“Because of books, I have a totally different understanding of my life and the world around me.”
Decario joined Free Minds at barely 16 years old when he was arrested and charged as an adult with armed robbery. The child of a crack-addicted mother, Decario had always struggled with reading and writing and was behind several grade levels in school where he was placed in special education classes. Decario had never read an entire book before he arrived at the DC Jail, but he came to the book club anyway. When he completed his first book, Dark by Kenji Jasper, Decario was extremely thrilled and proud. He began to request more books and write poems.
After serving an 18-month sentence during which he studied intensively for his GED, Decario was released and moved to North Carolina looking for a fresh start away from the streets of DC. Within months of his arrival, he was arrested and held in a county jail. Decario consistently proclaimed his innocence. He spent more than four years in jail. Free Minds corresponded regularly with Decario during this time. He became a prolific writer, sending us stacks of his poems, and dubbing himself “Poetry Man.” His favorite work became the title piece of Free Minds’ literary journal and was published in November 2011. The poem is called “They Call me 299-359.” In August 2012, the state of North Carolina dropped all charges against Decario.
Decario has been taking classes at a community college, but is currently taking a brief hiatus from school as he is working two jobs to save money for his own apartment. He recently visited his mother who has been drug-free for the past seven years. Decario works as a prep cook and dishwasher at a local restaurant, and also works as a driver for a hotel. We recently talked with Decario about his long and arduous journey.
FM: What impact has Free Minds had upon your life?
DW: Wow, where do I start? It’s been more than awesome! Free Minds gave me a second chance. They gave me an opportunity. They brought me things I never thought possible for me to possess. Free Minds gave me the tools to be able to read, write and spell on a high school level. I had fallen way behind in school, and I didn’t think I was even capable of achieving anymore. But Free Minds gave me hope, and I did it. They showed me a way that I could express myself in a way that was different than what poverty had shown me. Before I joined Free Minds, I didn’t have a voice. Now I not only have a voice, but I can speak and communicate with all different types of people.
FM: How have books and writing helped you?
DW: Books gave me a whole new point of view and a new window on the world. Through books I gained new social skills. I have expanded my vocabulary to a size I never could have dreamed of. I used to use ebonics and slang all the time, but now I speak like an educated individual. Because of books, I have a totally different understanding of my life and of the world around me.
FM: What is your favorite book of those you’ve read so far?
DW: Without a doubt, it would have to be The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I love that book. It gave me a new perspective about myself, my people and my history. It changed the way I think about life.
The first book I ever finished was a book called Dark, by a DC writer called Kenji Jasper that Free Minds brought to me. I remember how I felt when I finished the last page. I was so excited, I just thought, I can read! I felt like I had accomplished something BIG! I just couldn’t believe I could actually say, I just read that book!
FM: Why do you call yourself “Poetry Man?”
DW: Well, I like to sign all of my poems “Poetry Man” because I believe that is through poetry that I went from being a boy to a man.
FM: Which of the poems that you have written are you most proud of?
DW: It’s a poem that I wrote while I was locked up. It’s called “They Call Me 299-359,” and it became the title poem for the book that Free Minds published full of poems by all of the Free Minds brothers. I feel proud of that piece because I feel I was speaking for all of us. The poem expresses what it feels like when through incarceration you are stripped of your identity. I wanted to remind everyone that we are human beings with so potential and so much to offer.
FM: Why is it so important for incarcerated teens to have a mentor on the outside?
DW: Wow, I’m honestly just overwhelmed and afraid that my words aren’t going to do my feelings justice. Y’all were there when nobody else was. You kept writing to me when literally everyone else had forgotten me. I mean everyone! Just hearing your name called by the CO during mail call when nobody else had bothered. You feel so alone in that situation, and then to hear your name called by that CO? Well, that’s an awesome feeling! You feel alive again. It means so much.
FM: What is next for you?
DW: I’m taking college prep courses so that I can succeed in college. Ultimately, my goal is to pursue a career as a counselor so that I can help young people who face the same challenges that I did. I am attending school full-time and I also have a job as a prep cook and dishwasher at Chili’s Restaurant. I am able to pay my own rent and my own bills. You can’t imagine how good that feels!