Sep 20, 2018

"Reading is a liberation, an art, and a skill that can open up the heart."

Free Minds member and John Lewis Fellow James
Free Minds member and John Lewis Fellow James

Summer is winding down, but not Free Minds. Thanks to your generous support, we had an eventful summer filled with inspirational events that have brought about peace and agency and impactful programming that has reached more youths affected by racial injustice and mass incarceration.

Free Minds Holds Their First Congressman John Lewis Fellowship Celebration

Our Congressman John Lewis Fellowship Celebration was a huge success thanks to our incredible supporters! 

On July 17, Free Minds held a celebration to commemorate Congressman John Lewis’s inspirational visit to our juvenile members at the DC Jail, which sparked our Congressman John Lewis Fellowship, a one-year paid position for a formerly incarcerated young adult to use poetry and lived experiences to promote nonviolence, hope, racial equity, and peace in under-served schools and neighborhoods. The fellow leads our poetry-based nonviolence and community outreach program, On the Same Page: Free Minds Poetry in the Classroom and Community During his visit, Lewis discussed his graphic novel trilogy March and shared about his life of nonviolence during the Civil Rights Movement.

Congressman John Lewis was not able to attend the celebration, but he wrote a letter to the Fellow, shared by his staff. He wrote, "I am proud to witness a new generation of bold leaders, like the Free Minds Poet Ambassadors and the first Congressman John Lewis Fellow. You are all courageous and you are leading the fight for what is fair and just."

Clint Smith, our newest Free Minds Book Club Facilitator at the DC Jail, spoke about the need for restorative healing for those enduring poverty, racial injustice, and incarceration. He read powerful poetry from his book, Counting Descent.

Andrew Aydin, who co-wrote the March graphic novel trilogy with Congressman Lewis, spoke passionately about the role reading can play in racial justice. "Reading is a liberation, an art, and a skill that can open up the heart."

James Allen, our Congressman John Lewis Fellow, shared how his own heart was opened by reading the memoir. "Reading the March series opened my eyes to the powers of positivity. I take my role as a positive, nonviolent influencer very seriously."

It was an incredible evening filled with inspiration and hope as we realized a dream--to reach more youths with the life-changing power of books, writing, and community.

Recently Released Members complete Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship

This summer, Free Minds Book Club welcomed a group of young men, ages 16 and 17, into our intensive Reentry Book Club’s Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship, for recently released members, with workshops on topics such as computer literacy, financial literacy, job interviews, storytelling, and more.

During the apprenticeship, apprentices mapped out their life and career goals; discussed who inspires them, what they love, and what is unique about them; took a team-building trip to the National Building Museum’s “Evicted” exhibit displaying the causes and effects of eviction by low-income populations; completed job applications, uploaded resumes, job searched, and created email addresses; and learned the ABC’s of financial literacy (budgeting, savings, investing, managing).

At the end of the apprenticeship, apprentices unanimously expressed interest in either finishing or returning to school, establishing a career in a field of their interest, as well as sharing their thankfulness for their Free Minds family.

Our apprentice Avery shared that after the apprenticeship, he landed his first job, “I was 16 when I got locked up; I had never had a job. Without the apprenticeship, I would not have had the job readiness skills to do so well on my interviews. I knew exactly what I needed to do and I am so grateful.”

We are excited to see everyone’s next phase!

Free Minds Discusses U.S. Prison System with Criminal Justice Experts from Uruguay

On behalf of the U.S. Department of State, World Learning invited Free Minds to participate in a project for the International Visitor Leadership Program entitled “U.S. Prison System and the Criminal Procedure Code” on August 21. Administered for visiting detention and criminal justice professionals (who all hold key roles related to current Uruguayan prison system transformation), the project’s goal was to teach visiting participants about U.S. alternatives to incarceration, federal policy-making processes, and nongovernmental perspectives on criminal justice.

In a roundtable, Free Minds shared our work, with an emphasis on the value of reading and writing. Free Minds Poet Ambassador Anthony shared his own experiences and perspective on incarceration and reentry, which led to an in-depth discussion of sentencing, human rights, youth incarceration, and reentry.

The roundtable included guests from DC Prisoners’ Project (Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs), Catholic Charities of America; and international agencies Psycho-Social Treatment, National Institute for Rehabilitation (INR), Yoga and Values in Prisons (NGO), Office of Supervised Release (OSLA), and Office of Supervised Release (OSLA).

Thank you, World Learning, for creating a space to speak on the need for criminal justice reform!

Summer Reading: Reentry Book Club Members Explore Black and White

The power of reading and writing to cope with traumatic experiences is reaffirmed in every Reentry Book Club session. This summer, the Reentry Book Club members have been reading Black and White by Paul Volponi.

An ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Black and White follows best friends Marcus (black) and Eddie (white) who found the strength to break through the racial barrier by looking past stereotypes to successfully come out on top on and off the basketball court. However, when both boys face the consequences of one wrong decision, their friendship is put to the test.

Reentry Book Club members have been eagerly following the action in the book, and predicting what is to come next in the book by placing themselves in the shoes of the characters. One member stated, “Black and White is a story that describes the importance of loyalty. I could relate to the story because it reminded me of what led to my incarceration. It’s easy to get into trouble, but hard to get out." 

We are glad to know our members are able to relate to the characters of Black and White. We wonder whose predictions will come true!

Free Minds Partners with Bread for the City for “Poetry & Write Night”

For over 40 years, Bread for the City has been a standout non-profit for strengthening low-income and homeless DC residents directly affected by the burden of poverty and racism. On August 23, Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop had the pleasure of collaborating with Bread for the City for “Poetry & Write Night,” a part of our community building initiative.

At “Poetry & Write Night,” community members read poetry written by incarcerated Free Minds members, and listened to formerly incarcerated Poet Ambassadors share their compelling stories and original poetry.

We asked attendees to leave uplifting feedback on the poems since we send all comments back to the authors. Due to not being a state, DC does not have a prison, so the majority of our members are incarcerated in federal prisons across the country. For many of our members who have no moral support or communication from the outside, receiving feedback on their poetry can be the calm in the storm. One attendee mentioned one poem was so good "not even [Langston] Hughes or [James] Baldwin could touch that."

Such words can go a long way! Poet Ambassador Terrell shared with the group the value and helpfulness of leaving comments stating, “When I was locked up, I looked forward to the positive remarks AND constructive feedback; the constructive feedback strengthened my style and made me a better writer.”

Thank you for making our work possible!

Congressman Lewis
Congressman Lewis's staff and Free Minds team
Poet Ambassador Anthony with Uruguayan visitors
Poet Ambassador Anthony with Uruguayan visitors
Apprentices express what they
Apprentices express what they're thankful for
Poet Ambassadors at "Poetry & Write Night"
Poet Ambassadors at "Poetry & Write Night"


Jul 5, 2018

Books Not Barriers

Latest Free Minds Connect Issue
Latest Free Minds Connect Issue

Thank you to all of our Global Giving donors! You all have helped us cultivate a community for hundreds of incarcerated youth through reading and writing. 

We see firsthand the strong impact our prison book club has on our members in many ways, including increases in the quality and quantity of creative writing, new and varied requests for reading materials, and improved literacy and critical thinking skills, but the one way that really gets us excited is expressions of gratitude. They feel part of something bigger than themselves and want to share their experiences and appreciation. Here are some excerpts from letters with “attitudes of gratitude.” You have made this possible.

“Let me just say thank you for the books and postcards that help brothers in my situation make it through day to day. The content of the books I receive make me plan for the future, and yes it frees my mind from negativity and opens thoughts that I turn into reality. I’m about to be released in a few months and this the first time I am proud of the things I did in here to make my future brighter. The reading and studying and planning gonna pay off for me, I just know it.” - Free Minds member Demetrius

“To whoever had the beautiful gesture of sending me that book [Brief History of Time], I want to say: Thank you so very much. Of course, as an organization, I have AND want to say thank you to all of you that make Free Minds possible, but you right there that figured out I would like the book and actually ended up clicking the button on the screen to send me the book, I give you my most sincere appreciation and gratitude.” - Free Minds member Alex

Since our last report, we have been celebrating a major victory with all of our allies and advocates who believe in rehabilitation and education through books. The federal Bureau of Prisons rescinded an implemented/proposed policy in several prisons that would have restricted the ways incarcerated people could access books. The policy prohibited direct delivery through the mail from publishers, bookstores and book clubs. With the proposed restrictions, incarcerated people would have to purchase books themselves through an undisclosed vendor, rather than receiving books from friends, family, or organizations. As reported by the Washington Post, the Bureau of Prisons decided to rescind and review these proposed restrictions.

We were deeply relieved to hear the good news. It’s imperative that we protect the right to read. We need books, not barriers!

Books Across the Miles: Slugg

Free Minds members just finished reading and discussing the most recent BAM book, Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration, a memoir by DC author, community leader, and reentry expert Tony Lewis Jr., chronicling his journey after his father, Tony Lewis Sr., was incarcerated and sentenced to life in prison.

Free Minds readers in federal prison had plenty to say in our book discussions:

“Tony Lewis Sr. chose the drug game out of despair for his home situation. His mind was in survival mode, due to a life style of cramped living conditions added to the fear of being eaten by a rat while he slept at night. As an adolescent, growing up in a poverty-stricken environment forced him to morph into a man before his time. I once agreed with the lifestyle Mr. Lewis chose, because at one point in my life I had that mentality. I believe he chose the best route for his situation at the time. Our communities will never be what they once were before the introduction of crack cocaine. The impact of drugs created addicts on both sides; the addiction to money and the addiction to narcotics. Many families and communities were destroyed. Life lost value to the love of the all mighty dollar.” - AL

“On Tony Lewis Jr.’s mother’s mental illness, AC wrote, “The stress catalyzed her condition and broke her mind in a way. Her world as she knew it ended, and that proved too much for her already delicate mind. As a person whose life as he knows it is completely done, yes I can relate. I can never walk the streets of the USA after my sentence. I will be placed back in my birth country. My friends are here; my family is here; my old prospects in life are here. So yes, I can relate...I believe the stigma comes from people not understanding that a mental illness is like having any other illness. Just because you can’t actually see it, doesn’t mean it’s any less serious. If we can be understanding of someone who was born blind, why can’t we be understanding of someone with mental illness? Right? We need more understanding.” – AC

"This is the first book I have read that hit so close to home. Not only the fact that I share his story. With my father having a life sentence also… But the best part of this book was the profound message in it. That it is possible to come from and grow out of this environment and actually be a changing force in helping the next generation end the cycle. Tony Lewis Jr. is inspirational to me because the work he does is exactly what I want to do in my post-incarceration life. Also what his mother went through touch me deeply. Because even though we don't hear about it too much mental health is a real problem in the inner cities. I thank you for choosing this book. I've sent a poem also that was inspired from it." - LC

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. As always, feel free to read along with us and follow our discussion in the next Connect issue.

Connect: Choosing Your Family

In the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, our members, staff, and volunteers shared their thoughts — and poetry— on the theme, “Choosing Your Family.”

Having learned the importance of respecting and supporting those who respect and support us, Free Minds member LV shared that he was “captivated by the stories of what is chosen family. You know in my life I have broken bonds with relatives for the simple fact I was running wild on the streets. I have an uncle that is part of the LGBTQ community. My uncle was there for us when we first came to the country. We moved on with our lives due to a falling out he and my mother had. Long story short, I have not heard from him in over a decade. Now that I hear about all this new movement about LGBTQ rights, I would like to show support to my uncle.”

As always, thank you for making our work possible. We look forward to the rest of the year, and want to leave you with a quote from one of our Free Minds members, Jamal, who continues to inspire us to pay your kindness forward:

Today I want to sit and take time out to not only thank you all for being our family (us behind these walls) in times when we feel as though we don't really have one, but I love to wish you all a happy Mother’s Day and wish that each and every one of you have all that you strive and hope for in this life and the next. I want you all to know that y'all work does not go unnoticed and inshallah you will all be blessed because you all have been there for me since 2008 when no one else was. So much love to you all!”

Your generosity and belief in transformation have made this all possible. Thank you!

Slugg: A Boy
Slugg: A Boy's Life in the Age of Incarceration
Tony Lewis Jr. and Free Minds staff visit DC Jail
Tony Lewis Jr. and Free Minds staff visit DC Jail
FM member Lydell says thanks for the birthday card
FM member Lydell says thanks for the birthday card
Thank you letter from Prison Book Club member Troy
Thank you letter from Prison Book Club member Troy
FM member Lydell says thanks for the birthday card
FM member Lydell says thanks for the birthday card


Jun 22, 2018

Season of Hope

Proud Leckie students with their poetry book
Proud Leckie students with their poetry book

Our summer of impactful programming is already in full swing thanks to your generous support! We have reached new heights in elevating both the voices and the life skills of our reentry members through mentoring, public speaking, and our weekly reentry book club sessions.

Poet Ambassadors Mentor Middle School Students

During the past school year, our Free Minds Poet Ambassadors—formerly incarcerated young adults—continued our strong partnership with DC Title I schools, by serving as "Poets with A Purpose" working to end youth violence through the tools of reading, writing and healing. We have a special relationship with the 8th grade boys at M.V. Leckie Education Campus, who were so inspired by our Book Club that they started their own: The Leckie Lion Hearts Book Club. Free Minds Poet Ambassadors served as positive role models, facilitating regular reading and writing workshops and inspiring them to create their own poetry book! James spoke at their 8th grade graduation, reminding the boys that they are now equipped with the powerful tools of reading and writing through difficult times. Following the ceremony, the students’ teacher, Mr. Donald Ross, distributed the newly printed poetry books From the Heart of a Lion: The Next Chapter, causing great excitement among the young poets as they saw their hard work in print.

Poet Ambassadors Creating Change

Free Minds was honored to be invited to present our unique program model at the annual Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) Conference at Princeton University. Poet Ambassadors James and Demetrius loved traveling and meeting so many passionate criminal justice reformers. Our session was packed with enthusiastic college students eager to make real change. It was inspiring to learn about and be part of the many local efforts united in a national movement.

The National Book Foundation’s third annual "Why Reading Matters" conference in Brooklyn, NY, was our next stop on our busy speaking schedule. Poet Ambassador Nick shared the long-lasting impact the Free Minds Book Club has had on his life and encouraged the conference attendees to use the tools of book club discussions to increase literacy and uplift marginalized communities. Nick has been a Free Minds member since he was 17 years old. Now home, he runs his own catering business, works several retail jobs and still finds time to use his own experience with the foster care system to mentor youth who are in foster care in DC.

Reader Leaders in the Reentry Book Club

This month, our Reentry Book Club members who meet weekly to discuss books related to their own journeys, finished reading and discussing Long Way Down, a young adult novel written in verse by Jason Reynolds.

In Long Way Down, a teenage boy struggles to make a decision in the aftermath of his brother’s murder; Free Minds members such as Milyk, whose brother was murdered when Milyk was a child, could see themselves in the story and share their struggles with the supportive Free Minds members.

Milyk wrote the following poem, inspired by Long Way Down. He shared the relief he felt reading about a character experiencing the same emotional pain he is going through: "At first it was really hard reading the book. It brought up a lot of hard stuff I try not to think about. But then it felt better and then I just wrote about it. I never have before."


I wake up crust in my eyes
1 o’clock in the morning
Phone ring
I don’t answer
Phone keep ringing
I cut ringer off
I went to sleep
I wish I didn’t
That ringing of the phone
Was the call no one wants to get
My Brother

The power of reading and writing to cope with traumatic experiences is reaffirmed in every Reentry Book Club session. Next, the Reentry Book Club members will be reading Black and White by Paul Volponi

Ceremony for Poet Ambassador Isaiah 

Our Free Minds family suffered the terrible loss of one of our Poet Ambassadors, Isaiah. He was tragically shot and killed on the street and there are no answers. He had attended our monthly Write Night, in April, only a few days prior. The 23-year-old, a devoted father, was his mother’s third son to pass at the hands of gun violence. His mother told us that for Isaiah, the death of two of his brothers inspired him to live in the moment. He graduated from school, started a family, and focused on his future. At our May Write Night event, the staff, Poet Ambassadors, and volunteers honored Isaiah and his contributions to Free Minds. His entire family, including his young son, attended the event. Write Night volunteers recited poems addressed to Isaiah from our Jail Book Club members and Poet Ambassadors read aloud poetry by Isaiah addressed to his son. We all recommitted ourselves to honor Isaiah's legacy by vowing to continue our work to end violence and show love and compassion to everyone we meet, just like Isaiah did.

NBF "Why Reading Matters" conference
NBF "Why Reading Matters" conference
Poet Ambassadors enjoying Write Night
Poet Ambassadors enjoying Write Night
FM member David in the office with Ms. Keela
FM member David in the office with Ms. Keela
Poet Ambassador Anthony reads to DC students
Poet Ambassador Anthony reads to DC students
FM member James can
FM member James can't stop reading "Long Way Down"


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