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May 18, 2020

Unwavering Support

"Ladder of Hope" by FM Member SK
"Ladder of Hope" by FM Member SK

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the members of our Prison Book Club, but thanks to you, we have been there with unwavering support. In response to the public health crisis, all federal prison facilities are currently on lockdown, meaning our members who are already hundreds of miles from home, are now locked in their cells for 22-24 hours per day, with only brief windows of time each week to call their loved ones, exercise, or even take a shower. Members have been writing to us with messages of fear and worry over their forced isolation in environments that already lack access to proper health and sanitary conditions. We are stepping up our services to help our members cope with this stress and trauma, and continue to access educational materials. We cannot thank you enough for supporting us during this crisis. Your generosity reminds us that times of uncertainty are times when we must all come together as a community!

We knew we needed to act quickly to ensure uninterrupted support for our members. We immediately moved our volunteer work online and knew our dedicated corps of volunteers would respond. They did not disappoint. We have been thrilled with the response from our community! Volunteers are writing letters to our members in our weekly Letter Writers Circle via Zoom, typing poems written by our members, and creating “lockdown” worksheets with puzzles, brain teasers, and writing prompts to help keep their minds active and free during quarantine. Our monthly Write Night has also gone virtual and attracted hundreds of new volunteers from across the globe! This is a special opportunity where volunteers provide feedback on poetry from our members, which is then mailed to our members in over 100 federal prisons across the country. The public is keenly aware of what incarcerated individuals are enduring in the coronavirus hotspot that is prison, and traffic has been enormous on our poetry blog where the community can post encouraging comments on our members’ poetry.

Thanks to your support, our community has been a ray of hope for our members! The appreciation from our members has been pouring in. What we call “attitudes of gratitude” letters have been nonstop.

“Thanks so much for everything: the books, the letters, the birthday cards, and most of all the feeling of family and support. I really thank you guys because just when it felt like I had nobody and I felt like giving up, you guys came through and let me know someone's there and they care. Thank you guys." - Free Minds member Demitrich

“Free Minds is a special program and helps a lot of us in here. Knowing somebody is willing to support me is something big for me. You can turn a negative to a positive. I'll show FMBC how bright I can get. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts." - Free Minds member Joshua

"I wanted to say thank all of you for everything that you do for all of us. See I learned wealth isn't all about money, it's about time. And we constantly forget that. You guys put so, so, so much time in us, you actually believe in us. You've helped change me to the man I am today, and writer I am today. I want each and every one of yall to hug each other and just drop a tear because teamwork makes the dream work." - Free Minds member Taurus

Connect: Remembrance 

As we entered into Spring, a time of new life, our members suggested we dedicate an issue of our newsletter to all our loved ones who we have lost, but who are living on in our hearts. In our latest issue of the Connect, Free Minds members, staff, and friends reflect on different pathways of remembrance and ways of celebrating the lives of our dear ones. The timing between the vibrant colors of Spring and our latest issue was also perfect, as we debuted our new redesign complete in full color.

In this vibrant and touching celebration of life and remembrance, stories include:

  • FM friend and therapist Edward’s guidance on how we can come to terms with our own grief and different ways we can honor loved ones who have died (p.6)
  • A touching tribute to Joshua, FM Congressman John Lewis Fellow who passed away last September, written by FM member Arthur (p. 23)
  • How FM member Luis, who was deported after his release, has adjusted to his new life and remembers his real home, D.C. (p.9)
  • Co-founder and Executive Director Tara's nephew, Jeffrey, shares how he overcame the obstacles of being blind in order to obtain his master's degree and become a youth counselor (p. 20)

Books Across the Miles: Man’s Search for Meaning

The latest Books Across the Miles book voted on by our members has been a huge hit! Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is the real-life story of survival and finding purpose. A survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, Frankl believed that we cannot escape suffering but we can decide how we cope and use that suffering to find and pursue our meaning in life. Our members have found Frankl’s memoir both relatable and encouraging, inspiring them to reflect on their own meaning in life. Here is what some members had to say:

“I just started reading Man’s Search for Meaning. It is really powerful and taught me a lot about life. I can’t put it down for anything, I really do love this book.” - RC

“I think Frankl’s experience in concentration camps could be compared to incarceration in the United States. Although Frankl had a harsher experience, it is similar in ways. Concentration camps, prisons, and the likes could cause a mental death to the incarcerated. The cruel and unusual punishment that is endured could lead to mental health issues - anxiety, depression, stress, etc. It is different today because prison has better food and living conditions. We are not forced to work under inhumane circumstances. There are life sentences but we know our fate - they didn’t know theirs.” - SM

“For me, the meaning of life is to be a good person and a good human being. This can be interpreted in many ways but for me it is about leaving something better than you found it. Whether that something is a relationship, place, situation, or person.” - JL

“One step is for us as a people is to open our eyes and realize, not look, but realize that meaning is there for everyone.” - LA

Do you have your own thoughts about Man’s Search for Meaning and want to read more about what members had to say? You can follow along with the discussion in the Connect!

Thank you for sustaining our community of support during these times. Like our community is to our members, so you are a ray of hope to us!

The new design for the Free Minds Connect
The new design for the Free Minds Connect
Artwork by FM member RW
Artwork by FM member RW
Letters from FM members in prison
Letters from FM members in prison

Links:

Apr 21, 2020

Supporting Our Members During the COVID-19 Crisis

Free Minds member Kalef picks up a care package
Free Minds member Kalef picks up a care package

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Free Minds family hard. Our members responded with their characteristic resilience and grit.

Our Reentry Book Club program focuses on in-person, individual support and training. When the DC Mayor announced a public health emergency in mid-March, the Free Minds team immediately transitioned our programming from in-person to remote. Daily phone calls, texts, emails, and video conferencing became the “new normal” for connecting Free Minds members and staff. We didn’t miss a beat and held our first virtual reentry book club via video conference that following Wednesday, March 18th. 

This pandemic has painfully and decisively revealed the glaring disparity experienced by our Free Minds community in all areas: health outcomes, wealth gap, employment, access to stable housing and safety in general. The COVID-19 crisis adds an even greater burden for our members coming home from incarceration. However, we have proven that, even during the physical distancing requirements, nothing can break or dim the Free Minds community’s powerful support system. Thank you for being part of this unbroken connection of strength and reliance. 

Conducting Remote Sessions of The Build Up program – the Digital Divide Experience

The Free Minds staff and team members are offering tech support to members as many struggle with basic smartphone operations, needing assistance to download and run video conferencing apps like Zoom or Google Hangouts. 

Our first-ever remote video conference session of The Build Up, our weekly reading and writing workshop for our formerly incarcerated members, was a lively, chaotic cacophony of attempts to log in from weak wi-fi signals amid the sounds of members helping each other navigate the new terrain of technology. The team persevered with their usual spirit of overcoming obstacles. The need to be together was stronger than any weak wi-fi signal!

Creating a COVID-19 Emergency Response Center for Free Minds Members

It has been a nonstop addition of supports and additional services to our members since the pandemic started. We have added new programming each week to the reentry program. The member-led Planning Committee transformed itself from a group that selects speakers to a COVID-19 Emergency Response Center. The leadership team speaks daily and meets weekly to devise ways to help all the Free Minds members during the crisis. The members’ needs are immediate and varied. The response team has provided care packages, groceries, cleaning supplies, and masks and gloves for front-line workers. The leadership team is a lifeline to peer mentorship, therapeutic outlets, and a network of support.

Supporting our Free Minds Members During the COVID-19 Pandemic

To date, approximately 78% of our members have lost wages or been laid off entirely due to the pandemic. Our team is working tirelessly to connect our members with jobs in the grocery, warehouse, and delivery fields, knowing that the painful choice of risking their lives and having to provide for themselves and their families is one they must make.

Free Minds has provided financial support as much as possible to our members. Most of our members do not have computers or wireless networks at home so rely on cell phones. Some are unable to pay phone bills due to the loss of income during this crisis. We have developed an emergency response fund to cover essentials such as cell phone bills, groceries, hygiene and cleaning supplies, and gas to get to job sites and interviews. We have also provided support for members dealing with funeral expenses for family members who have died due to the COVID-19 virus. We provide as much emotional support as possible despite in-person grieving being curtailed.

Program Updates Before the Pandemic

Below we recount our activities thanks to your generous support prior to the onset of COVID-19. We look forward to bringing you more updates once we have made it through this emergency with your help.

Apprenticeship

In January, we welcomed recently released members to the week-long, intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship. During the apprenticeship, participants practiced computer literacy, budgeting, resume writing, job interview skills, goal setting, and writing action plans. During each session of the apprenticeship, participants heard from other formerly incarcerated Free Minds members who serve as mentors and credible messengers through the challenges of reentry. Apprentices also took a special field trip to see the film Just Mercy, based on the book of the same name by Bryan Stevenson (Founder and Executive Director, Equal Justice Initiative). The book, which tells the story of Stevenson’s work with indigent people on death row in Alabama, has long been a book club favorite; the apprentices loved the opportunity to see this powerful true story on the big screen and were inspired and motivated to continue to create change in their own community.

Every apprentice left the program with a job placement and action plan.

The Build Up Book Club

In our weekly book club and writing workshop, the members of our reentry program have been reading and discussing the novel The Man Who Came Uptown. The novel follows a man named Michael who discovers a love of reading while incarcerated at the DC Jail, then struggles to balance his desire to reconnect with his family and lead a quiet life with the challenges of navigating reentry after leaving the jail. Our members could relate to Michael, and had wide-ranging discussions based on his decisions in the book.

Reentry Book Club members also heard from guest speakers from Black Youth Project 100 on community organizing and activism and from ScholarCHIPS on entrepreneurship and starting your own nonprofit.

Featured Poets in Community Art Series

In January, Free Minds Poet Ambassadors (formerly incarcerated members) were invited to share their poetry and the poetry of currently incarcerated members alongside the Takoma Park Poet Laureate at Poetry Behind Bars, part of the Takoma Park Third Thursday Poetry Series. The poetry reading was followed by a Q&A session, in which the Poet Ambassadors shared illuminating insights about the deep pain of solitary, their journey with healing, and the challenges of reentry. When asked if he still writes since coming home, Nokomis answered, “Writing poetry is like the bridge that got me to where I am now… I try to use whatever free time I have to manifest my creativity. I don’t want to lose that.” Takoma Park City TV recorded both the poetry readings and Q&A portion, which you can watch on our YouTube channel. 

As we plan for new challenges and uncertain times, thank you for your ongoing support that enables us to be flexible and adaptive to ensure we continue to provide high-quality services that meet our members’ needs.

Free Minds staff preparing care packages
Free Minds staff preparing care packages
Essential supplies for Free Minds members
Essential supplies for Free Minds members
Members and staff at the January Apprenticeship
Members and staff at the January Apprenticeship
Nokomis speaking at the Takoma Park Poetry Reading
Nokomis speaking at the Takoma Park Poetry Reading

Links:

Jan 14, 2020

Stories of Hope and Forgiveness

The latest issue of our Connect newsletter
The latest issue of our Connect newsletter

As we begin a new decade, Free Minds is eager to continue our commitment to  the transformative power of reading and writing for youth and young adults who have been incarcerated. Our Prison Book Club fosters community and creates bonds among our members, who are hundreds of miles away from home, and elevates their voices through books and poetry. Thank you for your support and your part in sustaining this community of encouragement and hope.

Connect: Forgiveness

In our latest issue of the Connect, members share their journey with forgiveness and what it means to not only forgive others, but also to forgive oneself. The stories of forgiveness found in this issue are inspirational reminders of the capacity for human compassion and transformation. 

  • How new member of the FM family, Reentry Coordinator Melody, came to forgive the man who killed her husband (p.7)
  • FM member, Craig, shares how the father of the person he killed forgave him and eventually testified in support of his resentencing and early release (p.10)
  • The emotional encounter FM member, BB, experienced when he met face-to-face with the victim of his crime (p.20)
  • Ubuntu Philadelphia Co-founder, Ghani, shares how his organization utilizes different experiences and perspectives of injustice to redefine justice and healing as a community (p.22)
  • Vicarious restorative justice as an alternative method for emotional healing to all parties impacted by the criminal justice system (p.6)

Our members love to show their “attitudes of gratitude”. We receive letters thanking us for everything from birthday cards to our encouragement for members to discover the outlets that reading and writing possess. Thanks to your generosity we are able to send a strong message of support to our members. Here are some excerpts:

“Here you all go again with another big birthday banger! Yes, I just got you all's birthday card today and it couldn't have come at a better, needful, and greater time. So thanks, you just made me that much happier! You got me hearing a new song, I'm holding on to 2 balloons and rising up above this mess! You got me feeling like a superstar! Thanks to all of the Free Minds Family, especially for all of those reinforcing encouraging words on my birthday cards.” - Free Minds member Derrick

“Thank you dearly for all that you do! You all are a God-send to me. Without you all, prison would be so boring. I wouldn’t be happy, I wouldn’t have started writing poems again and I wouldn’t have started writing books.” - Free Minds member Daniel

Books Across the Miles: Man’s Search for Meaning

We asked and our members answered! The next Books Across the Miles selection is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. A survivor of the Holocaust, Frankl chronicles his experience in a Nazi concentration camp and how he managed to discover his purpose in life and use this as a tool of survival. Frankl encourages the reader to mentally escape the confines of their current situation and develop the hope that a positive future is attainable. It offers the message of developing resilience and perseverance in the face of an unimaginable situation.

Members have also written in with thoughtful reflections from the previous Books Across the Miles choice, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. In this work of fiction, teenager Will experiences the cycle of gun violence while trying to seek revenge for the death of his brother. Here is what some members had to say: 

“Long Way Down was a first for me. I never read a book composed of poems that vividly told a story like that before. It was a good book that I plan on sending to my son that is 11 years old. The ending was different and great. It left room for the reader to place themselves in the elevator and gave them the choice to stay on or get off. Not many books can pull the reader in to that level.” - TJ

"I think Reynold's use of poetry is to get the reader to look at his words as a work of art. He gets you to look at Will's situation with the eyes of someone looking at a picture. This is why I think it impacts the reader in a way normal sentences wouldn't. For instance it doesn't read like a novel, it reads like a series of poems that turn into a story." - DS

“There were “rules” in my neighborhood [like Will’s]. If you didn’t follow them, the ole heads would step in and make sure you knew you were outta line. To me not having a father, I looked up to a lot of the ole heads. It was the only option. The ole heads set the rules because they been there, done that, they set the foundation. Changing the rules to the hood is to try to get the youth to understand that it’s not cool to do certain things.” - MZ

“Crying is a sign of weakness in the hood and the weak are taken advantage of. I think not crying has an impact on not just the community but individuals as a whole who have no way to express emotions like hurt, anger, pain and happiness. A baby cries because it can’t talk and tell you what’s bothering it. Crying is a form of release.” - DS

Have you read Man’s Search for Meaning or Long Way Down? You can find discussion questions in our newsletter, The Connect, and follow along with what our members are discussing about each book.  

Again, thank you for supporting Free Minds and listening to and elevating the voices of our members. We appreciate you!

The next Books Across the Miles selection
The next Books Across the Miles selection
A drawing shared by FM member AE
A drawing shared by FM member AE
A letter from FM member DJ
A letter from FM member DJ
Holiday cards from FM members in prison
Holiday cards from FM members in prison

Links:

 
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