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 The federal Bureau of Prisons rescinded an implemented/proposed policy in several prisons that would have restricted the ways incarcerated people could access books.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"


Apr 5, 2018

"I Can Use My Education to Make a Difference"

Free Minds member Rafael graduated from college!
Free Minds member Rafael graduated from college!

To all of our incredible supporters - thank you for helping us facilitate a community of contemplative and expressive free minds! Thanks to your generosity, we’ve been able to provide the transformative tools of books, writing, and community support to nearly 400 youths and adults in 2018 so far. Since our last report, we have added 29 new members to “Books Across the Miles,” our long distance prison book club. This year alone, we have shipped over 700 books to incarcerated members in federal prisons across the United States.

Some of the letters we received this month reminded us of exactly why the support we get from you is so life-changing: 

"This book was right on time. It came at a point in my life where I needed to look deeper into myself and the world around me to gain some perspective.” Free Minds member Stephen

I'd love to learn how to write something because being a prisoner to your own inarticulation is worse than being in [the maximum security prison]!” Free Minds member Greg

We are thrilled to announce that since our last report, the DC Department of Corrections has made a new program available to members at the DC Jail, in which they can now take college classes with Ashland University and are learning to use tablets. This opportunity has helped our members at the jail to become ready and excited for higher education! In the words of our Free Minds members: 

"This is my very first college experience with Ashland. I can see that this experience has motivated me to be more responsible. I am eager every day to get my tablet and participate in my lessons. Undertaking the courses gives me drive to prepare for responsibility in the community. My sense of self-worth has increased knowing that I will be able to say that I am educated and can use my education to make a difference." Free Minds member Duane

Meanwhile, Free Minds member Rafael graduated from college. Congratulations, Rafael!


Books Across the Miles: I Am Malala

Free Minds members just finished reading and discussing the most recent BAM book, I Am Malala, a memoir by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai — “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban”. Here’s what some Free Minds readers in federal prison had to say in our book discussions: 

“Reading this beautiful story, I still find myself in shock of Malala! Her tenacity and will to fight and speak out against the Taliban, for the right of all children receiving an education is phenomenal. We tend to take for granted the blessings we have over here in America, not realizing that there are a million Malalas all around the world. I wish every child had the opportunity to the read the words of this courageous young woman and learn from her words the importance of an education.” 

“Malala is an amazing young lady. I wish there were more people in the world like her. She stands up for what she believes in. The Taliban is trying to repress the future of Pakistan because the children are the future. Think about all the kids here in the United States that don’t go to school and wonder where their next meal is coming from. I have a 14 year- old daughter that lives in Mexico with her mom. She is a US citizen but her mom isn’t, so she is being deprived the right to go to school in the US. The schools in Mexico are not very good at teaching the students there. This is a must-read book for all, and I respect Malala for all her work and wish her well and good luck. I think if one family taught one child to think like her and then taught another, we could change the world.” 

Free Minds Members voted for our next nation-wide read to be Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration, as the next book club selection for 2018. As always, feel free to read along with us and follow our discussion in the next Connect issue. 


Connect: Education

In the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, our members, staff, and volunteers shared their thoughts — and poetry— on the theme, “education,” and how knowledge can set us free. Topics ranged from The Things You Can’t Learn From a Book to Education from Behind Bars and Education: A Tool to Help Us Survive. You can read the entire issue in the link at the bottom of this post. 

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, Gary, who continues to inspire us to pay your kindness forward:

"Thank you for giving me the opportunity to reconstruct a culture that I’ve helped to destruct.” 

Read along with Free Minds members in the Connect!
Read along with Free Minds members in the Connect!
CJ wrote this from federal prison
CJ wrote this from federal prison


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