Free Minds Goes to Philadelphia

In October, the Free Minds team (staff and Poet Ambassadors Terrell, Roderick, and Nokomis) hit the road to participate in a conference in Philadelphia, PA, and share their poetry and personal stories with Philadelphia students.

They attended the Inside-Out Prison Exchange 20th Anniversary Conference, a 3-day conference celebrating twenty years of the innovative Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, in which college students and professors go inside prisons to learn alongside incarcerated students. Two Free Minds members have participated in Inside-Out courses and found the experience to be extraordinary.

Free Minds staff and Poet Ambassadors at a sign for the Inside-Out Conference

Free Minds staff and Poet Ambassadors heading in to the Inside-Out Conference

The Inside Out Prison Conference offered the unique opportunity to hear and share ideas with amazing professors, teachers and social service providers who work with incarcerated people all over the world. During the first day on the campus of Swarthmore College, our team was energized by so many brilliantly informed people discussing the pressing issues of justice reform and mass incarceration. The Conference featured panels and presentations, with speakers such as returning citizens and authors Shaka Senghor (Writing My Wrongs), R. Dwayne Betts (Bastards of the Reagan Era), and Susan Burton (Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women); Yale Law School professor and author James Forman (Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America), and University of Pennsylvania professor and author Marie Gottschalk (Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics).

The Free Minds team also had the special opportunity to visit Graterford State Correctional Institution on the second day of the conference, to learn from incarcerated men who have participated in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. It was a full day of listening, sharing, and even challenging and inspiring each other. Free Minds Reentry Manager Keela Hailes was particularly struck by her time spent with Fred, a man serving a life sentence for a crime committed when he was a teenager. Fred described Inside-Out as transformative, not only the coursework but the opportunity to interact with the professors and college students. He shared that meeting people who see him as a person rather than a number gave him hope for the future.

In addition to the Inside-Out Conference, our team also visited St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia, PA, to share our “On the Same Page” program with high school students. Free Minds Poet Ambassadors shared their life experiences and poetry with a crowd of interested, and motivated young people.

Free Minds staff and Poet Ambassadors with students

The Free Minds team at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in North Philadelphia

Poet Ambassadors led individual classroom presentations, in which they and the students shared ideas on the root causes of youth incarceration, drug use, hip-hop culture, stereotypes, and ways the students can utilize their resources to work together with their community in North Philadelphia to promote healing and nonviolence. Poet Ambassadors and staff also gave a presentation to the entire junior class at St. Joseph’s, in which each Free Minds staff member and Poet Ambassador shared his or her story of being personally impacted by the system, and stories of change and hope. Everyone could not have been more welcoming, friendly and engaged in our mission.

Poet Ambassador Nokomis said, “I love being able to reach out to people outside of my background to share my story so we can all work together to stop violence and keep kids from getting locked up. I could tell the St. Joseph’s students were really listening, and they really care about their community. That makes me feel hopeful. Thank you to all the teachers and students.”

The Free Minds team was also thrilled to visit Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Guild Program, a paid apprenticeship program that gives formerly incarcerated individuals and young adults on probation the opportunity to reconnect with their community while developing job skills through work on creative projects like mural making, carpentry, and mosaics.

Three men smiling in front of a mural

Poet Ambassadors Roderick, Terrell, and Nokomis touring the murals in Philadelphia

Thank you to Mural Arts Philadelphia, St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, and Graterford State Correctional Institution.



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