Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

Country Profile: United States of America


320,051,000 (2013)

Total Expenditure on Education as % of GDP


Access to Primary Education – Total Net Enrolment Rate (NIR)

96% (2011)

Adult literacy rate (ages 16 to 56) - 2012

PIAAC test results: percentage of adults scoring at each proficiency level in literacy (level 1 represents the lowest level of proficiency, level 5 the highest):
Below Level 1: 3.9%
Level 1: 13.6%
Level 2: 32.6%
Level 3: 34.2%
Level 4: 10.9%
Level 5: 0.6%


UNESCO Institute for Statistics

Programme Overview

Programme TitleFree Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop
Implementing OrganizationFree Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop
Language of InstructionEnglish
FundingPrimary funding sources include foundation grants, local government grants and individual donors. Secondary funding includes corporate donations, in-kind donations and literary journal sales.
Annual Programme CostsUS $616,686 (data from projection for fiscal year 2016 expenses). Annual programme cost per learner: $1,233 (estimated expenses and number of beneficiaries for 2016)
Date of Inception2001

Country Context

Research by the Campaign for Youth Justice suggests that, every year, as many as 200,000 young people under the age of 18 are prosecuted as adults and placed in adult jails across the United States of America. The vast majority of these young people are African Americans or Latinos. As many as 57 per cent of incarcerated young people aged between 16 and 24 are functionally illiterate (US Department of Education, 2007), and have had limited engagement with school, given that they have spent some of their formative years behind bars. Once released, they re-enter society with little formal education and few job skills, not to mention the untreated trauma of their childhoods and adolescent years in prison. Young people in the adult criminal justice system are at substantially higher risk of assault and suicide, and are likely to re-offend within the first year after their release. In Washington DC, teenagers who are incarcerated typically come from the most impoverished and crime-stricken communities in the city.

A 2013 study showed that correctional education reduced recidivism and increased the likelihood of employment after release (RAND Corporation, 2013). Data also indicate that investing in educational programming for higher-risk offenders results in the greatest reductions in overall recidivism (Pew Center on the States, 2011).

Programme Overview

A teenager writing in the Book Club at the DC Jail

A teenager writing in the Book Club at the DC Jail

Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop (Free Minds) is a non-profit organization based in Washington DC, serving young people and adults in the criminal justice system. Founded in 2002, it began as a bi-weekly book club and poetry workshop for young people aged between 15 and 17 who had been charged as adults in the prison system. Over the years, Free Minds has grown to provide other services to its beneficiaries (known as ‘members’ in the organization) during their incarceration and re-entry in society. It uses books, creative writing and peer support to help young people incarcerated as adults to develop to their fullest potential.

Free Minds takes a unique approach not only in its innovative use of books and writing (i.e. poetry) as means of achieving change, but also in the comprehensive, wrap-around nature of its services. Through creative expression, job readiness training and violence-prevention outreach, these young people achieve their education and career goals, and become powerful voices for change in the community.

Since its inception in 2002, Free Minds has reached more than 950 young people through its continuum of services. It is the only organization in Washington DC that works with this group of young people throughout their incarceration and when they return home.

While the programme is open to all incarcerated 16 and 17 year olds, incarceration rates for girls are significantly lower than those for boys, with girls accounting for less than 1 per cent of Free Minds’ beneficiaries. Currently (as of April 2016), there are only three young women participating in any of the three phases into which Free Minds’ educational opportunities are grouped. This is why, in referring to Free Minds’ beneficiaries, this case study uses male pronouns and adjectives.

Aims and Objectives

The goal of Free Minds’ work is to empower incarcerated young people so that they can envisage different futures for themselves. By engaging them in reading and writing while they are incarcerated, the programme aims to give them the skills and tools they need to empower themselves and to be healthy, productive members of society, as well as powerful voices for change in the DC community. Given that the majority of beneficiaries will be released from prison, the goal is also to reduce recidivism and create a stronger, healthier society.

Programme Implementation

The programme works and across three successive phases to meet the needs of its members: during incarceration, on transfer to a federal prison once they reach the age of 18, and after release. These phases, and the various activities they comprise, support members throughout their time in prison and beyond.

1. During Incarceration

A teenager writing in the Book Club at the DC Jail

A teenager writing in the Book Club at the DC Jail

DC Jail Book Club serves 16- and 17-year-old boys, engaging them in book club discussions, creative writing exercises and guest author visits. Members take part in a book club and writing workshop twice a week. Participation is voluntary. While sessions are open to all inmates in DC jail’s juvenile unit (typically between 20 and 30 youths), in practice between 12 and 14 people attend each meeting. The organization has found that this is the optimal number for group discussion. Because the jail premises are not designed to support educational programming, and space is at a premium, Free Minds staff hold book club sessions in different-sized rooms, depending on the number of participants. If necessary, facilitators split up and hold two sessions in different rooms, each facilitator working with half of the book club participants.

New members are accepted on a rolling basis. When a new teenager arrives at the DC jail, Free Minds staff meet with him one-on-one to explain the book club, conduct an intake assessment (more in the Monitoring and Evaluation section), and encourage him to attend the next meeting. In 2016, Free Minds expanded its services to include a book club with adults in the General Education Development (GED, high school equivalency degree) Unit at the jail.

Book club sessions are facilitated by trained staff, employees of Free Minds. At least two facilitators are present during each meeting. Facilitators include two senior staff with more than 13 years of experience, who serve as primary responsible facilitators and have trained colleagues. All facilitators have also attended training with the Freedom Writers Institute, an organization which provides professional development programmes for educators of vulnerable and at-risk youth.

Activities implemented during the incarceration stage are offered in collaboration with the Incarcerated Youth Program, which provides high school education on the juvenile unit. To support members’ reading skills development, Free Minds works with a reading specialist in the Incarcerated Youth Program, but also assist participants directly during club sessions. Where required, the organization has also benefitted from the help of a trained interpreter for Spanish-speaking members with limited English language skills.

Often, book club members report having had a negative experience of books at school. School literature did not interest them because of the difficulty they had in relating to characters and plots. To encourage a change in attitude towards books, Free Minds engages participants in reading by introducing them to authors and characters who come from similar backgrounds to theirs, and who face similar obstacles in life. To select a book to read, book club members vote on four or five books selected by facilitators in a ‘book ballot’. Books are usually in the young adult or urban fiction genres, but also sometimes mystery/thriller, science fiction/fantasy, poetry, graphic novels, memoir, or other fiction or non-fiction. Examples include Dark by Kenji Jasper, The Way Home by George Pelecanos, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, March: Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and Tyrell by Coe Booth. Free Minds purchases books from various booksellers.

2. During Transfer to a Federal Prison

Federal Prison Book Club allows Free Minds to stay connected to members after they turn 18 and are transferred to federal prison by sending them books, birthday cards, letters, a monthly newsletter, Free Minds Connect, and feedback on their writing, which is published on an online blog ( ). Because Washington DC does not have its own federal prison, DC inmates typically spend the majority of their sentences in prisons in other states. Free Minds members in this phase participate in a correspondence-based long-distance book club, sharing their poetry and responses to book club discussion questions in the Free Minds Connect newsletter.

3. After Release

A Free Minds member, home from prison, with his favorite books at the Free Minds office

A Free Minds member, home from prison, with his favorite books at the Free Minds office

Re-entry Book Club provides mentoring to members on release by providing month-long paid job readiness and life skills apprenticeships. Apprentices practice reading and writing and participate in skills-building workshops. Staff and formerly incarcerated business owners lead workshops specifically tailored to the unique needs of this group. Topics include resumé writing, formal writing, public speaking, communication and job interviews skills, workplace problem-solving skills, budgeting and entrepreneurship. Apprentices also gain real on-the-job work experience by working shifts, paid for by Free Minds, at local contracting companies run by formerly incarcerated individuals. Each apprentice finishes the programme with a resumé, an action plan, job experience, and placement in a job or training programme. Free Minds follows up with them weekly and provides coaching for job retention.

The programme also connects members directly with schools and potential employers, and provides assistance and space for a supportive community of fellow Free Minds members.

The Community Outreach and Engagement stage connects newly released Free Minds members with audiences from the community outside prison through a violence prevention initiative called On the Same Page. Free Minds members who have been released from jail visit schools, universities, juvenile detention facilities, and community groups in the role of ‘poet ambassadors’ to share their life experiences and poetry. Free Minds members voluntarily chose to become poet ambassadors, having received training in public speaking, storytelling and communication as part of the workshops offered during their apprenticeship, where they were also able to practice sharing their poetry and life experiences in community spaces.

Free Minds poet ambassadors (programme alumni) also co-facilitate reading and writing workshops with young adults on probation called Reading, Writing and Re-entry. Poet ambassadors who have been incarcerated and used books and writing to transform their lives, share their experiences with participants at these events and work with them to improve literacy and goal-setting so that they can successfully navigate the transition from prison to gainful employment and career fulfilment. The project uses poetry to forge understanding and make connections between incarcerated young people and the outside community.

Approaches and Methodologies

The programme adheres to best practice for positive youth development as described by the National Research Council on Community Programs to Promote Youth Development (Gootman and Eccles, 2002). An example is the organization’s commitment to create a safe space for positive peer interaction during the book club sessions. Free Minds members also play an active role in their own education, which gives them a sense of belonging and autonomy, and motivates them. In the DC Jail Book Club, members vote on which books they would like to read, and facilitators are committed to providing reading material to which members can relate. Following research by the Alliance for Excellent Education, Free Minds encourages members to ‘opt in’ to the programme at all levels so they become personally motivated to read and write, fostering a cooperative, discussion-based learning environment (Alliance for Excellence in Education, 2007).


Free Minds has a strong partnership network with several organizations and agencies. It is this partnership network that enables the organization to provide educational and development opportunities to its beneficiaries. Partners include the Department of Corrections, which allows the implementation of the DC Jail Book Club. Free Minds also works with the DC Incarcerated Youth Program and the DC jail library.

Other Free Minds’ partners include the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools programme, which takes the poet ambassadors into local DC schools as part the On the Same Page community outreach activity, and brings guest authors to speak with the teenagers in the DC Jail Book Club.

PEN/Faulkner also partners with Shout Mouse Press to distribute the literary journal created by Free Minds, The Untold Story of the Real Me, and every DC public school library will soon carry a copy as well. The collaboration with PEN/Faulkner and Shout Mouse Press also includes the development of a curriculum to accompany the publication.

For the re-entry stage of the programme, Free Minds partners with the Skyland Workforce Center, a non-profit collaborative designed to engage individuals, business, government and community-based organizations to serve as a hub for a range of services and opportunities for people working toward self-sufficiency through employment. The centre’s collaborative work with other organizations ensures its alumni are able to benefit from the following:

As part of the Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship, the organization also partners with Perspectives Premier Contractors and Clean Decisions (a cleaning company), two local companies owned and run by formerly incarcerated individuals. Clean Decisions is run by a Free Minds alumnus.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Free Minds monitors implementation through regular and ongoing evaluation, with impact assessment during each phase, and actively solicits feedback from members on how services can be strengthened to better meet members' needs and improve outcomes. The organization uses Social Solutions' Efforts to Outcomes (ETO) software to measure and evaluate progress through surveys. One is the intake survey conducted with new members when they first join the DC Jail Book Club. Survey questions concern participants' education, history and interests. The software is then used to track members' reading, writing and book club participation.

During the Federal Prison Book Club phase, Free Minds tracks members' engagement through the level of openness and trust displayed in their correspondence with the organization, and whether or not they request specific book titles. In the Re-entry Book Club phase, the organization tracks active members' employment and enrolment in schools or vocational programmes. Rates of recidivism are also monitored, as well as participation in community outreach events and writing workshops with young adults on probation.

Individual contact with former members on release is maintained, usually initiated by members themselves when they express their interest in participating in the Re-entry Book Club programme. When members do not provide their own contact information, Free Minds contacts their families or attorneys when possible, and also recruits former Free Minds members in the community to locate other members who may be friends or neighbours.

A Free Minds member, home from prison, with his favorite books at the Free Minds office

A Free Minds member, home from prison, with his favorite books at the Free Minds office

Impact and Achievements

The organisation gathers statistics on the following indicators:

When members enter the programme, only 5 per cent say they have read and enjoyed reading, and only 10 per cent have written a poem before. After participating in Free Minds, 75 per cent of members identify as active readers and 90 per cent as writers. Collectively, Free Minds members have read more than 16,000 books and written more than 5,000 poems. Their poems can be read on Free Minds' poetry blog:

In 2015, the programme’s DC Jail Book Club stage achieved the following outcomes:

The Federal Prison Book Club stage, for members over the age of 18 in federal prison, achieved the following:

The Re-entry Book Club stage, when members return to their home in their community, recorded the following outcomes:

In 2015, the recidivism rate registered by Free Minds was 10 per cent, compared to the national rate for juveniles charged as adults of between 70 per cent and 90 per cent.


‘The book club was there for me. I needed those books! I knew I wasn’t dumb. I just couldn’t read. The first book I ever read all the way through was called Dark. That book was different than the books I’d been given before. The story could have been real. It looked like my own life and it grabbed my attention.’ Anthony, a Free Mind member and Free Minds poet ambassador. He now owns his own company.
‘Free Minds is designed for people to succeed. That book part when I was locked up really elevated my mind. I never had access to those types of books before; they helped me to open my mind.’ Calvin, a Free Minds member, now employed in the construction industry.
Free Minds Poet Ambassadors (home from prison) perform spoken word poetry at DC’s Our City Festival

Free Minds Poet Ambassadors (home from prison) perform spoken word poetry at DC’s Our City Festival

Lessons Learned



An important factor in ensuring the sustainability of the educational and development offer of Free Minds is the extended partnership network the organization has in DC.



Ms Julia Mascioli
Director of Development and Communications
2201 P Street, NW
Washington, DC 20037
Tel. +1 202-758-0829

Last update: 6 May 2016