Shining a Light in the Darkness of Prison

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John Last 1Reading saved my life. I can only guess at how many books I read in my nearly 25 years of incarceration. I feel certain that it is easily over a thousand. For me, the longer and more detailed the book was the better. One perfect book was To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember squatting in the hallway outside of my room after lights out so I could finish the last few pages. Dune was another favorite that I read over and over. I would recite its litany against fear, which begins, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer…” But the greatest book was Les Miserables. When Jean Valjean, towards the end of his life, says, “To die is nothing, but it is terrible not to live,” a depth of connection transfixed me completely and tears streamed down my face. These worlds, and many more, helped keep me sane and alive, and gave me a way to continue to learn about and experience life.

I imagine that reading serves this function for many people, but there is something particularly powerful about its power in the darkness of prison. It is a light that shines because of the help of many people, from family members and librarians to non profits that send books to prisoners.

A few weeks ago, I met some folks who shine this light into a particularly dark corner of the prison system. They were from the Free Minds Book Club, a Washington, D.C.-based non profit that serves juveniles who are being held as adults in the D.C. jail. Free Minds Book Club runs two weekly writing workshops for them in the jail. They encourage the kids to express themselves in poetry and prose and to share their work with their peers. The results have been terrific. For some of the kids, it is the first time that they have been asked to really share themselves. They also read books and have discussions, just like book clubs around the world. Right now they are reading Muchacho by LouAnne Johnson, author of Dangerous Minds.

Besides the book club and the writing classes the group holds workshops, called On the Same Page, around the community. They share the writings of the kids and use them as a springboard for starting discussions about ways to reduce violence and crime. Another program is called Write Night, where volunteers read the kids’ work and write their responses, which the kids get to see later.

Their work doesn’t end at the jail. The program has been running for 10 years, and now many of the participants are in federal prison or have been released. These kids, because of where they live, can be shipped all over the country. But Free Minds continues to support these young men, some of whom may spend their entire lives in prison. For some of the young men, Free Minds is their only link home.

Free Minds also distributes a regular collection of writing from their members around the country, called The Connect. It is a monthly newsletter made up of writing, articles and poems from staff, kids who have come home, kids still on the inside, family and community members. It offers advice, book reviews and news from home. Tara Libert, cofounder, writes, “…most of all [it offers] encouragement so our members don’t feel like no one cares or [that] they are ‘out of sight, out of mind.’” Recently five of their writers comprised the editorial board for a new literary journal; They Call Me 229-359. It contains submissions from around the country.

There isn’t enough room in this space to talk about everything they do, so I encourage you to go to their site or check out their Facebook page. They maintain a blog where they post members’ poems each week. You can go there and leave comments, which will then be printed and mailed to the poets in federal prison. It is a kind of virtual Write Night, and serves the same purpose of connecting these youngsters with people on the outside. Free Minds is a group of people who are doing restorative justice week in and week out, and they deserve our support. I leave you with a poem by one of Free Mind’s contributors:

My Face

MARCH 1, 2012

I think my face is only a disguise
2 hide the pain you cannot see
Because if my face was my heart
You’ll probably see a different me
And another half of me is bitter
And another half is sweet
But I try 2 keep
My skeletons buried 6 feet
I am only 18 but my life is so deep
But from the view of my face
My secrets are kept 4 keeps…

4 thoughts on “Shining a Light in the Darkness of Prison

  1. Great post! A couple of questions – 1 – do they take book donations? 2 – are there local chapters in the Atlanta area that we could volunteer with?

    • I am not sure if they take donations Steve. I think that this particular group does their work in D.C., but I know that there are a lot of other groups doing work like this.

    • Hi Steve!
      I’m the Program Director for Free Minds, and we also loved John’s post. To answer your questions: 1)We are always grateful for book donations for our book club at DC Jail- email us at mail@freemindsbookclub.org. 2) Right now we are only in DC, but there are amazing organizations doing work all over the country.
      many thanks,
      Juliana

  2. John,

    You shined a light for me today. I guess I never thought of libraries and reading being in prisons and juvenile detentions.

    For me, as a child growing up in a chaotic, alcoholic home, reading was also an escape from my circumstances, therefore, your piece really resonated with me.

    Thank you for sharing your heart!