Free Minds Book Club And Writing Workshop Helps Keep Former Juvenile Prisoners Out Of Jail

Robert Barksdale, Phil Mosby, and Juan Peterson meet up regularly for a book club, during which they lead writing workshops, discuss books they have read, and also just chat about their job prospects and how they're doing. The three men met in a Washington D.C. jail, where they were serving time for violent crimes they committed as juveniles. It was at this jail that they joined Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, sometimes just for an excuse to sit for an hour or so in a room with big windows. And it's this book club that has been the men's lifeline both in prison and after they were released from prison, a community of like-minded men that hold each other accountable and celebrate each other's successes.

The Washington Post talked with Barksdale, Mosby, and Peterson, as well as the founders of the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, as they spoke in front of students in an English class in Eastern High School near D.C. "For me, school is a treat because I never got to be in school, for real," Barksdale said to the students. "Ya'll are a little intimidating."

Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop is a nonprofit organization that "introduces youth incarcerated at D.C. jail to the life-changing power of books and poetry." Members meet every week to read and discuss a work of contemporary literature, often memoir, such as Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall, who is became a writer after he was released from serving a prison sentence. From these books, book club members are prompted to write a poem of their own in journals provided by Free Minds.

Kelli Taylor, a former journalist, started exchanging letters with a man on death row who loved books and reading. Along with Tara Libert, Taylor started the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. After seeing the massive positive effect the book club had on incarcerated young men, the two founders extended the program to alumni who had been released from jail.

FreeMindsDC on YouTube

According to a 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, juveniles tried as adults are 34 percent more likely to return to jail after they've been released than juveniles tried as juveniles. But it's the work of Free Minds that hopes to change that statistic. Barksdale, Mosby, and Peterson meet up for the book club and writing workshop, building a support network for each other to celebrate their achievements small and large and help each other find job leads, while, of course, they continue writing their poetry. Barksdale wrote the following poem:

The things we took up are guns, knives and bats, yeah, we be armed and strongBut how do you know it’s not right if you’re being taught wrong?

Peterson, who know aims to become a lawyer, wrote this poem:

No more heartaching sins

from the dark place within

thinking of back then it’s too complicated to comprehend

I’m awestruck from the view

It’s like I’m seeing two

My mind is displaying a brighter hue

It feels good to be brand new

When speaking about Free Minds, the three men agree that it has inspired them and helped them pull through tough times.

“Writing opened up a passion in me,” Barksdale said to The Washington Post. “That’s what you need to get through. Phil and Juan know; they were on the block with me. ... I began to read books, I wrote poetry, got my vocational certificate because life is not a game. Nobody is playing out there.”

Mosby said that above all, Free Minds has helped him work toward his goal of freedom.

I want to understand freedom ... I want to be able to have a job that can make a decent living, and put all of my past behind me. I can do it if I stay positive.

And it's his friends in Free Minds that help Mosby stay positive.

You have to keep on a mask in prison to survive, so people don’t mess with you. But then, Free Minds, it started feeling like a brotherhood.

To get involved with Free Minds, whether it's through donating books, attending a Write Night, giving feedback on poetry, or offering your time, you can visit the book club's website.

Image: Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop/Facebook