Free Minds is a prison book club started 13 years ago by Tara Libert and Kelli Taylor, former journalists who believed that reading good books, discussing them, and putting private thoughts into prose and poetry could help prisoners change their lives during incarceration and after release.
In a Washington Post story by Robert Samuels, three club members in their 20s, recently released after years behind bars in Washington, D.C., tell how reading and writing helped them turn their lives around. All three began getting in trouble in their early teens. They were charged with serious crimes, tried as adults, convicted and sentenced to lengthy terms. According to a 2007 report by the CDC, juveniles tried as adults are 34 percent more likely than youth tried as juveniles to return to prison.
Adult recidivism rates are also discouraging. The Bureau of Justice Statistics tracked 404,638 state prisoners from 30 states who were released between 2005 and 2010 and found more than two thirds of them were re-arrested within three years of their release and more than three quarters were re-arrested within five years. Studies showed the most perilous time for getting into trouble was in prisoners' first year getting out of prison.
Many teachers and researchers think reading and discussing literature can help people convicted of crimes develop empathy, expand their horizons and reflect on their own lives. An Urban Institute report found prisoners who took post secondary education reoffended at significantly lower rates. Robert Waxler, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Jean Trounstine, professor of humanities at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, co-founded Changing Lives Through Literature. Trounstine taught literature and writing at a high security women's prison, and eventually directed women inmates in their own plays based on classic themes. Waxler, concerned that our culture seems to marginalize literature, convinced a judge to sentence male offenders aged 18 through 44 to a literature course rather than jail. Individual changes were encouraging and the program grew. Early evaluations showed literature students had a 19 percent re-arrest rate compared with a 45 percent re-arrest rate for a control group of similar offenders. Authors studied included Jane Austen, Jack London, Earnest Hemingway, Maocolm X, and Shakespeare.
Many prisons lack libraries, and The Prisoners Literature Project has been sending books to inmates for years. A Capitol Hill Times story by Leigh Ann Smith notes the strong relationship between literature and incarceration-Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote when he was behind bars. The story describes the work of Seattle-based Books to Prisoners, which sends thousands of books to incarcerated people in Washington and across the country. A note from a grateful recipient, quoted in the story, read, "Books allow us to live vicariously, to feel, to acknowledge, emotions that have much scar tissue.
The three young members of Free Minds spoke at a Washington D.C high school, not only to warn about the consequences of their own wrong turns, but to read memoirs and poems they had written and tell students of the comfort and wisdom they found in books. Nathan McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler was a favorite. Reading together also created relationships that became a support network for life and job hunting after jail. When a skeptical student asked why a former offender had let himself succumb to chaos rather than taking charge of his life, the young man replied, "you have a good head on your shoulders." The Free Minds website has several success stories. One offender had been incarcerated at 12, another had done time in solitary. Another, Antwan, talked about maintaining optimism, saying, "Shoot for the moon. If you miss you're still gonna land among the stars. ".