"I still have some ways to go especially when I get on the streets, but I feel like I did not waste my life away, like most do, while being here incarcerated. I found something I like, that isn't negative, and I plan on sticking to it. I say all that because I equate all my positives together and I feel as though without Free Minds, and the people behind it, you ladies, I would not have accomplished as much as I have and I can't thank you all enough."

- Stephen after passing his electrical wiring exam.

Success Stories

The success of many Free Minds graduates demonstrates that with the appropriate support these youths can positively redirect their lives. After release, our graduates have gone on to:

  • Achieve General Equivalency Diplomas (GED’s)
  • Return to study at public high schools in Washington, DC
  • Apply and be accepted to DC Public Charter Schools
  • Enter vocational schools
  • Obtain full-time employment
  • Apply and be accepted to professional schools

With the help of Free Minds, graduates have also gone on to:

  • Strengthen family bonds
  • Take a more active role in their children’s lives
  • Change attitudes toward academic achievement
  • Develop greater self-awareness and self-esteem
  • Build critical job-interview, public speaking and communication
  • skills
  • Become positive role models for younger siblings
  • Continue reading and writing poetry
  • Serve as spokespersons for Free Minds as part of the “On the Same Page” Community Outreach
  • and Education Program
  • Share their own stories of change with public policy makers, educators, community groups, and students in order to stop the cycle of violence

 

Success Story: Terrell

Terrell is currently pursuing a degree in Construction Management.

 

Terrell was arrested and charged as an adult with armed robbery at the age of 16. He joined Free Minds just prior to his transfer to federal prison. He quickly became a loyal and enthusiastic member, writing us stacks of letters, as well as requesting, reading and reviewing more than 25 books during his incarceration. Terrell is now 23 years old and is back home. He has spent nearly the last 7 years of his life behind bars. Free Minds recently sat down with Terrell at a Starbucks in downtown DC to catch up:

FM: What kind of life were you living before you were locked up?

Terrell: “Well, I’ve always been a thinker, but when I was 16, I was just constantly trying to prove myself. That means that I went with the crowd. Whatever they were doing, I was doing it too. I was trying to prove myself, and that’s what got me in trouble.”

FM: What did you envision for your future at that time?

Terrell: “What did I envision? To be honest, I never had a concept of the future. I was busy planning my legacy. I didn’t expect to survive and so I just wanted to be remembered as someone who was bad. I wanted my tough reputation to be glorified. I wanted kids in the neighborhood to be saying, “Yeah, I knew him!” Now when I look back, I see that it was all just ignorance and stupidity.”

FM: Were you a reader before you got in trouble?

Terrell: “I never read much, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t smart. I’ve always been intelligent. The teachers at my school labeled me as “special ed” because my behavior wasn’t good. When my father died I stopped caring about school at all. I was embarrassed to be in special education classes, so I just made sure everyone knew I didn’t care and wasn’t even trying. Once I became incarcerated, I just had to gear up my mind to focus on self-defense, and that was all I cared about. I had to adapt.”

FM: When and why did you first begin to read?

Terrell: “It was because of you! It was because of Free Minds. I remember meeting you in the hallway and you gave me a book. I just started reading. I remember two books in particular that really affected me. Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall, and A Question of Freedom, by R. Dwayne Betts. They were both written by intelligent young men who had committed crimes, been locked up and yet still, they made it out. Those books meant a lot to me. And as I began to read, I began to be determined to improve my vocabulary. I got a dictionary that I kept with me whenever I read and when I’d come to a word I didn’t know, I’d stop reading and look it up. I looked up every single word that I didn’t know. I think if you were to go back and read my letters from after we first met until just before my release, you would see a huge leap in my maturity and my intellectual growth.”

FM: Why do you read?

Terrell: “Well, at first I read for entertainment. I was reading all of these so-called “Urban Literature” books about the streets. But then I began to see the effects that these stories would have on the people who were reading them for entertainment. “Urban lit” has the same as the effect on people as violent or sexist music videos, negative stories on the nightly news and violent movies. It has such a huge psychological impact on young people who see it and hear it. They eventually believe that is reality. I realized this and decided that I only wanted to read for my education. I started asking you all for books that could help me. I even decided to change the way I talked. I used less slang and people noticed. At first they thought I was fake, but then they realized I was serious and they saw me carrying myself differently. They began to look up to me, and that felt good!”

FM: You have been home now for six months. How hard has it been for you to adjust?

Terrell: “I tell everyone this. You have to start preparing yourself for the community when you’re still inside. I got very clear on what I wanted for myself before I actually came out. I knew what would happen if I made a wrong turn. If I go with “that” crowd, I’m going to be walking “that” walk. It’s like the game of chess (which I learned and became good at while in prison). You have to think before you make a move. If I take that rook now, what’s going to happen several moves from now? Is it going to be worth it? So I had to think if I go with these people, is it really worth the possible consequences? Is it worth getting put in a position of either hurting someone or getting hurt myself?

The most important change I have made is that I’ve stopped trying to prove myself to others. Now I just want to prove something to myself!”

Terrell is currently working full-time with a local construction company as a carpenter. When he began an apprenticeship with the union and took the entrance test, he scored so high that the supervisor decided to employ him immediately. He has already been promoted and is now applying to work as a Project Manager. Terrell is also a full-time student at Westwood College, pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in Construction Management.

On November 6th, Terrell voted for the first time in the presidential election.

Terrell: “It felt so good to be able to use my voice—it was powerful knowing how hard people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fought just for me to have this right, and I will never take that for granted!”


Success Story: Antwan

Reentry Coach Antwan working at his desk in the Free Minds office

 

Antwan first got involved with Free Minds in 2007 when he was incarcerated at 16. He soon became an active participant in the weekly Book Club. “We used to talk with Kelli and Tara about uplifting ourselves and doing more motivating and empowering things for ourselves,” he says. He remembers how the books helped him to imagine other people’s life stories and to learn “how to make better moves in life.”

His favorite book is Snow by Kenji Jasper. “Everybody on the juvenile block at the time, that was their favorite book. Everybody took turns at night reading the book page by page.” But Antwan’s love of books didn’t stop once he left the juvenile block. He remembers how, in lockdown for 11 months in federal prison, books helped him stay calm and focused. “Books really played a good part in my life.” He was also an avid writer, exchanging frequent letters.

When asked about the impact Free Minds has had on his life, Antwan says, “They helped me think of better decisions to make and different ways to go about different things.” Now, Antwan is determined to give back to the Free Minds community. He came home in 2012 and found himself facing rough times with many different paths to take, but he is now the Free Minds Reentry Coach. His favorite aspect of the job is keeping in contact with friends who are still incarcerated and being a part of the movement, “the whole mission of helping the multitude.”

Executive Director Tara Libert recalls how she has always been impressed by his independence and maturity both on the block and in the office.

As Reentry Coach, Antwan focuses on reaching out to other Free Minds members in the community and coordinating various events, including job fairs, site visits, and poetry readings. He also leads the Apprenticeship Program, working directly with recently released members in the office. He enjoys helping Reentry members “to better resources such as job programs or whatever they need … It’s a nice present to help everybody else out.”

For the future, Antwan wants “a good salary, my own stable home, and to just enjoy life.” For Free Minds members who are still incarcerated, he says that the most important things are to stay strong and motivated, and to take advantage of all positive opportunities. “Shoot for the moon,” he says. “If you miss you still gonna land among the stars.”

Success Story: Michael

Outreach Coordinator Michael explaining his vision board to graduating Apprentices in the Reentry Support program

 

Michael is in love with learning and knowledge, yet he never attended a high school prom, studied for final exams, or had to learn a locker combination. Michael spent nearly the entirety of his teenage years behind bars. After being released in August 2011, he worked for Free Minds as our Reentry Coach. Now, he is transitioning into a new role as our Community Outreach Coordinator while he works full-time at the Howard Theatre. Congratulations Michael! We are confident that he will continue to do great things in the new chapter of his life.

Michael was born in Washington, DC in 1989. Michael had little to no contact with his mother and father, and was raised by his aunt and grandmother. He was arrested for the first time when he was just 12 years old.

Free Minds first met Michael when he was incarcerated at 17. “I was on solitary confinement when the people from Free Minds came and asked me if I wanted a book. I knew how to read, but I was never really interested in reading books. It just didn’t seem like those books were for me. At the same time, teachers just kept promoting me to the next grade,” he recalls. The sense of accomplishment that Michael felt when he finished that first book encouraged him to join Free Minds’s weekly book club. One book led to another and he became a voracious reader, requesting titles on everything from how to break into real estate, to biographies and a rhyming dictionary to use in his song writing. Michael said the difference was that Free Minds gave him books that meant something to him.

“Books like Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler and Dwayne Betts’ A Question of Freedom—those are people just like me who changed their lives. These books showed me that it was possible. Reading all kinds of books just pulled me in, and reading the words of others showed me a whole new way to express myself. Now I write poems and songs every single day. Free Minds helped me believe that I could make it through, and made me realize that my mind wasn’t in jail. Instead my mind could be on all of the possibilities!”

In the last year, Michael has discovered all kinds of possibilities. Now he has thoughts about furthering his education by one day attending college. In addition to working for Free Minds and for Howard Theatre, he also writes a blog for Campaign for Youth Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system.

Michael recently won the Washington Peace Center Activist Award for his efforts to end the school to prison pipeline. Free Minds attended the annual Activist Awards gala in support of Michael. He was honored along with nine other activists. It was a great evening for all and an amazing opportunity for such a dedicated member of the Free Minds community.

In May 2012, Michael was part of a coalition that met with Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to issue new regulations protecting children in adult jails and prisons from sexual abuse. The coalition’s message was heard; the Department of Justice issued these regulations immediately following their meeting. This is an important step towards protecting vulnerable children in adult jails and prisons. Read the press release at our Newsroom. We can’t wait to see what Michael will achieve next!

Newsroom >>

Delonte

DelonteDelonte was just 16 years old in 2004 when he was arrested and charged as an adult for robbery. Before his incarceration, Delonte had stopped attending high school on a regular basis. He was raised by his grandmother since his mother and father were not a part of his life. He liked reading and writing, but his classes just didn’t hold his interest. While he was locked up, he was introduced to Free Minds and relished the opportunity to occupy his time with books and creative writing. “Free Minds were friends when I needed them. They sent me books that I liked to read, and taught me how to express myself through poetry.”

Delonte says his time in prison and the books he read made him appreciate what he had in life. After reading about poverty and war around the world, he realized that even though he was incarcerated he had advantages that other children did not. This set him on a course of taking responsibility for his actions; he became determined to break the cycle of incarceration and create his own destiny.

Delonte obtained his GED certificate while doing time at FCI Cumberland in western Maryland. He was released from prison at the age of 20. Free Minds assisted Delonte in obtaining his first job that fall as a busboy at a restaurant in downtown Washington, DC. This job taught him many basic skills needed to maintain employment. A year later, he interned at the office of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, which helped him gain basic administrative skills and further his work readiness. “I liked feeling productive and helping Free Minds.”

More recently, Delonte participated with Free Minds in a joint project with the D.C. non-profit Lifepieces to Masterpieces. Delonte took away from these experiences the understanding that he chooses his path in life. “What I got out of the program was knowing that I can control my life no matter the situation...and the understanding that I have the power to do whatever I want to do.”

These days, Delonte is busy at work, maintaining the grounds and buildings at an apartment complex after Free Minds helped him enroll in DC’s Project Empowerment Program. His life has changed dramatically since the day he was locked up. “My priorities have changed the most. Me, as a person, I've changed the most.” Delonte is expecting his first child. He is looking forward to getting to be a father and providing for his child. Meanwhile, he feels fortunate that Free Minds has been in his life.

“When I look back on my experiences with Free Minds, I will always remember the friends I made and the importance of keeping a positive attitude and always having hope for your future.”

 

Interview with Jermaine

by Vicky Goodale, Free Minds Summer InternJermaine

How did you first get involved with Free Minds?

I first got involved with Free Minds in ’07 when I first got locked up. Tara and Kelli came to see me at the jail. I was 16 years old. When I was sentenced, and shipped out, one of the first letters I received was from Free Minds. Tara and Kelli kept in touch with me until I was released. They came to see me in North Dakota, visited me over Christmas, that’s something I’ll never forget. When I came home, they let me work in the Free Minds office as an intern for about two weeks.

How long have you been working for Free Minds?

When I was released last fall, I worked at the Free Minds office for a couple of weeks. Since then, we’ve done a few different programs, a poetry jam, a radio show with 93.9, a two week program with Life Pieces where every one of us got certificates for completing the program, and we recorded a song for the “Hear Us Out” program held on I Street in 2009.

What kind of work do you do at Free Minds?

I am the Communications and Social Media apprentice at Free Minds. I get assignments daily, schedule upcoming events, and call to check up on everyone within the Free Minds community. I’m in charge of helping to call the youth involved in Free Minds, get in touch with them to update them on our current events, see if they need anything, and just generally find out what’s new with them. I reach out to people who haven’t been in touch with us in awhile.

What’s your favorite part about working for Free Minds?

My favorite part about working for Free Minds is gaining new experiences daily. I am doing different things that I wouldn’t normally do. Also, being around my fellow Free Minds members, Tara and Juliana, is another great joy I get out of working at Free Minds.

What’s your favorite book?

One of my favorites is The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur, I’ve read it more than once. I also really like Dark by Kenji Jasper.

Juliana tells me that you have a bright future in music. Tell me more about your music career.

I’ve been writing lyrics and doing music since I was 9 years old. I’m currently working with LOP Records and also affiliated with DCR Records. I’ve been working with LOP since I was 14 years old, doing a couple of CDs. My music career is taking off. Right now, we’re doing a mixtape set to drop at the end of this month. Then we’ll get a published copy written, get it in stores, and sell it. Right now we’re doing shows at local clubs, networking and doing photo and video shoots to promote the mixtape.

Fifty years from now, what is one thing you will look back on and always remember about Free Minds?

Fifty years from now, I will always remember that Free Minds were the ones there for me when people that were supposed to have cared about me weren’t there. Tara and Kelli were always in my corner, always reached out to me no matter what kind of situation I was in. I will never forget that.

Paulo's Story

Paulo was just 17 years old when he was charged and incarcerated as an adult at the DC Jail.

pauloWhen he looks back he sees a lost young man with no goals or dreams. “I didn’t think much about my future or my life. I lived day-by-day. I was too preoccupied with hanging out with my friends, stealing and causing problems,” he says now.

“I didn’t like to read or write before I came to prison,” says Paulo. “It bored me…I was in the 10th grade and I didn’t even know how to compose a complete sentence.”

Left: Paulo graduates from the GED program at Petersburg Federal Prison

All of that changed when Paulo joined Free Minds. Initially, the first time he was told it was time for “Book Club,” Paulo attended only because he was so desperate to leave the isolation of his cell. But it was that one Monday morning that he says helped him change his life.

“Thanks to Free Minds, I now place a great value in books and in writing,” he says. “I have come to understand why so many people hold on to their books and writing as a treasure…Free Minds has taught me how to select books and how to value them, and in writing, how to free my mind and be creative. What it has emphasized to me, moreover, is that reading and writing are fun! Free Minds was the kick a car needs to sometimes start.”

Since his transfer to federal prison, Paulo has remained in touch with Free Minds. He not only receives letters regularly, but also new books. “Every book that I have received from Free Minds has taught me something. I always learn something form a book whether it’s a new word, a new writing style, or a new idea,” he says. “Books are always leaving a mark on my life.” The book that has had the greatest impact upon Paulo is A Place to Stand, the autobiography of acclaimed poet Jimmy Santiago Baca. “He writes about what I’m going through,” Paulo says. “I speak not of the physical, but of the mental struggles and of how he dealt with them. I see myself following his footsteps.”

Paulo also writes to his Free Minds volunteer pen pal, Kristen. “Over the years, I never thought that I would meet someone like my pen pal,” he says. “It is people like her that make one reflect upon one’s life.”

Paulo has come a very long way since he first came to Free Minds at the DC jail in 2003. He has not only earned his GED, but he now teaches courses to other inmates in federal prison helping them to pursue higher education. In 2007, he and a partner developed a seminar to teach other inmates how to get their GED and earn a bachelor’s degree while incarcerated. Paulo has already successfully completed three college courses and earned high grades in all of them. He plans to obtain his undergraduate degree and then pursue graduate school to become a psychologist.

“Changes are happening everyday in my life,” Paulo says. “I see myself as more mature…I have become more caring and responsible. Finally, I have changed my entire perspective on how I should live my life.”