Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop was invited to amplify our members’ voices at the Atlantic’s “Justice in America” event in May. Grateful for the opportunity to fulfill our mission of uplifting marginalized voices, Executive Director Tara Libert and Poet Ambassador James Allen spoke on the panel “The Art of Re-Entry,” with fellow panelists Stephen Belber (Writer and Producer, O.G.) and David Domenici (Executive Director, Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings). Together, Tara and James powerfully spoke on the work and impact of Free Minds, creativity as it relates to self-expression and self-worth, and bibliotherapy (the therapeutic use of books to distance the self from one’s own reality). 

James recited the poem “Misunderstood” by Anthony, a Free Minds member who is currently incarcerated, after Tara prefaced the reading by highlighting the traumatic psychological effects of incarceration and life “on the streets” in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.


By Anthony

Understand; I’m misunderstood
Born an Introvert
Momma see it in my eyes; Granny know I’m gifted
Elementary school, Junior high, High school, Jail, Prison
Institutionalized at a young age.

Don’t sag pants above the waist; Steve Erk
Rebel with a cause; purposeful
Rebellious to the Laws; No statements
No Father figure
Love Women; never disrespect I know they need understanding.

Living with a bad case of P.T.S.D.
Don’t do drugs; No Antidepressants
Inner fight going on people call ‘em demons ‘cause they don’t understand it.
I marvel at the way of the world, it’s just hard to understand it.

Best friend counting on me, I love her she’s the Best; Can’t forget the rest. Just family and a couple of close friends
Lost a lot of homies, seen a lot of messed up stuff too deep to find tears.
Only 23 but I’m wise beyond years; stand up guy well respected among my peers, none less from opposition.
Used to have to keep a gun on me now I keep a Bic pen and an Oxford on me.

There’s more you probably wouldn’t understand; Hurt doesn’t always show, the worst almost always stays hidden.

It’s Misunderstood.

Tara and James on the panel

James answers a question from the audience.

James, who is from Southeast DC, also spoke about his role as a Poet Ambassador in the Free Minds community outreach program, On the Same Page: Free Minds Poetry in the Classroom and Community. He shared that he is able to connect with young students because they are naturally inquisitive, have similar backgrounds, and are from the same neighborhood.

As the panel began to conclude, the moderator took questions from the audience. Though not a question but rather a raving acknowledgement, a woman by the name of Ayanna grabbed a microphone and thanked Free Minds for being a compelling factor during her first year at Howard University. During her tenure at Howard, she volunteered with Free Minds and the experience catapulted her studies and career aspirations in the direction of criminal justice. An attendee followed Ayanna’s remarks and asked James, “What is your opinion on the Bureau of Prisons (BOP)’s policy that made it harder and costlier for inmates to get books?” James responded, “I think it’s a horrible idea to ban books from the outside and having people pay for them out of their own canteen. A lot of people, especially who have been incarcerated for a long time, don’t have a lot of outside support, and with prisons offering jobs where they are working for pennies, sometimes 25 cents an hour, it’s almost impossible to take care of yourself even in term of hygiene, buying extra food…and then on top buying $40 dollar books?” Shortly after the event, we learned via the Washington Post that the Bureau of Prisons had decided to rescind the memos (currently in place at four facilities where Free Minds members are housed) and review the proposed policies restricting access to books.

Panelists sitting on the stage in front of a "Justice in America" sign

Panelists David Domenici, Stephen Belber, Tara Libert, and James Allen, with moderator Adrienne Green

Stay in the know:

  • Want to watch “The Art of Re-Entry” panel? Catch it here.
  • Also, if you missed the Washington Post article addressing the policy’s cancellation, you can read it here.
  • A huge thank you to the Atlantic for letting Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop be a part of such a successful panel like “The Art of Re-Entry” along with Stephen Belber and David Domenici. We’re looking forward to future invitations!

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