Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth

by Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Craig with Congresswoman Sewell
Craig with Congresswoman Sewell

Happy Spring from the  Free Minds Family! As we welcome the warmth of the new season, so do we welcome all of the new changes and achievements of our members that have returned home. Our programming is still primarily virtual (shout-out to the hundreds of virtual attendees at our monthly Write Nights!). Though this has not stopped our advocacy and outreach efforts one bit, the national vaccination campaign makes us eager and hopeful to work alongside our members sometime soon!

More members come home every day to the strong and supportive community Free Minds has built, ready to give back and change the world for the better. Thank you for your part in this transformation -- we couldn’t do it without you!

Welcome new Congressman John Lewis Fellows

Jameon, who completed our Fall/Winter Congressman John Lewis Fellowship in February, set a high bar for future fellows. He led our adaptation to virtual programming for On the Same Page, our racial equity education and peacemaking outreach program. Due to the increase in requests for our On The Same Page programs, in March, co-fellows Craig and Jordan were selected to meet the high demand! Both fellows have jumped enthusiastically into their role, sharing their lived experiences of transformation through arts-based programming with youth groups, churches, workplaces, and community-based organizations. Craig shared, “I love helping people and being a Congressman John Lewis Fellow allows me to be a part of changing the prison system that hurts so many people.”

Co-Fellows Craig and Jordan are also leaders in our peer support training program, and in our COVID Writers Collective, a group that sends resources and supportive messages to their fellow members who are still incarcerated. Craig and Jordan are also powerful changemakers serving on our advocacy team calling for the end of solitary confinement at the DC Jail, greater funding for mental health services instead of police, more opportunities and resources for system-impacted youth, and posthumous pardons for the Martinsville 7 (7 African American men executed by the state of Virginia). 

Staying Safe, Staying Supported 

Our weekly Reentry Book Club has been virtual throughout the pandemic, and remains so until it is safe for us to gather in person again. We have maintained our mutually supportive and growing community fostered by our wonderful Reentry Coaches. We have continued to read and discuss together, including selections from Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and Asha Bandele’s The Prisoner’s Wife. Additionally, we have had various presentations about topics relevant to our members including COVID-19 vaccine information and  new reentry legislation at the local and federal levels. 

In March, the Reentry Book Club welcomed a visit from Congresswoman Terri Sewell, a good friend of Free Minds who came to speak about COVID-19 vaccine hesitation and equity. Congresswoman Sewell gave a warm acknowledgement to our new John Lewis co-fellows, citing Lewis’ quote: “We have to make good trouble, sometimes that trouble means you have to stand up and stand alone.” In her presentation, she not only took the time to answer our members questions about vaccine development and distribution, but she also was sure to remind us that “COVID-19 has laid bare the systemic disinvestment in communities of color. 13% of the American population, but 26% of COVID cases have been Black people.” We feel so supported by Congresswoman Sewell and her staff fighting for racial justice at the federal level. A big thank you to all the community members who share their knowledge and expertise with us!

Making Local Change with the Martinsville 7 Campaign

A team of Free Minds Members has been working diligently on an advocacy campaign to push the Governor of Virginia to pardon the “Martinsville 7.” Members meet monthly to discuss advocacy strategies; in the past few months, they have led a call-a-thon to the Governor’s office to make him aware of the issue, initiated a social media campaign to commemorate each of the Martinsville 7’s birthdays, and have published opinion pieces linking their personal injustices with the criminal justice system to historic injustices that occurred in Virginia in 1951. Read some of their work at the links below!

Building Self to Build Others

In addition to our weekly Reentry Book Club, our coaches have helped members along in a number of programs to aid them on their reentry journey. 

On Friday, April 2nd, we had the opportunity to celebrate the graduation of three of our reentry members from the DC government Pathways Program! Pathways is a holistic transitional employment program that aims to decrease members’ involvement with the criminal justice system and help participants meet their life and career goals. Pathways participants meet every day in a classroom setting for 9 weeks focusing on job and life skills. After graduation, Pathways supports members with a 6 month subsidized experience in their transition to their job placement, and beyond that, the program offers long-term support to ensure job retention and success. Congratulations to our Pathways graduates.

For more good news, 15 participants recently graduated from our in-house Credit Builders program! This program exists for returning citizens with no credit that would like to establish it. Participants meet every month, and work to establish credit on an unsecured credit card that is made secure upon graduation. All of our graduates now have a credit score of 700 or better - kudos to their hard work! 

Last but not least, Reentry Book Club members have been participating in a 12-week peer support certification program specifically designed for Free Minds. In these sessions, members have discussed how to respond to triggers, shared their personal journeys of post-traumatic growth, and learned about emotional intelligence and social capital. Each week, members implement their new skills through “peer support check-ins,” where they call a fellow reentry member to ask how they are doing.

As always, your generosity makes our work possible, and your investment is realized tenfold in our members and the leadership they take on in our community. We continue to “spring forward” here at Free Minds, and we love sharing our joys and successes along the way!

Jordan, new Congressman John Lewis Co-Fellow
Jordan, new Congressman John Lewis Co-Fellow
Lamarzs picking up a laptop for virtual programs
Lamarzs picking up a laptop for virtual programs
Marcus after getting his COVID-19 vaccine
Marcus after getting his COVID-19 vaccine
Martinsville 7 Campaign
Martinsville 7 Campaign
Zoom meetings with Free Minds members
Zoom meetings with Free Minds members

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Free Minds member KV with his grandson
Free Minds member KV with his grandson

As we reflect on 2020 and prepare for the new year, our Free Minds family is feeling extra grateful. In the face of unparalleled obstacles, our formerly incarcerated members have risen to the challenge, becoming leaders and advocates for both the community and for each other. We continue to come together through our remote programming and have offered new ways for members to get involved. Members learned about wellbeing and mentorship through our new peer support training program led by a trauma-informed trainer. Through our pilot Black History Learning Group, members expanded their knowledge and put this into practice by engaging in dialogue and organizing around social injustices. 

Thanks to DC’s Restore the Vote Act, passed this summer, incarcerated DC residents are now eligible to vote. Our Reentry Book Club members worked hard to spread the word and get out the vote. They led by example by participating in the election themselves. For many, it was their first time ever voting. We are awed at the resiliency of our members. We joined together to celebrate them with a “drive by and say hi” event to catch up social-distance style. 

Our reentry members are trailblazers, using their lived experiences to build a stronger and better future for our community. Thank you for making this possible and preparing us to enter 2021 stronger than ever!

Camaraderie Through Peer Support Training

When the pandemic first hit, our member-led COVID-19 Response Team jumped into action to support their fellow members. Wanting to do more, the team recently began participating in a weekly peer support training program to enhance their skills on responding to the emotional wellbeing of members. These training sessions are led by Free Minds friend and Credible Messenger trainer Che, who uses his experience from working in a hospital-based violence intervention program. 

Free Minds member Craig has been providing extra support check-ins for his fellow reentry members since March and is excited to use the new knowledge he is learning from these training sessions with members. He recently shared with us, “I'm learning a lot from Che and he's helping me bring out things in myself. The whole group is helping each of us to bring out our best in each other. I appreciate Free Minds for having this training."

Advocacy and Leadership With Our Black History Learning Group

Inspired by a summer of protests following the murder of George Floyd, our members expressed a desire to learn more about Black history and how it connects to today’s worldwide movement for social justice. The result was our Black History Learning Group, a small cohort of members who meet weekly in a virtual space to discuss a range of topics on African American history. So far, members have discussed voter suppression, redlining and the racial wealth gap, the legacies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, reparations, and racial disparities in the criminal legal system. Members engage in thoughtful conversations and use their new knowledge to become activists in the community. Congressman John Lewis Fellow Jameon says this group is a space for members to “build intellectually” and, “always very informative and impactful”

Members Take to the Polls for the First Time

Free Minds members were among those who contributed to the record-breaking turnout for this year’s presidential election! Not only did they exercise their right to vote, but they also advocated for voting rights for all incarcerated and formerly incarcerated citizens. Shannon, our new Advocacy & Leadership Development Specialist, who is formerly incarcerated himself, led efforts to educate our members on their voting rights by creating a video about voting, distributing voter guides to reentry members, and driving members to the polls. Shannon was just one of many members who were able to vote for the first time this year!

Reentry Members Drive By and Say Hi

In September, we hosted a successful “drop by and say hi” socially-distanced event. Reentry members stopped by to pick up COVID-19 Care Packages containing food items, personal protective equipment, and cleaning supplies. They also picked up some books off our bookshelf and enjoyed some burgers and hot dogs to go. Both members and staff were excited to be able to connect in-person after months of only seeing each other virtually!

Thank you for making all of this possible. As we reflect on this year, we are grateful that we can find so much to celebrate. We look forward to beginning the new year together!

Free Minds members voting, many for the first time
Free Minds members voting, many for the first time
FM member Milyk picks up a care package
FM member Milyk picks up a care package
Care packages and books ready to be picked up
Care packages and books ready to be picked up

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Food items for members impacted by COVID-19
Food items for members impacted by COVID-19

The Free Minds family has risen to the challenge of this unprecedented time in an extraordinary way. Our members continue to adapt and persevere, transforming challenges into new opportunities. Our weekly “Build Up” book club over Zoom plays a key role as a place for sharing, understanding, and peer support for members returning home from incarceration. Our member-led Leadership Council has gone above and beyond in taking care of the physical and emotional wellbeing of members, while the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA) support group provides guidance to members navigating being home for the first time in decades. IRAA is a DC law that allows people who have been in adult prison since they were 16 or 17 for over 15 years to apply for resentencing. Our team of Reentry Coaches are zealous in their pursuit of job openings and pushing for unemployment benefits delayed by months due to a massive backlog of requests. Thank you for supporting us throughout these challenging times!

The Build Up as a Space for Connecting and Growing

Free Minds has not let the pandemic stop its reentry book club, “The Build Up,” which has now gone virtual! This group allows members to express themselves through reading and writing, and, critically, creates a positive support system for members who may be struggling with reentry after incarceration. Although many members experience difficulties with limited internet access, that has not stopped them--in fact, more members are joining than ever, with about 60 participants weekly!

The Leadership Council Expands Their Focus

Jumping into immediate action, our member-led reentry Leadership Council formed an Emergency Response Team at the start of the pandemic to make sure our members stayed connected. The council calls and texts members daily to check on their wellbeing, making sure their immediate needs are met. During this difficult time, the Leadership Council has gone above and beyond, and has started reaching out to their peers who are still incarcerated by sharing words of encouragement and positive updates in letters and interactive worksheets every week.

“I ain't been home in over 20 years. I don't have family keeping me abreast to what's going on out there. God has blessed me with having an organization like Free Minds Book Club, to be a part of and help me through these tough times." - Free Minds member Shawndell, after receiving messages of support from the Leadership Council

We are inspired by the courage and compassion of the Leadership Council, who rose to action following the death of George Floyd. Realizing the need for more spaces for healing, education and dialogue, the Leadership Council created an African American history study group, which held its first meeting in August.

The IRAA Support Group Fosters Community

When the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA) passed in 2016, it allowed incarcerated individuals a chance at sentence reduction if they had been convicted as an adult when they were under 18, and served at least 15 years. With a growing number of IRAA reentry members, we formed our IRAA support group that now meets bi-monthly over Zoom. This group provides critical support for many members who have not been home in decades and are returning to communities with limited resources and opportunities. The men in this group have overcome these challenges, lifting each other up and creating a community to discuss their pasts, support each other in finding work, discuss their mental health, and share community resources. This group hasn’t stopped there, either, but they are also actively giving back. Members have developed a letter-writing campaign, sent care packages to IRAA-eligible incarcerated members, and have created videos of support to show judges during hearings. The amazing work of this group was also recently featured in The Washington Post!

Back At It: Write Night and Outreach Events Go Virtual

We are also hosting monthly Virtual Write Nights, where volunteers provide encouraging comments on poetry from incarcerated members. In June, we hosted our first “live” edition of Virtual Write Night, with over 200 participants. We heard from special guest speaker Marcus Bullock, whose company Flikshop uses postcards to connect incarcerated individuals with their loved ones. Marcus was joined by Poet Ambassador Tariq, recently home after serving over 20 years, and both gave heartfelt speeches on the importance of community and connectedness.

After brainstorming ideas for moving forward virtually, we have begun hosting community outreach events again! Our Poet Ambassadors, formerly incarcerated members raise awareness of mass incarceration and racial injustice through sharing their lived experiences and their poetry. We witnessed a powerful moment at a recent event, when Poet Ambassador Gordon lifted a stack of his poems with volunteer comments that he had kept and brought home with him, showing the lasting impact that positive feedback has on our members!

Your continued support is invaluable in helping our members feel part of a community that can build them up and help them move forward. Thank you for making this possible!

Leadership Council supporting Black Lives Matter
Leadership Council supporting Black Lives Matter
Poet Ambassador Shannon with a young reader
Poet Ambassador Shannon with a young reader

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Free Minds member Kalef picks up a care package
Free Minds member Kalef picks up a care package

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Free Minds family hard. Our members responded with their characteristic resilience and grit.

Our Reentry Book Club program focuses on in-person, individual support and training. When the DC Mayor announced a public health emergency in mid-March, the Free Minds team immediately transitioned our programming from in-person to remote. Daily phone calls, texts, emails, and video conferencing became the “new normal” for connecting Free Minds members and staff. We didn’t miss a beat and held our first virtual reentry book club via video conference that following Wednesday, March 18th. 

This pandemic has painfully and decisively revealed the glaring disparity experienced by our Free Minds community in all areas: health outcomes, wealth gap, employment, access to stable housing and safety in general. The COVID-19 crisis adds an even greater burden for our members coming home from incarceration. However, we have proven that, even during the physical distancing requirements, nothing can break or dim the Free Minds community’s powerful support system. Thank you for being part of this unbroken connection of strength and reliance. 

Conducting Remote Sessions of The Build Up program – the Digital Divide Experience

The Free Minds staff and team members are offering tech support to members as many struggle with basic smartphone operations, needing assistance to download and run video conferencing apps like Zoom or Google Hangouts. 

Our first-ever remote video conference session of The Build Up, our weekly reading and writing workshop for our formerly incarcerated members, was a lively, chaotic cacophony of attempts to log in from weak wi-fi signals amid the sounds of members helping each other navigate the new terrain of technology. The team persevered with their usual spirit of overcoming obstacles. The need to be together was stronger than any weak wi-fi signal!

Creating a COVID-19 Emergency Response Center for Free Minds Members

It has been a nonstop addition of supports and additional services to our members since the pandemic started. We have added new programming each week to the reentry program. The member-led Planning Committee transformed itself from a group that selects speakers to a COVID-19 Emergency Response Center. The leadership team speaks daily and meets weekly to devise ways to help all the Free Minds members during the crisis. The members’ needs are immediate and varied. The response team has provided care packages, groceries, cleaning supplies, and masks and gloves for front-line workers. The leadership team is a lifeline to peer mentorship, therapeutic outlets, and a network of support.

Supporting our Free Minds Members During the COVID-19 Pandemic

To date, approximately 78% of our members have lost wages or been laid off entirely due to the pandemic. Our team is working tirelessly to connect our members with jobs in the grocery, warehouse, and delivery fields, knowing that the painful choice of risking their lives and having to provide for themselves and their families is one they must make.

Free Minds has provided financial support as much as possible to our members. Most of our members do not have computers or wireless networks at home so rely on cell phones. Some are unable to pay phone bills due to the loss of income during this crisis. We have developed an emergency response fund to cover essentials such as cell phone bills, groceries, hygiene and cleaning supplies, and gas to get to job sites and interviews. We have also provided support for members dealing with funeral expenses for family members who have died due to the COVID-19 virus. We provide as much emotional support as possible despite in-person grieving being curtailed.

Program Updates Before the Pandemic

Below we recount our activities thanks to your generous support prior to the onset of COVID-19. We look forward to bringing you more updates once we have made it through this emergency with your help.

Apprenticeship

In January, we welcomed recently released members to the week-long, intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship. During the apprenticeship, participants practiced computer literacy, budgeting, resume writing, job interview skills, goal setting, and writing action plans. During each session of the apprenticeship, participants heard from other formerly incarcerated Free Minds members who serve as mentors and credible messengers through the challenges of reentry. Apprentices also took a special field trip to see the film Just Mercy, based on the book of the same name by Bryan Stevenson (Founder and Executive Director, Equal Justice Initiative). The book, which tells the story of Stevenson’s work with indigent people on death row in Alabama, has long been a book club favorite; the apprentices loved the opportunity to see this powerful true story on the big screen and were inspired and motivated to continue to create change in their own community.

Every apprentice left the program with a job placement and action plan.

The Build Up Book Club

In our weekly book club and writing workshop, the members of our reentry program have been reading and discussing the novel The Man Who Came Uptown. The novel follows a man named Michael who discovers a love of reading while incarcerated at the DC Jail, then struggles to balance his desire to reconnect with his family and lead a quiet life with the challenges of navigating reentry after leaving the jail. Our members could relate to Michael, and had wide-ranging discussions based on his decisions in the book.

Reentry Book Club members also heard from guest speakers from Black Youth Project 100 on community organizing and activism and from ScholarCHIPS on entrepreneurship and starting your own nonprofit.

Featured Poets in Community Art Series

In January, Free Minds Poet Ambassadors (formerly incarcerated members) were invited to share their poetry and the poetry of currently incarcerated members alongside the Takoma Park Poet Laureate at Poetry Behind Bars, part of the Takoma Park Third Thursday Poetry Series. The poetry reading was followed by a Q&A session, in which the Poet Ambassadors shared illuminating insights about the deep pain of solitary, their journey with healing, and the challenges of reentry. When asked if he still writes since coming home, Nokomis answered, “Writing poetry is like the bridge that got me to where I am now… I try to use whatever free time I have to manifest my creativity. I don’t want to lose that.” Takoma Park City TV recorded both the poetry readings and Q&A portion, which you can watch on our YouTube channel. 

As we plan for new challenges and uncertain times, thank you for your ongoing support that enables us to be flexible and adaptive to ensure we continue to provide high-quality services that meet our members’ needs.

Free Minds staff preparing care packages
Free Minds staff preparing care packages
Essential supplies for Free Minds members
Essential supplies for Free Minds members
Members and staff at the January Apprenticeship
Members and staff at the January Apprenticeship
Nokomis speaking at the Takoma Park Poetry Reading
Nokomis speaking at the Takoma Park Poetry Reading

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Free Minds Apprentices present visionary boards
Free Minds Apprentices present visionary boards

Our reentry members are becoming community change-makers thanks to your generous support! Since our last report, we welcomed a new group of apprentices into our intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship--they have now been paired with employment that suits their interests and skills, enrolled into a training program, or begun conducting community outreach through our nonviolence program known as “On the Same Page.” Read on to learn more about the inspiring work of our previously incarcerated youth!

Washington Post Magazine Publishes Groundbreaking Issue by Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Writers

In November, the Washington Post Magazine released a very special issue written, illustrated and photographed by currently and formerly incarcerated people in the United States. Free Minds served as advisers for this issue, and we're proud to announce that two of our Free Minds members were featured! Free Minds members Demetrius B. and Johnny B. submitted personal essays, which were hand selected over hundreds of candidates. This issue is historic in its recognition of the vital need to hear from those directly impacted by the criminal legal system. You can find all the stories here.

You can find all personal essays here.

Recently Released Members complete Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship

This fall, we welcomed a new group of young men home from prison into our intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship. Our Apprentices participated in workshops on topics such as financial literacy, giving back, effective communication, storytelling, conflict resolution, and more. Most importantly, they heard advice and encouragement from fellow Free Minds members who are home, working, and ready to welcome them to the circle of support that never breaks.

At the end of the apprenticeship, apprentices, staff, and Free Minds supporters presented personal vision boards on success and future goals and dreams. Free Minds staff and supporters left apprentices with words of encouragement and presented each apprentice with their very own personalized gift—a book representing each apprentices special interest.

After participating in our Apprenticeship, Free Minds apprentice Craig began working at a bowling company and Free Minds apprentice Antonio enrolled into a work readiness program, known as DC Career Connections, to jumpstart his career. Additionally, former Free Minds apprentice Damon graduated from the Building Futures program, which offers certifications for careers in the union construction trades; Free Minds member Brandon graduated from a Commercial Driver’s License program; and Free Minds member Malik began his career with UPS.

Our members have reached tremendous milestones because of your investment. Your belief in our work makes successfully achieving a 9% recidivism rate (compared to a national rate of 75.9%) and a 90% job and school placement rate possible. 

Congratulations to everyone!

Poet Ambassadors Bring Poetry and New Perspectives to DC Police Academy

Free Minds staff and Poet Ambassadors (previously incarcerated members) spoke to nearly 150 recruits about youth and mass incarceration, sharing personal testimonies of change and poetry from our book, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison. Shortly after, recruits broke out into groups and engaged in a "Write Night" activity, which included reading and responding to original poetry written by our incarcerated members. Many of the recruits shared that they were native Washingtonians and could identify with the themes of the poems. For some, their loved ones are currently incarcerated.

As soon-to-be officers, the recruits were eager to ask our Poet Ambassadors for advice. After being asked, "What advice would you give to us to make sure no else goes through what you went through?" Poet Ambassador Chris answered, "Do your job to the best of your ability, but be honest and don't rush to judgement, and you'll be alright." Chris was wrongfully convicted as a teen and served over 20 years in prison.

Thank you Georgetown Law's Program on Innovating Policing's Police for Tomorrow Fellowship Program and MPD Academy for making this happen!

Thank you for making all of this possible. We are only as great as our community!

Special WP issue featuring FM members
Special WP issue featuring FM members
Poet Ambassador Chris offers recruits advice
Poet Ambassador Chris offers recruits advice
FM Apprentice Craig is gifted a book by FM Staff
FM Apprentice Craig is gifted a book by FM Staff
FM Apprentice Shannon is gifted a book by FM Staff
FM Apprentice Shannon is gifted a book by FM Staff
Poet Ambassador Cliff offers recruits advice
Poet Ambassador Cliff offers recruits advice
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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, DC United States
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