Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison

by Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Carmelo Anthony at our youth book club
Carmelo Anthony at our youth book club

As we come to the end of the summer and enter into the last stretch of 2022, we at Free Minds can’t help but reflect on the fruitful and exciting year we’ve had so far. Through the pandemic, numerous lockdowns, and miles that separate us from our members and community across the globe, we never cease to be amazed by the engagement, generosity, and support of our work. For your continued encouragement of our members and your vested interest in their lives and voices: thank you! This fight wouldn’t be possible without you. 

It is this very support that FM Member Carlos, who is incarcerated in North Carolina, speaks of, “I ask Allah, why me? What makes me so special to have a blessed family outside of my family that always gives me positive feedback? I really appreciate the Free Minds Family and all the help you do to uplift the community.” The strength of our community never goes unrecognized, with longtime member Alex, incarcerated in Ohio, writing to our Letter Writers’ Circle volunteers, “I want you to know that I feel happy because you exist… that the simple thought of you puts a smile on my face… the idea of you gives me a feeling of belonging, a feeling of being understood, a feeling of somehow being needed—needed like a gear to a bigger machinery, like a puzzle piece to a bigger picture, like a member to a larger community.” 

Overcoming Obstacles

Amidst the numerous obstacles faced by incarcerated people within the system, a wave of policies barring the entrance of books into facilities significantly impacted our members. Rules banning individuals from receiving books from outside sources, and instead requiring them to purchase reading materials themselves—from prison-approved publishers with limited catalogs and prohibitive costs—lacked transparency and uniformity. Federal facilities cited books being used as mechanisms to bring in contraband and inappropriate material as the reason for denying mailed books. Free Minds members and staff have interviewed with several media outlets, including Vera Institute and the Crossroads Radio Show with Roach Brown, to raise public awareness about this ongoing issue. 

After months of returned books, phone calls, and joint efforts with our partners, Free Minds joined forces with FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) to send a letter directly to the Department of Justice regarding these restrictive mailing policies. Writing on the behalf of thousands of incarcerated individuals, we stressed the therapeutic importance that books have on “learning, trauma healing and preparing for reentry.” The overwhelming amount of support we received in calling out this discriminatory legislation was no doubt contributive to the Department of Justice’s response, “... BOP has reviewed the basis for the institution-specific restrictions and instructed the wardens of those facilities to lift those restrictions and to expand the sources from which inmates can order books. Further, BOP will also issue a reminder to agency leadership that they must not limit the source of books to one vendor nor implement wholesale restrictions on book clubs providing books to inmates.” We are grateful for this victory, but know we must stay vigilant for open access to books for our members.

Connecting Health and Wealth

Our Book Across the Milesbook, chosen by members of our Prison Book Club, was The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, a foremost expert on traumatic stress. Drawing on over thirty years of research and clinical practice, van der Kolk addresses how to integrate pioneering breakthroughs in brain science to develop treatments and solutions to free trauma survivors, guiding them to reclaim ownership of their bodies and lives. The book had a powerful impact on our members, and they shared the following reflections:

FM Member Johnny wrote, “I’ve read many books on trauma/psychology but The Body Keeps Score is so good because it gives you the science behind the behavior. He adds, “Trauma is so ubiquitous throughout our society that sometimes we do not realize we are traumatized…so it is vital that everybody reads this book so we can understand not just ourselves but those around us.” 

Ronnie, who is incarcerated in Colorado, responded to the writing prompt: “Van der Kolk talks about imagination as critical to wellbeing, allowing us the opportunity to envision new possibilities. Is imagination important in your life? What role does it play? He wrote, “Imagination is more important than intellectual skills… but without education, imagination can be toxic and poisonous. Imagination is like oil but it needs formal education to become gasoline. Imagination is like gold that needs the refining processes of formal education to become WEALTH.” 

Wealth—the theme of our latest Connect magazine featuring writing from Free Minds members, staff, and friends—holds a vast array of meaning. We explored as many variations as we could in this issue. Some highlights being:

  • Closing the Racial Wealth Gap: An Interview with Dr. Richardson, Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Maryland who prescribes a solution to the racial wealth gap that will lessen the devastating impact it has had on marginalized communities 
  • Worth More Than Gold: A conversation with Congressman John Lewis Fellow Gene on the role of familial support keeping him “wealthy” while incarcerated 
  • Building My Credit and My Opportunities: FM Member Lester shares his experience as a part of the Free Minds Credit Builders Program and how it helped him develop the mindset to start his own business 

As always, our Connect issue features the poems and essays of our incarcerated members, which you can read in the link below.

Updates from Free Minds HQ

Free Minds Youth Book Club members had the exciting opportunity to meet NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony to discuss his memoir, Where Tomorrows Aren’t Promised. The memoir deals with Anthony’s childhood and growing up in the housing projects of Baltimore. When asked who he wrote this book for, Anthony said, “I wrote this book for them: young men who can relate to or see themselves in my life experiences.” Anthony discussed his journey writing the book, how he developed a love for books and learning, and the impact that this had on his life. FM Co-founder and Book Club facilitator Kelli asked why Anthony emphasized the importance of mental health in the book, and Anthony explained: “Being able to just go tell someone, especially the adults in your life, that you’re not feeling great or you’re depressed wasn’t even something that was accepted. You were just expected to deal with it and push through.” At the end of the discussion, our youth members shared their poetry with Carmelo and the audience. Every poet was met with great applause. We are so grateful to everyone who made this event possible! 

The resounding popularity of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, an earlier Books Across the Miles selection, resulted in members choosing Concrete Rose—the prequel—as the latest Prison Book Club novel. Following the story of seventeen-year-old Maverick, whose life changes forever when he finds out he’s going to be a father, we asked our members to reflect on times where they’ve dealt with conflict, life changing events, and the motivations behind our decision making. We can’t wait to share their insightful responses with you. 

Finally, we would like to give a Free Minds welcome to our newest Congressman John Lewis Fellow, James. You can hear more from James at our September Write Night (link below).

On behalf of our members and us, thank you for your ever present support and encouragement, and for believing in the transformative power of books to build community!

Carmelo Anthony with the Free Minds team
Carmelo Anthony with the Free Minds team
The latest issue of the Free Minds Connect
The latest issue of the Free Minds Connect
A decorated envelope from a Free Minds member
A decorated envelope from a Free Minds member
A decorated envelope from a Free Minds member
A decorated envelope from a Free Minds member

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Cover art for the Free Minds Connect magazine
Cover art for the Free Minds Connect magazine

With members in facilities all across the country, there are so many obstacles in the way of staying connected with our incarcerated members. Despite abrupt changes due to COVID and issues with mailrooms, our members sustained their connection to the Free Minds family and regularly mailed in letters, poetry, and art. Your indelible support has been key in enabling us to maintain these connections. 

Books Across the Miles

One component of our work is maintaining our long-distance book club with our members who are incarcerated. Our most recent Book Across the Miles is the New York Times Best Seller The Body Keeps Score. This book, written by trauma-informed therapy expert Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D., takes a deep look into how trauma can reshape the body and brain, completely altering how a person engages with the environment around them. The Body Keeps Score offersseveral strategies for healing from trauma–from therapy and meditation to yoga and exercising. 

FM member Joseph, incarcerated in Kentucky, shared a key takeaway after reading the book: “As I wrote a manuscript of my life's journey, certain traumatic experiences that lay dormant began to surface piece by piece. These memories would cause me to stop writing for a while, but then I realized that the more traumatic memories resurfaced in my mind, the more my internal enemies were revealing themselves. Internal enemies are to be conquered by exercising an inner strength.” 

Member MacArthur, incarcerated in Florida, also reflected on the book: It helped and made me realize that I have, and I'm struggling with my own trauma. The book enlightened me on how to heal from the trauma that I have experienced in my life. Thank you so much for sending me this book.”

How our Magazine Helps us Stay Connected

Our magazine,the Free Minds Connect is a one-of-a-kind publication because it is composed of contributions from staff, incarcerated members, members at home, interns, and volunteers. This is an all hands on deck type of production because we like to ensure that our members feel connected when they receive our magazine in the mail. Each issue focuses on a different theme and also includes discussion of the Books Across the Miles selection for our long-distance book club. The theme of our recent issue, “Wellbeing,” covered different components of wellbeing from physical health to community. This theme aligns perfectly with The Body Keeps Score and included thought-provoking discussion questions for members to respond to. This issue also featured past answers to our long-distance book club discussion questions for our third and recent publication, When You Hear Me (You Hear Us): Voices on Youth Incarceration. This collection of poetry, prose, and reflections comes from incarcerated youth and those in the community also affected by the devastating trauma of incarceration. Reflecting on what our book reveals about community healing, FM member LW writes, “We nourish the bodies of our children, but how seldom do we nourish their self-esteem?

While we love reading what our members think of the book club selection, we especially love receiving their written work. For many, this may be the first time they have written poetry, so we are grateful for the opportunity to share their work with others. Our magazine also includes prose and longer pieces from our members such as MR’s letter on grieving while behind bars (p. 6). Our magazine also tries to make up for the monotony of incarceration by providing ample photos, graphics, and art. We recognize that many of our members have not seen Washington DC or the outside world in some time, so we include photos of the city taken by volunteers and interns. Similarly, we like to include articles on topics that have been popular in the news–from sports to voting issues. 

Features in the issue include: 

  • A heartfelt article about how one FM member's supportive family helped him through his incarceration (p. 6)
  • An interview with a member of Black Boys OM, a nonprofit using yoga and meditation to improve the wellness of Black men (p. 13)
  • A powerful reflection from FM member Maji about how he persevered after being handed down a life sentence (p. 15) 
  • An interview with FM member JoJo about his transition from being incarcerated to starting a fitness company dedicated to targeting the health and wellness inequalities in DC (p. 16)

When Poetry Behind Bars Reaches the Community

One of the ways we ensure that our members remain connected to the community is by bringing their  poetry and creative writing into schools, workplaces, and community groups. We regularly hold events called “On The Same Page”, where members who are now home share their poetry and the poetry of incarcerated members. Our reentry members, known as Poet Ambassadors, develop their leadership and facilitation skills by engaging in conversation with the audience. One of our most recent events was a poetry reading at a community center in Takoma Park, Maryland, integrating us back into the world of in-person events. 

 At this event, the community listened as Poet Ambassadors read their work along with poetry written by incarcerated members. Listeners provided feedback and asked questions to the Poet Ambassadors. We also presented artwork made by George Washington University students based on the poetry of our incarcerated members. This artwork was created at a past On the Same Page gathering, where typography students created artistic responses to the poems of incarcerated members. Both of these events demonstrated the power of poetry and art to bridge the gap between those who are incarcerated and their communities. 

We also have similar virtual events called Write Night where volunteers from across the globe respond to the poetry written by our incarcerated members. These monthly events often have dozens of volunteers eager to read poetry from incarcerated youth and adults and provide feedback. We then mail the feedback to our members so they are able to see how they have so many people in the community who are engaged in their work and rooting for them. We recognize how crucial it is that those who are incarcerated feel they still have a connection with the outside world and we love using creative work to maintain those connections. 

Made in DC and Making Connections Everywhere

While we enjoy working with those in our local neighborhoods, we are always excited for opportunities to expand our reach to  communities across the country. In April, we embarked on a weekend trip to Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut. Our Poet Ambassadors were able to share about how writing and reading poetry was something that supported them throughout their incarceration. Poet Ambassadors facilitated five sessions where college students responded to poetry from our incarcerated members. Leaning into the magic of in-person programming, Poet Ambassadors were able to have individual conversations with the students, building genuine connections. We left Connecticut knowing that we successfully engaged with a community far from ours, providing a connection and coalition between students and members to reimagine a changed future.  

Thank you for joining us and supporting us over the past few months. We can’t wait to continue building stronger connections with you and the community.

Volunteer feedback on member's poem at Write Night
Volunteer feedback on member's poem at Write Night
Artistic response from GW student to member's poem
Artistic response from GW student to member's poem
Poet Ambassador Gene talks to students
Poet Ambassador Gene talks to students

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Free Minds staff welcome member Gene home
Free Minds staff welcome member Gene home

With the advent of a new year here at Free Minds and the Prison Book Club, we look back on a year that reveals a spirit of joy and self-nourishment. In the many miles of space between us and our members in federal prison—a space filled with a resurgent pandemic and precarious circumstances in our national life—our members’ persistent engagement never ceases to edify us. For your indelible support for our work and the lives and voices of our members: thank you! We couldn’t do it without you.

It is your support, in the end, which makes possible expressions of gratitude such as these possible. “I read every book that you send, and digest every Connect that I receive in the mail,” writes long-time FM Member Stephen, who is incarcerated at USP Florence in Colorado. “I always read them thoroughly in search of a topic, question, or prompt that I can lend my voice to…You have empowered me to write new chapters of my life. And this has led me to empower others to do the same...I can never thank you guys enough…My mind will always be free.” In response to a letter from us, another member who is incarcerated in Florida, Wes, writes, “I really appreciate you guys reaching out to me. I feel like I’m connected to a real family like my own without judgement of race or my ability. I thank you guys for unlocking something in me.” 

Support Going the Distance 

Among the many obstacles of the past few months was the sudden relocation of several members from the DC Jail to USP Lewisburg, a federal prison in Pennsylvania, following federal findings of inhumane conditions at the DC Jail, long known to locals. Separated from family, legal aid, and their book club, FM staff and volunteers from our Weekly Letter Writers Circle were sure to regain connection and intentionally send letters of encouragement.

Books are even crossing borders. We mailed a package to member Humberto, who was deported after his release to a small town in Guatemala in early November. We sent three books written in Spanish, which didn’t arrive until mid-January. Humberto had been waiting patiently for them to arrive. He plans to use the Spanish Bible to help him teach Sunday School. As FM Co-Founder and Executive Director Tara says, “Books are going international!” 

All the mutual love, at last, also comes home. One year ago, FM Member Gene was still incarcerated. At an On The Same Page event this past Martin Luther King Jr Day, however, his poem “My Higher Purpose” touched the hearts of volunteers from the International Monetary Fund. “If love is the essence of all humans,” he penned then, “then our true purpose must be to spread love.” Fast forward one year, Gene has returned home from federal prison via the Second Look Act and now has been named the 2022 Congressman John Lewis Fellow. This full-time fellowship provides a formerly incarcerated Free Minds member the opportunity to gain valuable professional, leadership, and advocacy experience while working as a staff member for Free Minds. "A Prison Book Club poem author is now home and immediately leading our community outreach program!” writes Tara.

An Offering By Members For Us to Receive, For Us to Witness

With When You Hear Me (You Hear Us): Voices on Youth Incarceration hot off the presses and glowingly reviewed, the only thing left for our third book (thanks to your support!) was for our members to lay eyes on the finished product as our next Books Across Miles title. Demonstrating both the collective impact of the prison system and our collective responsibility to create a society where every one of us can thrive, this collection includes firsthand accounts from both the young people charged and incarcerated in the adult criminal legal system and from the community at large: the mothers, the loved ones, the correctional staff, public defenders, prosecutors, and others harmed and left with unhealed trauma. “These authors, scribes, poets, and architects of wordplay give up their souls to inspire our hearts,” writes Shaka Senghor, author of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, in the anthology’s foreword. FM Member Author, who is incarcerated in Maryland, shared: “I felt at home within my heart and my mind to have my voice, my struggle, my humanity tied together in hope and in love with the voices of so many others. The blight of incarceration, the criminalization of our Blk youth, is made flesh and bones and life is breathed into the rejected, misunderstood via the reality that When You Hear Me creates.” To FM Member Robert behind the walls in Florida, the title of the book means, “That I have a voice! That I’m human. That we are human. That we are valued! That we can change! That we are not animals. That each person is much more complex than the sum total of their mistakes!” Likewise, to FM Member William incarcerated in Florida, “The title…means my voice is a part of a choir. We may share different sides of the stage, yet we’re singing the same song. My voice may not reach the ears of Congress, but the ‘us’ will.” Thank you all for contributing the harmony that is Free Minds.

Connecting in Joy and Nourishment

The past few months, we released two issues of the Connect, our bimonthly publication featuring poetry, essays, and art from Free Minds members, staff, and friends. While no one could foresee the force with which the Delta and Omicron variants would redirect our lives once again, we felt that amidst these uncertainties a theme of joy could serve as a needed lift—and illuminate how to experience it through individual and collective suffering. Our team and members were up to the task, with the following submissions:

  • Free Minds Member JH shares how a prison “store house” he began spreads joy and a spirit of service (pg. 8).
  • As a FM Member struggles with stress and staying focused amidst the ambiguity of a trial delayed over a year, FM Member TS provides insightful advice (pg. 10).
  • Refusing to wait for windfall, FM Member TG explains how to create your own opportunities for self-publishing (pg. 24).
  • Quenten, FM member, tells of his return home and fulfilling his purpose as he pursues a vocation in substance abuse counseling (pg. 27). 

Building on our theme of joy, our December issue focused on the theme of nourish. We posed to our members: what gives you strength, courage, and hope for the future? And, of course, we had to know about favorite foods, delicious commissary recipes, and flavorful food for thought.

  • FM Member LW details what nourishes his mind, body, and soul—and what he desires to be remembered for (pg. 24).
  • FM Member BB, who was recently granted parole and will be released in 2022, reveals how the prison garden changed his life (pg. 25).
  • Skilled craftsman and cabinetmaker while incarcerated, FM Member Irving explains what gives him hope after emerging from the hopelessness that prison instills (pg. 35). 
  • In this issue’s “Did You Know?” section, Prison Book Club intern Sofia narrates the local history of DC’s iconic half-smokes and mumbo sauce (pg. 32). 

We can’t thank you enough for the support you provide our members. We are indebted to you!

Free Minds member Humberto holds his new book
Free Minds member Humberto holds his new book
Cover art for the Free Minds Connect magazine
Cover art for the Free Minds Connect magazine
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Free Minds members are reading Free Cyntoia
Free Minds members are reading Free Cyntoia

“The feeling of being unloved and built up anger; looking for love in all the wrong places...” - Free Minds member AR, expressing some of the ways that he related to the memoir Free Cyntoia by Cyntoia Brown-Long

 

In the face of the ongoing pandemic with the highly contagious Delta variant and the lockdowns that persist in prisons across the country because of it, Free Minds members have continued to connect through creativity and persevere with strength. Their essays, poetry, and artwork reveal a strong sense of tenacity and community found through the healing power of the arts. Our members’ minds soar to new heights everyday, releasing their most vulnerable emotions and greatest ideas, all of which have had a profound impact on our community. We thank you for your generous support that continues to allow our members to connect with one another and beyond the prison walls!

Connect: Accountability

For our latest issue of our bi-monthly newsletter, the Connect, we asked Free Minds members, staff, and friends to share what accountability means to them. Suggested by one of our thoughtful members, VC, this theme felt particularly relevant in this period of racial reckoning. Members of our community shared their personal experiences, revealing the complex nature of accountability. As Free Minds Co-Founder and Executive Director Tara Libert shares in the issue, “Accountability is the Free Minds way!” Supporting and uplifting one another are essential to accountability, and our team and members’ inspiring contributions to this latest issue reflect that:

  • Craig, our Co-Congressman John Lewis Fellow, shares his journey with accountability and how it has allowed him to succeed today (p. 15) 
  • Free Minds member AC shares his thoughts on the relationship between balance and accountability. He writes, “I truly believe that when we make mistakes in judgement, when we humans cause harm, we should be held accountable. I want us to be held accountable in order to bring order to our chaos, light into darkness, love amid hatred, peace during war — a yin to a yang… [A]ccountability is something we need in high quantities in order to bring balance to this declining world. We need everyone to be responsible for our communal future.” Check out AC’s essay in the issue for his full thoughts on this complex subject (p. 24).
  • Deandrea, a Free Minds friend, shares how she has been able to co-parent and maintain a beautiful relationship with her partner Johnny who is incarcerated (p.6)
  • Free Minds member DA shares words of encouragement with fellow Free Minds member WH who is missing human connection (p. 10)

Write Night

Despite our Write Night events moving online during the pandemic, our community has only continued to grow! On the Same Page: Write Night brings together volunteers from all over the world to directly respond to the inspiring poetry our members send us. Each expression of praise and encouragement our volunteers share on a member’s poem serves as a powerful reminder that they are not alone. Our hundreds of members cherish each and every colorful comment that encourages them to continue sharing their voices and allows them to create community beyond the prison walls. This past July, at one of our many community gatherings, over 100 volunteers joined together virtually to celebrate the wonderful work of our members and listen to the stories of two of our Poet Ambassadors, Zach and Warren. Their words served as a testament to how meaningful it is for our volunteers and members to connect with one another. 

“Never in my life have I ever felt like a person or people would be so interested in my writing. If it weren't for FREE MINDS, I may have never known.” -Poet Ambassador Zach

Book Across the Miles

Thanks to your gracious support, we are able to send a book a month along with discussion questions, writing prompts, poetry feedback, personalized letters, and postcards to each of our members located in prisons across the country. The books they receive are tailored to their specific interests and requests. Our members also all receive the same book to discuss together. The shared book is determined by a democratic ballot with all members voting. Our members tell us that engaging in reading and writing is even more of a lifeline during the forced isolation in their cells because of COVID-19. The book club frees their minds from prison confines. 

For the current book club read, members chose Free Cyntoia by Cyntoia Brown-Long. Brown-Long details her journey from surviving human trafficking, receiving a life sentence, building a life of meaning and purpose, and finally achieving freedom. Cyntoia’s story has resonated deeply with our members, and they have found hope in her harrowing tale which has highlighted the power of education and community.

“I enjoyed Cyntoia’s story and was excited to see her outcome. A beautiful ending, but a horrible beginning for her - similar to me, the feeling of being unloved and built up anger; looking for love in all the wrong places. But God had a better plan for my life, like her’s.” - Free Minds member AR

We cannot thank you enough for your continued support of our members!

Cover art for the Free Minds Connect magazine
Cover art for the Free Minds Connect magazine
Some of our members' favorite books
Some of our members' favorite books

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Jordan, member of the Covid Writers Collective
Jordan, member of the Covid Writers Collective

This spring, Free Minds members have continued to demonstrate their resilience, courage, and creativity in the face of continued use of solitary confinement due to the pandemic. With your support, we’ve kept up a steady stream of communication with our members behind the prison walls, including books, poetry feedback, letters from volunteers, our Free Minds Connect magazine, and other resources and words of hope from our Free Minds Poet Ambassadors.

Thank you for joining hands with Free Minds as we endured one of the most change-inducing years. Your continuous help is greatly appreciated!

Books Across the Miles

Due to your gracious support, the Prison Book Club is equipped with the resources necessary to mail every member books, ranging from Kindred by Octavia Butler to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Members have voted on the current “Book Across the Miles” (BAM) book, George Pelecanos’s The Man Who Came Uptown, a novel addressing the “redemptive power of books” told through the eyes of Michael Hudson, a fictional character who wrestles with staying on the right path after being released from prison. Free Minds even received a special mention in this novel! The book club is an intrinsic part in helping our members keep their minds free, as reading provides mental and emotional liberation from the confines of prison. With each BAM book, members also receive discussion questions that ask about plot, characters, and messages of the novel to help engage members’ writing. Discussion questions give members the opportunity to freely express their opinions on a subject, a human need that is often denounced within the prison system.

Free Minds member Terrence wrote in, “I read it in 3 days and it really took me back down memory lane. Once upon a time, I could closely relate to Michael’s character - coming home and not wanting to fall again, but unfortunately being blown into negativity and feeling trapped. I wish I could return to the life of Michael and see where I would have gone. A lot of emotions with this book.”

As they say, “a book is a gift you can open again and again.” Your generosity is a gift to Free Minds!

 

The Connect: Behind the Scenes 

Through powerful testimonies, eye-opening poetry, and weeks of collaboration, the Connect—Free Minds’ literary magazine—connects staff, Poet Ambassadors, and currently incarcerated members to the wider community. The creation of one issue of the Connect involves intensive teamwork between the Free Minds editorial team, staff, volunteers, and both incarcerated and reentry members. The Connect allows members to foster their passion for reading and writing by engaging in fruitful conversations through poems and essays exploring a wide range of subjects. Additionally, this magazine provides Free Minds members a safe space to share their voices, their stories, and most importantly, to be seen.

Like all publications, there are several steps that lead to a final product. First, the Free Minds staff and Poet Ambassadors have an editorial meeting to discuss the new theme, assign articles, and ideas for the cover art. Our currently incarcerated members are involved at every step of the way, providing ideas and feedback along with their submissions. Over a period of 1-2 months, members mail us poems, essays, or articles to be used in the next issue of the Connect. One example is the popular advice column where a member responds and offers sound solutions to pressing questions. The submissions from staff and members are compiled, edited, and then laid out by a graphic designer before going to print. Over 50 people are involved in this process!

The latest issue of the Connect is on the theme Renewal. Free Minds member Meechie recently wrote in to express his appreciation for the Connect: "I love reading the Free Minds Connect. It just makes my day every time I see my name on the mail list because even though it's the only mail I ever receive, it's the best mail to receive. It keeps my mind free with every issue. It's like stumbling upon a ton of water in a desert and my mind is always thirsty for knowledge and new inspirations. So thank you all and keep them coming."

 

Write Week 

On the Same Page: Write Night is a virtual celebration of our members’ poetry; together, hundreds of volunteers, as well as Free Minds staff and Poet Ambassadors, write heartfelt comments on the poetry from members incarcerated in prisons across the country. Each comment, each drawing, helps members feel closer to home, and is a precious reminder that they are not alone. For volunteers, Write Night is a rare and valuable opportunity to hear directly from people caught in the prison system, and to connect with them literally “on the same page.” Due to the generous support from volunteers, our members’ voices are soaring to new heights and their poetry is being read by those nationally and internationally. In April, in order to meet the high demand, we decided to extend Write Night to an entire week to reach volunteers in different times zones. All week, volunteers all over the world could log on and read and respond to our members’ poetry. Every second a volunteer spends writing a comment touches a member’s heart for a lifetime. The community’s selflessness provides all 900 Free Minds members the space to unearth their voices, in a system designed to bury them.

 

Covid Writers Collective 

Free Minds Poet Ambassadors—formerly incarcerated members who are dedicated to giving back to the community—former the Covid Writers Collective, a collaborative effort to provide resources and support for our incarcerated book club members who have endured more than a year of solitary confinement due to the pandemic. The Covid Writers Collective sends monthly activity kits with news, words of encouragement, brain teasers, writing prompts, and other resources. Each Covid Writers Collective’s kit has a theme, ranging from inauguration day to Civil Rights history. The Covid Writers Collective is a lifeline of information and support for incarcerated Free Minds members.

Free Minds member Jordan expressed his joy in being a part of the Covid Writers Collective: “I experienced how it felt to not be supported at an early age before meeting Free Minds, and especially considering that we share the same experiences and story, it’s only fitting to give back and support others now that we are in a position and have a platform to do so. The pandemic has also mentally drained a lot of people, and just being able to brighten someone else’s day has become a huge part of my daily routine.”

Knowledge is power, and Free Minds Poet Ambassadors have honored that truth with the Covid Writers Collective! 

Thank you for being part of our broader collective, and for making all of this powerful community building possible.

 

Jameon, member of the Covid Writers Collective
Jameon, member of the Covid Writers Collective
The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos
The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos
Cover art for the Free Minds Connect magazine
Cover art for the Free Minds Connect magazine

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Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

Location: Washington, DC - USA
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Twitter: @FreeMindsDC
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Tara Libert
Washington, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA United States
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