“I”m so excited that a caring community has united around and it’s like one big family, the Free Minds family has gotten bigger tonight,” said co-founder Tara Libert. “The young men that are still incarcerated know that people are listening to them and that is unbelievably transformable. It sounds so simple, but it is so real, and we see it every day.”
Libert’s remarks captured the stories of what was written by juveniles in adult prisons the evening on October 17 at Busboys and Poets Takoma in Northwest Washington D.C. A literary journal, called “The Untold Story of the Real Me” captured the writings of young inmates in expressing topics such as family, freedom, pain and transformation.
According to the Justice Department, Black youth are 40 percent more likely to be charged as adults than whites. Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop’s mission in helping them uses books, creative writing, and peer support to D.C. youths charged as adults to reach their own potential.
The book club began in 2002 and addresses 16 and 17 year olds from both sexes. Other assistance includes job readiness training, outreach, and violence prevention. Blacks make up 95 percent, while Latinos are five percent of the organization. Those who get the word out to the public are poem ambassadors, who have already served time in prison.
Juan Peterson serves as an ambassador for the book club. “I get feedback from the book club members and share their stories,” Peterson said. “The community also gives feedback in that they hear their call, it’s not just a gimmick.”
Peterson was charged with armed robbery and spent seven years in jail for a crime he did not commit. “I was in California at the time the crime was committed,” he said. Peterson continued with saying a person told the police he knew about the robbery even though he didn’t commit it. Falsely framed, the judge and prosecutor came to a decision of imprisonment.
Peterson added that the guards at the federal prison did not have the proper training in handling juveniles in an adult prison. “The only thing they know is how to restrain and how to punish,” he said.
Another crime that is practiced against youth in adult prisons is rape. Despite the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Congress passed in September 2003, rapes toward juveniles remains high. The Detroit Press reported in August that the Michigan Court of Appeals threw out a lawsuit of inmates who stated they were sexually abused as juveniles
The power of being connected is important to Libert and the other co-founder of Free Minds, Kelli Taylor. Both were prior news producers for Australian broadcasting in the U.S. when Taylor received a letter from Glen McGinnis, a Black Texas death row inmate in 1996. Taylor made a documentary about him, sent McGinnis books, and kept in contact with him until he was executed in 2000. McGinnis was under 18 when he committed his crime and convicted by an all-white jury. His death was the catalyst that began the founders mission.
Free Minds has helped over 900 youth and recognized with awards. In July the Aspen Institute awarded the organization with $25,000 dollars for a program called “On the Same Page:United” that will be implemented on a national level.
Volunteer Keith Leonard, who teaches literature at American University, has been with Free Minds for a year. “I go to Free Minds and get feedback for the poems for incarcerated youth and a bunch of us get together and read their poems and write notes to them encouraging them to keep writing,” said Leonard.
“The experience I get is that it’s a reminder of the human beings behind the numbers and also a reminder of how powerful it is to have someone listen to you when you’re in struggle, when you’re in pain, and the way they talk about it they love giving the feedback. So in my way, helping to communicate with the brothers in their struggle is a very powerful thing.”