Recently, I volunteered with the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, a DC-based nonprofit organization that introduces teenage boys at the DC Jail and in federal prison to the life-changing power of books and creative writing. Free Minds inspires these young people to see their potential by organizing book clubs at the DC Jail where 16 and 17 year-olds discuss literature and express themselves through creative writing, pairing youth with a volunteer writing mentor from the community. Free Minds mentors these 16 and 17 year-olds (who have been tried and incarcerated as adults) throughout their incarceration and beyond release, providing reentry support, life skills workshops, and education referrals for life after prison.
At the Free Minds “Write Night” we provided comments and positive feedback on poems that these youth had written. Free Minds then takes the volunteers’ comments and gives them to the authors behind bars– the positive feedback is meant to help the authors find their voices as writers and to continue writing. We all know it’s gratifying to have someone commend your writing (or like your Facebook status), but can you imagine the transformative power in having someone comment on your words when you are in prison? Knowing that someone out there is actually listening, that someone is listening to you, must be truly validating and empowering.
One talented young poet had written this line in his poem, which particularly grabbed me: “In what adult mind frame is it justified to send juveniles to an adult prison? That’s what I’m trying to see.” We should all ask ourselves the same question. Lawyer and equal justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, in an inspiring TED talk about injustice in America, notes that the United States is the only country in the world where we sentence 13 year-olds to die in prison, and have life imprisonment without parole for kids. How can we even begin to talk about justice when over 2200 juveniles have been sentenced to life without parole?
Many of the poems I read at Write Night featured poignant reflections on the history of racial injustice in America, and the devastating impact of prison on the black community. In a recent New Yorker article on mass incarceration in America, Adam Gopnik notes that blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites, and that there are more black men under the control of the criminal justice system that were in slavery in 1850. “The system of mass incarceration works to trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage,” the legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes. “Young black men pass quickly from a period of police harassment into a period of “formal control” (i.e., actual imprisonment) and then are doomed for life to a system of “invisible control.”
As their readers on the outside, we need to not only listen to the voices of incarcerated youth, but take action so that young people are not tried and incarcerated as adults. Our for-profit prison system, supported by racially biased stop-and-frisk policing and sentencing disparities, locks up too many young people of color (often for minor offenses like marijuana possession), inhibiting their ability to get a job or education or vote or receive social services upon release, thus perpetuating a system of racial control that Alexander likens to slavery. I’ll close with one of the poems published in the Free Minds anthology; to read inspiring poems by incarcerated youth, post comments that will be given to the authors in jail, or learn more about volunteer opportunities, check out the Free Minds blog.
Confined as a Youth
When you think about childhood
You ‘posed to be able to smile
But never in my life was I taught how
I was always around anger that led to pain
I was always confined
At least that’s how it felt to my brain
The streets not only took me, but they took my mother too
Confined as a youth, so tell me what I ‘posed to do?
Some people say they love the streets because the game is all they know
I will never label myself until I give myself time to grow
And sometimes I wonder why do it always have to be me?
Then I hear my great grandma’s voice saying
“You wasn’t the only one that wasn’t free”
It’s crazy how people put lies in our heads
Trying to get to believe this is who we are
When, for real, every living thing was meant to be a star
I hope one day we will see there’s no limit to what we all can do
But until that day comes, I’m here on earth, “confined as a youth”