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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
Author D. Watkins Visited the DC Jail
Author D. Watkins Visited the DC Jail

Thank you for supporting our book club and writing workshop for incarcerated youths! With your support, we mailed approximately 500 books to 200 members in federal prisons across the country. In addition to books, we also send a bimonthly newsletter, postcards and birthday cards, and one-on-one correspondence. Thank you for being an integral part of our members’ journey of change.

Baltimore Author Visits the DC Jail

Author D. Watkins (The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America) visited our book club with young adults studying for their GEDs at the DC Jail. The Free Minds members had read The Cook Up in preparation for Watkins’s visit, and came prepared with dozens of questions about the author’s memoir, including questions about the writing and publishing process, as well as his remarkable life story.

The Cook Up depicts Watkins’s journey from college student, to drug dealer, and back out again, in the wake of his brother’s murder. Now Watkins is a professor at the University of Maryland, founder of the BMORE Writers Project, author of two books, and Editor at Large for Salon Magazine.

The Free Minds members could relate to Watkins’s story, and he shared with them how reading a book he could relate to (The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah) had opened his mind to new possibilities. Watkins advised them on how to reflect on everything they read. “When I didn’t read, I had a blindfold on. When I started reading, the blindfold came off.”

At the end of the session, Free Minds members eagerly shared their poetry inspired by The Cook Up.

What I Saw
By Bobby
Inspired by The Cook Up by D. Watkins

I saw, I saw from behind these white walls
A child gets taken from his life as his vessel falls
Mothers cryin’ over their children
It was the worst feeling they ever saw
Wondering how could God let them down
Including the law
The smile and laughter of the good times they shared
The feeling of regret at the time when they weren’t there
That unbearable feeling deep down
That feeling they call fear
Not wanting to feel the pain
Of their child not being here

 

The Cook Up Across the Miles and in Federal Prisons

Meanwhile, Free Minds members in federal prison finished reading March: Book Three by Congressman John Lewis, and are now reading The Cook Up by D. Watkins along with their fellow Free Minds members in the DC Jail. The books are currently on their way to Free Minds members in 46 facilities in 23 states. They are prepared with discussion questions to think about while reading. Read along with them via our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect!

Connect: Inside/Out

The latest issue of the Free Minds Connect, titled “Inside/Out,” explored the dichotomy of the inner self and the outer self.

As one Free Minds member, DD, wrote, “It’s hard for me now to show who I am inside on the outside because I am in a place where that can be a bad thing or can be taken for a weakness to some. Sometimes the way we are perceived, help us and hurt us.”

Another Free Minds member, LB, wrote, “While looking at my face you would think, “Oh, she’s pretty.” You would never think she would get locked up, that she knows how it feels to be hurt. Though, inside you would notice my heart is my window to my past. The pain I dealt with, the beatings I took, when I was younger. You would notice my heart has a hole in it where all the good times fall into and you notice everything is around it. Outside you would see a face that smiles, but on the inside, I’m crying. I cry for the little girl trapped inside who couldn’t cry when she was younger. Inside I cry so much that no one really knows the true me. Outside I act strong and as if nothing could hurt me. I’m tired of crying on the inside! Crying on the outside, people notice not everything is peaches ‘n’ cream.”

Free Minds Co-Founder Kelli Taylor interviewed Carlos, a Free Minds member who has successfully transitioned back to society and works to help other returning citizens navigate reentry. When asked for his advice to Free Minds members serving lengthy sentences, he said, “Write. You all know the guy who writes for the Connect named HF? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I have the sense that he’s been incarcerated for a while because of all of his wisdom. He doesn’t even know the influence that he has had on me and my life. I remember so many times reading his words in my cell and gaining new understanding that helped me to change my life. Whether you share your writing in the Connect, or your poems at Write Nights, or even through letters to younger siblings or friends, you can change lives through writing.”

We recently received a message from Free Minds member AN, who has been incarcerated for several years and is now preparing to come home. AN wrote, “Thank you guys for everything you have done for me. This has been a learning experience. If I didn’t have books I don’t know how my time would have gone. Since I started reading, it has opened my eyes to the full literary experience. I think you guys have truly saved some lives.”

Thank you for helping us provide much-needed books and educational materials to AN and other Free Minds members!

Book Club Discussions in the Free Minds Connect
Book Club Discussions in the Free Minds Connect
Wayne (in federal prison) with his favorite books
Wayne (in federal prison) with his favorite books

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D'Angelo with his favorite book he read in prison
D'Angelo with his favorite book he read in prison

Thank you so much for supporting our project, Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison! With your support, we provided approximately 600 books to incarcerated youths. Here are some highlights from our life changing work at the DC Jail and in federal prisons across the country:

Jail Book Club Author Visits

In the past three months,  we have been honored to host two amazing authors at our Book Club for teen boys at the DC Jail.

In February, the award-winning author Patricia McCormick came to visit from New York City to discuss her book Sold. It’s a story of a 13-year-old girl named Lakshmi whose family is struggling in the mountains of Nepal. Her step dad arranges for a job for her in Mumbai and she soon finds out that she has been sold into prostitution. It was an eye-opening discussion for the Free Minds members who were shocked to learn what a pervasive problem prostitution is in both the United States and other parts of the world. They also learned about the oppression of women and girls around the world and the desperate choices families are sometimes forced to make to survive poverty.

This was followed by one of Free Minds all-time favorite authors Coe Booth, discussing her very popular book Bronxwood. It’s the story of Tyrell, a young man who is facing all kinds of pressures as his father is just home from prison, his brother is being placed in foster care, and the drug dealers in his neighborhood are coming down hard on him to sell. Each member shared how much they could relate to Tyrell and his struggles. Seeing themselves in the characters and sharing that excitement with the author always brings the Book Club to new heights.   

Books Across the Miles: Prison Book Club

Our BAM for this month is March: Book Three by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. March: Book Three is the third book in a graphic novel trilogy that depicts Congressman John Lewis’s experiences as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Previously, the book club members read March: Book One and March: Book Two. We returned with March: Book Three by popular demand! It made a major impact on the Free Minds readers and evoked strong emotions.

“I am so honored to receive this book called March! It was amazing to read. I LOVED IT...It was very fun and easy to read. A very cool way to share history of the American Struggle! I truly believe it should be taught in every school in America...This book has enlightened me on some very touching things and it brought me so much strength, hope, and faith to never give up! No matter the circumstances. But yeah, kids really need to read this. Shout out to Congressman. John Lewis and everyone who brought this empowering freedom here today in America with this amazing, heartfelt comic book.” - Free Minds member VM

“I enjoyed the book. It was an intimate depiction of an aspect of the struggle for civil rights within this country, and it was illustrated from the perspective of someone who was involved in that particular struggle, firsthand experience! Beautiful in its truth...When I read something like March, it is a reminder not to take things for granted, it gives clarity to the journey and a deeper appreciation for what we have, but it is also a reminder that we must all take our places in the struggle, contributing to what is right and making life better. We are charged with such a task!” - Free Minds member KM

“It was a great book, but more importantly the message was received. It made me look at not just black history but America and the history of this country. We have overcome a lot, and knowledge is key. I’m learning with every book I read.” - Free Minds member DP

The Free Minds Connect: Legacy

In addition to reading, our Free Minds members have been busy writing poetry and personal essays for our bimonthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. Recently, our members took time to explore the idea of their legacy.

Free Minds member KB wrote, "Oh how humbled and awakened I have become by the uplifting and healing legacies left behind by our historic figures who dedicated their lives trying to find solutions to problems affecting humans as a whole and the legacies of those whose mission is to help others become better.”

Another Free Minds member TB reflects, “I’ve always been a thinker, but when I was 16 I was just constantly trying to prove myself. That means that I went with the crowd. Whatever they were doing, I was doing it too. I was trying to prove myself, and that’s what got me in trouble...to be honest, I never had a concept of the future. I was busy planning my legacy. I didn't expect to survive and so I just wanted to be remembered as someone who was bad. I wanted my tough reputation to be glorified. I wanted kids in my neighborhood to be saying, ‘Yeah, I knew him!’ Now when I look back, I see that it was all just ignorance and stupidity.”

Free Minds member MK shared this poem, What Legacy Will I Leave Behind.

 

When it’s all said and done
What legacy will I leave behind????
The answer to that precious questions
Is held in the hands of time…
As for now in this present moment
I give the gift of my life in these lines…
I am a Muslim, I am a PO-ET, I am an artist
Painting pictures that will forever shine
Brighter than the darkness of crime
Would you believe even while confined
I find peace in having a FREE MIND…

 

As always, thank you for your wonderful support you offer to our members. We could not provide these services without your generosity and your belief in our cause.

Linda writing from federal prison
Linda writing from federal prison
Author Patricia McCormick with FM staff
Author Patricia McCormick with FM staff
The Free Minds newsletter featuring original art
The Free Minds newsletter featuring original art
Free Minds members are reading March: Book Three
Free Minds members are reading March: Book Three
Author Coe Booth at the DC Jail
Author Coe Booth at the DC Jail

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Pedro with his favorite books
Pedro with his favorite books

Thank you so much for supporting our long-distance book club and writing workshop with incarcerated youth. In the past 3 months, we have sent books, newsletters, and more to over 300 young adults in federal prisons across the country. Instead of us telling you the impact of your gift, we will let our members speak for themselves as they say it best!

Books Across the Miles: Prison Book Club

In our “Books Across the Miles” long-distance book club, Free Minds members in federal prisons across the country have been reading Tears for Water by Alicia Keys, a book of poetry and lyrics.

SL, a new Free Minds member participating in “Books Across the Miles” for the first time, reflected on his favorite poem in the book, “When Gone Is the Glory.” SL said, “I feel like this expresses how I felt about having a name/rep in the streets. Now I’m gone and my name/rep means nothing. All the so-called friends left with it.”

LC in long-term solitary confinement wrote, “The Golden Child poem was so powerful to begin with…I’m eager to read her words and give a full review of the book. I am certain that she will elevate my poetic skills.” After he finished the book he wrote back, “She is so raw and real with her words. Her poems are beautiful. She paints on the canvas of her heart. I try to do the same.”

DP wrote, “I’ve always been a fan of Alicia Keys, but reading Tears for Water made it seem like she was right here talking to me. It’s hard for me to pinpoint one poem as my favorite because I have so many pages folded over, and those are all the ones that I like.”

GL wrote, “I appreciate the book by Alicia Keys, Tears for Water. I just started the book, but so far it seems to be a good book of poetry. As a poet, I can relate to her work… Mainly because I feel it deep within the confines of my heart and soul.”

The Free Minds Connect: Empathy

In addition to reading and writing poetry, Free Minds members explored the idea of empathy in the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, mailed to readers in prisons across the United States.

Free Minds member BG shared his experiences after participating in a victim’s impact group: “One of the guests played a 911 call from a time when someone broke into a woman’s home when she was alone with her baby. It was awful. After hearing the stories in the group, it made me feel for people I have victimized and I didn’t ever want to take advantage of anyone again.”

MS wrote about the difficult of feeling empathy while incarcerated:  “The word empathy is like the polar opposite of our surroundings. Behind these walls you can find some of the most unempathetic people. I highly promote the emotion empathy and at the same time to exercise empathy in this culture is a monumental task. At first, I felt like empathy is an emotion I can leave behind. It gets very tiring to feel someone else’s pain while dealing with your own. However, I need to work on empathy to become the well-rounded man I strive to be.”

After reading this issue of the Connect, one Free Minds member, TB, wrote back: “I consider myself to be a highly intelligent individual, and whenever I have been asked about what the word empathy meant to me over the years, my response had always been a formal one, very dry and lacking in its true meaning. But after reading this issue of the newsletter, I fully understand its true meaning.”

Your generosity allows us to reach more and more young adults, and to make these moments of change and inspiration possible. Thank you for believing in the transformative power of reading and writing.

Savaria with his favorite book
Savaria with his favorite book
Reggie with a book that changed his life
Reggie with a book that changed his life
The latest issue of the Free Minds Connect
The latest issue of the Free Minds Connect
Free Minds members read Tears for Water
Free Minds members read Tears for Water
Artwork by Free Minds member Antoine
Artwork by Free Minds member Antoine

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Malik's favorite author is James Patterson
Malik's favorite author is James Patterson

Books Across the Miles: Federal Prison Book Club

Readers in our “Books Across the Miles” long-distance book club just finished reading and discussing March: Book Two by Congressman John Lewis and co-author Andrew Aydin. March: Book Two is the second installment in a trilogy of graphic novels about Congressman Lewis’s remarkable life and experiences as one of the “Big Six” leaders in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Here is what some of our readers had to say about this book:

“The book March 2 gave me a deeper respect for every last person who’ve stood before the hideous face of oppression and adversity. For those who know that the path towards freedom has always been stalked by death but still they sacrificed everything they were for everything we have. This book helped me to better understand the courage and bravery that the members of the SNCC and other NON-VIOLENT organizations possessed.… I would like to sincerely extend my gratitude and appreciation to every last person that helped to pave the way for myself and the rest of the descendants of that era that have the privilege to experience the “Dream” of King and Lewis.” - GL

“March 1 and March 2 is getting the history of the Civil Rights Movement straight from one of the original sources--Congressman John Lewis.… The books’ comic form provides excellent visualization through pictures and relates detailed accounts of Mr. Lewis’s journey through the Civil Rights Movement in comprehensible language.” - JL

“Just like Part 1, it was very enlightening. I admire John Lewis. Him and the rest of the world who fight to make this world right. John Lewis’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial was powerful. I’ve always heard of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech but not the rest. How people could be so cruel (siccing attack dogs on children and fire hoses) brought a tear to my eye but the power of unity also did the same.” - RE

The next Books Across the Miles book will be Tears for Water by Alicia Keys, a collection of her lyrics and poetry.

The Free Minds Connect: History

While Free Minds members were reading and writing about Congressman John Lewis and the Civil Rights Movement, they also wrote articles and poetry for the latest issue of the Free Minds newsletter, the Connect. The theme this month was about history, and the articles ranged from the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the importance of knowing one’s history, and how to change a family’s history of incarceration.

“I love this month’s theme about history and our future. We should all learn each other’s culture and history because if we know where we come from we will know where we are going. If we know about our people and the great things they have accomplished, maybe a lot of us wouldn’t feel so hopeless or helpless because we would have strong leaders to look up to and a sense of direction.” - AF

“If I could go back in history, I would love to be able to go back and talk with the incomparable Frederick Douglass. Here’s a man who exemplified self-determination by willing himself to rise above, against all odds. I would ask him what would be his assessment of the Black man’s condition in America if he could be present in our time. Frederick Douglass taught me that once a person becomes self-aware, he or she must become morally conscious and choose principles and purposes to live by.” - QS

“You cannot change history, your father, your son, the cycle of incarceration in your family, nor anything else, until you change yourself. The only thing that I believe in regards to fate and destiny is that we all get what we put out.” - HF

A Book That Changed My Life

Free Minds also sends books personally tailored to the interests of each book club member. This month, we asked them to tell us about a book that changed their lives. Some of their favorites were The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor, Push by Sapphire, A Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, As A Man Thinketh by James Allen, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, and more!

One Free Minds member, Terrell, wrote, “Before Free Minds I didn’t read anything at all! I love Free Minds for being around and for showing me a different way of life.”

Another Free Minds member, Malik, whose favorite author is James Patterson, said, “Books changed me. They took me to other places. When I read, I wasn’t in prison anymore. I was wherever that book was taking place and I loved it.” Malik is now home from prison and working at a nonprofit.

Thank you for sharing the life-changing power of books and writing!

The latest issue of the Free Minds newsletter
The latest issue of the Free Minds newsletter
Free Minds members read March: Book Two
Free Minds members read March: Book Two
Free Minds member Gary with his favorite books
Free Minds member Gary with his favorite books
Letters on the way to members in federal prisons
Letters on the way to members in federal prisons

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Free Minds staff with author Tony Lewis, Jr.
Free Minds staff with author Tony Lewis, Jr.

Book Club at the DC Jail

In June, community activist and author Tony Lewis, Jr., (Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration) visited the Book Club at the DC Jail to discuss his memoir about growing up with an incarcerated father and mentally ill mother. When Tony was 9 years old, his father, a former cocaine kingpin, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for his connection to the largest drug operation in D.C. After his father’s arrest, Tony lived with his mother who struggled with mental illness exacerbated by his father’s incarceration.

Instead of living out what was expected of him, Tony wrote about how he overcame those expectations in Slugg: A Boys Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration.  The teenagers in the Book Club chose this book to read because they could see themselves in Tony’s story, and they wanted to hear from the author himself.

When asked what he wanted to communicate to the Book Club members, Tony Lewis said, “I want them to be able to see themselves in me in terms of they can do anything. Coming from communities, families, that may not be perfect, but they can ascend no matter what they’re here for. They can start planning for life after this. And I hope that Sluggcan give them some instructions on how to pursue and reach their goals.” In addition to his work as an author and activist, Tony also works for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, DC’s probation agency. “Not only am I somebody who’s an author, but I actually do the work in terms of reentry. So I want to connect with them on the level that if I can help them move forward, I’m here to do that as well. I hope they are inspired and also empowered to know what they can do, what’s possible.”

As the presentation ended, the young men all rushed over to have Tony autograph their books. We asked the Book Club members if they felt inspired, and the teens answered with a resounding, “yes!” As one teenager said, “If he can do it, that means I can too.”

Federal Prison Book Club

Meanwhile, the young adults incarcerated in federal prison have been reading about another activist with a remarkable life, Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis (D-GA). In our last update, the readers were discussing March: Book One, the first graphic novel in a trilogy about Congressman Lewis’s experiences as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that, by popular demand, we are shipping over 200 copies of March: Book Two to members of the “Books Across the Miles” long-distance book club in over 40 facilities in 20 states.

Here’s what the “Books Across the Miles” readers had to say about Book One:

“His book is AWESOME! And it being in comic form shows the hero he truly is for civil rights. I love the way the book gives history of the civil rights era and the reasons it came into being.” - JL

“I got John Lewis’s book “March” yesterday. I loved it. Can’t wait to read part 2. John Lewis is an inspiration and a role model…I love John Lewis’s love for the chickens and especially his love for God and humanity. John Lewis was and still is a straight up soldier. I would have loved to grow up on a farm like him minus the segregation part. He is a true example of leadership. He also is living proof of how God works. Him, Gandhi, MLK, and a lot others and you…Whenever you think you strong and a man or a woman because you able to hurt somebody, see if that strength could out match John Lewis and the others at them diners or on that bridge in Selma, or MLK marching in protest with bricks and everything else being thrown at him and others. Or knowing that it was a strong possibility that he would die if he gave that speech but yet still went anyway. Ultimate sacrifice.” - R

Free Minds Connect: I Believe

Last month’s theme for the newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, was “I Believe,” with Free Minds members, staff, and friends sharing their experiences with the power of belief.

Free Minds member JG wrote about the book As a Man Thinketh by James Allen and its profound impact on his own beliefs. “It’s important to be optimistic because when we have enough faith in something, that something becomes our truth, and our life experience will reflect this…Have faith that all your dreams and goals will come to pass. Have faith in humanity and a better world.” - JG

As always, thank you for your support and your belief in the power of books and writing to transform lives. 

Free Minds members loved Slugg
Free Minds members loved Slugg
March: Book Two is on the way to federal prisons
March: Book Two is on the way to federal prisons
The cover of the latest Free Minds newsletter
The cover of the latest Free Minds newsletter
Discussing March: Book One in the Connect
Discussing March: Book One in the Connect
More Book Club discussions in the Connect
More Book Club discussions in the Connect

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Organization Information

Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

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