“I remembered I did want to change. I wanted to give back after taking so much from so many.”
Phillip Mosby was born and raised in Northeast Washington, DC. Growing up in the public housing complex East Capitol Dwellings, Phil lived in a house with his mom and younger brother. As Phil recounts, he was an average kid, mostly interested in shoes, clothes, and friends. Still, although he never could have imagined the crime that would eventually land him in jail, Phil and all of the boys in his neighborhood viewed getting arrested as a rite of passage. As he explains, “at that age you always think jail is cool.”
Despite the fact that there was violence on the streets around him, Phil’s family life at home was relatively comfortable. “Whatever I needed or wanted my mother made sure I got it. If she couldn’t afford it, she talked to my father and he made sure I got it.” When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Phil replies immediately, “A bus driver”—just like his dad. Phil pauses, then explains, “My father was there financially, but he wasn’t there physically.”
Around the time Phil turned 12, he started turning to the street life. When asked why he started getting into trouble, without missing a beat, he replies, “No guidance—I had no guidance.” Sure, the street life offered money and reputation, but it also helped him earn the respect of older guys in the neighborhood. When other kids his age were playing catch with their fathers, Phil was gaining membership in the street game by stealing cars. “I guess I just wanted to do what everybody else was [doing]. My mom tried to stop me, but I didn’t listen.”
He spent time in a juvenile detention center for six months, but came straight home and continued with his destructive lifestyle. Still, Phil maintained good grades in his classes throughout middle school. Even though he never had a favorite book, Phil “always read current events like newspapers and magazines.”
A few years into high school, Phil was arrested and charged as an adult in court at the age of 16. When he got to the juvenile unit in the DC jail, he was fighting for his life. Though there was no school or GED program available to the inmates, “the first thing the guys [told me about] was Free Minds.”
“[At first,] I was looking at it like this is something to do while I’m over here. After a while, I realized this is something that was gonna help me.”
When he turned 18, Phil was sent to a federal prison in Maryland. “It was like getting thrown into the lion’s pit. You go from being home to the DC jail to doing time 2, 3, 4 hours away. You gotta get used to not seeing your family on a consecutive basis, versus them coming to the DC jail 2 times a week.”
Once there, surviving prison consisted of “learning from the older guys, following their advice, and just figuring out how to [do my time].”
Phil spent his first three years in prison being “all over the place, lost, trying to get through the day—I was letting my time do me instead of me doing time.” All of the violence and negativity around him caused Phil to slip back into his “old ways.”
Oftentimes, he was put in the SHU (“Special Housing Unit,” otherwise known as solitary confinement) for acting up. “You are locked down 23 hours a day and you feel like the whole world has forgotten you.”
When he turned 21, Phil recalls having a realization. “You can’t do time [by listening to] all these different thoughts and opinions and negative stuff going on.” Phil started changing his habits and the people he surrounded himself with. Though Phil is a natural leader with a grounded confidence and a friendly demeanor, he also learned when to separate himself.
Phil also credits The Free Minds Connect newsletter for encouraging his transformation. Thinking back to one of his days in solitary confinement, Phil talks about receiving the issue of the Connect that changed his mind. “The theme was ‘Pay it Forward.’ I remembered I did want to change. I wanted to give back after taking so much from so many.”
Phil says his participation with Free Minds also changed the way he felt about reading, because the books he received through the Books Across the Miles (BAM) program “expanded my vocabulary and broadened my horizons.”
Throughout his sentence, Phil spent time in North Carolina, Kentucky, and California. After serving 10 years in prison, Phil was released at the age of 26 and given a Greyhound bus ticket from California to D.C. Getting on the bus, being around so many other people, traveling across the country—“I felt like I was in ‘The Twilight Zone.’”
He immediately contacted Free Minds when he got home, and has been doing violence-prevention outreach as a Free Minds Poet Ambassador ever since.
Phil now has a full-time job as the Community Outreach Liaison (COL) for the Corrections Information Council (CIC), a DC mayoral agency. Acting as a bridge between families and their incarcerated loved ones, Phil works to improve conditions in the Bureau of Prisons system. His long-term goals include continuing to invest in the local community as a COL, owning his own home, and eventually leaving DC to see more of the country. When asked about his dream location, Phil laughs and says, “probably Florida.” Then he adds, “I want to try to start a pilot program like Free Minds in another city to reach guys that went through what I been through and probably still is going through.”
In September, Phil will celebrate his 1-year reentry anniversary. When asked about a time he felt like he really made a connection to the community while doing outreach with Free Minds, Phil pauses for a moment. Speaking thoughtfully, he begins to talk about presenting at the Freedom Writer Teachers Empowerment Symposium at the Capitol building this past May. “They didn’t know too much about Free Minds. I shared a little background and they actually gave me a standing ovation… that’s the first time I ever received a standing ovation for telling my story that way. It felt good.”
By Jess Lawson
Phil is one of the featured poets in the Free Minds literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison. Here is an excerpt from his personal essay on the theme “R.I.P.”
When I hung up, I broke down right there on the block. My whole thought process changed in an instant. My thoughts went to revenge. For three weeks I was messed up and I couldn’t think of nothing else but getting revenge [for Jay’s death]. Then one day, my friend told me, “You just did ten years. You can’t go and give it all back now!” Suddenly, it clicked. Jay’s the one who told me that we had to do things differently. He’s the one who told me to be positive. It was so hard though because all this time, I was just waiting to get out there with Jay and make it together. And he was out there by himself without me, and he couldn’t do it alone.