Pencil in Hand
“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 Kettles
It is a cool mid-winter night and every folding table at Seeker’s Church is filled with men and women from the surrounding neighborhoods of Takoma Park. Within the recessed ceiling, a halo of light washes softly over red blazers and floral scarves. On the tables are scattered pages of poetry and boxes of colored pens. A neon pink tip sheet instructs new participants to “Keep it R.E.A.L.!”—that is, Relatable, Encouraging, Active, and Lasting. This evening is Write Night.
Put a pencil in my hand / And a sketchpad in front of me / My mind’s so focused / It feels like the whole world is under me.
Immanuel, "A Pencil in my Hand"
All in attendance are taking part in the work of Free Minds Book Club. Community members gather to comment and critique the many poems laid out, but the authors are all absent. The tip sheet gives away that this is not just any poetry and that patrons are here to offer positive words to the jailed men who wrote them. In the corner of the room, a group of young African American men are talking in loose trios. Each one wears a blue polo shirt with the words “Poet Ambassador” written across the shoulders.
Every poet ambassador is called upon to describe the program in their own words. Free Minds co-Founder Tara Libert explains to Write Night, “[Poet ambassadors] are the voice of the incarcerated poets that you guys see on the table.” The poet ambassadors are all returned citizens, former inmates who have been with Free Minds Book Club in prison and out.
“I’m a proud Free Minds member and a devoted poet ambassador to my brothers,” says one member, Terrell Branham. Branham has been with the program since the age of sixteen when he entered the correctional program. Branham joined the book club after a month on the juvenile block. Now he is freed and telling his story as a poet ambassador.
“The most important thing to know about Free Minds is that it is more than just what it sounds like, says Branham. “It’s really like a family.” Branham didn’t receive mail from his family or friends for any of the six years he was imprisoned. He said, “When I do get some mail it’s from Free Minds. When my birthday [came] around, it’s from Free Minds…That was just a blessing.”
Free Minds Book Club is a simple concept: book clubs for youth in the adult prison system. But the result is quite dramatic: Youth who would otherwise be forgotten and written off by society find a voice, discover community and are empowered to then give back, using their own past to make a difference in other people’s lives.
More Than a Number
“All our members are teens in the adult system,” says Libert. Individuals who are 16-18 years old and charged as adults are jailed in adult facilities. However, due to a heightened possibility of violence, they are kept away from the general population. These inmates were not offered any activities to occupy their time until recently. Even though inmates are required to attend school in prison there was no such access.
They call me 299-359 / Correctional officers view me as a stupid savage / I push the pen so that I remain happy / Mama and Daddy, these are the unspoken words of your baby’s diary / My orange jumpsuit and number are only the cover
DW, They Call Me 299-359
“We’ve been there 15 years, but before they didn’t even have a school, which is illegal,” says Libert. Free Minds was allowed quick entry to DC Jail, in part, because the DC Jail had no education system in place and was facing lawsuits. But word spread quickly about Free Minds, and the space was welcomed by administrators and inmates alike.
Approximately 60 youths are incarcerated in DC every year. The majority come from the city’s most crime-stricken neighborhoods where nearly half of the children live below the poverty rate.
“I had just come onto the juvenile block, I was charged with carjacking and armed robbery” says Nokomis “Nick” Hunter, a poet ambassador. “I had been going through stress and saying I was depressed.” Hunter was hesitant to join Free Minds at first, but eventually signed on hoping it would give him a break from all the time spent in his cell. He never imagined how Free Minds would welcome him not just to a book club, but to a family…a brotherhood.
Friends and family eventually stopped visiting Hunter, stopped sending letters. But, he says he would always get mail from Free Minds—even as he, like other Free Minds members, was moved around to multiple prisons during his sentence. Where ever he was behind bars, Free Minds letters and books were soon to follow.
Free Minds is first and foremost a book club aimed at juvenile men in the adult prison system in DC. Books are an essential forum for these men to begin talking about their own lives. As they read, they draw parallels to their own journeys. As they discuss, they explore themes relevant to their past, present and future: What are the trials that lead them to prison? What is the mindset that will assist them on their path out?
As they write, they process and make sense of their own experiences. Then, they share these inner thoughts with the outside world. And the outside world speaks back.
There is no better way to experience the change, transformation and power of words than to read it in the poet's voices themselves. They all have something to say. The question is, will we take the time to listen?
Anthony Pleasant is a man with a name to match his personality. He is smiling when I first meet him, and he is deliberate in his interactions. In a way, Pleasant is a poster child for Free Minds.
When he was first locked up in 2003 for the charge of 2nd Degree Murder and Armed Robbery, Pleasant was assumed to be a lost cause. Free Minds was told by prison staff, “Don’t even talk to Anthony.”
Libert says, “The toughest guys can have the sweetest hearts.” Telling Free Minds to stay away from somebody only highlighted the need to seek him out.
“Once I started reading and writing, it gave me a sense of who I really was.”
For several months, he participated in book discussions, but held a secret. In time, that secret was revealed: Pleasant could not read or write. He hid it well, talking about himself and taking context clues from what other people would say to get through the meeting. Pleasant was reluctant to attend the book club at all in the beginning. But he says, “It was an opportunity to get my cell open, to go out.”
Now, 14 years later, Pleasant reads his poem, I Was You, to a group of 6th and 7th grade boys at Leckie Elementary, all gathered around, listening intently. Pleasant tells the boys, “Once I started reading and writing, it gave me a sense of who I really was.”
I was you / I struggled to read / I struggled to write / That’s right, I, the person who wrote this poem / Can read and understand these words!
Anthony Pleasant, "I Was You"
The Leckie Lion Hearts books club meets at Leckie Elementary in Southwest DC. This book club has only been meeting for a few weeks at this point, but it already provides poet ambassadors a venue to speak to the young men they once were. The Lion Hearts members are all African-American boys who have been either referred by parents and teachers or have come on their own. Leckie school psychologist Donald Ross says the book club is a “tier to intervention.”
Every Lion Heart has a mnemonic name: Kingly Kimani, Royal Ronald, Confident Craig. As they introduce themselves, each one offers a word to describe Free Minds. “Inspiring” says Royal Ronald. “Brave” says Mindful Miles. Further down some of the boys begin to compete. “Ameliorate” says one. “Luminous,” says another, “cause it brings light to all the pain.” This generates some finger-snaps, the equivalent of clapping, for poetry performance.
More than half of the youth served by Free Minds also have parents or other close family members who have been incarcerated, and the majority already have children themselves.
Pleasant and another poet ambassador Juan Peterson each tell their story. Pleasant shares openly about his struggles—the challenging circumstances he was born into and the difficulties he faced at school. He describes the clash of expectations. In his world, survival dictated that he protect himself. “[My mother] had told me, when I was growing up that no matter what, I have a right to react back if someone put their hands on me.” Yet, when he reacted physically, he was pushed out of the regular school system and into an alternative school.
Like all middle school boys, the Leckie Lion Hearts are prone to distraction and fidgeting, but they pay close attention to the poet ambassadors. Several relate to poor relationship with their father or a painful home life. A few ask questions about the ambassadors’ crimes or about prison. At the end of the meeting, all the boys stand and read lines from a poem they collaborated on, titled “Where I Come From.”
I come from no one to look up to / Where I come from when you graduate you don’t get congratulated if you don’t look gangsta there is a lot of hate / Where I come from people make your heart break
Leckie Lion Hearts Book Club
Many lines depict worlds of violence and posturing and the condemnation of colored skin. Some see the beauty in their surroundings, “I come from where the streets are quiet, there’s no violence, no crying, no more living in pain.” They are proud of what they’ve written, saying “That was mine” or “I wrote that.” Though many of their lives may look similar, they write with unique voices and learn to craft their experiences into poetry.
This is the complete cycle of Free Minds’ work. A young man who has faced incredible challenges and obstacles in his life makes a mistake, goes to prison, and is written off by society. That should be the end of the story. But because of Free Minds, it is not. In the case of Anthony Pleasant, the young man finds a caring community – one willing to invest in him, teach him critical literacy skills, empower him to express his words and uncover the power in those words.
Since then, Pleasant has been released, reintegrated into society, and now gives back to his community. He teaches other youth about the power of words and about the perils of being swallowed up by the criminal justice system.
Pleasant has something truly unique to offer: In a world where prison may be glamorized, Pleasant offers a true account—a counter-narrative of truth, but also one of hope. His message is delivered with credibility and authenticity because of the road he has traveled.
“I was you,” he says. “I struggled to read, I struggled to write.” But he continues, “That’s right, I, the person who wrote this poem, can read and understand these words!” The power of these stanzas lies, in part, in the struggle that preceded them—one that resonates for many of the boys now seated in the room.
Telling their Stories
Prison is a long and difficult journey, punctuated by reassignment to other institutions and stints in solitary confinement. Free Minds members receive more support than many of their fellow inmates, but even still, tedium and isolation are everyday feelings.
“Free of charge / I just ask you to pay attention / Because these voices to be heard / Have silently went missing.”
Makkah Ali, "Free of Charge"
When they are released, the freedom is short-lived. A felony can be its own prison. Right now, DC laws prohibit employers from asking prospective employees about their criminal record on applications, but Maryland and Virginia do not.
And even if they didn’t have answer for a criminal history, every Free Minds member entered prison as a juvenile. Some spent time catching up on reading and writing comprehension and perhaps some skills training, but few have anything in the way of experience. Many released men are now working two or three different jobs while caring for mothers or children of their own. They are starting a new life, but often in the same settings, amidst all the obstacles they started out with and more.
"Everybody in prison had me prepared to be rejected by society. The older guys taught me that nobody would give me a chance. But Free Minds was different. They showed me there are people out here who are really trying to help. That gave me the motivation I really needed,” explains Varvie Daughtry.
Free Minds founder and director Tara Libert gathers with a dozen or so members of its newest book club, The Build-Up—a group of returned citizens now back home in DC. Some of these men have been out for years and serve as poet ambassadors, others are there for support. One member had been released less than 24-hours prior.
There are about 135 returned citizens from the Free Minds program.
The men talk openly about the experiences both in prison and back home. They use the narrative found in their current read: Emmanuel Jal’s autobiography, The War Child to talk about holding onto life in bleak circumstances. The neutral territory of the book is evident, and Tara pushes the men to express themselves through journaling. This evening, “What is my purpose?”
“To break the cycle,” says Juan Peterson. Other men see their role in the family and commit to take care of their mothers, set a good example for their brothers and sisters, and be good fathers to their children.
“To set an example for the next generation to become Free Minds members” says Sergio Hill.
Tara closes the circle, “to tell the stories of exceptional men like you.”
For many of these men, Free Minds is about telling their own story. In the 15 years since its inception, the organization has published two collections of poetry, They Call Me 299-359 (in 2011) and The Untold Story of the Real Me (in 2015). The next publication will feature the work of the Leckie Book Club members—a first-time compilation of poems written by young men who are not in prison, and hopefully never will be.
All I’ve got are my dreams / All I’ve got are my visions / Trying to calculate ways to execute my own missions
Jonas, "Locked Up"
The program was first directed at DC inmates, but the popularity of the programs has grown with the Free Minds members. As many of the men are moved around to different facilities around the country, so is the Free Minds name. Libert says they now allow Free Minds members to refer their “cellies” or cell-mates to the program.
Since its inception, Free Minds has reached over 900 youths through its Book Club, Continuing Support and Reentry Programs.
Libert also says they are hoping to write the whole Free Minds book club into a curriculum for people to work with nationwide or worldwide.
Free Minds bridges gaps of race, gender and upbringing through the neutral infrastructure of literature. But at its core, the program connects young men with shared experiences to each other (brotherhood) and back into their communities, where they can speak truth and hope into the future generation.
Community members are encouraged to come out to Write Night to offer positive reinforcement and feedback to incarcerated poets, but also to learn about lives that look different from their own. The work of Free Minds is centered around book clubs that engage young incarcerated men. But its work extends far beyond mere book clubs. For many, Free Minds means education, literacy, self-expression, job skills, connection to the outside world, personal understanding, confidence, community, family and purpose.
Free Minds journeys through prison and back, as boys become men and leave prison behind.