On an ordinary Wednesday night, over 60 men gather for a Zoom call.
Through nods of agreement, hearty laughter, and moments of honesty, this group shares one another’s experiences. They celebrate the week’s birthdays and pause to mourn the passing of members or loved ones they’ve lost. There is good news about securing jobs. The chat box is filled with tips and encouragement for finding stable housing. Each face on the screen remains focused on the forward momentum gained in their lives. Their time culminates in a discussion of the book Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig. Reading it together, they answer questions about how their life stories may intersect with that of Muhammed Ali—how his legacy of living with conviction continues to inspire.
This is a picture of Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop. Members on this call take part in one of the group’s virtual book clubs called the Build Up. As its name implies, the weekly meeting is a forum to strengthen one another as they navigate daily life after returning home from prison. Each man has walked in similar shoes to the other. Their verbal agreements on the call are a sign that they understand what it is to confront defeat, but also a new measure of victory each day they spend forging new paths for themselves. That night, it is fitting that they read a quote by Ali: “Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even." Though their circumstances were anything but an even match, the men on this call are no less committed to writing new chapters in their own life stories.
Free Minds recognizes the power words hold to bring about change. It views them -- in books, poems, essays -- as infinite sources of learning, expression, connection, and, in turn, healing. Its members are incarcerated youth and adults for whom books can be a lifeline in a place where time inches slowly and writing a way to learn their own voice. Free Minds is both proof of and model for listening to a story that may be different from our own. The result speaks to the nature of language and narration; we find common ground through them as they teach, stretch, and transform.
Poetry from the participants of Free Minds.
Free Minds’ own story began over 25 years ago, when co-founder Kelli Taylor received a letter from a young man, Glen McGinis. In 1996, he faced execution on death row in Texas for a crime committed at age 13 and wanted to raise awareness for the young people of color who awaited the same fate. As a journalist for a foreign broadcaster, Kelli’s team made a documentary on the subject and she continued to correspond with Glen. What happened next was an unlikely friendship birthed over a shared love of books. Though Glen stopped attending school at age 11, his appetite for reading never died. “We had so little in common on the surface, on paper. But we started reading books together. I wasn't really formulating this idea of ‘Let's do a book club.’ I [thought], ‘I'll order this for you’ and then we would write back and forth about what we were reading,” Kelli shares. “It was just magic, the way that we could talk and write about such deep things, not really knowing each other in the traditional way that you get to know someone, but getting to know each other through books.”
Move as Family
Glen was executed in the year 2000. His life and death became the seed that birthed Free Minds in 2002. As the original Free Mind, Glen’s advocacy, highlighting the plight of youth in the adult prison system, and his passion for reading as a source of healing community, continue to pulse throughout the program.
The core of Free Minds’ work is a fierce dedication to the wellbeing of its members: allowing space for them to be seen, heard, and supported. So while the prison book clubs and writing workshops are its most notable offerings, that is not all. Throughout its time, they have expanded to include reentry support for its members returning home, job training, and leadership development. They also coordinate a weekly Letter Writers Circle, working with volunteers to respond to mail sent in by incarcerated members from all over the country. And there is more still. It all rests on the foundation they began with: being present. It is what co-founder Tara Libert identifies as a “community of support.” What the group does best is make themselves available to one another in a way that says, “We walk with you.” The sincerity of that message is shown through consistent action. Ironically, that gift of presence remains crystal clear during the pandemic, a time when physical distance has completely altered the ways we show care to one another.
When we first met with Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop in 2017, so much of what they did transpired face-to-face. Book clubs facilitated for youth members in the DC jail, reading programs hosted for local middle school students, and monthly Write Nights coordinated to connect the work of its members to the wider community, all found Free Minds going directly to the source of those they serve. Like all of us, that rhythm shifted in March 2020.
The pandemic has been described as everything from a gift of reflection to a harrowing period of loss, unrest, and uncertainty. All of this remains true at the same time. And through everything, Free Minds maintained their focus on what has always mattered most: serving those they care for. Perhaps this is why Free Minds member turned staffer Craig Watson, likened the program to a tight-knit unit: “We move as a family. It’s important because everyone is family, no matter what you’re going through, what you got going on, no matter where you move to.”
And what does it look like to move as a family right now? For this group, it involves a constant determination to find a way. It is showing up the best way you know how. It looks like a listening ear one day and a digitally drawn response on a letter from a member on another. Family looks like coordinating tangible needs like food and clothing for pick-up in the Free Minds office. It is the tender space created to be vulnerable within a breakout room on Zoom, incorporating guided meditation into the curriculum for the prison book clubs, and simply checking in by phone after noticing how much time has passed since you last spoke with a member.
Those who have experienced isolation are best able to speak to its impact on our mental health. It is not easy to ask for help or support. And it can be disorienting to enter back into a world that you haven’t known in years. Having served 22 years of a 35 to life sentence, Craig understood this well. It is why when he noticed that the group hadn’t heard from some of its reentry members in a while, he asked for a list of names so that he could contact them directly. “I know the importance of having support—that peer support. I need someone to check on me. I check on a lot of people [because] strong people become weak too,” responds Craig. Many on the team propped up his efforts as a crucial part of their pandemic response; it led to the formation of Free Minds’ Peer Support Program, which officially launched in November 2021. Members are trained in a course to listen and guide, then paired with those who have recently returned home. The program is a source of encouragement during times of transition. Craig leads the initiative as a Peer Support Specialist. It has become one of many vital ways that Free Minds ensures its members know someone is there to walk beside them every step of the way.
When You Hear Me, You Hear Us
The writing produced by Free Minds members is a powerful testament to the agency of being able to tell your story in your own words. Their work bears witness to a multitude of experiences. The first and most immediate is their existence behind bars. Alongside that is a look into traumas they sustained growing up and the emotions that swirl within because of those traumas. Even still, some works speak to a vision for the future, whether their own or that of the world at large. The resulting poetry is many things: beautiful and devastating, rich with both shattering truth and battle-tested hope. Ultimately, these works are necessary, humanizing those of our society who are often overlooked and stripped of everything, including their own voice. It is what makes the published work of Free Minds so potent, marvelous, and urgent—the real words of a few give voice to many.
Free Minds published collections of poetry and prose in their Connect magazine.
Their written work is seen in two ways: through a monthly, magazine-style newsletter called Connect and a growing collection of published books. Connect is largely a member-focused endeavor, sent to over 600 incarcerated members in more than 50 facilities across the nation, though the publication can be viewed by anyone on the Free Minds website. It is a platform for members to offer their words to one another with each issue. Put together by the Free Minds team, it features original work by its members along with articles written by partners of the organization. A recent issue on accountability includes a roundup on work that re-entry members are currently doing in the community, an acrostic poem on accountability from Ms. Keela, photos and captions of happenings in DC, and writing prompts they can use.
When asked about the magazine’s impact, Program Assistant Imanee Magee likens its content to a daily source of information. “A lot of our members don't have access to news or just updated news in general, so it's like their newspaper. This is their company. For those that are from DC, it's how they stay connected to DC and to the world. A lot of them have expressed how the Connect magazine is a lifeline for them, in a sense. And of course, they love having their work published.” That last part is also true of the books the group has written, including their most recent publication which launched in October 2021.
When You Hear Me You Hear Us speaks to the ecosystem that surrounds youth incarceration, and its ripple effects. It is an anthology of prose and poetry by Free Minds members along with conversations from those also impacted by the US prison system: family members, prosecutors, judges, and correctional officers. Where Free Minds’ first two books - They Called Me 299-359 and The Untold Story of the Real Me - share the personal stories of those in the prison system in their own words, this third offering expands on it by making clear that the effects of incarceration do not solely affect the individual. “We at Free Minds believe that we are all connected and when one person is not free, we are all not,” offers Tara on the book’s central theme. “We chose to include the voices of others—not just young people who had been incarcerated, because we have seen over and over again through the years the way one person’s incarceration affects the entire community.” It is a perspective that is not widely recognized and one that, through over 100 poems from its members featured in the book, Free Minds is able to speak to. After all, every story is embedded in another.
A Story of Interconnection
Every Monday, Free Minds volunteers respond to letters sent by incarcerated members from all over the country. The occasion used to happen in person, but Imanee has been leading the group over Zoom as they engage in conversation through more and more letters. These nights are an open invitation for anyone who wants to share in a dialogue with Free Minds members, and members welcome the opportunity to talk to as many different people as they can. “We've got more positive feedback having each person respond to a different letter because our members are saying it gives them the opportunity to meet more volunteers, people with different backgrounds and perspectives. It's like an opportunity that they don't have [normally.] So they're happy to hear from all these different types of people, all the places that they've been to, and then [it’s good] for our volunteers as well,” says Imanee.
These letters highlight the power embedded in our words. In one way or another, we are all impacted by, and thus connected to, the system of incarceration. While Free Minds’ work goes directly towards helping its members to navigate their lives both inside and outside of the prison system, it also teaches the way that our worlds are interconnected. It is a lesson on the exchange of being human—if presence is the foundation that Free Minds builds upon, exchange makes up the frame. As Janet Zwick, Free Minds’ Youth Education and Outreach Manager, puts it, “We all want that. None of us want to be lonely. All of us want to be heard.”
Janet also works with the wider community on events called On The Same Page, and has seen how volunteers are not the only ones that pour into members. Free Minds members, both incarcerated and those returning home, offer sound wisdom and encouragement to those they are in contact with. Whether through paper, or on a screen, these are personal connections solidifying. While virtual communications can at times appear cold and distant, there is something vulnerable that happens when a group is on a screen together, knowing that in their own way, they each have been affected by the moment of time we are in. And, as Janet notes, it is a reminder that the simple things like calling one another by name can open wider doors of communication: “We talk about how important it is to say or write the person's name [you’re responding to] because they don't hear their name. But the fact that all these ideas are affirmed, all these emotions are affirmed and the person who's doing it is also tapping into himself or herself and opening up—it's crazy.” A crazy, beautiful, rich experience that drives us to deeper empathy and compassion.
Affirmation of one’s journey does not have to come from personal experience. We may not all walk in the same shoes, but we can affirm simply because a story is shared with us, slowly yet surely seeing that we have more in common than not. Writing has a way of getting at our truest selves. Imanee believes that is why it is so powerful, particularly for those who are incarcerated. “A lot of times, you have to be seen as tough; wear this mask. And even if you're not incarcerated, that's something that we still do on a day to day basis. We wear this mask at work, with our friends, with certain family members. I feel like writing just gives our members the opportunity to shed that mask and put on their true faces: who they really are. In a sense, it restores the voice that was unfortunately stripped away from them.
“I think Free Mind’s does a really great job at providing a platform for members to just be their truest, most raw self, in every type of way. It's kind of like you're holding hands with that person. It just allows all of us to set those masks [down] and be ourselves, share our stories and realize that we have more in common.”
We are not always able to change one another’s situations immediately. But we can choose to be present, providing a source of comfort, care, and in some instances, courage. Free Minds empowers incarcerated youth to write new chapters in their lives, encouraging new paths forward. Theirs is the work of redemption, reclamation, and restoration—a healing process to wholeness that begins with the stroke of a pen.