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Jul 11, 2017

Author D. Watkins Shares His Story with Free Minds

Author D. Watkins Visited the DC Jail
Author D. Watkins Visited the DC Jail

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 Saw
By Bobby
Inspired by The Cook Up by D. Watkins

I saw, I saw from behind these white walls
A child gets taken from his life as his vessel falls
Mothers cryin’ over their children
It was the worst feeling they ever saw
Wondering how could God let them down
Including the law
The smile and laughter of the good times they shared
The feeling of regret at the time when they weren’t there
That unbearable feeling deep down
That feeling they call fear
Not wanting to feel the pain
Of 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!

Connect: Inside/Out

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!

Book Club Discussions in the Free Minds Connect
Book Club Discussions in the Free Minds Connect
Wayne (in federal prison) with his favorite books
Wayne (in federal prison) with his favorite books


Jun 20, 2017

Poet Ambassadors Share Their Stories

Poet Ambassador Terrell speaks at an event
Poet Ambassador Terrell speaks at an event

Change blossomed this spring at Free Minds thanks to your support. Our Poet Ambassadors—Free Minds members home from prison who share their poetry and personal stories of change with the community—were nonstop! Poet Ambassadors presented and shared our message of liberation through reading and writing at the 2017 DC Prisoner and Reentry Symposium: State of Our Union, The D.C. Public Library Story Time Gala 2017, Youth Justice Forum: Justice for DC’s Youth, The Gathering: Open Mic with a Cause, DC Writer’s Workshop at Upshur Street Books,as well as our regular violence prevention outreach to 16 middle schools and high schools, 5 community groups, and 4 On the Same Page: Write Nights.

It was an especially uplifting season because we received the Renewal Award for Ingenuity from the Atlantic and Allstate. Free Minds was among five recipients selected from approximately 500 organizations nationwide. It was truly an exceptional honor. Poet Ambassador Nick spoke at the Renewal Summit. He said, “I want to thank the Atlantic and Allstate for allowing me to share my story, because I know it will help bring about a change. I hope people will treat someone from my experience with more dignity. That alone will give people from my background hope.” Free Minds would like to thank the Atlantic, Allstate, and the Renewal Project for this incredible recognition and opportunity to share the success of our program nationwide.

Our weekly Reentry Book Club, “The Build Up,” group continues to discuss literature, write poetry, share their own written work, and to support one another in the reentry process. The group has enjoyed discussing Jeff Henderson’s If You Can See It, You Can Be It and is now engrossed in The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir by D. Watkins.

We are excited to report the expansion of our Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship to a continuous learning and support network comprised of weekly skill building workshops, “The Build Up” sessions, paid work shifts with local businesses, personalized connections to jobs and programs, and the opportunity to give back through our “On the Same Page” community outreach program. Members meet every Friday to learn and practice concrete practical soft and hard job skills. Workshop topics include: entrepreneurship, mock interviews, budgeting/credit issues, life after incarceration, vision boards, and computer training. The group also went on a tour of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial at the end of May. Thank you for making weekly apprenticeship workshops possible!

June kick-started the summer for Free Minds with a fruitful session at the Maya Angelou Academy at New Beginnings, DC’s juvenile detention facility. Poet Ambassador Terrell said, The chance to meet and connect with the youth in the juvenile system was very touching for me. I could see myself in them, how I was at their age. The talent and potential they have is really strong. I was so grateful to be able to be living proof to show them that there is another future available for them. They are lucky to have such a good school like the Maya Angelou School. I can't wait to go back."

Thank you for supporting Free Minds members like Terrell on their journey.

Free Minds members at the MLK Memorial
Free Minds members at the MLK Memorial
Free Minds won the Atlantic/Allstate Renewal Award
Free Minds won the Atlantic/Allstate Renewal Award
Free Minds members speak on a panel
Free Minds members speak on a panel


Apr 13, 2017

"I'm Learning with Every Book I Read"

D'Angelo with his favorite book he read in prison
D'Angelo with his favorite book he read in prison

Thank you so much for supporting our project, Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison! With your support, we provided approximately 600 books to incarcerated youths. Here are some highlights from our life changing work at the DC Jail and in federal prisons across the country:

Jail Book Club Author Visits

In the past three months,  we have been honored to host two amazing authors at our Book Club for teen boys at the DC Jail.

In February, the award-winning author Patricia McCormick came to visit from New York City to discuss her book Sold. It’s a story of a 13-year-old girl named Lakshmi whose family is struggling in the mountains of Nepal. Her step dad arranges for a job for her in Mumbai and she soon finds out that she has been sold into prostitution. It was an eye-opening discussion for the Free Minds members who were shocked to learn what a pervasive problem prostitution is in both the United States and other parts of the world. They also learned about the oppression of women and girls around the world and the desperate choices families are sometimes forced to make to survive poverty.

This was followed by one of Free Minds all-time favorite authors Coe Booth, discussing her very popular book Bronxwood. It’s the story of Tyrell, a young man who is facing all kinds of pressures as his father is just home from prison, his brother is being placed in foster care, and the drug dealers in his neighborhood are coming down hard on him to sell. Each member shared how much they could relate to Tyrell and his struggles. Seeing themselves in the characters and sharing that excitement with the author always brings the Book Club to new heights.   

Books Across the Miles: Prison Book Club

Our BAM for this month is March: Book Three by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. March: Book Three is the third book in a graphic novel trilogy that depicts Congressman John Lewis’s experiences as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Previously, the book club members read March: Book One and March: Book Two. We returned with March: Book Three by popular demand! It made a major impact on the Free Minds readers and evoked strong emotions.

“I am so honored to receive this book called March! It was amazing to read. I LOVED IT...It was very fun and easy to read. A very cool way to share history of the American Struggle! I truly believe it should be taught in every school in America...This book has enlightened me on some very touching things and it brought me so much strength, hope, and faith to never give up! No matter the circumstances. But yeah, kids really need to read this. Shout out to Congressman. John Lewis and everyone who brought this empowering freedom here today in America with this amazing, heartfelt comic book.” - Free Minds member VM

“I enjoyed the book. It was an intimate depiction of an aspect of the struggle for civil rights within this country, and it was illustrated from the perspective of someone who was involved in that particular struggle, firsthand experience! Beautiful in its truth...When I read something like March, it is a reminder not to take things for granted, it gives clarity to the journey and a deeper appreciation for what we have, but it is also a reminder that we must all take our places in the struggle, contributing to what is right and making life better. We are charged with such a task!” - Free Minds member KM

“It was a great book, but more importantly the message was received. It made me look at not just black history but America and the history of this country. We have overcome a lot, and knowledge is key. I’m learning with every book I read.” - Free Minds member DP

The Free Minds Connect: Legacy

In addition to reading, our Free Minds members have been busy writing poetry and personal essays for our bimonthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. Recently, our members took time to explore the idea of their legacy.

Free Minds member KB wrote, "Oh how humbled and awakened I have become by the uplifting and healing legacies left behind by our historic figures who dedicated their lives trying to find solutions to problems affecting humans as a whole and the legacies of those whose mission is to help others become better.”

Another Free Minds member TB reflects, “I’ve always been a thinker, but when I was 16 I was just constantly trying to prove myself. That means that I went with the crowd. Whatever they were doing, I was doing it too. I was trying to prove myself, and that’s what got me in be honest, I never had a concept of the future. I was busy planning my legacy. I didn't expect to survive and so I just wanted to be remembered as someone who was bad. I wanted my tough reputation to be glorified. I wanted kids in my neighborhood to be saying, ‘Yeah, I knew him!’ Now when I look back, I see that it was all just ignorance and stupidity.”

Free Minds member MK shared this poem, What Legacy Will I Leave Behind.


When it’s all said and done
What legacy will I leave behind????
The answer to that precious questions
Is held in the hands of time…
As for now in this present moment
I give the gift of my life in these lines…
I am a Muslim, I am a PO-ET, I am an artist
Painting pictures that will forever shine
Brighter than the darkness of crime
Would you believe even while confined
I find peace in having a FREE MIND…


As always, thank you for your wonderful support you offer to our members. We could not provide these services without your generosity and your belief in our cause.

Linda writing from federal prison
Linda writing from federal prison
Author Patricia McCormick with FM staff
Author Patricia McCormick with FM staff
The Free Minds newsletter featuring original art
The Free Minds newsletter featuring original art
Free Minds members are reading March: Book Three
Free Minds members are reading March: Book Three
Author Coe Booth at the DC Jail
Author Coe Booth at the DC Jail


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