When we sent our last report, the young readers of Free Minds were just receiving their copies of the Books Across the Miles (BAM!) book club selection, Prison Noir, an anthology of stories by incarcerated or formerly incarcerated authors. Now the responses are in:
“It was nice to read and a lot of the stories, I have some just like them that I would like to use to help keep the kids off the streets when I come back home.” – DeAngelo
“Thanks for Prison Noir. I loved it!” – Muquan
Several Free Minds members told us that it wasn’t their favorite BAM! book because it felt too real, and they didn’t want to read about prison.
“On the book Prison Noir, I did not enjoy this book because it really showed some of the ugly faces of incarceration,” Marquis wrote. He went on, “I felt the story “Shuffle” because I’ve seen firsthand how jail can mentally mess you up. I understood “Tune-Up” because when you do things in here that you love, while you’re doing them, you feel like you’re not locked up.”
The next BAM! selection is If You Can See It, You Can Be It: 12 Street-Smart Recipes for Success by Chef Jeff Henderson, whose previous book, Cooked, has been a long-time favorite of our readers. That’s going out next month, and we’ll let you know how they like it!
In the meantime, Free Minds members are reading up a storm:
“Thanks for the books. I’m on lockdown 23 hours a day so all I do is read. If it’s not too much trouble, can I get a few more books? I’m looking forward to the new Connect [newsletter] too. I love it and can’t wait to read it.” – Wayne
“I’ve started the book The Maze Runner and it’s very interesting. I can’t wait to see how it ends. I want to thank you for all the books I have received from you guys. It really means a lot to see how the staff at Free Minds cares about its members.” – Aaron
“You all do not know how much you are helping us out. You all helped me at first when I did not even want help. Thank you for saving a soul that could have been lost. The books you send me show me another world and make me look forward to living a good life when I come home. You changed my way of thinking.” - DeAngelo
Our Free Minds poets are showing off their new writing skills. Volunteers at our Write Night events continue to inspire with their wonderful feedback. Five Free Minds members were published in Tacenda Literary Magazine from American University’s BleakHouse Publishing. Keep an eye out for our own literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison, which we’ll be publishing in May.
Thank you once again for making our work possible.
“You know I’ve been meaning to thank all you guys at Free Minds for allowing me to be a part of the Book Club. I once read that if everybody in China jumped at the same time they could shake the world off its axis. It would be an overstatement to say the same about you guys, but I’m sure people would feel movement. You know, it was through you guys I learned writing was a way to calm my inner self. What I appreciate most though is how you guys have always been there encouraging me to keep writing…One of the greatest ideas you guys had was the public reading our poems (Write Night). I like the comments people leave. It gives me that extra push to keep writing!” - Doug
Dear Free Minds Friend,
Thank you so much for supporting our project to provide comprehensive job readiness and life skills training for young adults returning from prison.
Six apprentices have already completed our program in 2015 since we expanded the program to be month-long instead of week-long. Meeting 3 times a week throughout February, the apprentices participated in a variety of job-readiness workshops and trainings, including roleplaying for job interviews and learning to plan a budget. We were also honored to host several guest speakers, including Maureen Herman from the Department of Education to discuss resumes, Donald Curtis from SOUL (Student Athletes to Understand Leadership) to talk about college prep, Dr. Norah Neale to discuss stress management and mental health awareness, and Larry Carroll, Sr. from KAAOS gym to go over physical fitness.
One of the guys’ favorite sessions was hosted by Marcus Bullock, founder of the company and app Flikshop. A former inmate himself, Bullock described his own journey from a cell block to the world of business entrepreneurship, creating a company that sends postcards to inmates around the country. Bullock challenged each apprentice to articulate his own goals and to see himself as an entrepreneur in his own right. That same day, the apprentices were also treated to a surprise visit from Shaka Senghor, the author of Writing My Wrongs, which the guys read and discussed as part of their training.
Several apprentices also had the opportunity to speak at our monthly Write Night at George Washington University. Despite initial anxiousness about speaking in front of a crowd of over 100 people, apprentices Ricardo and Joshua bravely shared a few poems and their personal experiences with the group.
The apprentices also spent one morning creating vision boards with magazine clippings and colored markers, reflecting on their future goals. For 17-year-old Anthony, that meant cutting out a huge picture of vegetable lo mein to represent his aspirations of working in the food industry. He hopes to eventually learn the ropes at the DC Central Food Kitchen once he turns 18.
One afternoon, the apprentices viewed a video about famous failures, where they heard the stories of personalities like Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and Oprah Winfrey. Reflecting on the fact that each of these success stories was once told that they would never amount to much of anything, the apprentices recalled several similar experiences in their own lives. Tavon shared that when he was 13, an older guy on the block said that he would never make it to 21. This year, he celebrated his 22nd birthday. David M, a 26-year-old, was told he would never get an education because of his behavior issues. In 2007, however, he attained his GED, and he is now on track to full-time employment.
Truthfully, we could not do this without you. Because of your help, young men who thought they would never hold a job, nevertheless stick with a program, are beginning to experience both. We, and those we serve, deeply appreciate your generosity.
Although the days have been short, we’ve been busy and our members have been reading up a storm! Since our last report, we have mailed approximately 300 books to the incarcerated readers of Free Minds “Books Across the Miles” virtual book club! Our members are incarcerated in different federal facilities across the United States, but they are united by the written word.
“I know I’m a good writer, so that’s what I’m going to focus on for now.”
Our previous “Books Across the Miles” (BAM) title was the riveting memoir Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor, who also visited the teenage Book Club members at the DC Jail to discuss his memoir.
One reader, Everett, wrote this in a letter from federal prison when he heard that Senghor would be visiting the DC Jail:
“That’s great! I wish I was there to meet him. He sounds like a really experienced guy and I’m loving his book so far. Be sure to tell him hello and welcome him to the Free Minds family.”
Everett is not alone! So far, all the responses to Writing My Wrongs have been overwhelmingly positive. The memoir is an account of the choices and circumstances that led a young Mr. Senghor to a jail cell, and the journey of transformation that he went on while spending over four years in solitary confinement.
“I could really relate to what Shaka was saying when he said that we wear masks. He said we are hurting on the inside and it’s true. On the inside I’m a little boy that’s crying. But you won’t see that on the outside. I’m acting like I don’t care. But I’m crying because I’m in pain and I want attention.” – Melvin
“When Shaka said that you have to gain mastery over your thinking? Man, that really sunk in. I know I need that. I react off of my emotions too much. I’m going to work on mastering my thinking!” – Demetri
“I liked what he said about finding out what you’re good at and then focusing on that as your way out. I don’t know what that is for me yet, but I’m working on it. I know I’m a good writer, so that’s what I’m going to focus on for now.” – JoeNathan
“I admired what he did. He’s a cool dude. I mean he did 19 years behind bars and he never gave up. Most of all, he never gave up on himself. That right there is a lesson and an example. He did exactly what he said he was going to do. I want to go to college and I will do everything I can to get there.” – Christopher
“I wanted this book to be 1,000 pages long!”
In December, we sent out the anthology Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, which collects short stories written by authors who are or have been incarcerated. Like with Shaka Senghor’s Writing My Wrongs, our Book Club members are excited to read books from incarcerated voices.
Free Minds member Marquis read the book immediately, and told us about his favorite stories in the anthology: “I felt the story “Shuffle” because I’ve seen first hand how jail can mentally mess you up. I understood “Tune-Up” because when you do things in here that you love, while you’re doing them, you feel like you’re not locked up. Then “Immigrant Song” really hit home. Coming to the jail for the first time is something mind-blowing, especially if you can’t understand the language. Then on top of that a lot of us are ignorant about the law.”
Free Minds members have been broadening their minds with other literature as well. Demetrich, one of the teenagers at the DC Jail, has been raving about the novel Something Like Normal by Trish Doller. Doller’s novel tells the story of a young soldier returning from Afghanistan and healing from trauma.
“I wish these books could all be longer,” Demetrich said. “I wanted this book to be 1,000 pages long! It was just so good I didn’t want it to end. When I started reading it, I knew I was going to be up all night and I was. I started to panic in the morning when I realized this book is about to end!”
“This month’s newsletter made me remember I still have friends.”
An essential part of our Books Across the Miles virtual book club is our bimonthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, which we mail out to all of our members incarcerated in prisons and jails across the country.
One young man, Delonte, is in a facility that does not allow him to receive books, but he eagerly reads every issue of the Connect, where he finds his fellow Free Minds members as well as staff and volunteers discussing books, writing, education, politics, and many other topics.
“I wish I could get books here but I can’t. I would have loved to read Writing My Wrongs. I have been struggling on how to do that and now that it’s a New Year I am just trying to put the pain of 2014 behind me…I don’t even know where to start but this month’s newsletter made me remember I still have friends and Will’s poem about his child was great. It made me remember my son and just missing him so much. So I just wanted to say thank you for everything and I do appreciate everything you have done for me.” — Delonte
Marquis also expressed his appreciation for the latest issue of the Connect (titled “Hope”): “I was really stressing and then I got the Connect about Hope. Everything in the Connect I needed to hear. It actually boosted my morale. I appreciated other people showing their struggles and hopes because it helped put my own situation in perspective.”
Our members show us every day how books and writing can bring hope and inspiration, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Thank you for helping us in our mission to empower incarcerated youth through literature and creative expression!