On The Road Blog
Listening to the Caged Birds—Changing the Face of Juvenile Justice with Poetry
I was nervous. It was my first Write Night and I was late, didn’t know anyone, and wasn’t sure what to expect. When I found my way to the door with a scribbled marker sign that read, “Free Minds Write Night,” I was surprised to find behind it a room full of laughing, welcoming, and busy people. The sounds of greetings, updates, and the sharing of a passion for justice washed over me as I entered this community of joy and hope. I found the monthly volunteers of Free Minds snacking on popcorn, reading intently, and scribbling encouraging notes on drafts of poems written by juvenile detainees.
I read wonderful poetry, with titles like “Don’t Give Up,” that reminded me of Maya Angelou’s famous and haunting poem “Caged Bird,” and I thought about what it would feel like to be behind bars while all of your friends and schoolmates kept living their lives.
After reading more poetry and writing with a group of friendly volunteers from all backgrounds for about an hour (although it felt more like ten minutes), I listened as former inmates got up and read some of their amazing poetry and told stories of their challenges and transformations. I’ll never forget one poet’s story.
This young man—who was just a teen when he entered prison—told about how he would be put in solitary confinement to keep him from the adult prisoners (not as a punishment, but because there was no place else to house him). All he had were his thoughts until he joined the Free Minds Book Club. He said that the notes of encouragement from the volunteers at Write Night became his “food” and his one link to the outside world. Now, just a few months after his release from incarceration, he already has a job (thanks to some Free Minds networking) and wants to continue to write poetry—poems about overcoming adversity and achieving dreams—with the hope of having a positive effect on his peers.
When we think about development, we often look beyond the borders of the United States. But Washington, DC—the city where most development aid gets divvied up, and where The Global Fund for Children is based—has some of the highest rates of child poverty and juvenile recidivism (returning to prison after being released) in the country. That’s why GFC also partners with community-based organizations in its own backyard.
GFC grantee partner Free Minds is a different kind of development organization, one that sees youth whom most people consider “lost” as people full of potential. Co-founders Tara Libert and Kelli Taylor are former journalists and documentary filmmakers who spent years reporting on and documenting the injustices and challenges faced by incarcerated youth. They interacted with youth who had been tried as adults or held in solitary confinement. They concluded that the system was not rehabilitating youth—it was holding them back and teaching them that they were going to be criminals for life.
Tara and Kelli founded Free Minds in 2002 to reach out to incarcerated youth. The organization holds book clubs and writing workshops for those in detention and has follow-up services and networks that assist with re-entry and job placement once they are released. Many of the former detainees continue to be involved with Free Minds long after they reintegrate into their communities, becoming mentors to those still enrolled in the organization’s programs. The Write Night I was attending was an opportunity for volunteers—including formerly incarcerated individuals—to provide positive feedback on the poetry written by detained juveniles; the volunteers’ notes are sent to the inmates and encourage them to keep writing. Free Minds has reached over 450 young men and women since 2002, and its programs continue to grow.
I left Write Night feeling refreshed and hopeful. Every poem, every voice from behind bars, was a powerful reminder of the many incarcerated young people in the United States and around the world. These are the caged birds of our generation, our detained youth. I wonder if we could all take the time to hear their voices singing for freedom of the body and of the mind.
To read some of the poems written by juvenile detainees through Free Minds’ programs, click here.