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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
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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Free Minds Apprentices show off visionary boards
Free Minds Apprentices show off 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.” We have also partnered with a national non-profit to center the voices and experiences of those who have been directly impacted by incarceration, and launched a dedicated support group specially designed for our members transitioning back home after 20+ years behind bars. Read on to learn more about the inspiring work of our previously incarcerated youth!

Returning Citizens Talk Criminal Justice Reform

This spring, Free Minds collaborated with national nonprofit The Education Trust to host “Educational Justice: Centering the Voices and Experiences of Incarcerated Individuals,” a panel discussion deeply rooted in lived experiences of those personally impacted by incarceration. Often silenced and absent from conversations on reform, a group of incarceration-impacted individuals gathered to lead a conversation on second chances, education, injustice, criminal justice, and the power of high quality education on changing incarcerated lives.

With the exception of two, the remaining panelists were returning citizens who now work to enact change and create greater justice in our current criminal justice system; Michelle J. spoke of the need to remove all barriers to applying to college for people with criminal records. Annie F., who led the charge in Louisiana to ban criminal history questions on college applications, spoke of how many people are deterred from applying to college when they get to a question on the application asking, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime.”

The panel allowed for incarceration-impacted individuals to match stories and faces to reform, humanize issues, and emphasize education as a tool for survival. If they aren’t part of the process, it won’t be done right!

Free Minds members--who serve as ambassadors for our incarcerated members--were in attendance and identified with the value of education/educational materials inside correctional facilities. In the words of currently incarcerated Free Minds member Momolu, “When I didn’t know how to read well, my mind was imprisoned. I felt like my soul was unable to acknowledge its purpose. As I became a teen, I looked at the guys on the street corner with their money, guns and drugs and I saw them as honorable men. I just had no other reference point. Education has given me a reason to breathe. It has aligned me with my purpose and taught me my connection to life. When I read my first book, I felt like a champion! I wouldn’t say that education helped me to see myself differently. Education allowed me to truly see myself for the first time!”

Thank you, The Education Trust, for truly seeing the critical importance of higher education in prison! We all have to be part of keeping our efforts going.

Recently Released Members complete Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship

Earlier this month, Free Minds Book Club welcomed a group of youth and adult men into our intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship for recently released members, with workshops on different topics led by expert presenters as well as formerly incarcerated Free Minds members.

During the apprenticeship, apprentices learned money management and budgeting, preparing for success, discovering short and long-term goals, and workplace etiquette. They also conducted mock interviews, learned how to search for employment, adopted skills on how to remain resilient while facing adversity, and went on an educational field trip to the National Museum of African American History of Culture.

At the end of the apprenticeship, apprentices, staff, and Free Minds supporters presented vision boards, noting similar goals of peace, success, mobility, and travel. Free Minds staff and supporters left apprentices with words of encouragement and presented each apprentice with their very own personalized gift—a book, of course!

Congratulations to everyone!

Youth Charged as Adults are Re-sentenced

In 2016, DC’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA) passed and provided an opportunity for the re-sentencing of youth tried as adults when they were under 18 years old after serving at least 15 years in prison. Before consideration, IRAA beneficiaries must have demonstrated rehabilitation and maturity. Thus far, all IRAA recipients who have returned home are working and serving as role models; none have re-offended, and many are mentoring youth.

Free Minds created an IRAA Support group, which met for the very first time last month. Ten Free Minds members participated and it was a “huge hit!” During the group, our members shared their stories with one another and expressed how important it is to show love and support for one another and be each other’s resource as they all reintegrate back into society. The support group will meet once per month at the Free Minds Office.

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

Free Minds Apprentice presents visionary board
Free Minds Apprentice presents visionary board
Free Minds Apprentice presents visionary board
Free Minds Apprentice presents visionary board
Educational justice reform panelists
Educational justice reform panelists
IRAA Support group meets at Free Minds Office
IRAA Support group meets at Free Minds Office
Free Minds Apprentices visit NMAAHC
Free Minds Apprentices visit NMAAHC
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FM member Michael with artists Donna & Cindy
FM member Michael with artists Donna & Cindy

Our reentry members are seeing themselves in a new light thanks to your generous support. We celebrated our 2019 Congressman John Lewis Fellow who leads our nonviolence outreach program, welcomed a new group of apprentices into our intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship, and participated in our first ever portrait project! Read on to learn more about the inspiring human capacity for change and compassion.

Free Minds Holds Their Second Congressman John Lewis Fellowship Celebration

On May 22, Free Minds held our 2nd celebration to commemorate our Congressman John Lewis Fellowship, a one-year paid position for a formerly incarcerated young adult to use poetry and lived experiences to promote nonviolence, hope, racial equity, and peace in under-served schools and neighborhoods. The fellow leads our poetry-based nonviolence and community outreach program, On the Same Page: Free Minds Poetry in the Classroom and Community The fellowship was inspired Congressman Lewis’s visit to our book club at the DC Jail. During his visit, Lewis discussed his graphic novel trilogy March and shared about his life of nonviolence during the Civil Rights Movement.

Congressman John Lewis was not able to attend the celebration, but Andrew Aydin, who co-wrote the March graphic novel trilogy with Congressman Lewis, spoke passionately about the role reading can play in personal development and racial justice. 

As the 2019 Congressman John Lewis Fellow, Southeast DC native Joshua Samuel shared his thankfulness for being able to speak to youth similar to his younger self: “I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to change lives. I have been able to prevent further damage to the community by sharing my story and helping kids elevate their lives. I have been able to speak to kids who resemble me and grew up in the same circumstances, and prevent them from making the same mistakes I endured.”

It was an incredible evening filled with inspiration and hope as we realized a dream--to reach more youths with the life-changing power of books, writing, and community.

Recently Released Members complete Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship

Earlier this month, Free Minds Book Club welcomed a group of youth and adult men into our intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship for recently released members, with workshops on different topics led by expert presenters as well as formerly incarcerated Free Minds members.

During the apprenticeship, apprentices learned tech tactics, budgeting, and financial planning. They also presented their life and career goals through vision boards, role played in preparation for on the job work scenarios, conducted mock interviews, took a team trip to the National Museum of African American History of Culture, and heard powerful testimonies from guest speakers who have overcame adversity.

At the end of the apprenticeship, one apprentice shared, “I was at a point where I didn’t think I would ever get out, but now I don’t take anything for granted.” We are so happy to be a part of our apprentices’ new life journeys and we are thankful to them for joining our Free Minds family!

Congratulations to everyone, and good luck!

Volunteer Artists Paint Free Minds Members for “Portrait Project”

From April 30-May 3, professional portrait artists Donna Catotti and Cindy Dill traveled to Washington, DC to spearhead a “Portrait Project,” which featured several of our formerly incarcerated members. The artists visited our office and dedicated 2-3 hours per portrait. In 4 days, each artist was able to finish 2-3 oil paintings per day! Our members were exceptionally excited for the project, as none of them had ever experienced having their portrait painted before, let alone by a professional artist. The portraits turned out absolutely stunning!

These portraits are a unique way for our members to reflect on their own self-image, and a way to shift the public perception. Our goal is to display the portraits, as well as personal statements from our members, in a public exhibition to change the narrative of what it means to be a returning citizen in our society.

If pictures are worth a thousand words, how much is a portrait worth?

Thank you to the wonderful artists Donna and Cindy for their creativity, passion, and dedication to this project, and to our members for their courage to see themselves in a new light.

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

Artist Cindy Catotti with her portraits
Artist Cindy Catotti with her portraits
FM team pictured with artists Donna and Cindy
FM team pictured with artists Donna and Cindy
Andrew Aydin, 2019 Fellow, and Fellowship creator
Andrew Aydin, 2019 Fellow, and Fellowship creator
2019 John Lewis Fellow Joshua Samuel
2019 John Lewis Fellow Joshua Samuel
Apprentices showcase their visionary boards
Apprentices showcase their visionary boards
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Free Minds member Avery x Yerba Mate Tea
Free Minds member Avery x Yerba Mate Tea

Flowers are not the only things growing this spring! Our tenacious Poet Ambassadors are continuing to use the power of reading and writing to build up each other and the DC community. Additionally, our Poet Ambassadors continue to be role models and voices of change within the DC area as we have been visiting schools, offices, faith groups, and adult learning facilities. We are so happy that the community eagerly wants to jump-start (or continue) conversations on mass incarceration and how we can battle this national crisis.

Thanks to your continuous support, more Free Minds members are employed, in school, obtaining vocational certificates, but more importantly, giving back.

Free Minds Job and Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship

"I knew if Joshua could do it, I could do it too" said apprentice DaQuan after reconnecting with childhood friend and Poet Ambassador Joshua during our Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship for recently released members. The apprenticeship includes workshops on computer literacy interview skills, financial literacy, and personal growth.

The apprentices also heard from Poet Ambassador Cornelious, who left the apprentices with such encouraging and inspiring lessons: Focus on positivity, positive people, and positive habits. In the words of Cornelius, “You’re worthy and deserve a life worthy of being lived to the fullest.”

Per tradition, on the final day, each apprentice presented vision boards they all created with images of their goals for the future. Each apprentice expressed hopefulness and success for their future, while emphasizing success is not limited to financial gains. Afterwards, they all received words of encouragement and best wishes from Free Minds staff, supporters, and senior Free Minds members who sat in on each session as a means for support for their Free Minds brothers. Every apprentice was then gifted a book personally selected for them.

Apprentice Leo shared, “I recognized what barriers were in front of my goals during this apprenticeship and I will never forget Free Minds to be the one who made me breakthrough."

Congratulations, apprentices! 

Books and Belonging

The moment we say Enough! is the moment we can take charge of the destiny of our own lives” - Poet and Activist Sam J. Ssemaganda

We use reading and writing in every aspect of our book club! Although we have several book club and writing workshop members at the DC Jail and in federal prisons across the United States, we also have one for our members who are returning home from prison.

For the last few weeks, book club members have been reading Our Lives Matter: The Ballou Story Project, which highlights the powerful, personal stories of thirty teen writers from Frank W. Ballou High School in Washington, DC who came together to take part in a national conversation about race, inequality, violence, and justice.

To celebrate finishing the book, Free Minds invited special guest Ugandan Poet and Activist Sam J. Ssemaganda who read poetry from his book of poetry Enough: A harvest of poetry from a life of questions seldom answered. Sam shared that the country of Uganda has the youngest population in the world. Over 70% of the country is under age 30 and the unemployment for young people is 88% so there is a lot of hopelessness and crime to fight.

In addition, during this session our members had a wonderful and vulnerable conversation about trauma, healing, mental health, and the stigma for African American men to receive counseling or admit they are suffering with PTSD from incarceration. Free Minds is partnering with a licensed clinical social worker to provide trauma therapy for our formerly incarcerated members.

We’re so proud of the way our members have created a safe and nurturing space for each other. Our Reentry Book Club is more than just a book club; it is a brotherhood.

Free Minds Members: From Prison to a Paycheck (Update)

In the past year, 80% of our members in the Reentry Book Club have been working, studying, or participating in vocational training programs, resulting in a 13% recidivism rate as opposed to the national rate of 75.9%. We are so thankful to witness so many members achieving admirable accomplishments. Here are just a few of the highlights: Avery accepted a salaried position with Yerba Mate Tea; Andre is taking a placement test at Prince George’s Community College; Aaron graduated from the Generation Hospitality Program; Nick, Davon, and Darius graduated from the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement Pathways Program; and Antwan graduated from Building Futures.

In our last report, we announced that Poet Ambassador Jordan was going to college! We met Jordan at the DC Jail when he was 17 years old. In January, he headed to college to study business management. He stopped by the office during his spring break, and let us know what he’s hoping to gain from his college experience. Jordan said, “What I hope to gain from college is a better understanding of how businesses operate and how to properly manage my own. My major is business management or “e-business” as they call it here, which means that I am learning about the functions and operations of a business electronically. Business has always stuck with me since I was younger. I always told myself ‘I want to be a businessman when I get older’ and I am just turning a dream into reality.”

Congratulations on a great start, Jordan!

Apprentice DaQuan presenting his vision board
Apprentice DaQuan presenting his vision board
Reentry Book Club poses with "Our Lives Matter"
Reentry Book Club poses with "Our Lives Matter"
Free Minds members Nick & Davon at Pathways Grad.
Free Minds members Nick & Davon at Pathways Grad.
Free Minds member Aaron with Free Minds staff
Free Minds member Aaron with Free Minds staff
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Organization Information

Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

Location: Washington, DC - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @FreeMindsDC
Project Leader:
Tara Libert
Washington, DC United States
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