On The Road Blog
On the Inside
Washington, DC — Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, an outstanding DC-based GFC grantee partner since 2006, serves male juveniles who are charged and incarcerated as adults at the DC Jail. Of the boys that Free Minds works with, 92 percent are African American and 8 percent are Latino. On average, these 16- and 17-year-olds read at about the fifth-grade level, and most of them have already either dropped out of or disengaged from school. The majority come from crime-stricken, impoverished neighborhoods and have parents or other family members who have been incarcerated.
The Free Minds book club meets every week at the DC Jail, and any juvenile inmate who chooses to attend can participate. At the book club, they come together to discuss a work of contemporary literature—an exciting experience for youth who have often had little meaningful exposure to books. Last week, my colleague Vineeta Gupta (program officer for South Asia) and I were given the opportunity to attend a book club session in the jail. After the long, slow process of entering the jail, we finally made it to the book club—a room full of loud, excited, and engaged teenage boys. Had they not all been wearing orange jumpsuits, we wouldn’t have even known we were “on the inside.”
When Vineeta and I arrived, the book club was already in session and playing a game with vocabulary words from that week’s book—Life in Prison by Stanley “Tookie” Williams. Tara Libert, the co-founder and deputy director of Free Minds, was holding signs with phrases from the book above one boy’s head. The group shouted related words and phrases so that the boy who couldn’t see the sign would be able to guess the given phrase. When Tara held a sign that read “Man Down,” I thought to myself, “How is anyone going to describe that, let alone actually guess it?” But before I could even finish my thought, or make sense of what was happening, the chaos of shouting and gestures coming from the circle ended, and the words had been guessed correctly. I was amazed.
Following the game, Tara and Kelli Taylor, who helped to found Free Minds and is its executive director, facilitated a discussion about lessons from Tookie’s book about life in prison. One of the topics focused on what advice the boys would give to younger kids so that they wouldn’t end up in jail. Again, I was amazed. The group was split pretty much evenly between those who argued that prevention was possible and those who thought jail was just a part of life for kids from their neighborhood. It was clear from listening to and watching the discussion that Kelli and Tara have created a space for these boys to talk about important issues in an open, safe, and meaningful way. I was a high-school teacher before coming to GFC, and I know firsthand that this is not an easy feat by any means.
When the book club ended, it was time for the boys to go back to class at the jail’s school and my colleague Vineeta had to return to the office. But Kelli, Tara, and I weren’t done yet. We went upstairs to visit the boys on lockdown. This particular week, five boys couldn’t attend the book club because they were on lockdown. Boys who engage in bad behavior or fight with other inmates can spend anywhere from a few days to a few months in near-solitary confinement here. Walking into the large, open space lined with cells was overwhelming. Each cell is painted pink on the inside—a color the boys probably wouldn’t choose on their own—and has a thick metal door with a small, narrow window. In this cold, sterile space, the first thing I noticed was the faces of young boys at the tiny windows in their doors, waiting for someone to come and talk to them. It was heart-wrenching to look down the line of cells and see face after face pressed up to the windows. It felt inhumane. These are, after all, kids.
We spent the next hour moving from door to door, talking to each boy by shouting through the crack of the doorframe and then putting our ears to the crack to listen to the response. We talked about what book they were reading and what book they wanted to read next. They read poems they had written in the last week. They asked about how their friends who weren’t on lockdown were doing. Some updated Kelli and Tara on their sentencing hearings. We slipped new books, journals, dictionaries, writing assignments, and note cards underneath the doors. And then we had to say good-bye—until next week, anyway, when Kelli and Tara would be back to do it all over again.
There is no doubt that Free Minds is reaching these boys at a critical juncture while they’re in the jail. But it is also evident that the impact of Free Minds doesn’t end there. Free Minds is changing what is happening inside each participant. Most of the boys stay with Free Minds throughout their time at the DC Jail, through their sentencing and incarceration in prisons outside of DC, and during their reentry into their communities after they’re released. It is because Free Minds is there through it all, facilitating changes on the inside every step of the way, that there are, eventually, changes on the outside.