“The journals you all gave us changed everything for me. There was just so much that I needed to get off of my chest. Things I wanted to say, but didn’t know how before I joined Free Minds.”
At the age of eight years old, Anthony had already lived in numerous apartments, shelters and institutions. He was one of seven children. His mother was addicted to crack cocaine, and his father physically beat him regularly. School might have been a refuge, but Anthony was expelled from all of DC’s public schools because of “behavior problems.” Instead, he was sent to a school for children with learning disabilities. By the time he was 13, Anthony skipped school rather than endure the humiliation of riding the “cheese bus,” or the short bus that transported special education students.
“Everyone knew what that bus meant. I didn’t want to go to school on that bus because it was too embarrassing,” Anthony says now. Consequently, Anthony never learned to read and fell far behind his classmates. He stayed away from home where his mother and others were smoking crack. Instead, he turned to the streets, and began running with older boys. When he was 16, Anthony and and one of these older boys decided to rob a man. When the man resisted, the older boy shot him. Anthony was charged with armed robbery and second degree murder and incarcerated as an adult at the DC Jail.
“I was scared. I was so confused and I couldn’t sleep thinking about what had happened. I felt I had blood on my hands and I felt ruined. I didn’t have any idea what was ahead of me, but at the same time I was in this harsh environment and so I had to put on this tough facade,” he says.
Once at the jail, Anthony joined Free Minds Book Club. He wanted to learn to read and he was ready to ask for help. Through the use of flash cards, following along as other members read aloud in book club sessions, and practicing at night with his another teen named Mike, Anthony began to read.
“The book club was there for me. I needed those books! I knew I wasn’t dumb. I just couldn’t read. The first book I ever read all the way through was called Dark. That book was different than the books I’d been given before. The story could have been real. It looked like my own life and it grabbed my attention,” he says. That first book led to another and then another. Soon, Anthony was asking for more books to read when he finished book club titles.
“Reading gave me new confidence. It made me feel like nobody could get over on me. If they asked me to sign something, I could read it first. Once I learned to read, I felt like I was in control!”
Anthony also learned to write. “The journals you all gave us changed everything for me. There was just so much that I needed to get off of my chest. Things I wanted to say, but didn’t know how before I joined Free Minds. I needed to stand up to my father, but I couldn’t. I needed to express that I knew what he did to me was wrong. Now I could put those feelings on paper!”
Because of the abuse he had experienced, Anthony was extremely distrustful of other men, Often, he ended up fighting them. “Y’all put us in a room together and showed us that we could get along. At first I didn’t like a lot of those guys. Some of them, I couldn’t stand! But once you got us expressing ourselves in front of each other, I realized I could let my guard down. Y’all helped me express myself in front of a room full of men! Before I never would have asked people how to spell words, especially not men. But I started doing it and in reality, I ended up learning so much from this group of young men.”
“When you join Free Minds, you become part of a family. I know for a fact that a lot of these young guys at the DC jail right now don’t have a family that is caring for them and writing them letters. They need that!”
Anthony served 10 years in federal prison. Free Minds sent him a new book each month, and he estimates he has read hundreds of them now. His favorite is As a Man Thinketh by James Allen. It is a book that he says serves as a roadmap to life and he likes to reread it often.
Since he came home more than a year ago, Anthony has been making a difference as a Free Minds Poet Ambassador, sharing his poetry and his story with audiences across the city as part of Free Minds’ On the Same Page violence prevention initiative. He recently testified in front of Congress at a hearing on the collateral consequences of incarceration.
Anthony works with a fellow Free Minds member in a restaurant cleaning business. He has previously worked as a restaurant cook and on a recycling truck. He would love to manage apartment and commercial buildings, and he plans to study Property Management at UDC-Community College. Anthony also volunteers for the Washington Humane Society.
“I love animals,” he says. “After I got locked up, I could understand how animals felt being locked up in cages, not knowing when they will get out, or even if they will get out. I just want to make them feel safe and loved.”