After more than a decade as a radio and television news and documentary producer working on stories about the U.S. criminal justice system, covering issues like the death penalty, prison overcrowding and juvenile justice reform, Tara Libert, was inspired to do more than tell the stories. Libert began to actively engage in the work to rewrite the narratives she was reporting on. At first that meant volunteering with Georgetown University’s Family Literacy Programme, tutoring incarcerated parents at the District of Columbia jail. Ultimately, it led her, along with her co-founder Kelli Taylor, to create the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshops, a D.C.-based nonprofit that provides educational, re-entry and community support to youth in the adult criminal justice system. In a recent interview with Aspire, Libert talks about the power of Free Minds, which uses books and creative writing to empower young inmates to transform their lives; its challenges and why she’s hopeful about the recent uptick in bipartisan prison reform conversation. Excerpts below:
Q. Tell us more about the beginning of Free Minds.
I had a job I loved. I was a freelance TV News producer for foreign broadcasters in Washington, D.C. I started with the American networks, but it took so long to work your way up but if you were with a foreign broadcaster, you were doing everything: flying all over the country, suggesting and reporting stories. It was fascinating seeing how different countries viewed the U.S. I was ‘the U.S. expert.’ In reality, of course, they know way more about our political system than I did. Who understands the electoral college?
It was an opportunity to go into a lot of prisons because what is the one thing that other countries want to poke at the U.S. about? It’s that we’re the world’s greatest supposed democracy, yet we have the death penalty – I did a lot of death penalty stories – and the highest rate of incarceration. Now everyone talks about it but back then we weren’t talking about it in the mainstream news.
I became shockingly aware. I had this education and awakening that inside prison there is little to no rehabilitation, nothing real or meaningful was happening. I was so alarmed but happy to keep doing my job: covering it, meeting incredible reformers. Then we – my co-producer in the bureau, Kelli Taylor – got a letter from Glen McGinnis, who we call the real founder of Free Minds. He was a young man on death row in Texas for a crime [he was convicted in the murder and robbery of a store clerk] he committed at age 16. Kelli ended up doing a documentary about his story. At the same time, I was in Baton Rouge [Louisiana] embedded with the police and probation for youth. It was just so heartbreakingly sad. When we would go around the city, the mums in the really poverty stricken areas were begging the police to lock their sons up so they knew that they were alive because the poverty and crime were so bad. It just made me realise, ‘What are we doing?’
Kelly loves to read and Glen loved books. He was self-educated, having dropped out of school at age 11. On death row in Texas, he was tutoring the old guys who didn’t know how to read. The literacy rates – we as a society have let all these kids fall through the cracks. From the lack of mental health help and the depleted education system and just the basic racism. It’s a total legacy of slavery. It’s a very, very clear direct line.
As a youth charged as an adult, Glen was a teen in an adult system. They have this thing ‘Sight and Sound,’ which means you’re in the same prison/jail as adults but you have to be separated because the justice system knew if you were a teen with adults, you were easy prey, you would be sexually preyed upon. What did that mean? They had no programming, no chapel, no recreation, no cafeteria. In essence, they were in solitary on their own unit. So when Kelli offered to get him books, he responded: ‘Please do that’. So Kelli would read a book. Glen would read a book. They would discuss it. They would write letters. During his wait on death row, Kelli had done the documentary. We were working for Australian Broadcasting at the time and it was only seen in Australia.
After he was executed, it was devastating. We decided to volunteer at the D.C. jail, to do something with our pain. You just sort of fall into it, having no idea if the youth would be engaged. We went into the jail and brought a book called Dark, which was about D.C., so that they could recognise the place. At the first book club, we wanted to do writing. We didn’t know, could they read at all? Could they write? A lot couldn’t read. Some could. We would read out loud. We did poetry because that is the most accessible to someone who’s intimidated by writing. Most of the youth have disengaged from school because they are just trying to survive their life. They don’t see a future for themselves.
I’ll never forget the first session. Kelli and I were like, ‘Wow. They totally dug into that book because it was a character, who was their age, who looked like them at the time.’ The jail still is about 97% African American, 3% Latino. We have never, ever had a white member. The absolute racial inequality is profound.
Q. How do they join the book club?
It’s voluntary and everyone signed up because you wouldn’t get out of your cell otherwise. They were in solitary, in essence. They didn’t even have a school. This is 17 years ago. Finally the public defender’s office sued and they were able to get a school [for those under age 18].
"At the first book club, we wanted to do writing. We didn’t know, could they read at all? Could they write? A lot couldn’t read. Some could. We would read out loud. We did poetry because that is the most accessible to someone who’s intimidated by writing. Most of the youth have disengaged from school because they are just trying to survive their life. They don't see a future for themselves."
Q. Was it hard for you to get into the jail?
The reason why it was hard and why it’s hard to stay with our incarceration factory is that they don’t want anybody in. They see outside people as a security threat, which is understandable. They’re understaffed and stressed and the correction staff doesn’t see the value of programming, that it is to help make their lives easier. The only reason we got in was because at that point in time, there were rumblings of a lawsuit that they weren’t providing a school. They thought we were educators. Little did they know we were clueless journalists who had no idea. They heard the word book and they thought …
We had no idea if it would work but it was so clear that no. 1: representation matters. If you are trying to engage a non-reader, you have to bring a book with a relevant subject matter. With teens, all your world is about your life, what has happened to you and so the book has to be about what you can relate to, what you’re experiencing. We have [books with] young characters of colour going through extreme poverty, who have been part of the ‘criminal legal system.’ I never say justice system because there is no justice. I didn’t make that up but it’s for real.
Then we did the poems. And I will never forget our first book club member, Dimitrius, who is still with us today. He wrote a two, three line poem, a simile. In those days, we were trying to pretend it was poetry. Now it’s just creative expression. He wrote: “I am like concrete. People walk all over me, but I am strong.” I was like, ‘Ok, this works.’ For a kid that has never written a poem, struggled to read, for him to catch on to it so quickly, it was like, ‘Oh my God.’ And then we just grew. All we wanted to be was little volunteers, but you meet these kids and they have a hold on you. They’re just incredible, resilient. These are 16, 17 year-old-boys who have been through absolute hell and they wanted more and more. All of our growth has been driven by members.
In D.C., everyone is under the Federal Bureau of Prisons because D.C is not a state. We don’t have a local system, which is a horrible thing because they send D.C. prisoners thousands of miles away: California, New Mexico, wherever, and your family can’t visit you. You’re too poor. You’re in the system with federal offenders, but these are local criminal codes. Your cellmate is the guy that’s the bank robber, the drug cartel, one guy was the cell mate of Bernie Madoff. The Bureau of Prisons thinks D.C. is super violent, super predators. That’s the expectation. They just lock ’em down anytime there’s a fight or a riot, they blame D.C.
The first time a D.C. book club member writes from prison where he’s been shipped: ‘There’s no library here. You got me excited about books, what can I do?’ So our ‘Prison Book Phase’ was born. We mail thousands of books. We ship them to our D. C. resident members in about 57 prisons all across the U.S. The first phase is at the jail: the Face to Face Book Club. It’s just like any other book club. Then if you are sentenced and shipped to a prison, we have a long distance book club: the Prison Book Phase that we do through writing. We send discussion questions, in the same format as our Face to Face but now they write their discussion. Then we have a newsletter called The Connect where we print all their responses. We have different themes. The prison book club members have an editorial board. It’s like our own little newspaper.
Q. What’s your longest membership so far?
Well, seventeen years, since we started. It’s a lifetime membership. We have members who have been released and are home with their kids and they just pick up a children’s book once a month. Our third phrase is a Reentry Book Club which is every Wednesday night. We do the same thing we did in the jail. We sit in a circle and discuss books. We call it bibliotherapy. It’s arts-based therapy and that’s back face to face.
We have 200 members that we serve weekly with the four different book clubs at the jail. In the federal prison we have about 700 members we ship books to. In the Reentry Book Club we have about 175 active but many, many more than that. We do a newsletter and you get a birthday card. We have a volunteer writers circle every Monday night where people can write to our members. We have Write Nights where the prisoners send in poetry and get feedback. These are big community events. We type up the poems, then the community writes all over the poems as a circle of support.
After five years from the start of the Prison Book Club, our first member was home and he said, ‘I can’t get a job and I have a felony on my record and I was so young.’ So then we said, ‘Ok, we’ll do reentry and try to help them find jobs. These kids need to feel empowered to have purpose and meaning. We call it Books and Belonging. This book club is really a way to have an alternative to the street gang. You’re a member of a special club that wants to change your life with positive members and you can talk about your feelings in a safe way through the characters in a book. You don’t have to sit around in a support group but really that’s what it is.
Then we do outreach. We call it On the Same Page. They are Poet Ambassadors that represent the members that are still incarcerated. They go to elementary, middle and high schools and talk about how books and writing get you through difficult times, no matter what’s happening in your life. Our message is: you can use the tools of books and writing. That is incredibly powerful and healing. They’re the experts. All they have to do is share their lived experience of being in solitary confinement and they only had a book, nothing else. That’s our violence prevention. That’s my dream. That’s our tools. There are a million tools, but our niche is books and the writing, the shared book discussion.
Q. What is your vision for the future of The Book Club?
We just did our curriculum and we hope to replicate. I’m trying to raise money. We get a lot of requests. It wouldn’t be like little Free Minds all over because each prison and jail is so unique and we couldn’t keep the fidelity of the programme but we want to be a national resources exchange, a support group to people that use the tools of books and writing in an incarcerated setting.
There are a few other offender/jail book clubs out there: there’s a juvenile judge who works with kids on probation, there’s a book club that does Russian literature, there are a few that do Shakespeare. Our model stands out because it’s for the non-reader and non-writer. Our model is ‘representation matters:’ find a book that looks like you and then once you get excited about reading and you relate to the material, then you move up. We have all these prisons which say, ‘I have all these high readers,’ and I say, ‘That’s great but they’re reading already.’ I want the kid in a fight because he has no other way to express himself and he struggles and he has unmet learning challenges that nobody cares about and nobody is doing anything about in the prison.
"I was so used to being an objective journalist. It’s made me an activist. I used to be like, ‘Let me just report on it.’ Now I use my skills to tell the story of those who are impacted directly by the system. I have a much more urgent need to make the way for awareness and education about what’s going on."
Q. How has this changed your life?
It completely turned my life trajectory upside down. 100%. I was so used to being an objective journalist. It’s made me an activist. I used to be like, ‘Let me just report on it.’ Now I use my skills to tell the story of those who are impacted directly by the system. I have a much more urgent need to make the way for awareness and education about what’s going on. What I found is that there are people who are incredibly compassionate and care and want to help but they don’t have any way to do it. They feel powerless against the system. It’s made me want to find a touchpoint and a connection because the prison system by its very nature keeps people out. It’s behind these big walls and barbed wire.
That’s why I started the On the Same Page project. Before I first started, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is so barbaric and cruel.’ Now I think ‘This a product of our unresolved legacy of slavery and we’re unconscious participants in it.’ My role is to be that bridge as a white person who has privilege and is not as likely to be affected by the system. The racial inequality and economic injustice are irrefutable. You walk into any prison, any courtroom, any police station, it’s communities of colour. We do this programme for our members to express and heal and then we have to heal as a community. We have to be aware of it. That’s our niche: Direct, not speaking for anybody. It’s elevating those unheard voices of those directly impacted by mass incarceration.
Q. Did you know right away this was your ‘life work?’
It’s always been the two tracks because as I say, at heart I’m a storyteller and a community builder. I love meeting people, hearing their stories, connecting people and raising awareness. I immediately knew my life was impacted when I met these members who are incredible in terms of resilience, in what to me seems overwhelmingly unbearable burdens and unfairness. It made me just be in awe. Personally, it’s like this unbelievable gift that I’m even able to know and be in a relationship with all these members. I don’t really call it work, it’s a privilege. My goal now is that it will be run by our members. It becomes their thing but the barriers …
Q. What is the most frustrating thing about it?
My main frustration is the society who thinks it’s too late for the youth that are charged with violent crimes to transform. So a lack of understanding that ‘hurt people hurt people;’ a lack of any kind of infrastructure for true rehabilitation. I don’t even like that word rehabilitation because they were never habilitated before because the system was so unfair and so broken. The system of poverty and racism. It’s woken me up definitely much more on the front lines.
And then the lack of funding. The philanthropy community doesn’t want to go near it. It’s scary. People are afraid. Corporate funding: they don’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole. We’re just not there yet. The really good news is because it’s been more in the news, with Black Lives Matter and all of these movements and the bipartisan support in Congress recently, there is more awareness for reentry funding. But there’s still not awareness with the healing work that is needed on the inside. Everyone’s like, ‘Ok we’ll do workforce development,’ which of course we do in an intensive reentry programme but the place of arts therapy in incarcerated settings is not valued or appreciated or funded.
Q. What are your dreams and hopes for the future now that people are getting a tiny bit more woke?
That there would be a dramatic culture shift from punitive vindictive punishment to truly transformative justice. Not restorative but transformative justice. I think everyone recognises that the retribution/vindictive/punishment model, that we criminalise poverty, is broken and doesn’t work because of economics. You can’t incarcerate your way out of our social problems that we’re not dealing with. That’s a shift but people are still incarceration lite. My dream is that we completely reimagine justice from the grass roots up, that we recognise that the driving forces are the racism in our community, the white privilege, the white supremacy culture. Many of the boys in our programme might not have had a stable, whole, healthy two parent family. They are just ravaged by poverty and drug addiction and lack of mental health care. It doesn’t take a genius to know why our system… It’s not that Americans have more of a criminal mindset than any other countries.
I know I’m sounding like a radical, which I never was, but after seeing it, it’s like quicksand. You’re in the system first, but then the probation system wants to keep you in because you feel like you have to carry a gun because you have a PTSD because you’ve been shot at so many times and you live in an urban war zone and then your probation officer violates you, then your probation is revoked and you are put back in jail for four years because you carried a gun to stay alive because your anxiety is so high. We just have to completely… I sound like an abolitionist but Ok, it’s just not working.
If the CEO of Apple or [any big corporation] had the amount of money they were spending, had the outcomes, recidivism rates, the shareholders would fire them in two seconds flat but our own tax dollars… I don’t care where you are on compassion, they would say….
The beautiful thing about this work is that it doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum – we have so many victims, that are Republicans, Democrats, Independents. They know that as a victim they are not getting justice and they volunteer for us. That’s my dream: this growing awareness that we have got to work together to fix it, to repair it.
*Interview has been edited and condensed.
Participants of the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshops | Image Courtesy of Tara Libert