a person couldn’t pay me to sit back and write a poem or express myself to others. Being exposed to that hidden talent I have has made me who I am today. It’s also helped me with my people skills and my vocabulary. Free Minds has been there from the beginning to the end through rain, sleet, hail, and snow. Y’all have been there through the toughest times out of my life and I just want to thank y’all for all you have done for me.” –Phil

As we move further into the autumn season, we are working harder than ever to connect more young men like Juan, Shawn, and Phil with their inner potential and talent. Thanks to individual donors like you, together we are building a stronger and safer community.

Until next time, 

Sarah
Free Minds Program Coordinator

Marquee
Marquee's article in our newsletter, The Connect
Volunteers respond to FM poetry at Write Night
Volunteers respond to FM poetry at Write Night
Our bookshelf full of books for FM members!
Our bookshelf full of books for FM members!
Keep Going: Our next "BAM!" discussion book
Keep Going: Our next "BAM!" discussion book
FM poems with comments from community members
FM poems with comments from community members

Links:

Jul 17, 2013

Paying It Forward

Free Minds summer interns mail out the newsletter
Free Minds summer interns mail out the newsletter

Dear Free Minds Friends,

July is a month to celebrate freedom and independence. One of our favorite sayings here at Free Minds is: “Though you may be locked up, your mind can still be free!” Thanks to supporters like you, our incarcerated Book Club members have the tools and resources they need to express themselves through writing and expand their outlook through literature. And what a difference we are making together! With access to books, poetry feedback, and a caring community to keep in touch with them, our members find the support system they need to succeed against the odds and achieve new career and educational goals.

Our Books Across the Miles (BAM!) initiative continues to engage Free Minds members incarcerated in federal prisons across the country. Our summer BAM! selection was Detoured: My Journey From Darkness to Light by Jesse De La Cruz. Detoured tells the true story of how De La Cruz turned his life around from being a heroin addict and gang member who spent thirty years in the California prison system to earning a Master’s degree in social work and founding a transitional housing organization for returning citizens. Here’s what our members had to say about the book:

Detoured was incredible. De La Cruz is a real example of what we ex-convicts should strive for. He proved it’s possible to struggle with drug abuse and crime but eventually earn a master’s degree. Amazing. –Demetrius

I give Detoured 5 stars because I don’t think nobody in Free Minds messed up more times than Mr. De La Cruz, and for him to show his struggle and make something out of his life was very inspirational and motivating. If that book don’t encourage people to get their act right, well I don’t think nothing will.  It shouldn’t have to take for us to constantly get locked-up to learn our lesson when we can learn from Mr. De La Cruz’s mistakes. He has some very good quotes in the book also, like when he said, “Your life ain’t your own. You see it’s everybody else’s life too. You may think you’re in the world all by yourself struggling and doing and making the best for yourself, but you’re not alone.” Love it. –Arthur

This summer we were also fortunate enough to have the opportunity to participate in the Live to Read program sponsored by the DC Council for the Humanities. The program invites people from all over DC to read and discuss the same book. This year, the chosen title was Bombingham by Anthony Grooms, a historical novel that takes place in 1963 amidst the height of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama. It is amazing to think that no matter how far our members are from home, they still have the opportunity to engage with the DC community. Having the entire community behind them lets Free Minds youth stay connected and know their voices are not forgotten! Our members tell us time and time again what a difference it makes having someone there in your corner rooting for your success:

I will always remember Free Minds Book Club & Workshop from when I was on the juvenile block at DC Jail. I share Free Minds books with others that never knew about Free Minds and I also talk with people about different activities the program shared together on the juvenile block. I love Free Minds Book Club...I want you to know I read a lot and I try my best to stay positive. And a lot has changed about me through this time. I'm about love and "love conquers all." –Tavon

I remember when I was in the book club. I used to look forward to you coming. I couldn’t wait to read my poems to y’all and get feedback. You guys really don’t know what a difference you make on our lives. You gave me a way to express my feelings; you gave me an outlet, someone to talk to without being judgmental. That was years ago yet here you are still to this day. I just wanted to say thanks for everything you’ve done and everything you will do in the future, whether it be for me or any other young man who’s looking for a way out. –Dmitri

Members like Tavon and Dmitri are so appreciative of the books they have received that they have started to “pay it forward” by sharing books with their cellmates and writing recommendations for the books that have inspired them the most to be featured in our monthly newsletter The Connect. In the spirit of giving, our next Connect theme is “Pay It Forward”; the issue will focus on ways in which incarcerated youth can build a better future for the next generation of DC youth.

Every time you donate, you are giving a young man in our program a second chance at life. We couldn’t do it without you! Thank you, from all of us at Free Minds, for believing in the power of books and writing.

Until next time,

Sarah Mintz
Community Outreach Coordinator

Monthly Write Night volunteers respond to poetry
Monthly Write Night volunteers respond to poetry
The Connect newsletter, ready to be mailed!
The Connect newsletter, ready to be mailed!
Our most recent BAM! book: Detoured
Our most recent BAM! book: Detoured
Birthday cards for incarcerated Free Minds members
Birthday cards for incarcerated Free Minds members
A Free Minds youth with a dictionary at the jail
A Free Minds youth with a dictionary at the jail

Links:

Apr 12, 2013

Viewing the World through a Different Lens

Reading during Book Club at the DC Jail
Reading during Book Club at the DC Jail

Dear Free Minds Friends,

We are so thrilled that spring has finally reached Washington DC! Last time we updated you, our winter book order was just going out, and our incarcerated Free Minds members were beginning to read The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place by Hill Harper as part of our Books Across the Miles (BAM!) reading initiative. In the past months we’ve gotten some great feedback from our members about the book, which re-conceptualizes wealth to include the value of building strong relationships. Here’s what some of our members had to say about the book:

"The Wealth Cure is definitely a '5' hands down. I really enjoyed it, maybe because those types of conversations and books grab my attention.” —Devonte

“I read The Wealth Cure, and I was amazed, really. That’s the first book of his that I had ever read, and now I want to read his whole collection! One day while I was on lockdown I got completely lost in my book. I started reading around 5:30 or 6:00 PM and next time I checked my watch it was past 11! I read something in that Hill Harper book that blew my mind. He said that doing the things that bring you the most joy in life will ultimately lead you to your purpose in life. The way Hill Harper flowed smoothly through that book with the strength that comes along with honesty and vulnerability...I was in awe. That’s something I aspire to—I want my book to be like that. I want my life to be like that.”—Jonas

In Free Minds we have long held to the belief that anyone can learn to love reading; all it takes is the right book. For this reason in addition to our BAM! selections, we also send our members additional books we think they would enjoy based on their individual personalities and interests. We send fiction, mysteries, biographies, drawing books, graphic novels, GED and vocational training books—you name it. We understand that books can serve a functional purpose as well. For many of our incarcerated members, the books we send are the only opportunity they have to acquire practical information about job skills. And as one Free Minds member explains, books have the power to transform lives and allow people to see the world in a whole new light: 

"My perspective on life has risen to heights through the books that Free Minds has exposed me to. They bring books that I never before would have thought came close to reality or at least my reality.  But reading books and mind-provoking literature has opened my mind to view the world through a different lens."—Robert

Another exciting project we’ve been working on lately is revamping our monthly newsletter to federal prison, The Connect. We’ve been working tirelessly to solicit feedback on the newsletter so we can include information that our members find engaging, relevant, and educational. The extra effort seems to be working because we’ve gotten increasing requests from cellmates of Free Minds members asking if they can subscribe to the newsletter as well! We’ve changed the format to include a regular writing advice column, a regular international page and news updates column, and a monthly article about our current BAM! book. Every issue also has a theme that members can respond to by contributing their own original thoughts, poems, and art. Our most recent theme was “Trust.”

As youth in the adult system, many of our members spend tremendous amounts of time in lockdown for their own protection. In solitary confinement, our members spend 23 hours a day alone in their cells and 1 hour outside of their cells. The books, newsletters, and writing feedback we send help them process through their isolation and keep their minds active and their spirits up:

“I survived 90 days on lockdown all by myself in my cell. Reading books made me get through it. Before Free Minds came I didn’t read at all. It was nothing I wanted to do at all. When I was reading I could picture all the things they were talking about like it was a movie. It let me know what things are going on around the world. Books showed me that life doesn’t revolve around my neighborhood. They made my reading level go up too!”—Malik

“I never thought I would love Harry Potter. I wasn’t into dragons and wizards and all that stuff. But when I was on lockdown, I just wanted to read so badly. If it hadn’t been for those Harry Potter books, I would never have gotten through solitary confinement.”—Andre  

Books provide a vital lifeline between our members and the outside community, and we couldn’t make that connection without all your support. Thank you so much for believing in the power of literature to create change!

The cover of our most recent issue of The Connect
The cover of our most recent issue of The Connect
The Connect newsletter ready to be mailed
The Connect newsletter ready to be mailed
Member Everett finds his poem in our journal
Member Everett finds his poem in our journal
Popular books with Free Minds youth
Popular books with Free Minds youth
The Wealth Cure by Hill Harper
The Wealth Cure by Hill Harper

Links:

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Project Leader

Tara Libert

Washington, District of Columbia United States

Where is this project located?

Map of Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison