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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
Latest Free Minds Connect Issue
Latest Free Minds Connect Issue

Thank you to all of our GlobalGiving donors! You all have helped us cultivate a community for hundreds of incarcerated youths through reading and writing. 

Our Prison Book Club has proven to be liberating for our members who are miles away from home. Every day, our members tell us how much they appreciate receiving books, discussion questions, cards, and our monthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. Here are some excerpts from letters with “attitudes of gratitude:”

“The good deeds of Free Minds (FM) will be immortalized in the history of time because for every one of those deeds, a seed was planted into every person that interacted with FM.” - Free Minds member Alex

“My confidence is bolstered now. I am eager to join in discussions, express my wit, and even offer guidance to others who have yet to see education as a beacon of hope and security. The book Girl Rising offered a powerful message of how fortunate we are in America to have so many educational opportunities available to us. I will never disregard these opportunities.” - Free Minds member Duane

Books Across the Miles: Slugg

Though Free Minds members have finished reading Tony Lewis’s Slugg, they can’t stop discussing it! This book has definitely been a crowd favorite. Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration is a memoir by DC author, community leader, and reentry expert Tony Lewis Jr., who recounts his personal story after his father, Tony Lewis Sr., was incarcerated and sentenced to life in prison.

Grappling with the book’s themes of love, sacrifice, and service, Free Minds readers in federal prison continue to write us about the popular memoir. See a couple of their responses below:

“I disagree with his [Tony Lewis Sr.’s] decision [to choose the drug game], because he wasn't contributing to society or to his community in a lasting, and meaningful way. He helped assist with the destruction of his community. He left his wife without a husband and a son without a father (in a physical sense). I am ashamed that I, too, have left my ex-wife and daughters without me. I took myself away from them. The government didn't do it; I chose to commit my crimes, regretfully.”- DK

“The most important thing that I believe a parent should do to maintain a relationship with their children is communicate. Talk to them; teach them; learn from them. If it’s anything that I advise guys to do in prison? It is, I tell them to talk to their kids. I always hear “I don’t know what to say” but I tell them to talk to their kids like they are human. I tell them to treat their kids as an individual. Write them.”- SC

Free Minds members voted for our next nation-wide read to be Bastards of the Reagan Era, a collection of poetry by Reginald Dwayne Betts. Feel free to read along with us in the next Connect issue. We would love to have you join the conversation as well!

Renowned Young Adult Authors Inspire Teens at the DC Jail

This summer has been eventful with two fantastic author visits at the DC Jail for our young members in the Jail Book Club.

The 16 and 17-year-old members were honored to host New York Times bestselling authors Jason Reynolds (Long Way Down) and Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X) who both left the boys revitalized, encouraged, and inspired.

Jason Reynolds shared childhood stories about growing up in Southeast DC like many of our book club members. Captivated by his compelling story telling, the teens listened closely as Reynolds shared his introduction to his love for writing through poetry and 1980’s hip-hop. Reynolds parted the group with words of encouragement, stating, “We cannot be what we cannot see.” 

Following Reynolds’s visit, National Poetry Slam Champion and author Elizabeth Acevedo promoted determination, resilience, change, and healing for these young men and attributed poetry as a way to "hustle" her mind and "create an opportunity" to say what she wanted to say. During her session, Acevedo performed powerful pieces on womanhood and self-expression while centering discussions on “staying true to yourself” despite opposing expectations.

The young boys of our Jail Book Club were motivated to write their own books as Acevedo and Reynolds emphasized the importance of sharing your story, perseverance, and using creativity to create paths to success.

Connect: Healthy Communication

In the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, our members, staff, and volunteers shared their thoughts — and poetry— on the theme, “Healthy Communication.”

Incarcerated at 38 years old, Free Minds member Cornelious believed he did not hold the capacity to advance his communication skills, mindset, nor self-presentation during his incarceration. After noticing that people didn’t find him approachable, he consciously altered his demeanor. He wrote, “I got to know some wonderful men I never would have had the chance to know if I hadn’t recognized I was not showing my true personality. Just a few changes [smiling, eye contact, and greeting] changed everything. I recommend it!”

When asked to share advice with our incarcerated members, Cornelious wrote, “Pause and think about the consequences, be calm but authoritative, stay in contact with positive people, and stand up for yourself without cussing or raising your voice; just state the facts.”

Once again, thank you for being an ongoing supporter and motivator to our members and staff. As we move into the rest of the year, we want to leave you with a quote from one of our Free Minds members, Marquis, who sees Free Minds as more than just a book club, but a brotherhood:

In prison, it has gotten to the point where I really only open up to individuals that are Free Minds members.  Whenever I meet fellow members, they have more on their mind than your average.”

As always, thank you for having a kindred spirit and believing in our mission! Your open-heartedness has made this all possible.

Slugg: A Boy's Life in the Age of Incarceration
Slugg: A Boy's Life in the Age of Incarceration
PBC Member Dustin's handmade thank you card
PBC Member Dustin's handmade thank you card
Author Jason Reynolds (center) visits DC Jail
Author Jason Reynolds (center) visits DC Jail
Author Elizabeth Acevedo (center) visits DC Jail
Author Elizabeth Acevedo (center) visits DC Jail
Next read: Bastards of the Reagan Era
Next read: Bastards of the Reagan Era

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Latest Free Minds Connect Issue
Latest Free Minds Connect Issue

Thank you to all of our Global Giving donors! You all have helped us cultivate a community for hundreds of incarcerated youth through reading and writing. 

We see firsthand the strong impact our prison book club has on our members in many ways, including increases in the quality and quantity of creative writing, new and varied requests for reading materials, and improved literacy and critical thinking skills, but the one way that really gets us excited is expressions of gratitude. They feel part of something bigger than themselves and want to share their experiences and appreciation. Here are some excerpts from letters with “attitudes of gratitude.” You have made this possible.

“Let me just say thank you for the books and postcards that help brothers in my situation make it through day to day. The content of the books I receive make me plan for the future, and yes it frees my mind from negativity and opens thoughts that I turn into reality. I’m about to be released in a few months and this the first time I am proud of the things I did in here to make my future brighter. The reading and studying and planning gonna pay off for me, I just know it.” - Free Minds member Demetrius

“To whoever had the beautiful gesture of sending me that book [Brief History of Time], I want to say: Thank you so very much. Of course, as an organization, I have AND want to say thank you to all of you that make Free Minds possible, but you right there that figured out I would like the book and actually ended up clicking the button on the screen to send me the book, I give you my most sincere appreciation and gratitude.” - Free Minds member Alex

Since our last report, we have been celebrating a major victory with all of our allies and advocates who believe in rehabilitation and education through books. The federal Bureau of Prisons rescinded an implemented/proposed policy in several prisons that would have restricted the ways incarcerated people could access books. The policy prohibited direct delivery through the mail from publishers, bookstores and book clubs. With the proposed restrictions, incarcerated people would have to purchase books themselves through an undisclosed vendor, rather than receiving books from friends, family, or organizations. As reported by the Washington Post, the Bureau of Prisons decided to rescind and review these proposed restrictions.

We were deeply relieved to hear the good news. It’s imperative that we protect the right to read. We need books, not barriers!


Books Across the Miles: Slugg

Free Minds members just finished reading and discussing the most recent BAM book, Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration, a memoir by DC author, community leader, and reentry expert Tony Lewis Jr., chronicling his journey after his father, Tony Lewis Sr., was incarcerated and sentenced to life in prison.

Free Minds readers in federal prison had plenty to say in our book discussions:

“Tony Lewis Sr. chose the drug game out of despair for his home situation. His mind was in survival mode, due to a life style of cramped living conditions added to the fear of being eaten by a rat while he slept at night. As an adolescent, growing up in a poverty-stricken environment forced him to morph into a man before his time. I once agreed with the lifestyle Mr. Lewis chose, because at one point in my life I had that mentality. I believe he chose the best route for his situation at the time. Our communities will never be what they once were before the introduction of crack cocaine. The impact of drugs created addicts on both sides; the addiction to money and the addiction to narcotics. Many families and communities were destroyed. Life lost value to the love of the all mighty dollar.” - AL

“On Tony Lewis Jr.’s mother’s mental illness, AC wrote, “The stress catalyzed her condition and broke her mind in a way. Her world as she knew it ended, and that proved too much for her already delicate mind. As a person whose life as he knows it is completely done, yes I can relate. I can never walk the streets of the USA after my sentence. I will be placed back in my birth country. My friends are here; my family is here; my old prospects in life are here. So yes, I can relate...I believe the stigma comes from people not understanding that a mental illness is like having any other illness. Just because you can’t actually see it, doesn’t mean it’s any less serious. If we can be understanding of someone who was born blind, why can’t we be understanding of someone with mental illness? Right? We need more understanding.” – AC

"This is the first book I have read that hit so close to home. Not only the fact that I share his story. With my father having a life sentence also… But the best part of this book was the profound message in it. That it is possible to come from and grow out of this environment and actually be a changing force in helping the next generation end the cycle. Tony Lewis Jr. is inspirational to me because the work he does is exactly what I want to do in my post-incarceration life. Also what his mother went through touch me deeply. Because even though we don't hear about it too much mental health is a real problem in the inner cities. I thank you for choosing this book. I've sent a poem also that was inspired from it." - LC

Free Minds members voted for our next nation-wide read to be Bastards of the Reagan Era, a collection of poetry by Reginald Dwayne Betts. As always, feel free to read along with us and follow our discussion in the next Connect issue.

Connect: Choosing Your Family

In the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, our members, staff, and volunteers shared their thoughts — and poetry— on the theme, “Choosing Your Family.”

Having learned the importance of respecting and supporting those who respect and support us, Free Minds member LV shared that he was “captivated by the stories of what is chosen family. You know in my life I have broken bonds with relatives for the simple fact I was running wild on the streets. I have an uncle that is part of the LGBTQ community. My uncle was there for us when we first came to the country. We moved on with our lives due to a falling out he and my mother had. Long story short, I have not heard from him in over a decade. Now that I hear about all this new movement about LGBTQ rights, I would like to show support to my uncle.”

As always, thank you for making our work possible. We look forward to the rest of the year, and want to leave you with a quote from one of our Free Minds members, Jamal, who continues to inspire us to pay your kindness forward:

Today I want to sit and take time out to not only thank you all for being our family (us behind these walls) in times when we feel as though we don't really have one, but I love to wish you all a happy Mother’s Day and wish that each and every one of you have all that you strive and hope for in this life and the next. I want you all to know that y'all work does not go unnoticed and inshallah you will all be blessed because you all have been there for me since 2008 when no one else was. So much love to you all!”

Your generosity and belief in transformation have made this all possible. Thank you!

Slugg: A Boy's Life in the Age of Incarceration
Slugg: A Boy's Life in the Age of Incarceration
Tony Lewis Jr. and Free Minds staff visit DC Jail
Tony Lewis Jr. and Free Minds staff visit DC Jail
FM member Lydell says thanks for the birthday card
FM member Lydell says thanks for the birthday card
Thank you letter from Prison Book Club member Troy
Thank you letter from Prison Book Club member Troy
FM member Lydell says thanks for the birthday card
FM member Lydell says thanks for the birthday card

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Free Minds member Rafael graduated from college!
Free Minds member Rafael graduated from college!

To all of our incredible supporters - thank you for helping us facilitate a community of contemplative and expressive free minds! Thanks to your generosity, we’ve been able to provide the transformative tools of books, writing, and community support to nearly 400 youths and adults in 2018 so far. Since our last report, we have added 29 new members to “Books Across the Miles,” our long distance prison book club. This year alone, we have shipped over 700 books to incarcerated members in federal prisons across the United States.

Some of the letters we received this month reminded us of exactly why the support we get from you is so life-changing: 

"This book was right on time. It came at a point in my life where I needed to look deeper into myself and the world around me to gain some perspective.” Free Minds member Stephen

I'd love to learn how to write something because being a prisoner to your own inarticulation is worse than being in [the maximum security prison]!” Free Minds member Greg

We are thrilled to announce that since our last report, the DC Department of Corrections has made a new program available to members at the DC Jail, in which they can now take college classes with Ashland University and are learning to use tablets. This opportunity has helped our members at the jail to become ready and excited for higher education! In the words of our Free Minds members: 

"This is my very first college experience with Ashland. I can see that this experience has motivated me to be more responsible. I am eager every day to get my tablet and participate in my lessons. Undertaking the courses gives me drive to prepare for responsibility in the community. My sense of self-worth has increased knowing that I will be able to say that I am educated and can use my education to make a difference." Free Minds member Duane

Meanwhile, Free Minds member Rafael graduated from college. Congratulations, Rafael!

 

Books Across the Miles: I Am Malala

Free Minds members just finished reading and discussing the most recent BAM book, I Am Malala, a memoir by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai — “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban”. Here’s what some Free Minds readers in federal prison had to say in our book discussions: 

“Reading this beautiful story, I still find myself in shock of Malala! Her tenacity and will to fight and speak out against the Taliban, for the right of all children receiving an education is phenomenal. We tend to take for granted the blessings we have over here in America, not realizing that there are a million Malalas all around the world. I wish every child had the opportunity to the read the words of this courageous young woman and learn from her words the importance of an education.” 

“Malala is an amazing young lady. I wish there were more people in the world like her. She stands up for what she believes in. The Taliban is trying to repress the future of Pakistan because the children are the future. Think about all the kids here in the United States that don’t go to school and wonder where their next meal is coming from. I have a 14 year- old daughter that lives in Mexico with her mom. She is a US citizen but her mom isn’t, so she is being deprived the right to go to school in the US. The schools in Mexico are not very good at teaching the students there. This is a must-read book for all, and I respect Malala for all her work and wish her well and good luck. I think if one family taught one child to think like her and then taught another, we could change the world.” 

Free Minds Members voted for our next nation-wide read to be Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration, as the next book club selection for 2018. As always, feel free to read along with us and follow our discussion in the next Connect issue. 

 

Connect: Education

In the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, our members, staff, and volunteers shared their thoughts — and poetry— on the theme, “education,” and how knowledge can set us free. Topics ranged from The Things You Can’t Learn From a Book to Education from Behind Bars and Education: A Tool to Help Us Survive. You can read the entire issue in the link at the bottom of this post. 

As always, thank you for making our work possible. We look forward to the rest of the year, and want to leave you with a quote from one of our Free Minds members, Gary, who continues to inspire us to pay your kindness forward:

"Thank you for giving me the opportunity to reconstruct a culture that I’ve helped to destruct.” 

Read along with Free Minds members in the Connect!
Read along with Free Minds members in the Connect!
CJ wrote this from federal prison
CJ wrote this from federal prison

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We wrote New Year's cards to all 360 members
We wrote New Year's cards to all 360 members

Happy New Year to all of our incredible supporters! Thank you for being part of the Free Minds family. Thanks to your generosity, since our last report, we’ve been able to provide the life-changing tools of books, writing, and community support to 360 youths and adults incarcerated in federal prisons across the United States.

Since our last report, we welcomed 39 new members to our “Books Across the Miles” long-distance book club. In three months, we sent 500 brand-new books to members incarcerated in 68 prisons in 30 states. Our Free Minds office mailbox is perpetually stuffed with letters from our members with their thoughts on literature, the Free Minds newsletter, poetry, and more. The letters demonstrate openness and trust, an important ingredient in our members’ long term success, and almost all request specific books and express their deep gratitude for the books that we’re able to send thanks to your generosity. 

Hidden Figures

Free Minds members read and discussed the nonfiction book Hidden Figuresby Margot Lee Shetterly, about the African American women who played a crucial role in the American space program at a time when Virginia was still segregated. Here’s what our readers had to say about the book:

 “I cannot believe that when I was growing up in school they never talked about any of the stuff that’s going on in the book, not the NASA program or the women involved. I think the women involved should have plaques at NASA with their names on them for all the sacrifices they went through...One lesson I think it teaches in the memory of the women is if you put your mind to it you can achieve all your goals in life and don’t take no for an answer and don’t stop till you get what you want. Thank you again for the books.” - EH

“It was an amazing and eye-opening book. It’s so sad to now know that these remarkably gifted black women were at the forefront of the American space race, but were pushed to the back and are just now receiving the recognition they so truly deserve. I guess better late than never, right! I often wonder when the evil stain of racial discrimination will ever be removed from this great experiment which we call American democracy. We still have such a long way to go. But if we continue to open our hearts, minds, and mouths we will eventually bridge the divide that will lead us to racial unity.” – QS

“The women who became “girl computers” were held to higher standards ... I feel the pressure of being held to a higher standard each day because I am convicted of a crime and it just feels like people are looking for that one mistake to justify further incarceration. But I reject failure and defeat by following the rules and not giving in to iniquity and temptation.” - DJ

Free Minds members voted for I Am Malala, the memoir by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai, as the next book club selection for 2018.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

In the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, our members, staff, and volunteers shared their thoughts—and poetry—on the theme “entrepreneurial spirit,” and how we can all apply the principles and strategies for entrepreneurial success to our daily lives. Read what they had to say about making positive life investments, recovering from setbacks, and becoming the CEO of your own life.

As always, thank you for making our work possible. We look forward to new heights and new horizons in 2018.

EH loved reading Hidden Figures
EH loved reading Hidden Figures
Our latest newsletter, the Free Minds Connect
Our latest newsletter, the Free Minds Connect
FM members voted for I Am Malala as the next book
FM members voted for I Am Malala as the next book

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A message from a Free Minds member in prison
A message from a Free Minds member in prison

Thank you for supporting our book club and writing workshop for federally incarcerated youth, and our facilitation of a community of contemplative and expressive free minds. We are grateful for your help with which we were able to send 750 books to over 300 readers across the country. Your commitment to our project is a necessary stimulus for our transformative community and we are so grateful for your support! Here is an update of what we at Free Minds have been up to over the past few months.

Books Across the Miles (BAM)

Our “Prison Book Club” members of Free Minds, who are incarcerated in approximately 60 federal prisons in 29 states, just finished reading and discussing their most recent BAM book selection: The Cook Up by D. Watkins. In the Connect newsletter, FM members discussed such themes from the book as the death of loved ones and role-models, the plasticity of our life stories, and the obstacles in leaving the drug game. Here is what some members had to say in our book discussions:

“What people have to do to make sure that their story is not like everyone else’s is they must create their own story. They must use their time and ability to mold wisely and form the life that they envision for themselves. But, a lot of times this is where the problem lies: an astronomical number of people can’t envision, picture, or even dream of a life of their own.” - Free Minds member SC

Free Minds member RM wrote in one of his correspondence letters about the gift The Cook Up had given him. The book revealed to him aspects of his hometown, Baltimore, MD, that he had not been aware of, which helped him more thoughtfully connect, empathize, and converse with people around him.

“ . . . [W]hile I may have lived in the same cities as my fellow friends here in prison I realize that I can learn a lot from them about their lives and ‘their’ city and in turn I can share with them my experiences in the same cities I claimed as my own. The Cook Up was a wake up for me to better understand Baltimore as a whole and the people that live in it. So thank you for the good read! I’ve now passed it on to some friends from SE Baltimore and they love it! The Cook Up has also sparked conversations about the pros and cons of gentrification in Baltimore and the effects on the Black communities there.” - Free Minds member RM

Prison Book Club members voted for our next nation-wide read to be Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, about African-American women mathematicians who heavily contributed to the US space race as ‘human computers.’ As always, feel welcome to read along with us and follow our discussions in the Connect!

 

Connect: Nature and Labels

The latest issues of the Connect were themed ‘Nature’ and ‘Labels.’

The ‘Nature’ issue of the Connect epitomizes a topic we want Free Minds members to be free and able to have in their minds, when it’s excluded from their prisons. In this issue, we shared and discussed the vital and restorative beauty of nature with our book club members.

From MS we received this heartfelt response to our ‘Nature’ Connect:

"I would like to share the experience I had with nature the same day I received the newsletter. I was driven to the hospital in reference to my eyes. By divine decree, the doctor was examining another patient and we were compelled to wait outside. Gratefully, I sat at a table while anticipating my turn. My senses were so high to my surroundings. I felt attuned with the birds that were chirping, and the squirrels that were running, jumping and eating acorns. Though I was fettered hands and feet, my mind and spirit was free to immerse in the sound and the philosophical view of cosmology. Consequently, I brung this energy into the cell. The institution was on lockdown but my mind was free. As it will remain!"

In the ‘Labels’ issue of our Connect newsletter, FM Prison Book Club members examined questions of character, identity, agency, and formative experience through the lens of labels.

“I remembered when my grandparents told me how smart I was and how much they thanked me for being responsible and obedient. I valued those labels the most because there was meaning and love behind them words. When my grandparents died I lost focus of those labels. I let one label I didn’t like [‘sucker’] turn me into a menace to society. Moving forward, I am now proud to be recognized as a Free Minds Poet Ambassador, a responsible father, and a legitimately hard-working man.” - Free Minds Poet Ambassador Brandon

Labels are not to be mistaken for principles, which should be paramount in all our lives. Principles are to be engraved in one’s heart as truths that cannot be changed or be circumvented. Sadly, people masquerade with labels on oneself . . . We all must embrace a lifelong pursuit of strengthening our minds or run the perilous risk of developing habits that are destructive to the human spirit and relationships.” - Free Minds member RS

We would like to end this update with a quote from Free Minds member JL, one of many FM members whom has been inspired to pay your kindnesses forward:

“. . . I learned (through fellow prisoners, family’s love, reading & writing, the few friends that have stayed in contact with me) that the best way to heal myself is to reach out and help others. I try my best to do this through introspection so I can understand and relate to others. Hope that makes sense.

Thank you for helping to provide our Free Minds community with the requisite tools for growth and enrichment!

By popular demand: Hidden Figures
By popular demand: Hidden Figures
The most recent BAM book: The Cook Up
The most recent BAM book: The Cook Up
The Nature issue of the Connect
The Nature issue of the Connect

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Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

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