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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:

Dec 23, 2019

"Don't rush to judgement, and you'll be alright."

Free Minds Apprentices present visionary boards
Free Minds Apprentices present visionary boards

Our reentry members are becoming community change-makers thanks to your generous support! Since our last report, we welcomed a new group of apprentices into our intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship--they have now been paired with employment that suits their interests and skills, enrolled into a training program, or begun conducting community outreach through our nonviolence program known as “On the Same Page.” Read on to learn more about the inspiring work of our previously incarcerated youth!

Washington Post Magazine Publishes Groundbreaking Issue by Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Writers

In November, the Washington Post Magazine released a very special issue written, illustrated and photographed by currently and formerly incarcerated people in the United States. Free Minds served as advisers for this issue, and we're proud to announce that two of our Free Minds members were featured! Free Minds members Demetrius B. and Johnny B. submitted personal essays, which were hand selected over hundreds of candidates. This issue is historic in its recognition of the vital need to hear from those directly impacted by the criminal legal system. You can find all the stories here.

You can find all personal essays here.

Recently Released Members complete Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship

This fall, we welcomed a new group of young men home from prison into our intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship. Our Apprentices participated in workshops on topics such as financial literacy, giving back, effective communication, storytelling, conflict resolution, and more. Most importantly, they heard advice and encouragement from fellow Free Minds members who are home, working, and ready to welcome them to the circle of support that never breaks.

At the end of the apprenticeship, apprentices, staff, and Free Minds supporters presented personal vision boards on success and future goals and dreams. Free Minds staff and supporters left apprentices with words of encouragement and presented each apprentice with their very own personalized gift—a book representing each apprentices special interest.

After participating in our Apprenticeship, Free Minds apprentice Craig began working at a bowling company and Free Minds apprentice Antonio enrolled into a work readiness program, known as DC Career Connections, to jumpstart his career. Additionally, former Free Minds apprentice Damon graduated from the Building Futures program, which offers certifications for careers in the union construction trades; Free Minds member Brandon graduated from a Commercial Driver’s License program; and Free Minds member Malik began his career with UPS.

Our members have reached tremendous milestones because of your investment. Your belief in our work makes successfully achieving a 9% recidivism rate (compared to a national rate of 75.9%) and a 90% job and school placement rate possible. 

Congratulations to everyone!

Poet Ambassadors Bring Poetry and New Perspectives to DC Police Academy

Free Minds staff and Poet Ambassadors (previously incarcerated members) spoke to nearly 150 recruits about youth and mass incarceration, sharing personal testimonies of change and poetry from our book, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison. Shortly after, recruits broke out into groups and engaged in a "Write Night" activity, which included reading and responding to original poetry written by our incarcerated members. Many of the recruits shared that they were native Washingtonians and could identify with the themes of the poems. For some, their loved ones are currently incarcerated.

As soon-to-be officers, the recruits were eager to ask our Poet Ambassadors for advice. After being asked, "What advice would you give to us to make sure no else goes through what you went through?" Poet Ambassador Chris answered, "Do your job to the best of your ability, but be honest and don't rush to judgement, and you'll be alright." Chris was wrongfully convicted as a teen and served over 20 years in prison.

Thank you Georgetown Law's Program on Innovating Policing's Police for Tomorrow Fellowship Program and MPD Academy for making this happen!

Thank you for making all of this possible. We are only as great as our community!

Special WP issue featuring FM members
Special WP issue featuring FM members
Poet Ambassador Chris offers recruits advice
Poet Ambassador Chris offers recruits advice
FM Apprentice Craig is gifted a book by FM Staff
FM Apprentice Craig is gifted a book by FM Staff
FM Apprentice Shannon is gifted a book by FM Staff
FM Apprentice Shannon is gifted a book by FM Staff
Poet Ambassador Cliff offers recruits advice
Poet Ambassador Cliff offers recruits advice
 
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