This winter, we’re reflecting on the highlights of 2018 and looking forward to 2019. We couldn’t do this without you, and we’re so grateful to be part of a supportive community of people who believe in the transformative power of the literary arts.
Around this time of year, many of our members tell us that they struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness because they are separated from their families, and many do not get mail from anyone but Free Minds. That’s why we make it our mission to keep everyone connected to the Free Minds community, no matter how many miles and prison walls may be between us.
This month, we sent New Year’s cards to all of our members who are incarcerated in federal prisons far from home. Thank you to all of the supporters who made this possible!
Free Minds member Alazajuan recently reminded us of the importance of this sense of connection and belonging: “I love and respect you guys to the fullest. When y’all send books, mail and comments on my poems, it makes me feel special, smart, and like I belong to something. Prison is a lonely place and your thoughts shape your world. Free Minds Book Club makes me want to be positive, lead, and encourage others to change for the better.”
Books Across the Miles: Journeys
This quarter, Free Minds members have been reading and reflecting on Bastards of the Reagan Era, a collection of poetry by formerly incarcerated poet (and Yale Law School graduate) Reginald Dwayne Betts. Here are just a few of the responses:
“In the poem “Bastards of the Reagan Era” on page 15, the author finds himself on a journey to a Virginia prison, a journey through life in the streets. These journeys represent significant moments in the author’s life because some are reoccurring that this may very well be what almost broke him. History haunts us all because we are all products of the drug epidemic. It has affected us all in some way, shape or form. From the ones who sell the product, to the individuals who purchase the product. To the children at home starving, or living in a single parent home. We all are affected.” - AL
“Mr. Betts book of poetry is deep and very realistic. This literature should be read and studied by those who wish to understand what the street mentality consists of before taking actions to improve street (and prison) conditions. I really can relate to the poems on pages 56-60 and pages 61-67 because I've spent a lot of time in the prison system and take Mr. Betts' words and insight to heart.” – JL, referring to poems about street violence, loss, and incarceration
“My favorite poem in this book is “What We Know of Horses.” I can relate because in a sense I am his brother. I deal with the reality of this living casket (prison) every day, yet I find peace amongst the many memories of my neighborhood.” – AL, referring to a poem about the author visiting his brother in prison
Meanwhile, Free Minds members have been exploring the theme of journeys in their own lives for the next issue of the Free Minds Connect, our bimonthly newsletter mailed to youths and adults incarcerated in prisons all over the country.
One Free Minds member, JG, reminisced about the journeys he has experienced through reading books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Standing at the Scratch Line: “I’ve lived vicariously through numerous people and the benefits have been many and more. All of my mental journeys by way of books have nourished me, uplifted me, and left me with a sense of mental freedom I’ve never known. And where the mind goes, the body must surely follow.”
Another Free Minds member, MS, opened about his journeys as a writer: “My journeys in writing have been one of years treading along the paths, byways, switchbacks of the majestic wilderness called life. After all this time, I’ve finally found stable footing; I've finally shared my voice with others beyond the walls of self. I have found people who want to hear what I have to offer, and in and of itself, this is a new experience for me: Acceptance.”
Look for the next issue of the Connect, exploring the theme of Journeys, in January 2019!
Sharing Their Voices
In addition to the Connect newsletter, Free Minds members have been sharing their voices with a national audience through publication!
Free Minds member Immanuel published two poems in the latest issue of Iron City Magazine, a literary journal dedicated to amplifying the voices of those directly impacted by the prison system. Meanwhile, Free Minds member Gary won Honorable Mention for Best Poem for his poetry that was published in BleakHouse Review, a literary journal from American University.
Congratulations to Immanuel and Gary!
Other Free Minds poets continue to share their voices with the outside community through our On the Same Page: Write Night program, in which volunteers from the DC region and beyond gather to read and respond to poetry by incarcerated Free Minds members.
Free Minds member JKG, in a letter from federal prison, wrote, “The responses always touch me because it is important to me to be understood and also to be recognized especially in an environment where identity is attempted to be stripped from us.”
Thank you for helping us build this supportive community, and showing JKG that we will always be there to hear him and recognize him as an individual, a reader, and a writer.
This fall our Free Minds members have been hard at work both on the job and serving as Poet Ambassadors sharing their personal journeys of change with the community. They speak to youth facing the same struggles they have experienced, such as poverty and dangerous neighborhoods, and let them know they are not alone. They share their love of reading and writing and how they can be a source of comfort and strength during difficult times.
Thanks to your support, more Free Minds members are employed, obtaining vocational certificates, and giving back.
Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship Builds Confidence We welcomed another group of enthusiastic young men into our intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship for recently released members, with workshops on a wide range of topics both practical such as budgeting, computer literacy, interview skills
and dressing for success on the job as well as personal growth areas such as goal setting and interpersonal communication. The apprentices also learned about tenant and workplace rights from the DC Office of Human Rights, took a team-building trip to the Newseum, completed job applications, uploaded resumes and created email addresses...to name a few of their accomplishments!
On the final day, each apprentice presented vision boards they created with images of their goals for the future, while also receiving words of encouragement and best wishes from Free Minds staff and supporters. Senior Free Minds members who have been home in the community for several years joined each session, sharing advice and giving tools for success to their Free Minds brothers.
Apprentice Alantae shared, “I've learned from Free Minds that I can achieve the things that my friends who aren't here anymore wanted to do in life, like working and helping their families. I'm so glad I have Free Minds in my corner.” This is just one stop on our apprentices’ journey to transformation! Our School Outreach “On the Same Page” Program Reaches New Horizons
Our Poet Ambassadors have used their motivating messages of change everywhere you could think of: places of faith, workplaces, neighborhoods, college campuses, and high schools. However, believing the impact of reading and writing is limitless; Free Minds reached a new horizon by expanding the message of non-violence to young children in grades 3rd, 4th, and 5th!
Hopeful HoriSONS, a DC based after school group that focuses on mentoring (academically and social-emotionally) black boys in 3rd-5th grade, Free Minds Poet Ambassadors had the pleasure of meeting twenty young boys and speaking with them about reading, writing, poetry, the effects of bullying, our “greatest weapons,” and incarceration/post-incarceration experiences. The boys expressed great enthusiasm for reading and writing as our Poet Ambassadors incorporated real life scenarios and physical activity into the session.
We thank the young boys of Hopeful HoriSONS for teaching us that age does not define knowledge!
Free Minds Members: From Prison to a Paycheck
In the past year, 95% of our members in the Reentry Book Club have been working, studying, or participating in vocational training programs, resulting in a 13% recidivism rate as opposed to the national rate of 75% We are so thankful to witness so many members achieving admirable accomplishments. Here are just a few of the highlights: Aquil graduated from Excel Automotive Academy, Gary is working as a violence prevention specialist, Cornelious has been promoted to a supervisor position after being home less than a year, Aaron is studying hospitality, and so many more!
However, we are so ecstatic to announce our Poet Ambassador Jordan is going to college! We met Jordan at the DC Jail when he was 17 years old. Now, he’s headed to college to study business management. Please join us in congratulating Jordan and wishing him the best in his studies!
We are so proud of our members for overcoming the odds! Thank you for making our work possible.
Thank you to all of our GlobalGiving donors! You all have helped us cultivate a community for hundreds of incarcerated youths through reading and writing. Our Prison Book Club has proven to be liberating for our members who are miles away from home. Every day, our members tell us how much they appreciate receiving books, discussion questions, cards, and our monthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. Here are some excerpts from letters with “attitudes of gratitude:” “The good deeds of Free Minds (FM) will be immortalized in the history of time because for every one of those deeds, a seed was planted into every person that interacted with FM.” - Free Minds member Alex “My confidence is bolstered now. I am eager to join in discussions, express my wit, and even offer guidance to others who have yet to see education as a beacon of hope and security. The book Girl Rising offered a powerful message of how fortunate we are in America to have so many educational opportunities available to us. I will never disregard these opportunities.” - Free Minds member Duane Books Across the Miles: Slugg Though Free Minds members have finished reading Tony Lewis’s Slugg, they can’t stop discussing it! This book has definitely been a crowd favorite. Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration is a memoir by DC author, community leader, and reentry expert Tony Lewis Jr., who recounts his personal story after his father, Tony Lewis Sr., was incarcerated and sentenced to life in prison. Grappling with the book’s themes of love, sacrifice, and service, Free Minds readers in federal prison continue to write us about the popular memoir. See a couple of their responses below: “I disagree with his [Tony Lewis Sr.’s] decision [to choose the drug game], because he wasn't contributing to society or to his community in a lasting, and meaningful way. He helped assist with the destruction of his community. He left his wife without a husband and a son without a father (in a physical sense). I am ashamed that I, too, have left my ex-wife and daughters without me. I took myself away from them. The government didn't do it; I chose to commit my crimes, regretfully.”- DK
“The most important thing that I believe a parent should do to maintain a relationship with their children is communicate. Talk to them; teach them; learn from them. If it’s anything that I advise guys to do in prison? It is, I tell them to talk to their kids. I always hear “I don’t know what to say” but I tell them to talk to their kids like they are human. I tell them to treat their kids as an individual. Write them.”- SC Free Minds members voted for our next nation-wide read to be Bastards of the Reagan Era, a collection of poetry by Reginald Dwayne Betts. Feel free to read along with us in the next Connect issue. We would love to have you join the conversation as well!
Renowned Young Adult Authors Inspire Teens at the DC Jail
This summer has been eventful with two fantastic author visits at the DC Jail for our young members in the Jail Book Club.
The 16 and 17-year-old members were honored to host New York Times bestselling authors Jason Reynolds (Long Way Down) and Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X) who both left the boys revitalized, encouraged, and inspired.
Jason Reynolds shared childhood stories about growing up in Southeast DC like many of our book club members. Captivated by his compelling story telling, the teens listened closely as Reynolds shared his introduction to his love for writing through poetry and 1980’s hip-hop. Reynolds parted the group with words of encouragement, stating, “We cannot be what we cannot see.”
Following Reynolds’s visit, National Poetry Slam Champion and author Elizabeth Acevedo promoted determination, resilience, change, and healing for these young men and attributed poetry as a way to "hustle" her mind and "create an opportunity" to say what she wanted to say. During her session, Acevedo performed powerful pieces on womanhood and self-expression while centering discussions on “staying true to yourself” despite opposing expectations.
The young boys of our Jail Book Club were motivated to write their own books as Acevedo and Reynolds emphasized the importance of sharing your story, perseverance, and using creativity to create paths to success. Connect: Healthy Communication In the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, our members, staff, and volunteers shared their thoughts — and poetry— on the theme, “Healthy Communication.” Incarcerated at 38 years old, Free Minds member Cornelious believed he did not hold the capacity to advance his communication skills, mindset, nor self-presentation during his incarceration. After noticing that people didn’t find him approachable, he consciously altered his demeanor. He wrote, “I got to know some wonderful men I never would have had the chance to know if I hadn’t recognized I was not showing my true personality. Just a few changes [smiling, eye contact, and greeting] changed everything. I recommend it!”
When asked to share advice with our incarcerated members, Cornelious wrote, “Pause and think about the consequences, be calm but authoritative, stay in contact with positive people, and stand up for yourself without cussing or raising your voice; just state the facts.”
Once again, thank you for being an ongoing supporter and motivator to our members and staff. As we move into the rest of the year, we want to leave you with a quote from one of our Free Minds members, Marquis, who sees Free Minds as more than just a book club, but a brotherhood: “In prison, it has gotten to the point where I really only open up to individuals that are Free Minds members. Whenever I meet fellow members, they have more on their mind than your average.” As always, thank you for having a kindred spirit and believing in our mission! Your open-heartedness has made this all possible.