Free Minds uses books, creative writing, and peer support to awaken DC youth incarcerated as adults to their own potential. Through creative expression, job readiness training, and violence prevention outreach, these young poets achieve their education and career goals, and become powerful voices for change in the community.
That every young inmate receives the necessary tools, inspiration and community support to pursue education and follow a positive new path in life.
The idea for Free Minds began with an unsolicited letter from a stranger. In 1996, Co-Founder Kelli Taylor was working as a journalist when she received a letter from Glen McGinnis, a young inmate on Texas’ death row. At that time, Glen had been incarcerated for more than five years for a crime committed when he was 17 years old. In response to this contact, Kelli produced a television documentary about Glen and other juveniles on death row in America. After the program aired, she continued to correspond with Glen over the next four years and ultimately participated in his remarkable journey of personal and educational growth. Books sent to him in prison provided the perfect common ground where two individuals from very different backgrounds could meet and their lives could be positively transformed. While Glen’s formal education ended at the age of 11, reading and writing opened up a whole new world of knowledge and possibility to him during his incarceration. Glen’s execution in 2000 was a catalyst for action. In 2002, Kelli and colleague Tara Libert founded the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop and committed themselves to introducing at-risk teens at the DC Jail to the life-changing power of reading and writing.
Free Minds began as a bi-weekly program for young inmates held in the DC Jail. As members were released or transferred to federal prison after turning 18, Kelli and Executive Director, Tara Libert, recognized that maintaining contact throughout incarceration and beyond was vital to helping these youths positively redirect their lives. Over the years, Free Minds has expanded its services to include a twice-weekly Book Club Program; a Continuing Support Program which provides new books, written correspondence to members after transfer to federal prison; and a Reentry Support Program which connects released members to the people, programs and services in the community that will help them to achieve their new educational and career goals.
Whom We Serve
Free Minds serves teenagers who are charged and incarcerated as adults at the DC Jail. Approximately 60 youths are incarcerated every year; of those, ninety five percent are African American and five percent are Latino. The majority come from the city’s most crime-stricken neighborhoods where nearly half of the children live below the poverty rate. At 16 and 17 years old, they read, on average, at a fifth grade level and most have already dropped out of or disengaged from school. More than half of the youth served by Free Minds also have parents or other close family members who have been incarcerated, and the majority already have children themselves. Juveniles who are incarcerated as adults are at extremely high risk for future violent criminal activity¹. At the same time, access to educational programs while incarcerated has proven to reduce recidivism². By reaching these youths at this critical juncture and exciting them about learning, Free Minds motivates these young men to pursue positive new directions for their futures. Since its inception, Free Minds has reached over 900 youths through our Book Club, Continuing Support and Reentry Programs.
1. Mendel, R.A. (2000). Less Hype, More Help: Reducing Juvenile Crime, What Works — and What Doesn’t. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.
2. Stephens and Arnette, From the Courthouse to the Schoolhouse: Making Successful Transitions. 2002. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, US Department of Justice.
Free Minds has been honored with the following awards:
Juvenile Justice Leadership Award from the DC Criminal Justice Coordinating Council
Library of Congress Best Practices in Literacy Award
Aspen Ideas Award
Justice Potter Stewart Award
Corrections Information Council Best Practices Award
American University Social Justice Award
Capitol One Mystics Community Champion Award
DC Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding Arts Education
Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation
Linowes Leadership Award given to Co-founder and Executive Director Tara Libert
Featured in the 2015/16 Catalogue for Philanthropy: “One of the best small charities in the Greater Washington region.”