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Reading To Break Recidivism
By Stephen M. Lilienthal
Published: 12/16/2013

Books_118848 When Sherman Justice went to prison, he started reading books. As he read, he learned reading represents “an important way to connect to people.” “Midnight” by Sister Souljah made him aware that he “had to be strong.”

Now, working for the Free Minds Book Club (FMBC), Mr. Justice encourages incarcerated youth charged with adult crimes to start reading and writing.

Programs revolving around literature are taking place in prison and Changing Minds Through Literature is an innovative program relying on book discussions as a form of alternative sentencing.

What makes FMBC unique is that, using books and discussions about them, it follows young men and women from soon after their arrival in DC Jail to Federal Prison and their reentry.

Tara Libert, FMBC’s executive director, notes that DC prisoners often experience hardship unlike most inmates serving time. Because DC’s prison system is administered by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, DC prisoners serve their time in prisons that can be hundreds, even thousands of miles, away from their city.

That presents serious difficulties for the young men and young women in the system, says Libert.

“Most of our Free Minds members are charged with armed robbery,” she says, noting that many serve as lookouts or are participating just to be “part of a crowd.”

Libert believes there should be a middle way between the current consequences for youth who commit felony crimes in the juvenile system and the harsh conditions and punishment when teens end up in adult prisons. Often, she hears judges say they realize punishing youths as adults is harmful and will not rehabilitate them. However, they want them to receive stronger sentences than just being released at age 21.

She says many young DC Jail inmates have 4th or 5th grade reading levels. Some cannot read at all. Many, pushed into special education classes, have never read a serious book before. Still, the kids are invited to attend the FMBC book discussion sessions soon after arriving in DC Jail.

FMBC recruits kids with leadership potential to interest others into attending the discussions and the kids vote on the book the groups reads.

At a discussion at DC Jail on Halloween, FMBC co-founders Libert and Kelli Taylor, moderate a discussion, using a moment of reflection to encourage calmness. Word games are played before the inmates read a chapter from the young adult novel Two The Hard Way by Travis Hunter, which generates a discussion about mental illness, parental responsibility, drug addiction and its impact within families. Then, the young men write poetry.

Libert says books help kids to see past their pain, neighborhood and gang rivalries, and discover other people have similar problems, perhaps even worse ones. They discover people who succeed through perseverance and the desire to do right.

Novelist George Pelecanos wrote an article in FMBC’s Free Minds Connect newsletter about his experience moderating a similar FMBC discussion at DC Jail, insisting he “was convinced that many of [the participants] were talented and creative individuals who had the potential to move beyond their current circumstances...They had been impacted by what they read and inspired to create something personal and, yes, artful.”

Many kids, inspired by rap music, like to develop their own lyrics and to have them put onto paper. If they cannot write, FMBC will help. “If they are charged as an adult, there is a lot of stress so it is a relief to let some of it out,” recounts Shae Harris, FMBC’s reentry outreach specialist. A book of FMBC member writings, “They Call Me 299-359” has been published.

Once a young person is sent to Federal prison, FMBC keeps in contact through the Free Minds Connect newsletter, continuing the book club discussions through it. Free Minds Connect also keeps members in touch with DC and the resources that are available for reentry. FMBC has a paid apprenticeship program to help returnees polish their search skills, and has a reentry specialist who helps the young men and women navigate the problems of housing, education and training, and employment.

A panel discussion by members of FMBC occurring at American University in October was held in recognition of National Youth Justice Awareness Month. Members told AU students and faculty about their family histories, some are indeed truly dysfunctional. Even if a parent is employed, their long hours working can leave their children prone to greater negative influences by peers.

Before the meeting, FMBC member, LaTrae Nichols, who is garbed in construction clothes, recounts his experiences with the club during the seven “miserable” months he spent in DC Jail.

Jail, says Mr. Nichols, “is not anything to be used to.”

During the panel discussion, an AU student recalls the difficulty of losing his own father which leads Mr. Nichols to recall the difficulties he experienced losing his own father who was murdered, ultimately resulting in “a negative search for guidance” that led him to “turn to the streets.”

Mr. Nichols was able to meet with FMBC staff but says “at first I used to hide from Tara” only to become more interested after her repeated persistence in inviting him to join the book discussions. Writing helped Mr. Nichols to move past his painful past.

“I became engaged,” says Mr. Nichols who says he has read many books since. But the book he holds closest is A Hope In The Unseen by Ron Suskind, which relates the story of a Ballou High School student who overcomes a number of obstacles to attend Brown University. Mr. Nichols also attended Ballou and has an interest in mathematics.

“When I did time, I thought of the things I would do when I came home,” he recalls. Now, he is very interested in trying to become a math teacher.

Libert asserts FMBC breaks recidivism, citing statistics that show only 26% of members who participate in the Reentry Support Phase have been rearrested within a year. (Nationally, 70%-90% of youths convicted as adults are rearrested within a year.) Over half of those are for probation violations. Sometimes it takes a second arrest for the lessons of FMBC to take hold.

Libert says the fact that the majority of Free Minds members can go on to obtain jobs and receive further education proves that with the right support these youth can turn their lives around and be assets to the community.

Stephen M. Lilienthal is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, DC. He is the author of “Prison and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out” which was published in Library Journal earlier this year.

Other articles by Lilienthal



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