Thirteen years ago, two journalists—one who had become pen pals with a prisoner on death row—created a book club called Free Minds in a D.C. jail. Today, about 940 juvenile prisoners have participated, and Free Minds has expanded outside of the jail, too, so alumni can continue to support one another through written word after release.
Free Minds creates a safe place for these young men to share poems they’ve written, expressing their thoughts and emotions. The book club also helps to teach prisoners how to read, write, and answer letters from their families.
The Washington Post recently located a group of men that had been members of Free Minds while serving time in the D.C. jail.
One Free Minds alumnus named Phil Mosby, now 26 years old, remembers what the club did for him while he was incarcerated. “You have to keep on a mask in prison to survive, so people don’t mess with you. But then, Free Minds, it started feeling like a brotherhood.”
Although Phil was hesitant to begin writing poems when he started attending Free Minds, he found healing when he wrote a response to the memoir Makes Me Want to Holler by Nathan McCall. Phil wrote his response as a tribute to an old friend from the streets: “When I feel your family’s presence, Makes me wanna cry, When I know I could have talked to you before your death, Makes me wanna cry.” The other club members affirmed Phil’s feeling and supported him as he worked through it all.
But as these men turned 18, they were sent to various federal prisons around the U.S. and couldn’t be a part of the regular book club meetings anymore.
After release from prison, many Free Minds alumni returned to their hometown of D.C. to restart life, and they now meet regularly to keep encouraging one another to stay on an upright path—to defy the cycle of crime. Together, they also lead writing workshops at D.C. schools, sharing their poems and life stories with youth.
Robert Barksdale was arrested when he was 16. Now he’s 25 and sharing with high schoolers what Free Minds did for him. “Writing opened up a passion in me,” he says. “I began to read books, I wrote poetry, got my vocational certificate because life is not a game.”
At a Free Minds alumni meeting this past January, a group of 20 men sat in Dupont Circle’s Church of the Pilgrims to catch up on life: who had gotten a job, who was hoping to start college soon. Then they took some time to write on the prompt “What it means to be new.”
In response, Jaun Peterson, 24, wrote a poem that perfectly sums up the path these Free Minds are on: “No more heartaching sins, from the dark place within, thinking of back then it’s too complicated to comprehend, I’m awestruck from the view, It’s like I’m seeing two, My mind is displaying a brighter hue; It feels good to be brand new.”
Hear more from Juan and Robert in the video below.