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
The latest issue of the Free Minds Connect
The latest issue of the Free Minds Connect

Our most recent Connect Magazine, Free Minds’ bimonthly publication written by and for our members, focuses on the theme of Expectations. In the Expectations Connect, we explored the differences between setting realistic and unrealistic expectations. In the criminal legal  system, stability can be difficult to achieve. Whether in jail or prison, awaiting trial or transferring facilities, or preparing for reentry, many of our members build expectations for the future. In this magazine, we opened the door to a healthy conversation about setting realistic expectations. 

Free Minds member Dewand wrote a poem about expectations vs. reality:

Expectation vs. Reality
By Dewand

When a person is doing work for a salary
expectation will conflict with reality.
Conviction and passion produce purpose
Which it clashes against expectation
because it goes past the surface on purpose.
Reality is created from the perspective of our lens.
And we need others to rub against our skin. To help kill
the conflict at times that rage within.
My lens can be obscured from my point of view,
so I always need you.
Humanity inspires me to be complete.
And true purpose produces salary.
That's expectation vs. reality 

Thank you all for your continuous support and contributions to Free Minds. Because of you, Free Minds can continue to provide our members with a safe space to express themselves and to learn from each other. Setting realistic expectations can help to create balance in a chaotic environment, which leads us to our upcoming Connect theme: Balance. Stay tuned for our next update to hear more about that!

Books Across the Miles: An American Marriage & You Are Here

In our last update, we introduced our upcoming Books Across the Miles (BAM) book, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. This story follows the journey of newlyweds Celestial and Roy, who are just beginning to build their new life together when they are ripped apart after Roy is arrested and sentenced to 12 years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Through the Connect magazine, our members participate in written discussion about the book’s characters and themes. 

In response to a question about the two main characters’ families in the book and how families can impact our identities, FM member Ronnie answered: “Our families and where we’re from have a profound impact on who we are at the beginning of our lives, but as we mature that affect lessens and we come to a point where we’re able to make a choice to evolve beyond our circumstances of family and environment or we can choose to be what our environment and past dictates. That choice; to evolve or conform is the core decision everyone has to make in life.”


Messages like these are why we do what we do!

The most recent BAM book that over 600 of our members are currently reading is You are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment by Thich Nhat Hanh. A renowned Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh uses this book to provide the reader with insight into how we can use mindfulness to overcome suffering and achieve joy. Even though he writes from a Buddhist perspective, his perspective can be applied to everyday life, regardless of religious/spiritual belief. Be sure to check out our next update to see how our members respond to the new BAM book! 

Meeting on the Same Page: From Letters to Liberation

Our unique approach to corresponding with our members creates a circle of support that allows them to write to the organization knowing that they will always receive a personalized response from different volunteers with unique perspectives. Through our weekly Letter Writers Circle (LWC) we are able to maintain continuous correspondence with all of our members. Members build their social capital by engaging in meaningful exchanges with community members who come from a variety of backgrounds and have a wide set of experiences. For Free Minds member and Poet Ambassador Antoine, he not only had the opportunity to write to the volunteers multiple times throughout his incarceration, he was also able to see them and speak to them during the virtual LWC orientation meeting after being released from prison! 

At the monthly LWC orientation, new volunteers join the regular weekly volunteers and learn about LWC and get to hear from a Poet Ambassador about the importance of receiving mail in prison. A Poet Ambassador is a formerly incarcerated FM member who represents incarcerated members by amplifying their voices at On The Same Page (OTSP) community outreach events and sharing a little of their story to the volunteers. During Antoine’s Q&A, he mentioned the letters he received from 2 particular volunteers and how those letters allowed him to find similarities between himself and the writers and showed him how many bridges can be built with people who you may not normally come into contact with. After hearing that both volunteers were on the LWC video call, Antoine was able to finally put a face to the names that made an impact on his life. It was so nice to be able to see them meet and express their appreciation for each other! Antoine then advised new volunteers to simply be genuine and describe experiences and anything from daily life. He described how many in prison live vicariously through letters, and painting pictures with words is particularly important when words are their only way to experience the outside world. See the link below to join the Letter Writers Circle. 

Bringing Free Minds Poets to Gateway Community College

This past April we were honored to be invited back to Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut for the second year in a row! Once again our Poet Ambassadors were able to share about how writing, reading, and poetry were tools that supported them throughout their incarceration. Due to the increase in student participants, our Poet Ambassadors facilitated eight sessions over the course of two days versus last year's five sessions in one day. During each session, after the Poet Ambassadors' panel discussion, students responded to poetry from our incarcerated members, and read poems aloud. Gateway uses our third anthology, When You Hear Me (You Hear Us): Voices on Youth Incarceration, as part of the curriculum in their English classes. Students shared their favorite poems from the collection, before reading them to the group. One student particularly connected to the poem “I Know Pain” by Free Minds D’Angelo.

I Know Pain
By D’Angelo

I know pain like the back of my hand
I’ve felt it on my skin like wind from a fan
I’ve cradled it like a baby and rocked it to sleep
Spilled it all over my clothes and all over my sheets
I’ve loaded it into guns and forced others to accept it
I’ve harmonized with its voice and drove it in every direction
It walks when I walk and breathes when I breathe
Yeah I know pain and pain knows me
It mimics my behavior and dares me to get mad
It wants me, haunts me, and taunts me when I’m glad
It made its way into my life and won’t let me be
Yeah I know pain and pain knows me

As always, we left the event knowing that we’ve successfully impacted our audience and that we will continue to work towards bridging the gap between incarceration and society. Thanks to you, our community will continue to grow. Thank you for your continued support! 

What Free Minds member are reading
What Free Minds member are reading
The Free Minds team at Gateway Community College
The Free Minds team at Gateway Community College
Gateway Students connect with Free Minds poetry
Gateway Students connect with Free Minds poetry
A Gateway student reads a Free Minds poem
A Gateway student reads a Free Minds poem


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A few highlights from 2022
A few highlights from 2022

As we look forward to all that 2023 has in store for us here at Free Minds, we would like to take time to highlight the amazing ending of 2022 and thank all of our supporters for their contributions throughout the year. In our last report, we mentioned the mailing restrictions in the prison system that sometimes impede access to books, and our successful efforts to lift these restrictions in several facilities. FM member Wali, who is currently incarcerated in New Jersey wrote "...I've received all the books I didn't get to read due to book restrictions in the prisons. I just want to say thank you for fighting for us prisoners to keep the right to order books...I hope everybody enjoys their day, and always remember you can imprison the body but you can never imprison the mind." Responses like these are why we do what we do!

Belonging and Celebration

Since our previous report, we’ve published two issues of the Free Minds Connect, our magazine written by and for our members; in these issues, our writers explored the themes of “Belonging” and “Celebration.” Both issues received a great deal of positive feedback from our members. For Belonging, we asked our members “What does it mean to you to belong—to a place, a group, or a community?” and “What do you want to belong to?” One of our FM members Mohanad, who is currently incarcerated in Louisiana, wrote,"I was thinking about the next issue Belonging. I am happy and proud to be part of Free Minds Book Club. Thank you for letting me be a part of you." Here at Free Minds Book Club, whether you’re a part of the staff, a Free Minds member, a volunteer, or supporter, we embrace you as a part of the Free Minds family! Here is an awesome poem by Free Minds member Gene that was published in the Celebration issue of the Connect:


By Gene

This is the time of year that always feels great... Love instead
of hate...
I can relate... It’s time to celebrate!
It’s time to pay homage to all the wonders and splendors...
Blessings and dinners...
Snowflakes and Winter...
Beginning and ending... year in a flash...
So we must celebrate each precious moment that pass...
No moment will last... Forever
So let's celebrate and create beautiful memories together...
It’s all for the better... And better we’ll be
If we celebrate life while we’re living and free...
A time full of glee... Joy and peace...
Smiling and dancing while enjoying a feast...
Cheers! Let’s toast to all things in creation...
Inspiration... Jubilation... Foundation... Elation!
There’s no separation when we unite in celebration...
Take education... That’s something to regard...
It’s all cause to celebrate... Rewards for working hard...
Accomplishments fulfilled or achieving your goals...
Having options to travel down any productive road...
From any day to holidays... There’s always something to
Something to appreciate... And something to shine light upon...
So let’s Celebrate!!!!

Books Across the Miles: Concrete Rose

With your support, we sent the book Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas to over 600 members in prisons across the country--and the staggering number of responses have been so uplifting! To see how one book can impact our members in such a positive way, reinforces the power of literature to transform. Concrete Rose, the prequel to the bestselling The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is about a young man who becomes a father and wrestles with the challenges of parenthood and turning his life around with the support of his community. When discussing what he liked about the book, FM member Willie, who is currently incarcerated in Florida, wrote, “What stood out to me was the conversation Mr. Wyatt and Maverick was having about the roses. About how a rose can handle much more than people think and they are able to survive without any help with the right care, such as pruning. Pruning means getting rid of what they don’t need. It was like Mr. Wyatt was explaining the growth of human life.”

Free Minds member George, who is currently incarcerated in the DC Jail, himself a young father like the character Maverick, wrote: “Concrete Rose was the best book for me. My life is complicated the way Maverick’s challenges was. I always was a positive influence to my kids and we always had a good friendship with understanding. The book had a big influence on my life and it gave me tips on how to be a better father.”

Greg, a Free Minds member currently incarcerated in Colorado, also connected closely with Maverick’s story. He wrote, “For awhile I haven’t been in a good head space and have not been interested in much. But Friday morning I felt compelled to read Concrete Rose. So I did. To my surprise I spent the majority of the day reading it and afterwards was out of my funk…I’m going to send the book to my son because there is some parallels in it between Maverick and my son. I hope he can reach the conclusion that Maverick did and find a way to take a different approach to life. Thanks for sending me the book because it gave me something positive to think about.”

FM member Demetrius, who is currently incarcerated in Virginia, summed it up: Concrete Rose, now that was a good book. I think I read that book in 2 days! It was addictive. Thank you for blessing me with that book.”

Next, Free Minds members will be reading and discussing the novel An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Stay tuned for our next update!

The Impact of Write Night and the Letter Writers Circle

Write Night and the Letter Writers Circle are two of our signature programs where we directly connect our members with the wider community. The mutual exchange and reciprocity is contagious! During Write Night, volunteers are able to read our members poetry and provide feedback, which we mail back to our members. Receiving positive feedback on their poetry has inspired many members to continue to write. For some, this is their first time writing outside of school. For others, writing is a passion. Free Minds provides a safe space for everyone to express themselves and to explore the depths of their writing abilities regardless of being inexperienced or a little more seasoned. Our Letter Writers Circle is a community where volunteers  respond to the letters from our members. Alex, a FM member currently incarcerated in Ohio, wrote to us about his worries for his brother, who is 18 years old, and how he’s worried that his brother is a little lost in life. LWC writer Nico, who is also 18, wrote to Alex reassuring him that his brother was going to be just fine. Nico wrote “Your brother seems like your average 18 year old (I would know, I’m 18). You mentioned that he doesn't know what he wants, what he likes, or what he even wants in life. Well neither do I, and neither do most of the people I know. It might be hard to convince yourself, but your brother is probably right where he needs to be in life.” Advice like this wouldn’t be able to reach our members without the support and diverse perspectives of our volunteers!

Thank you all for your continuous support and contributions to Free Minds. Because of you, Free Minds can continue to make a difference in the lives of our members. Cheers to YOU! Happy New Year!

Free Minds members read Concrete Rose
Free Minds members read Concrete Rose
Connect artwork by volunteer Cynthia
Connect artwork by volunteer Cynthia
Cover art for the latest issue of the Connect
Cover art for the latest issue of the Connect


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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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Organization Information

Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

Location: Washington, DC - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @FreeMindsDC
Project Leader:
Tara Libert
Washington , DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA United States
$33,323 raised of $40,000 goal
959 donations
$6,677 to go
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