As we reflect back on 2015 and cast vision for 2016, we have much to celebrate and much to continue to strive for. From seeing young men go from disengaged learners to articulate poets and celebrating their voices in our literary journal The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison, we are encouraged by the renewing power of reading and writing to change lives.
When Justice and Mercy Meet
This past month, our members have been reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Founder of Equal justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system, Stevenson writes about his work as a lawyer for people on death row in Alabama. The book details his varied experience with the criminal justice system, specifically focusing on the story of a man named Walter McMillan who spent decades on death row for a murder he didn’t commit. Though it was at times painful to read for many of our members who have experienced similar situations, they poured out accolades for Just Mercy:
“I thought it was insightful and taught me about the inequality of justice in America throughout history. I identified with the section about the children being sentenced to life in prison being as though I came in as a juvenile. Even though I wasn’t given a life sentence and got 24 years, I feel as though 24 years is more than a lifetime especially for a juvenile.
"A quote out the book that I believe is true is: ‘The power of mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent, strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.’
"What I think this quote mean is that everybody is deserving of mercy, even those who don’t think they deserve it.”-DJ
“It’s a really intense book but I love how it keeps me wondering about a lot of things.” -LB
“Hands down, Just Mercy is a very moving book. Reading this book, I found myself moved to frustration. There were too many parts where I fully understood the pain expressed, especially the part where he was having such a peaceful moment only to be interrupted by the police pointing guns at him. This book was a sorrowful reminder of America’s problem with the minorities and poor. Just Mercy painted a vivid picture for all to see America’s corrupt legal system. Besides that, Mr. Stevenson should be congratulated for all his efforts and I can say that I admire his courage. This book is a must read and belongs in every library.” -MH
“That Just Mercy book was so uplifting in many ways.” -DW
10,000 Journals for Hope
In October, we launched our newest literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison with a celebration and poetry reading. At the end of the night, we announced our 10,000 Journals For Hope campaign. We are committed to sharing the untold stories of incarcerated youth and the stories of hope, success, and second chances. We decided to raise funds to send 10,000 copies of our literary journal to disconnected youths in juvenile detention centers, solitary confinement, and schools across the country. Reading stories of success from youth home from prison and overcoming the odds can bring hope and inspiration to these young people.
We were overjoyed at the response to this campaign. So far, we have raised over 90% of our goal (9,000 journals), and have already started distributing the journals. Young inmates in federal prison have written to us to share their responses to the stories and poems in the journal:
"Again, thanks a lot for letting me be part of y'all family. And as far as the poems, I didn't have just one favorite and that's being honest. I really loved the book as a whole and the creativity plus the way the guys got a chance to express their inner feelings through words. Every soulja has a story to tell. So I've sent 2 of my own poems for you to check out. Until next time, thanks again." -CM
"I love our new book. I'm so proud of everyone in Free Minds. This movement is really life changing and I'm living testimony to that. That was a great idea too to have the pictures and something on the guys in the book. I also loved the fact that Charlie was the first one with that big smile. I miss that guy there. And you know if it's any way I can help, I'm all for it. A book dedicated to just a glimpse into our stories is a hit. It is only right that we get full exposure into the whole aspect of our lives instead of just a crime. One major benefit from being in the program is the positive effect the written word has so a book of our stories, good or bad is a very good read. Especially for an audience that would get a different glimpse into incarcerated youth..." - MH
“I promise … that I won't let no one ever take my voice. As long as I have a pen in my hand, I will write. I understand full now what you was trying to get me to see back when I was younger.” -AH
When writing back to our members about the literary journal, we asked what we should tell people if they were considering donating books to go inside prisons, and received these responses:
"Tell them that the contribution they made is a contribution into the future of a young man who finally figured out that he was too valuable to be forgotten." -DH
"By buying and giving the books to us, people out there are giving the hapless hope, they are making human beings who feel abandoned feel like someone still knows they are here." - RD
Though we still have a little ways to go, we can’t wait to distribute the rest of the 10,000 journals and watch the hope continue to spread among these incredible young people.
The Free Minds Newsletter: Family Edition
Our members often describe Free Minds as a family, so we decided to use that as the theme for the November/December edition of our monthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. Featuring a black and white collage of various family photos on the cover, the articles inside told the untold stories of family, including an adoption story, an interview with a member and his 21-year-old daughter, and an account of a mother’s journey from El Salvador to the USA 20 years ago. In addition to our regular columns, the Connect also features recent poems written by our members. One member, TSD, had this to say about seeing his poems in the newsletter:
“I have really been enjoying the poems, events and life stories of others, that you have allowed me to share in through your newsletter. Thank you. The newsletter is very informative and a great outlet for those of us, that feel voiceless and abandoned behind these walls. I am shocked and happy at the same time, right now. Why? Because I didn't know that you would be sharing my poems with others during one of your sessions. Smile. Now! I am all excited, smiling and waiting patiently, but anxiously, to see what your guest had to say about my poems. I am really pleased to hear that they liked what I wrote, because it is really hard in prison to get an honest opinion on anything that is remotely positive. Thank you again for sharing my poems with others and for making my night!“ -TSD
Our next issue of the Free Minds Connect, will focus on resolutions. Titled “I Resolve,” we have asked our members to consider why people make resolutions in the first place, and what changes they would like to make in their own lives in their entries for the newsletter. As a result, the Free Minds staff has been wrestling with the same questions, and coming up with our own goals and plans for success!
We are grateful for the opportunity to encourage each other in becoming our best selves, and to keep ourselves and each other accountable through writing and bringing these goals into reality.
Marching to the Beat of Justice
Our next Books Across the Miles (BAM!) book will be the graphic novel March: Book One by Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. As part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Lewis’s work alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an inspiration to our members. March is a graphic novel about the events in his life that led him to joining the Civil Rights Movement. We are looking forward to our members’ responses about this book and the pictures that tell such an important story.
As we start this new year, we can’t help but reflect on the power your generosity and support has already had in our members’ lives. We couldn’t do it without you! Thank you again for believing in the power of books and writing, and for continuing to spread hope in the darkest places.
We love this time of year as we have so many opportunities to get the word out about all our Free Minds members' successes--from graduation ceremonies, to Washington Post articles, to round tables with DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes-Norton! Our Poet Ambassadors' calendars have been packed with events. That's a true gift!
“The Apprenticeship is a Second Chance”
We had many extra reasons to be thankful this November, as we welcomed six new apprentices to the Free Minds family. The sessions covered a range of topics, including resume-building, budgets and finance, computer literacy, entrepreneurship, continued education, interview prep, and fitness. It was also a joy to welcome back many of our guest speakers from previous apprenticeships, including Donald Curtis from SOUL, Larry Carroll from KAAOS Gym, and Derrick Bey from Redefine Your Mind. One of our November Apprentices’ favorite sessions was when they spent the afternoon at the Newseum in downtown DC. While going through the Pulitzer Prize exhibit, Free Minds member Aaron saw a picture and remembered that the same photo was on the cover of a book from Free Minds that he received while locked up titled A Long Way Gone. He was so excited to recognize the photo that he began sharing the story from the book and how it affected him reading it while he was in the hole. He said the Newseum was the best museum that he had ever been to and he wanted to come back.
At the end of the month, it was time for another graduation ceremony, and the chairs in our community room were packed. After a short welcome from Executive Director Tara Libert, Free Minds Reentry Coach Marcus Bullock took the stage. He shared words of encouragement and purpose with the audience before introducing Doug, the chosen speaker from the graduating class. Speaking thoughtfully, Doug shared, “Free Minds is extended family. The Apprenticeship is a second chance. I never had a job before. I didn't think I could ... In this Apprenticeship, I learned so much. I appreciate everything. You all were a big help, [and] you welcomed me with open arms. I [even] remember that first book you gave me. Along Came A Spider by James Patterson. I'll never forget that first book!"
Since the graduation ceremony at the end of November, five out of six of our apprentices are working full-time, and the sixth is currently working towards his GED. We couldn’t be more proud of these Free Minds brothers and the 28 other apprentices who graduated from the program in 2015. As we come to the close of one year, we are looking forward to the continued success of the Free Minds Job Readiness and Life Skills Apprenticeship in 2016!
Sharing the Untold Story
In early December, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton hosted a roundtable to examine ways to ensure assistance for returning citizens to DC as they transition back to society. Doug, who had just completed the Free Minds Apprenticeship, attended the meeting and spoke about his own experience coming home from prison in October. Although he was initially nervous to speak to the crowd, he got a round of applause after he talked! We are grateful for these opportunities for our members to share their untold stories of firsthand experience.
The Power of Art
The same week, Free Minds attended an event at the Public Welfare Foundation in DC called Creating Justice: The Transformative Power of the Arts in Advancing Justice Reform. An evening of visual art, performances, and discussion about the transformative power of the arts in advancing a new vision of justice, the event featured several speakers, artists, performers, and advocates who are leading campaigns across the country to transform the criminal and juvenile justice systems in the United States. The performances included a poetry reading by Free Minds member Malik. A graduate of our September apprenticeship, Malik read a piece from our most recent literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison.
The Reason for the Season
Later on in December, Free Minds participated in an Alternative Gift Fair in Takoma Park, Maryland. Instead of selling products, Free Minds joined 15 other local nonprofits to speak about our mission to community members looking for alternatives to the heightened materialism that often accompanies the holiday season. Free Minds Poet Ambassadors Juan and Phil spoke with dozens of people throughout the afternoon, sharing the impact of Free Minds on their lives and the lifeline poetry and creative writing can provide for incarcerated men and women. Community members had the opportunity to partner with us in our 10,000 Journals for Hope Campaign, in which we are raising the funds to send 10,000 literary journals to youth in solitary confinement, juvenile detention centers, and schools across the country (#10000JournalsForHope). Click here for more ways to get involved with the campaign.
Free Minds Celebrities
Recently, three of our members were featured in the Washington Post for their work around the city. Will Avila, a Free Minds member since the early 2000s, started a company last year called Clean Decisions to provide returning citizens with jobs and skills in hopes of keeping them out of prison. The Clean Decisions employees deep-clean stoves, countertops, floors, food containers, and more at restaurants around the city. More than providing a service for both business clients and employees, Clean Decisions provides a brotherhood of support and camaraderie. As Graham McLaughlin, co-owner of Clean Decisions, says, “[Will] really created a positive environment, where it’s not just about the helpers and those being helped. It’s a real brotherhood.”
You can read the Washington Post article here.
Solitary Confinement on 16th Street
During the second week of December, Foundry United Methodist Church on 16th Street in Washington, DC hosted a full-size replica of a solitary confinement cell, also known as a Special Housing Unit (SHU). Visitors were invited to walk through, sit in, and reflect on the installation, facilitated by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). On the opening day, NRCAT hosted a panel of speakers to reflect on the use of Solitary Confinement in prisons and juvenile detention centers across the country. Free Minds Poet Ambassador Juan spoke on the panel, and also participated in an interview with PBS on his experience being in solitary confinement for 18 months.
When Juan first arrived at the church, he couldn’t look at the cell, and almost left when he first saw it. In the end, he decided to stay because he realized that the public needs to know what is going on behind the prison walls, and that someone needs to be the one to talk about it.
None of these amazing ventures would have been possible without the dedicated support of people like you. Every time you contribute, you are joining the mission to build a stronger and safer community. THANK YOU from all of us for believing in the power of sharing our untold stories!
Since our last report, we have become much more familiar faces at our local US Post Office. Last week, we mailed approximately 300 copies of our brand new literary journal, “The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices From Prison.” A collection of poetry written by young men charged and incarcerated as adults in DC while under the age of 18, this anthology covers a broad range of topics, including race, family, education, and love, and freedom. It also features individual profiles of 15 of our members, who have completed their sentences and have since returned to the community (Find out more about the journal here). Although each untold story is unique, one common theme is the transformative power of reading and writing in the lives of these young men.
“A Smash Hit”
This past month, our members have been reading Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore, a novel by Walter Mosley about a black porn star who finds her husband dead in a hot tub with another woman. With his Jewish and black heritage, the Californian-born author has a unique perspective on the racial inequalities in the US, about which he is quite outspoken. In this particular novel, Mosley explores the tensions of race, gender, sexuality, loss, and money as Debbie decides to leave the porn industry for good and put the pieces of her life back together, alone and in debt.
Although the portrait of an exploited and defeated spirit fighting to survive was on the heavier side, Free Minds members were transfixed by Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore:
“Thanks for the new BAM! books. I didn’t think every one was going to be like a smash hit, to the point I can’t put it down and I read it in a day or so… [Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore] was good, a lil wild at times but raw at the most... Debbie was really from the streets, her whole MO was cold. Nice but cold. I mean when you’re in the streets or have come from the streets you learn to never really show your feelings. To show feelings makes you weak, makes you the prey they soon to be eating. She has a lot going on… She sad, lonely, overworked, I mean she going through life. I know it seems sad or crazy but this is the life of more than half of colored people in the US. Not all of us will have a helping hand and it’s going to be way harder without it. But killing yourself will never be the answer to whatever you’re looking for. Live life, love life, and try to see it to the end. God put us here for that reason, at least give him that much respect. Good book, I liked it. I read it in 3 days.” -SJ
“Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore is a good book to read. Why? Because it shows you life’s challenges in your life, my life, and Debbie’s. Next time if you feel like doing something dumb or putting yourself in harm’s way, think about the book you have read.” -MH
“It has a lot of powerful acts and ways to help a person who lived a messy life to look at things in another light. I also got from the book is that when you want to change your life from one that you are used to living it just can’t happen overnight and you also need your friends, family, and loved ones to help.” -DM
The Free Minds Connect: Moving Forward
In September, we mailed out another issue of our bimonthly newsletter, which focused on the theme “Moving Forward.” Free Minds member JG, who writes a regular column for the Connect, talked about how moving forward reminds him of flowing water:
“Water, when in its natural state, is always fluid, flowing, never stagnant...When we focus on our goals and what we want, always looking at the glass as half full, we’ll always remain in a state of forward motion.” - JG
The mother of one of our Free Minds members who is in federal prison wrote a column about how she copes with her son’s incarceration:
“I went to therapy which really helped me...Every time I left her office I felt so relieved and happier...I’ve always been a happy person but the therapy really helped. I would definitely recommend it to other moms out there.” - CW
Other columns included a piece entitled “Forgiveness,” written by a black pastor in DC about the shooting in Charleston, NC, as well as a brand new legal advice column called “The Legal Pad.” We also included Part One of a story written by a returning citizen from Portland, Oregon, who talks about growing up amidst drugs, addiction, and abuse:
“...Each morning, I had to fend for myself, because everyone was asleep from partying… Both of my parents and all of my uncles (except for one that had had been shot and became a paraplegic) were in the federal pen... It wasn’t a hard decision for a kid with no positive male figure in his life being raised by the realities of his environment. Just like that I gave up what I loved for a life of pain. Yet the crazy thing about “gang culture” is that it will make you believe pain is love if you have never felt loved.”-LA
Our next issue of the Free Minds: Connect, will focus on Family, both biological and those who have earned that place in our lives. Poems around the topic have already arrived at the office, and we can’t wait to read even more about how our members continue to create family wherever they are.
Write Night Is Back In Session!
In September, we had Write Night at Seekers in Takoma Park, Maryland, with a huge turn out! When asked how many were there for the first time, half of the room raised their hands! At least a third of the room also responded favorably when asked if they wrote poems themselves. By the end of the night, our volunteers wrote encouraging comments and notes on over 30 different poems, which we will mail to each of the authors. It is moments like these that continue to remind us of the power of poetry to build bridges between people behind bars and individuals on the outside.
We were also excited to welcome a film team from Sojourners Magazine, who featured Free Minds in their September/October issue. See the video of our Poet Ambassadors sharing their stories at Write Night here.
A Story of Justice and Redemption
Next month, every Books Across the Miles Book club member will receive a copy of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Arguably one of the most important defense attorneys and civil rights leaders of our time, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initative (EJI), a non-profit organization dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system and defending poor people who have been denied effective representation. To date, the organization has prevented 115 men from being executed on death row.
This book, perhaps more challenging than comforting, tells about one of Stevenson’s first cases defending Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a murder he didn't commit. We are eagerly anticipating our members’ reactions to this important and inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of justice.
As we continue to expand and improve our programs, we want to extend a special thank you to all of you who have contributed to our success. Thanks to your support, more incarcerated youth are sharing their stories and writing new chapters in their lives.