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When You Hear Me, You Hear Us

Incarcerated as children, four gifted poets share their art, their experiences, and themselves.

Hero Overlay – With Companion Stories (22)

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.

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
by Alisha
I counted three liquor stores on my block
Over sixty black men and four police cars
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…
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.