Free Minds Book Club helps juvenile inmates create a better life

Photo courtesy Free Minds

by Ariel Guillory

For many juveniles in the Washington, D.C. jail system, Free Minds provides not just an outlet to express themselves, but the tools to build a prosperous life.

The nonprofit organization has created book clubs and writing workshops for incarcerated teenagers in the juvenile unit since 2002, improving the literacy of over 1,000 incarcerated youths in the DC area and educating former inmates about how to present themselves in the workplace and in their daily lives.

“Kelli Taylor and Tara Libert, the two co-founders of Free Minds, were journalists who primarily reported on the U.S. criminal justice system,” said Mbacher Mbenga, the outreach coordinator for Free Minds. “One day, completely out of the blue, Kelli received a letter from Glen McGinnis, a 17-year old teenager who was on death row.”

The two journalists and the incarcerated minor continued to correspond, and Taylor provided McGinnis with books and writing prompts during his time in prison.

McGinnis’ conviction and sentencing occurred before the Supreme Court ruled against the death penalty for minors, and before his execution, McGinnis pleaded with Kelli and Tara to continue offering teenagers in the prison system resources to help them learn to read and write.

Kelli and Tara upheld their promise to Glen, and Free Minds was created.

“We provide books, writing prompts and we have a bimonthly newsletter that we provide to inmates to keep them motivated and inspire them to see their full potential and achieve educational and career goals,” Mbenga said.

Inmates send in requests for books and the books are chosen by majority vote from Free Minds employees, which allows for more variety but keeps the reading material in line with the rules set by the jail.

“Kelli and Tara chose reading and writing as the focus of their work because they recognized how powerful reading and writing can be when it comes to providing an outlet for feelings and emotions some of the inmates might have bottled up,” Mbenga said.

Besides our visits to the juvenile unit at the DC jail twice a week, we have hosted three juvenile detention centers this year and our Violence Prevention Outreach reaches at risk youth in public schools and community centers at least twice a week, averaging 8 visits a month.”

Free Minds also has a ‘re-entry program,’ which connects former inmates from the book club with apprenticeships and internships.

Hosea Stevens, 25, is one of the outreach assistants at Free Minds and a former member. He participated in the book club as an incarcerated youth when he was 17 years old and after his five-year sentence completed the “Free Minds Job Readiness and Personal Skills Building Apprenticeship.”

“This program was very informative and it gave me a lot of life skills in how to conduct myself in a workplace and it gave me the tools I needed to maneuver through life,” Stevens said. “I think Free Minds should be available to all citizens returning from the prison system to normal life because they are giving us the tools necessary for us to survive. The different programs awaken our maturity and our self-awareness about ourselves, and we also learn professional development and different life skills.”

Free Minds will be hosting an “On the Same Page: Write Night” July 19, 2017, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at 276 Carroll Street NW Washington, DC 20012.

If you or someone you know would like more information about the Free Minds organization, would like to participate with Free Minds, or would like to donate please send an email to outreach@freemindsbookclub.org or call (202) 758-0829.

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