By TIMMY CHONG
“Reading and writing is all that I have,” said 25-year-old Free Minds poet ambassador Aaron Robertson, reading the poem “Free Minds Rap” by Raymond, an incarcerated youth from D.C. imprisoned in Pennsylvania.
The nonprofit Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop held its last Write Night event of the year on Wednesday Nov. 15 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Seekers Church, located a block away from Takoma Metro Station. Over 75 people, along with about 20 Free Minds staff members, attended the event held on the third Wednesday evening of every other month.
Write Night, which is hosted in collaboration with Carpe Diem Arts in Takoma-D.C., brings the local community together to hear Free Minds staff and poet ambassadors speak on youth incarceration and the healing power in creative expression. It’s also a workshop where volunteers write encouraging comments on the poetry pages of incarcerated youths and young adults who are originally from D.C.
In its national federal prison book club, inmates receive books and write poetry that is able to reach a broad audience through Write Night events and bi-monthly prison newsletters. The prison newsletters contain a wide array of material in addition to poetry written by inmates, such as news roundups, empowering essays, and personal testimonies.
The National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997 essentially mandated the closing of the D.C. prison system, which was located at the Lorton Correctional Complex in rural Fairfax County. Title III Sec. 303 of the act “permits the District’s felony population to be housed in any facility that meets the requirements of the American Correctional Association.”
Though the 50 states have their own federal prison systems, prisoners from D.C. have been transported across the country for the last two decades, sometimes thousands of miles from home. All of the Free Minds poet ambassadors are ex-convicts from DC who were once transferred afar to a federal facility.
Several of them spoke with highly of the impact the organization has had in helping them turn their lives around, explaining that Free Minds aims to foster camaraderie through an immersive support network.
POET AMBASSADOR TESTIMONIES
When Brandon Hargraves, 23, was incarcerated, he had no plans for the future. In prison, he discovered Free Minds through the job training program Project Empowerment. Once he got out, he reached out to Tara Libert, the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop executive director, who helped him become a poet ambassador for the organization.
Brandon is now also reentry manager Keela Hailes’ reentry assistant. His job entails reaching out to people coming home from prison to help smoothen the transition back into society, and also to help them launch a new career through resume building and job application advising.
“It’s most important to me because… Free Minds looked out for me the whole time I was incarcerated and I wanted to give back,” said Brandon. “The best way of me giving back is me being in the office hands on with my brothers, Free Minds.”
When 25-year-old James Allen was imprisoned in Pennsylvania for two years, he had a cellmate named José who told him about the Free Minds Book Club. After he was released, he joined the Reentry Book Club, which also functions to connect members to programs and resources to help them find their footing and achieve education and career goals.
As poet ambassador, James said that “We go to different locations. We just speak to a whole rack of people, give ‘em a story, just try to get ‘em to see it from our point of view… Promoting the cause, raising awareness of juvenile incarceration.”
Sergio Hill, 26, also found Free Minds in prison and continues to stay involved. The organization helped him get into welding school and become a certified pipe welder. As he was taking apprenticeship classes, he attended Write Nights and became a poet ambassador.
Sergio said that being with Free Minds “Keeps your mind thinking like, ‘I can do something other than what I used to do, and still people will love me and support me’… That keeps me motivated to do right.”
“They was like fam to me when I was locked up, so I just made sure I stuck with em,” he said. “And they’ll stay on your back too! They’ll come looking for you if you get out of line.”
Sergio smiled with James as he spoke warmly of the brotherhood they’ve found in Free Minds. “Yeah, like if I see him in the street, we walking to each other.”
In addition to running an inmate literary journal called “The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison” and organizing the DC Jail, Federal Prison, and Reentry Book Clubs, Free Minds advocates for youth incarceration awareness and violence prevention.
The organization has also gained recognition for its criminal justice programs. Free Minds won a Northeast regional award from the National Criminal Justice Association in 2016 for its current and former inmate book clubs. At the most recent Write Night, French reporter and Youtuber Hugo Travers was doing a report on Free Minds as “changemakers” as part of a series for the second largest French TV station.
Though roughly two-thirds of prisoners reoffend within three years according to a 2014 report by the Department of Justice, the recidivism rate for ex-convicts in the Free Minds Reentry Book Club has consistently been under 10 percent, said Libert.
“[It’s] like a family man,” said 28-year-old David Young, aka ‘Big Guy.’ “I promise you, Free Minds, they’ll help you be whatever you want to be. I found my path and they made it happen. So whatever they need Ima be here too.”