“Before I came to Free Minds, I knew how to read, but until I read and talked about the books you brought me, I didn’t know how much I could love it. Now, I may be locked down for 24 hours a day, but if I have books, I can take my mind to another place, and see new ways of living.”

–Kuron, age 19

About Us

Our Mission
Our Vision
Our History
Whom We Serve
Who We Are

 

Video developed by the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region on the occasion of the Linowes Leadership Award for unsung heroes conferred upon Tara Libert. Performance by Lamont Carey courtesy of Lamont Carey Entertainment.

 

Our Mission

Our mission is to introduce young inmates to the transformative power of books and creative writing. By mentoring them and connecting them to supportive services throughout their incarceration into reentry, Free Minds inspires these youths to see their potential and achieve new educational and career goals.

Our Vision

That every young inmate receives the necessary tools, inspiration and community support to pursue education and follow a positive new path in life.

Our History

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 pen-pals; 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 activity {1}. At the same time, access to educational programs while incarcerated has proven to reduce recidivism {2}. 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 450 youths through our Book Club, Continuing Support and Reentry Programs.

Who We Are

Tara Libert, Co-founder and Executive Director

Before co-founding Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop in 2002, Tara worked as a radio and television news and documentary producer for twelve years. After producing many features on the US criminal justice system, showcasing such topics such as the death penalty, prison overcrowding and juvenile justice reform she was drawn to direct service. Tara began volunteering with Georgetown University’s Family Literacy Program, tutoring incarcerated parents at the District of Columbia jail. She is trained as a tutor with the Literacy Volunteers of America and a mediator with The Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County, MD. Tara is also a facilitator for the Community Conferencing Center, a conflict transformation and community justice organization that works with youth to resolve conflicts and to prevent crime. Tara is an advisory board member of The Beat Within, an organization that conducts writing workshops for youth in juvenile detention facilities.

Kelli Taylor, Co-founder and Book Club Facilitator

Before co-founding and serving as Executive Director of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop (2002-2010), Kelli worked as a television news and documentary producer. She has served as a trained volunteer for Offender Aid and Restoration, mentoring and sharing literature with young inmates at the Arlington County Jail. Kelli uses her expertise to develop curriculum, research and locate books that will engage and excite new readers, and lead the weekly book club session at the DC Jail. Kelli continues to nurture Free Minds members' love of reading and writing with frequent letters to our Continuing Support members in federal prisons across the country.

Keela Hailes, Program Manager

Keela started working at Free Minds in 2012 as the first-ever Reentry & Family Coordinator before taking over the Program Manager position. Her son has been an active participant in Free Minds since 2007.  Keela has worked in the DC Public Schools and at Powell Tate Strategic Communications and Public Affairs. Keela holds an undergraduate degree from Trinity College in DC.  She brings her extensive knowledge of positive youth development and of the DC community to Free Minds. 

Sarah Mintz, Outreach Coordinator

Sarah is an AVODAH Jewish Corps member, accomplished writer, and experienced event coordinator.  As a writing tutor, she has helped people improve their writing, communication, and time management skills.  Sarah joined Free Minds in 2012.  She coordinates with schools and community groups to organize On the Same Page, Write Night, and other outreach events; she is also the editor of our monthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, and manager of all correspondence to Free Minds members at the DC Jail and federal prisons.

Julia Mascioli, Communications & Evaluation Specialist

Julia started at Free Minds as an intern in the summer of 2010. After graduating from Vassar College with a BA in English she moved to Cusco, Peru to teach English for eight months. When she returned to the US, Julia became the Free Minds Interim Program Manager until September 2012, when she began studying for her Creative Writing MFA at Emerson College. She is currently a full-time student and part-time Communications & Evaluation Specialist for Free Minds.  As a writer, Julia has always been drawn to the way Free Minds uses poetry and books to empower youth, and she hopes to remain involved for many years!

Michael Kemp, Lead Poet Ambassador and Free Minds Member

Michael leads Free Minds’s educational outreach project “On the Same Page” connecting diverse DC audiences and Free Minds poets using Free Minds’s literary journal They Call Me 299-359. In December 2011 Michael received the Washington Peace Center’s Youth Activist award for his work to reduce youth violence in DC. Micahel is also a spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, an organization dedicated to ending the practice of trying and sentencing youth in the adult criminal justice system. Michael is a poet and musician and enjoys using his writing and musical skills to prevent more youth from entering the criminal justice system.

Shae Harris, Reentry Outreach Specialist

Shae joined the Free Minds team in 2013 as Reentry Outreach Specialist, bringing her extensive experience and knowledge of the field. Before coming to Free Minds, Shae worked for the Washington Area Women's Foundation, Living Classrooms of the National Capitol Region, and Common Cause North Carolina. Shae holds a B.A. in Political Science from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

Poet Ambassadors

The Poet Ambassadors are a group of 25 Free Minds members home in the community who lead the On the Same Page sessions on a rotating basis.  They have been members of Free Minds since the age of 16 or 17 at the DC Jail, where many wrote their first poems and read their first books.  They have gone on to become avid readers and writers throughout their incarceration, and have pursued education via GED programs.  These young men are highly motivated to give back to their community by sharing the strength and wisdom that writing has given them in order to prevent future violence.

Office Interns

Free Minds’ work is assisted by a dynamic team of interns from area universities. These interns provide valuable office support by typing poems, providing writing feedback, coordinating our writing blog, and helping with Community Outreach events. For more information about internship opportunities, email us at mail@freemindsbookclub.org.

 

Our Board

Phil Andonian
Of Counsel, Bredhoff & Kaiser PLLC; Adjunct Professor, Washington College of Law

Allen Chin
Chief Financial Officer Foreign Policy Magazine

Andrew Ferguson
Professor, University of District of Columbia, David A. Clark School of Law

LaKeeshia Fox
Presidential Management Fellow, US Department of Housing and Urban Development

Tara Libert
Co-Founder & Executive Director, Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop

Tiffany McClenton
Education Specialist

Jessica Sandoval
Board Chair, Field Operations Director, Campaign for Youth Justice

Advisory Board

R. Dwayne Betts
Author, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison and Shahid Reads his own Palm, Federal Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice (FCCJJ)

Odile Isralson
Executive Producer, Brown Hats Media

Janet Libert
Editor-in-Chief, Executive Travel Magazine

Clinique Marshall Chapman
Forensic Social Worker, Office of Rehabilitation and Development, Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia

Michael Mattocks
Author, Unlikely Brothers: Our Story of Adventure, Loss and Redemption with John Prendergast

Santha Sonenberg
Senior Litigator at Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia

Patty Kim and Chris Sheridan
Filmmakers, Safari Media