Poetry Gives Young People in Prison a Voice — and a Fresh Start

Posted June 21, 2022
Ten people, most in blue T-shirts, are grouped together and smiling and looking at the camera.

How can book clubs and writ­ing work­shops help peo­ple in pre­tri­al deten­tion and prison get excit­ed about learn­ing and hope­ful for the future? A June 3 webi­nar by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion explored this very question.

The ses­sion spot­lights the Free Minds Book Club & Writ­ing Work­shop, a pro­gram serv­ing youth and adults who are incar­cer­at­ed in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

Many Free Minds mem­bers were charged as adults but under age 18 when they entered adult jail, juve­nile deten­tion or fed­er­al prison. Often­times, they become avid read­ers and writ­ers through­out their incar­cer­a­tion, despite nev­er writ­ing a poem or par­tic­i­pat­ing in a book club before join­ing Free Minds.

The webi­nar, Voic­es on Youth Incar­cer­a­tion, fea­tures mod­er­a­tor and Free Minds youth edu­ca­tion and out­reach man­ag­er Janet Zwick. It also wel­comes three poet ambas­sadors — mem­bers who are now home from prison — who dis­cuss their expe­ri­ence with the pro­gram and how they are lever­ag­ing it to inspire and redi­rect young peo­ple in need.

Pan­elists include:

  • Janet Zwick, youth edu­ca­tion and out­reach man­ag­er, Free Minds Book Club & Writ­ing Work­shop, moderator
  • Car­los Alon­so, poet ambas­sador, Free Minds Book Club & Writ­ing Workshop
  • Gene Down­ing, Con­gress­man John Lewis Fel­low and poet ambas­sador, Free Minds Book Club & Writ­ing Workshop
  • Eyone Williams, poet ambas­sador, Free Minds Book Club & Writ­ing Workshop

Dur­ing the hour seg­ment, the ambas­sadors share their own poems and talk about the con­nec­tive pow­er of writ­ing and how it can help young peo­ple get their lives back on track. The Pre­tri­al Jus­tice Insti­tute — Casey’s JDAI® train­ing part­ner — orga­nized the webi­na­r for JDAIcon­nect.

Facts About Free Minds Book Club & Writ­ing Workshop

  • Approx­i­mate­ly 95% of its mem­bers are Black; 4% are Latino.
  • Since its incep­tion in 1996, it has con­nect­ed with more than 1,500 youths and adults. 
  • It has pub­lished three antholo­gies of poems and sto­ries authored by members.
  • It also runs a reen­try sup­port pro­gram for mem­bers return­ing to D.C.

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