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.
“I joined the Apprenticeship Program to turn my life around."
In our work with returning citizens, one thing that we’ve learned is that reentry begins on the inside--mentally and physically. That’s why we were so excited a few weeks ago when a federal prison invited us as reentry experts to lead a workshop in the prison with over a hundred inmates planning ahead for their release. Our reentry team traveled to the facility where we met approximately 120 inmates, several of whom were Free Minds members, proudly telling everyone about the Book Club! We led the participants in workplace role playing sessions, and Free Minds Reentry Apprenticeship Trainer inspired everyone with his personal story of becoming a successful business owner after being incarcerated at a young age. We shared our new motto about the three most important aspects of reentry: Belief, Action, and Motivation. Believe that you can do it, take action to achieve your goals, and remember what motivates you, such as a loved one or a dream for your future, even when you’re facing difficult odds. We’ve received a stack of letters from the participants telling us how motivated they are now, and the prison has invited us back to do a job fair in a few months!
Meanwhile in DC, our Apprenticeship is going strong!
This past June, six more young men from DC have graduated from our Job-Readiness and Life Skills Apprenticeship and are already on to their next steps to success!
The apprentices worked hard throughout the month, providing program support in the Free Minds office, learning crucial job skills, and gaining practical on-the-job experience with Clean Decisions, a cleaning and contracting company founded by Free Minds member Will, and Perspectives, a contracting company founded by Reentry Apprenticeship Trainer Marcus Bullock and his business partner Anthony Belton. In addition, many of our community leaders and facilitators from previous apprenticeship sessions continued to invest in our apprentices, including Donald Curtis from SOUL (Student-Athletes Organized to Understand Leadership) and Larry Carroll Sr from KAOOS gym in DC. We recognize the importance of having mentors that you can relate to and who understand what you’re going through, which is why we connect our apprentices with formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs such as Will (a former Free Minds member, now founder of Clean Decisions!), Marcus Bullock, Anthony Belton, Donald Curtis, Larry Carroll, Sr., and more!
Other topics of our Monday, Wednesday, Friday sessions included resume writing, job interviews, college preparation, nutrition, physical fitness, entrepreneurship, advocacy, and more. Apprentices also visited the Newseum where they learned about civic responsibility and the Civil Rights Movement. In another session, they discussed advocacy with representatives from the Corrections Information Council (CIC). This was particularly interesting because a Free Minds member currently works for the CIC!
One recent Apprenticeship graduate, Anthony, hadn’t thought about what he wanted to do with his life when he first started the Apprenticeship after being released from prison. But after meeting Reentry Apprenticeship Trainer Marcus Bullock he began to work on concrete career goals. He was particularly inspired by a workshop on decision-making with guest speaker Dave Ungrady from the Born Ready project. As Anthony recalls, “I joined the Apprenticeship Program to turn my life around." Now he has completed additional vocational training programs and is thinking about different careers. He even referred a friend to the Apprenticeship program, giving us his stamp of approval!
Terrell, a current Apprentice, shared with us why he’s motivated to complete the program and change his life: “The Apprenticeship is a real opportunity for me to grow. I’m learning more about me. At first I wasn’t a big people person but I’m discovering that I can deal with all types of people from all walks of life. I want to help people now. Before when I was younger I had so much resentment and negativity toward others. I’m wiser now. I know how to think instead of just acting. I have new goals now. I’m able to learn how to better myself and be more productive. When I was into the lifestyle of the streets it was all about instant gratification...Now I have an entirely different motivation. The Apprenticeship is helping me because everyone needs help, you just can’t be afraid to ask for it.”
Recently, several of our members spoke at our Volunteer Write Night event in Takoma Park, where they shared their poetry and life experiences with a diverse group of volunteers from the D.C. area, and they read poetry by FM members who are currently incarcerated and wrote encouraging feedback for the poets. As we all know, reentry starts from the inside!
At Write Night, our senior Reentry Support members who have been in the program for a long time joined us in congratulating Phil on his 1-year anniversary of his release from prison. Phil has been working steadily for the Corrections Information Council, as well as doing outreach with Free Minds!
Another member, Tony, proudly told everybody about being a firefighter and how much it meant to him to be able to help people and support his community. Free Minds member Khalef brought his entire family to the event to show them the program that he was a part of.
We couldn't be prouder of our members, and we look forward to seeing what they accomplish next! Thank you for your continual support, and for believing in the power of books and writing to heal communities and transform lives!
Dear Free Minds Friends, This summer, Free Minds members have continued to keep their minds active by reading our most recent long-distance book club selection, If You Can See It, You Can Be It: 12 Street-Smart Recipes for Success by Chef Jeff Henderson. Henderson is a friend of Free Minds, celebrity chef, and motivational speaker who discovered his passion for cooking while serving a ten-year sentence for dealing drugs. He visited our Book Club at the DC Jail several years ago after publishing his first book, Cooked: My Journey from the Streets to the Stove. Cooked was a big favorite among Free Minds members and in his second book he continues to engage and inspire them. In If You Can See It, You Can Be It, he shares some of his strategies for success in life. He presents this advice as 12 different “recipes,” on topics such as entrepreneurship, making decisions, changing your life, and achieving happiness and success.
Free Minds members are relating to Jeff’s personal journey and have been encouraged by his advice for making change:
“I’m writing to let you know I enjoy reading If You Can See It, You Can Be It. This book really opened up my eyes about certain situations. It allowed me to get better in touch with myself. I’m learning more and more about how Chef Jeff Henderson really survived while being in jail...It also showed me that yeah I lived a rough life but at the end of the day I’m still living.” - LB
“I got If You Can See It, You Can Be It! I like the title. It’s meaningful and has some powerful statements inside of it that is much encouragement. We are on lockdown right now so it gives me more to do with myself.” – RD
“I actually just got a chance to start reading the Chef Jeff book yesterday…It may be the best book by far!! Because as I was skimming through it I noticed it has stuff you can write down and see what’s your best character trait you possess. I actually like that! I was going to wait to read the rest until I go to the store to get a composition book because I wanna write a lot of that stuff down to see what I get!” - DG
Our next BAM book will be the novel Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore by Walter Mosley, author of novels including Devil in a Blue Dress and The Long Fall. Debbie Dare is a famous porn star, but one day she comes home to find her husband dead in a bathtub with another woman. Upset, numb, and in major debt, Debbie wants to move on with her life but isn’t sure how. Free Minds members are looking forward to reading about Debbie’s journey towards change and self-discovery.
The Free Minds Connect Newsletter: “Make Your Voices Heard”
The Free Minds Family has also been keeping busy with our Connect Newsletter, which we send to our members in federal prisons across the country. The most recent issue of the Connect focused on Learning as a main theme, and as always featured several members’ writing and artwork. Towards the end of the newsletter, we also included an article about Free Minds that was featured on the front page of the Washington Post back in February. Reading about their fellow FM brothers in such a prestigious publication and positive light really amazed our members who are still incarcerated:
"I received the latest issue of the Connect and was overwhelmed to read that the Free Minds organization made the front page of the Washington Post. Make your voices heard throughout Washington, D.C. I really enjoy reading all the informative articles, poems and words of encouragement. Let all our young members know that they are all courageous individuals and that courage is not a feeling, it is an action." - QS
We can’t wait to hear the feedback from our July issue of the Free Minds Connect, especially since it’s all about Our City, DC! Articles include an interview with Washington Post Music Critic Chris Richards about go-go music, the Top 7 Hidden Treasures of DC, and a touching interview with a Free Minds mom who shares how she supports her son on the inside. So many of our members are in federal prisons far from their loved ones, and for them the Connect is a vital lifeline offering news, information, and advice to help them cope with their situation and prepare themselves for reentry.
“People Out There Really Listen”
This summer we’ve held several Write Lunches (mobile Write Night events where people from the community gather to read poetry by Free Minds members and write feedback for the incarcerated poets) at businesses and organizations in DC. After each Write Lunch, we mail the poetry feedback to our members who often write to tell us how much they value the encouragement and inspiration.
“I received your mail with my “Phenomenon” poem in it and the good people’s comments. First, I would like to say thanks to them all for expressing themselves to me. It gives me motivation that there is people out there that really listen and care about my art because they are straight from the heart. And to Laura with the question “Does heavy rain and thunder have a great meaning?” It does, basically it symbolizes the hurt and pain and my anger and struggles in the past. - DI
“I love the feedback, it lets me feel what the readers feel and get out of what they're reading. When I write I try to take the readers with me if I ever even let people know what is on my mind. So much goes on in this head it's crazy. But yeah Imma make sure I get you all a lot more for the blog and that good old Write Night.” - SJ
These strong connections with our incarcerated members would not have been possible without the dedicated support of people like you. Every time you contribute, you are sending hope and real educational opportunities for incarcerated youths. THANK YOU from all of us for believing in the power of books and writing to transform lives!