Free Minds members supporting their peers
Happy Fall From the Free Minds Family! As another year of change and innovation comes to an end, we thank you for the support you provide our members returning home. With your help, this season at Free Minds has been marked by exciting beginnings and committed advocacy. Members are returning home to an ever-stronger Free Minds family and network of peer supporters ready to journey alongside them in their transition back into the community. Every day our members are authoring new chapters in their lives—and your support plays an indelible part. Thank you!
Support Comes Full Circle
Members in our weekly “Build Up” reentry book club have continued to nurture a safe and brave space for sharing and support. Members read and discussed excerpts from Ian Manuel’s My Time Will Come: A Memoir of Crime, Punishment, Hope, and Redemption, as well as Free Minds’ newest release, When You Hear Me (Your Hear Us): Voices on Youth Incarceration, and Ali: A Life, by Jonathan Eig. The immense amount of respect our members have for Ali was clear in their discussions, and appreciating Ali’s sacrifices, especially his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War, going to jail, and consequently not being able to fight during his peak athletic years, deepened their longings to build a legacy marked by, as one member said, an “evolution from prison to freedom.”
Members have also courageously waded into other challenging themes, such as releasing emotion to cope with hardship and loss. A relationship therapist, presented to our members and sparked discussion about the importance of boundaries and communication—keys to nourishing loving relationships. Support came full circle as Build Up members attended our monthly virtual Write Night. There they showed their support for the Free Minds family and provided encouragement on incarcerated members’ poetry in the same way it was once offered to them.
Finding Healing in Community
Recent months have also seen the kickoff of a cornerstone addition to Free Minds’ extensive reentry services: its brand new Peer Support Program. After a successful pilot of the training program this spring, we added five part-time Peer Supporters to our staff. In the next year, the program will train 30 more Free Minds members. The program, which officially kicked off in November, trains Free Minds members as peer supporters and connects them with fellow returning members to uplift them through their transition home from prison.
The power of our Peer Support Program begins and ends with the shining characters of our peer supporters: these members are trusted, credible sources of empathy, understanding, and healing in the community. “People like Shannon,” writes Davonta, Shannon’s mentee who recently graduated from high school, "I listen to because I know he went through the same stuff. So I take big heed of what he says … Peer Supporters treat me like one of their sons, or brothers. I can call them for anything.” Our trained peer support mentors participate in a 12-week certification program where they build and develop skills around trauma-informed care, social emotional wellness, healthy boundaries, and crisis response. By identifying and discussing their shared experiences, Peer Supporters and returning members find solace in each other and successfully address their social emotional needs, enabling them to foster healthy outlets and seek new possibilities.
The courageous and vulnerable healing journey is ongoing in still more spaces. Members participated in a first-ever four-part series on Anxiety and Panic Attack Relief. Members continue to sustain community through our Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA) Support Group, where IRAA recipients join together to navigate the unique experiences of returning to the community as an adult after being incarcerated for 15 or more years as a child. They even took each other on a fishing trip—many casting out for the first time—with gear provided by Free Minds.
Changemakers See the Change They Envision
Over the past year, a group of Free Minds Poet Ambassadors have been working along with other advocates and families to seek posthumous pardons for the Martinsville 7, a group of seven young African American men from Martinsville, VA who were unjustly convicted by an all-white jury and executed in 1951. Free Minds members wrote op-eds, created a social media campaign, and led weekly phone call campaigns to the governor’s office. After the team of Free Minds activists, family members of the Martinsville 7, and other advocates met with Gov. Northam of Virginia on August 31, their advocacy helped compel Northam to grant these men posthumous pardons, 70 years after their lives were unjustly taken. “I’m grateful to the advocates and families of the Martinsville 7 for their dedication and perseverance,” Northam commended in a press conference following their meeting. “While we can’t change the past, I hope today’s action brings them some small measure of peace.” As author and Build Up facilitator Eyone reflects, “This wrong was done for decades...To see the emotions and relief, the weight lifted from [the families]. To see their long fight cross the finish line victoriously, it was rewarding. We were helping people today. I knew it was worth all my time and effort.”
In October, Free Minds members and staff also testified before the DC Council in support of the Redefinition of Child Amendment Act of 2021, which would change the statutory definition of a “child” in the District of Columbia so that all youth accused of a crime are initially charged in juvenile court. The legislation is a vital step towards advancing racial equity and furthering public safety in the District.
Reentry Members Explore Creativity
We celebrated the release of Free Minds’ third book, When You Hear Me (You Hear Us): Voices on Youth Incarceration, an anthology of poetry and personal stories centering the voices of those directly impacted by the incarceration of young people in the United States.This rich 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. Their voices are a calling for accountability, transformative justice, and healing.
At our On the Same Page community events, Reentry members, known as Poet Ambassadors, continue to engage with issues of youth violence and incarceration, as well as find healing through creative writing. Their stories have touched an ever-widening circle of listeners this fall, from employees of corporations like Capital One to local middle school students, from law students in reentry clinics to Washingtonians at a community “poetry and paint” event.
Members Shannon and Jameon showcased their acting talents in the play “Dry Bones,” which ran through November at a local theater. A complex story about returning citizens, their families, and the social conditions which they must navigate, many of our members and staff made their way to the production and watched their incredible performances. Next step: Broadway!
Free Minds members train as peer supporters
Free Minds at a rally for the Martinsville 7
Free Minds member Doug shares poetry and painting
When You Hear Me (You Hear Us) by Free Minds