“Free Minds keeps me focused on doing better and giving back to the young people who are now where I once was.”—Maurice, age 23
As a young teen, Maurice loved school and learning. His teachers noticed his intelligence and potential and urged him to attend a highly rated public high school across town. Maurice wondered where he would get money for the things he needed, including clothes and the more than $6 roundtrip metro fare to get to school. When he had money, a drug-addicted family member would often steal it. Maurice applied for jobs every place he could think of, only to be told over and over that he was too young. His attendance at school became spotty because he simply couldn’t afford to get there. Maurice turned to crime to support himself.
“I knew that it was wrong, but I just kept telling myself I would only do what I needed to do to get by until I turned 18 and could find a better way out — get a real job and maybe eventually become a firefighter or police officer,” he says. A few months later, Maurice was arrested on robbery charges and charged as an adult. He was sentenced to more than four years in prison.
“I’d never even heard of Title 16 [the section of the DC Code which allows a juvenile to be charged and incarcerated as an adult for felony crimes],” Maurice says now. “The consequences definitely weren’t worth the gain.”
Maurice had always loved reading and so when he learned about the Free Minds Book Club at the DC Jail, he wanted to join immediately. At the time, there were few programs available to juveniles at the jail and Maurice wanted to soak up every opportunity that he could find. Among the books he read at the jail was War Child, the memoir of child-soldier Emmanuel Jal, who was forced to fight in Sudan’s civil war. Reading it gave Maurice a new perspective and optimism that he could overcome his own circumstances. “That book seemed surreal and made all the struggles that we the people of America go through seem as little as a pond is to an ocean!”
Maurice began to focus upon his education, earning his GED in prison. He continued reading books and writing poems, corresponding regularly with Free Minds and began counting the days until he would come home. In his poem “The Last Day,” Maurice expressed his desire to walk a positive new path in life:
The Last Day
The day I walk
The day I’ll talk
That day I’ll mock
All the bad I sparked
So those smart remarks
Is just pain in your hearts
From seeing this young brother depart
From the criminal acts
That led him to a spot
Tighter than a sardine’s pack
So when I go back (home)
I’ma be smart and fully intact
On how not to go back to the prison act
And that’s the last day
I’ll walk and never look back
It has been a year since Maurice was released. This is significant because as many as 90% of young men who are incarcerated as adults when they are under 18, return to prison within the first year after being released. Maurice has a full-time job as an administrative assistant at a mental health clinic, a job that he loves. “Working with people who struggle with mental illness is a humbling experience,” he says. “You are dealing with people who are not understanding, and so you better be understanding! Because two people not understanding, that can lead to a bad situation!”
Immediately after returning home, Maurice joined the Free Minds “On The Same Page” initiative becoming a Poet Ambassador, speaking in the community about his experience and sharing poetry as a powerful tool for the prevention of future violence. “I am passionate about this mission,” Maurice says. “I now have the opportunity to give back to society by telling kids who are now where I once was that even though they may be going through trials, there is a way out, as long as they don’t lose hope.”
In August, Maurice will enroll in college to study criminal justice. His goal is to become a probation officer.
We at Free Minds are so proud of Maurice and the positive impact he is having upon the world around him!