Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that uses the literary arts, workforce development, and violence prevention approaches to support incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youths and adults. Over its nearly 20 years, it has worked with over 1,500 people to help them access opportunities, inspiration, and support to write new chapters in their lives.
Later this year, Free Minds will publish its third book, an anthology of poetry and personal reflections. Incarcerated as children, the poets below are only a few of the critical voices featured in the forthcoming anthology, When You Hear Me (You Hear Us). The full collection includes poems, personal stories, and reflections from young people charged and incarcerated in the adult criminal legal system, as well as from the community around them: the parents, loved ones, correctional staff, public defenders, and many others harmed and left with unhealed trauma. Through its collected works, the anthology illustrates the ecosystem that surrounds youth who are incarcerated — and exposes how the harm of their incarceration affects us all.
Listener by Davon W. There are things I can’t tell my mother So I come to you I’ll never tell my human friends ‘Cause they don’t listen as well as you do The way you listen Is like a kid with his ear to a seashell You hear everything I say And the echo as well I like the way you hold your water And keep my secrets in your head Paper, that’s why you’re the best listener ‘Cause you never repeat what I said
Counting by Alisha I counted three liquor stores on my block Over sixty black men and four police cars Counting I’m counting… Seven people in my mother’s home, two bedrooms, and one stove One bathroom, nineteen weed roaches in the ashtray Six dollars on her bedroom dresser and two bags under her eyes I’m counting Still counting… 72 hours alone, four calls from our school, and only one box of cereal left Four eyes on me, four eyes looking through a shoe box 15 years and one judge I’m counting Still counting… 3 brothers left, one welfare card, zero phone calls Three different states, too many lies And I promise, I know how to count because I’m nine now I’m counting four therapists, two psychiatrists, thirty days, eight needles, and one wish I’m counting one mother, two brothers, and no fire alarm Seven tubes, no tears, and every, “I hate you,” I ever spoke I’m counting… Three men, no voice, every threat Fifteen, eight prior charges, one baby Two lives, one hundred and twenty-two cells, but no help I’m counting Still counting…
When by Lydell I wake to the sun rising in the East the rays burning my eyes as I shake off the sleep My first vision is bars before a screen and a half open window beyond that is cages a gun tower and twenty-foot wall Then I see something else, everyday that should give hope to all high upon a pole, it waves at me sometimes to the East, sometimes to the West Surrounded by blue skies and white clouds both symbols of freedom both symbols of life today I feel neither, tomorrow will be the same I am of the world, but not in it so I stare out the window and wonder, WHEN when will I live my life in this manner of life, of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness WHEN, I ponder as I look at the Star-Spangled Banner
A poem from a father to his youngest son by Timothy The worst pain I’ve ever felt was looking at you, reach for me through a video screen and I couldn’t touch you; right then, I knew what it felt like to die, a living death
Davon, Lydell and Timothy are currently incarcerated in federal prisons. Alisha is now home and working at a community mental health organization.
When You Hear Me (You Hear Us) is forthcoming this fall from Shout Mouse Press.
Premal Dharia, a member of the Inquest editorial board, serves as a volunteer member of the Free Minds Board of Directors.