First Free Minds College-Level Course Behind Bars

In 2015, Free Minds launched a pilot course in African American Literature for a new project called Free Minds University, a non-accredited correspondence course for Free Minds members in federal prison. Two Free Minds members, HF and CW, have successfully completed the class. 

CW in prison with his high school diploma

CW got his high school diploma while incarcerated.

The project was created with the goal of providing high-quality educational programming for Free Minds members serving lengthy sentences that bar them from participating in our reentry phase. Free Minds Program Director Seana Drucker worked with two Free Minds volunteers, Michelle Melton and Cameron Leader-Picone to develop the syllabus for Free Minds University. Cameron Leader-Picone is a professor of African American Literature at Kansas State University, and he worked with volunteer Michelle Melton to adapt his syllabus to fit within the correspondence format.

Michelle Melton became involved with Free Minds when she was looking for ways to volunteer in the DC community, and she introduced Free Minds to Cameron Leader-Picone. Melton and Leader-Picone developed the syllabus and worked with Free Minds staff to coordinate the course for CW and HF.

The subject, African American Literature, was a clear fit for Free Minds, but Leader-Picone was also drawn to the subject because “Fiction, poetry, drama, film, all the different things that we study and think about…is a way of both representing and getting at truths of the African American condition in the United States, and also imagining questions and ideas that are possible to ask through those experiences. Literature offers a window into all sorts of things, while also providing a wider lens.” He had never worked with incarcerated students before, nor had he taught a correspondence course, so he did not know what to expect going in.

Because the students are in federal prisons across the country, Melton and Leader-Picone developed a syllabus that relied entirely on writing in place of class discussion. Both stressed, however, the level of difficulty of the course.

“I’ve been really impressed with the engagement of the students with the material, and the depth of their answers and complexity of their thinking, the way they’ve developed over the course,” Leader-Picone said of the Free Minds members. “They would not feel out of place in a college classroom. They’re doing really strong work.”

At the conclusion of the course, he said, “I want them to take away in particular the sort of joy and interest in African American literature. I think that’s really important…. Use it as a way to express themselves, an outlet to think through ideas, reflect on their own experiences and thoughts, and to feel empowered through it.”

Melton reflected that what she wanted most was for the students “to not feel so alone. I imagine it would be extremely isolating to be incarcerated. I want them to know, you’re not alone in a broader historical context and that other people have had similar thoughts and feelings, and that your experience is not just an individual one.”

CW and HF were both charged and incarcerated as adults when they were 16 years old, and neither had completed high school at the time of their incarceration.

CW said, “Thank you for giving me this special opportunity. I have learned so much…. I want to let you know that I really appreciate it.”

HF, who is a prolific author of poetry and fiction, said, “The course was life-changing for me as an author; it introduced me to the world of fiction writing and social impact storytelling. Gratitude is the apex expression of love!” HF began sharing the course materials and discussion questions with others at the federal prison where he is incarcerated, and is now leading his own discussion group using the textbook from the course, the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (Third Edition).

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