From Incarceration to Advocacy: Michael’s Story
- By The Global Fund for Children on October 30th, 2012
- Category: Featured, North America, Success Stories
Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop
Washington, DC, United States
Extremely bright and talented, Michael is in love with learning and knowledge. Yet he never attended a high school prom, studied for final exams, or had to learn a locker combination. Instead, he spent nearly the entirety of his teenage years behind bars. Since his release in August 2011, he has been working with Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, using books and creative writing to help other incarcerated teens chart a positive new course in life when they come home from prison.
Michael was born in Washington, DC, to a young crack-addicted mother in 1990. He spent his early childhood with an aunt whom he believed to be his biological mother, since nobody told him otherwise. When he was 9 years old, his father, whom he had never met before, was released from prison, and Michael moved in with him. A year later, his father died of AIDS and Michael was sent to live with his grandmother. He was arrested for the first time when he was just 12, for stealing a bicycle.
“The way my life was, I couldn’t think past today. I lived only for the moment. I looked to the streets for love and a family,” Michael says.
He stole things not because he needed them but because it made him feel like he finally belonged someplace. At 16, he was arrested and charged as an adult for armed robbery. It was in the visiting room at the DC Jail that he first met his biological mother. “It was crazy. I looked at her face and neither of us said a word. We just held each other and cried. I finally met my mother!”
It was also in jail that Michael read a book for the first time. “I was on solitary confinement when the people from Free Minds came and asked me if I wanted a book. I knew how to read—enough to read stop signs anyway. But I never read a book before. It just didn’t seem like those books were for me. At the same time, teachers just kept promoting me to the next grade,” he says.
The sense of accomplishment that Michael felt when he finished that first book encouraged him to join Free Minds’ weekly book club. One book led to another, and he became a voracious reader, requesting titles on everything from how to become a real estate agent to biographies and a rhyming dictionary to use in his songwriting. Michael said the difference was that Free Minds gave him books that meant something to him.
“Books like Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler and Dwayne Betts’ A Question of Freedom—those are people just like me who changed their lives. These books showed me that it was possible. Reading all kinds of books just pulled me in, and reading the words of others showed me a whole new way to express myself. Now I write poems and song lyrics every single day. Free Minds changed me. They helped me believe that I could make it through, and made me realize that my mind wasn’t in jail. Instead my mind could be on all of the possibilities!”
Michael served more than three years in prison before being released last summer. He obtained his high-school diploma and plans to go to college. Currently, Michael works part-time as an advocate and public speaker for Campaign for Youth Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system. He also works for Free Minds as a reentry coach, helping young men who have just returned home to successfully navigate their new lives.
“I tell them, forget what the naysayers are telling you. Look at me. It’s possible!”