About Us

Our Mission

Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop uses the literary arts, workforce development, and violence prevention to connect incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youths and adults to their voices, their purpose, and the wider community.

Our Vision

Our vision is that every Free Minds member is able to access the necessary opportunities, inspiration, and support to write new chapters in their lives.

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 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.

Racial Justice

Free Minds recognizes that the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks are only the latest publicized instances of rampant, and largely unchecked, killing of Black people by perpetrators who are backed by institutional power in our country. Centuries of widespread racist oppression, terrorism, and violence has taken untold thousands of lives and caused cumulative, generational trauma and pain to so many more.

Since its founding in 2002, Free Minds has been supporting individuals whose lives have been affected by generational poverty, institutional racism, over-policing, mass incarceration, and a criminal legal system bent on retribution and not rehabilitation. Free Minds seeks to end the mass criminalization and incarceration, which exists in this country as a legacy of slavery and systemic racism. Free Minds believes that dismantling racist and oppressive structures is the responsibility of our entire community and requires collective action from multiracial coalitions. As the great civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody's free.”

Free Minds hopes that the protests we’ve seen, and participated in, over the last several weeks represent a flashpoint—a catalyst for an unstoppable movement that brings together people from all backgrounds to demand an end to the United States’ dark and ugly legacy of racial terrorism. Free Minds joins the crescendo of voices in our community that are speaking out and standing up against racism and violence in all forms.

By uplifting the voices and solutions of people directly impacted by the criminal legal system, both behind prison walls and in the community, Free Minds provides a platform for its members to speak truth to power about this inhumane system. Through writing, poetry and creative expression, Free Minds members call out the brutality and racism existing in current laws, policies, and practices. They raise awareness, build community, and help create a vision for a more just and equitable world, and in so doing, reclaim their liberation.

Free Minds believes that by listening to and raising up these voices, our community will understand that Black Lives Matter and that Black people have a right to live and breathe in a society free of racial injustice.

Recognition

Free Minds has been honored with the following awards:

Outstanding Criminal Justice Program Award from the National Criminal Justice Association
Renewal Award for Ingenuity from the Atlantic Magazine and Allstate Foundation
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 from the Council for Court Excellence
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."

Catalogue for Philanthropy seal

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