Thank you for supporting our book club and writing workshop for federally incarcerated youth, and our facilitation of a community of contemplative and expressive free minds. We are grateful for your help with which we were able to send 750 books to over 300 readers across the country. Your commitment to our project is a necessary stimulus for our transformative community and we are so grateful for your support! Here is an update of what we at Free Minds have been up to over the past few months.
Books Across the Miles (BAM)
Our “Prison Book Club” members of Free Minds, who are incarcerated in approximately 60 federal prisons in 29 states, just finished reading and discussing their most recent BAM book selection: The Cook Up by D. Watkins. In the Connect newsletter, FM members discussed such themes from the book as the death of loved ones and role-models, the plasticity of our life stories, and the obstacles in leaving the drug game. Here is what some members had to say in our book discussions:
“What people have to do to make sure that their story is not like everyone else’s is they must create their own story. They must use their time and ability to mold wisely and form the life that they envision for themselves. But, a lot of times this is where the problem lies: an astronomical number of people can’t envision, picture, or even dream of a life of their own.” - Free Minds member SC
Free Minds member RM wrote in one of his correspondence letters about the gift The Cook Up had given him. The book revealed to him aspects of his hometown, Baltimore, MD, that he had not been aware of, which helped him more thoughtfully connect, empathize, and converse with people around him.“ . . . [W]hile I may have lived in the same cities as my fellow friends here in prison I realize that I can learn a lot from them about their lives and ‘their’ city and in turn I can share with them my experiences in the same cities I claimed as my own. The Cook Up was a wake up for me to better understand Baltimore as a whole and the people that live in it. So thank you for the good read! I’ve now passed it on to some friends from SE Baltimore and they love it! The Cook Up has also sparked conversations about the pros and cons of gentrification in Baltimore and the effects on the Black communities there.” - Free Minds member RM
Prison Book Club members voted for our next nation-wide read to be Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, about African-American women mathematicians who heavily contributed to the US space race as ‘human computers.’ As always, feel welcome to read along with us and follow our discussions in the Connect!
Connect: Nature and Labels
The latest issues of the Connect were themed ‘Nature’ and ‘Labels.’
The ‘Nature’ issue of the Connect epitomizes a topic we want Free Minds members to be free and able to have in their minds, when it’s excluded from their prisons. In this issue, we shared and discussed the vital and restorative beauty of nature with our book club members.
From MS we received this heartfelt response to our ‘Nature’ Connect:
"I would like to share the experience I had with nature the same day I received the newsletter. I was driven to the hospital in reference to my eyes. By divine decree, the doctor was examining another patient and we were compelled to wait outside. Gratefully, I sat at a table while anticipating my turn. My senses were so high to my surroundings. I felt attuned with the birds that were chirping, and the squirrels that were running, jumping and eating acorns. Though I was fettered hands and feet, my mind and spirit was free to immerse in the sound and the philosophical view of cosmology. Consequently, I brung this energy into the cell. The institution was on lockdown but my mind was free. As it will remain!"
In the ‘Labels’ issue of our Connect newsletter, FM Prison Book Club members examined questions of character, identity, agency, and formative experience through the lens of labels.
“I remembered when my grandparents told me how smart I was and how much they thanked me for being responsible and obedient. I valued those labels the most because there was meaning and love behind them words. When my grandparents died I lost focus of those labels. I let one label I didn’t like [‘sucker’] turn me into a menace to society. Moving forward, I am now proud to be recognized as a Free Minds Poet Ambassador, a responsible father, and a legitimately hard-working man.” - Free Minds Poet Ambassador Brandon
“Labels are not to be mistaken for principles, which should be paramount in all our lives. Principles are to be engraved in one’s heart as truths that cannot be changed or be circumvented. Sadly, people masquerade with labels on oneself . . . We all must embrace a lifelong pursuit of strengthening our minds or run the perilous risk of developing habits that are destructive to the human spirit and relationships.” - Free Minds member RS
We would like to end this update with a quote from Free Minds member JL, one of many FM members whom has been inspired to pay your kindnesses forward:
“. . . I learned (through fellow prisoners, family’s love, reading & writing, the few friends that have stayed in contact with me) that the best way to heal myself is to reach out and help others. I try my best to do this through introspection so I can understand and relate to others. Hope that makes sense.”
Thank you for helping to provide our Free Minds community with the requisite tools for growth and enrichment!
Thanks to your generosity, together we are helping young men home from prison transform their lives. In July, we held a very special Reentry Recognition Ceremony. We honored our participants in our Reentry Book Club and Job Readiness Apprenticeship, and celebrated alongside our members’ family, friends, and supporters. The evening was filled with joy, pride, and even an impromptu musical break courtesy of Free Minds member Mark. Thank you for making this possible!
This summer, Free Minds members have been working hard and making great strides in their journeys of change. 32 formerly incarcerated Free Minds members have participated in our weekly Reentry Book Club and Job Readiness Workshops, including sessions on topics such as legal rights, mindfulness, substance abuse, co-parenting, success on the job, public speaking, action plans, learning from mistakes, storytelling, entrepreneurship, and more. In the Reentry Book Club sessions, they have been writing and sharing poetry, reading and discussing the memoir The Cook Up by D. Watkins, and building a positive, trusting community.
National Criminal Justice Association Award
In August, Free Minds was thrilled to receive the National Criminal Justice Association’s Outstanding Criminal Justice Program Award for the Northeast Region. Our Executive Director Tara Libert accepted this award on behalf of the entire Free Minds Family at NCJA's National Forum in Long Beach, California. Thank you to the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA) for this incredible recognition, DC Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants for their wonderful guidance and for presenting the award, and to all of our supporters for helping us get here.
Free Minds Members Reaching New Heights
This summer, Free Minds member and Poet Ambassador Terrell traveled to the Freedom Writers Institute in Long Beach, California, to participate in a 5-day training program for educators and others who work with vulnerable youth. Terrell applies the strategies gained from this experience in his work as a Poet Ambassador, mentoring middle and high school students in D.C.
Free Minds member Roderick graduated from the DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training Program, and was featured in the Washington City Paper. He is now working full-time in a restaurant. Well done, Roderick!
Aaron and Lorenzo graduated from high school in June, and are now preparing to enter the workforce. Congratulations Aaron and Lorenzo!
Thank you for supporting our book club and writing workshop for incarcerated youths! With your support, we mailed approximately 500 books to 200 members in federal prisons across the country. In addition to books, we also send a bimonthly newsletter, postcards and birthday cards, and one-on-one correspondence. Thank you for being an integral part of our members’ journey of change.
Baltimore Author Visits the DC Jail
Author D. Watkins (The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America) visited our book club with young adults studying for their GEDs at the DC Jail. The Free Minds members had read The Cook Up in preparation for Watkins’s visit, and came prepared with dozens of questions about the author’s memoir, including questions about the writing and publishing process, as well as his remarkable life story.
The Cook Up depicts Watkins’s journey from college student, to drug dealer, and back out again, in the wake of his brother’s murder. Now Watkins is a professor at the University of Maryland, founder of the BMORE Writers Project, author of two books, and Editor at Large for Salon Magazine.
The Free Minds members could relate to Watkins’s story, and he shared with them how reading a book he could relate to (The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah) had opened his mind to new possibilities. Watkins advised them on how to reflect on everything they read. “When I didn’t read, I had a blindfold on. When I started reading, the blindfold came off.”
At the end of the session, Free Minds members eagerly shared their poetry inspired by The Cook Up.
What I SawBy BobbyInspired by The Cook Up by D. Watkins
I saw, I saw from behind these white wallsA child gets taken from his life as his vessel fallsMothers cryin’ over their childrenIt was the worst feeling they ever sawWondering how could God let them downIncluding the lawThe smile and laughter of the good times they sharedThe feeling of regret at the time when they weren’t thereThat unbearable feeling deep downThat feeling they call fearNot wanting to feel the painOf their child not being here
The Cook Up Across the Miles and in Federal Prisons
Meanwhile, Free Minds members in federal prison finished reading March: Book Three by Congressman John Lewis, and are now reading The Cook Up by D. Watkins along with their fellow Free Minds members in the DC Jail. The books are currently on their way to Free Minds members in 46 facilities in 23 states. They are prepared with discussion questions to think about while reading. Read along with them via our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect!
The latest issue of the Free Minds Connect, titled “Inside/Out,” explored the dichotomy of the inner self and the outer self.
As one Free Minds member, DD, wrote, “It’s hard for me now to show who I am inside on the outside because I am in a place where that can be a bad thing or can be taken for a weakness to some. Sometimes the way we are perceived, help us and hurt us.”
Another Free Minds member, LB, wrote, “While looking at my face you would think, “Oh, she’s pretty.” You would never think she would get locked up, that she knows how it feels to be hurt. Though, inside you would notice my heart is my window to my past. The pain I dealt with, the beatings I took, when I was younger. You would notice my heart has a hole in it where all the good times fall into and you notice everything is around it. Outside you would see a face that smiles, but on the inside, I’m crying. I cry for the little girl trapped inside who couldn’t cry when she was younger. Inside I cry so much that no one really knows the true me. Outside I act strong and as if nothing could hurt me. I’m tired of crying on the inside! Crying on the outside, people notice not everything is peaches ‘n’ cream.”
Free Minds Co-Founder Kelli Taylor interviewed Carlos, a Free Minds member who has successfully transitioned back to society and works to help other returning citizens navigate reentry. When asked for his advice to Free Minds members serving lengthy sentences, he said, “Write. You all know the guy who writes for the Connect named HF? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I have the sense that he’s been incarcerated for a while because of all of his wisdom. He doesn’t even know the influence that he has had on me and my life. I remember so many times reading his words in my cell and gaining new understanding that helped me to change my life. Whether you share your writing in the Connect, or your poems at Write Nights, or even through letters to younger siblings or friends, you can change lives through writing.”
We recently received a message from Free Minds member AN, who has been incarcerated for several years and is now preparing to come home. AN wrote, “Thank you guys for everything you have done for me. This has been a learning experience. If I didn’t have books I don’t know how my time would have gone. Since I started reading, it has opened my eyes to the full literary experience. I think you guys have truly saved some lives.”
Thank you for helping us provide much-needed books and educational materials to AN and other Free Minds members!