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
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 is that every Free Minds member is able to access the necessary opportunities, inspiration, and support to write new chapters in their lives.
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 man on death row in Texas. 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 sharing the life-changing power of reading, writing, and community building with teens at the DC Jail.
Free Minds began as a bi-weekly program for youths charged as adults 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 book clubs and writing workshops with youths and adults in the DC Jail, juvenile detention center, federal prison system, and reentry. For members returning to DC, Free Minds also runs a robust reentry support program, with job training and placement services, peer mentoring, advocacy and leadership development opportunities, and referrals to other services in the community that will help them to achieve their new educational and career goals.
Free Minds serves incarcerated and formerly incarcerated adults in the DC Jail, juvenile detention, federal prison system, and reentry. Approximately ninety five percent of Free Minds members are African American and four percent are Latinx. The majority of Free Minds members were charged and incarcerated as adults when they were under 18. 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 provides the necessary opportunities, resources, and support for these youths and adults to envision new possibilities for their futures, and to make those visions a reality.
Since its inception, Free Minds has reached over 1,500 youths and adults with long-term, continuous support.
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 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.
Free Minds has been honored with the following awards:
- Sojourner Truth Award from George Mason University
- Vincent E. Reed Award from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
- 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 2020/21 Catalogue for Philanthropy: "One of the best small charities in the Greater Washington region."