By Sarah Wilson
Recently, I was able to speak with Kelli Taylor, co-founder of the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop. Beginning in 2002, the group began its work with youth convicted as adults under DC’s Title 16 law. Kelli was initially inspired by a relationship she formed with Glen McGinnis, a young man on death row with whom Kelli was able to build a connection through literature.
Since 2002 the organization has grown to include hundreds of incarcerated readers and writers, as well as former prisoners reentering society. In our exchange, Kelli shares more about the start of the organization and its practices, as well as the challenges and joys of such important work.
SW: How did the founding of Free Minds Book Club come about?
KT: I was working as a television news producer for Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Washington, DC back in the late 90’s. It was the year that “Dead Man Walking” was released. The movie tells the story of Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who met and worked with a man convicted of murdering two people. I saw the movie with my husband and was devastated by the reality of our nation’s practice of capital punishment. It wasn’t an issue I’d had any proximity to and the film certainly forced me to think about it. The very next day–as in less than 24 hours later–when I arrived at the office, there was a letter on my desk from a young man on Texas’s death row, named Glen McGinnis. At the time, I had no idea how he’d gotten my name. I would later find out that he had an Australian pen pal who had provided him information on many journalists from a media book. As you can imagine though, it felt like someone had gotten inside of my head, or the universe was speaking to me! Glen’s letter described the experience of being on death row, with so many other young people of color. He was just 17 at the time of his crime. We began to write back and forth and I convinced one of the correspondents to do a short documentary about the death penalty in America, featuring Glen and one other young man. That experience, and the continuing written correspondence and friendship that developed between me and Glen over the next four years changed my life. We came from very different backgrounds and experiences so we asked each other a lot of questions and learned about each other. We also read books together. Through reading and discussing books, we were able to see that as different as our experiences were, there is so much overlap in our lives. We all experience the same emotions. Books allowed us to bridge the other gaps.
Despite intercession from the Pope and Amnesty International, Glen was executed in 2000. At the same time that I produced the feature on Glen, my friend Tara Libert, who was a freelance television producer for other foreign news outlets, was also doing stories on justice/injustice in the United States. We both knew we wanted to do something to have a positive impact on the people affected by mass incarceration. Through a friend at the Georgetown University Street Law project, which was running its program inside the DC Jail, we were able to pitch the idea for a book club to the DC Department of Corrections. We were very fortunate to get in. We began as a weekly book club and writing workshop for 16 and 17 year-old boys who had been charged as adults under DC’s Title 16 law. At the time, that population had no access to any programming at all in the jail.
What does literature mean to you and how does that influence the work you are doing with incarcerated writers?
I am a firm believer in the power of literature to teach, build community, inspire individuals and change lives. As a child, books often helped me make sense of what was happening around me. Reading about people, places, experiences and ideas that are new to us opens up our world. Reading is particularly valuable to people who are incarcerated because, as we always say, your body may be locked up, but through books and writing, your mind can always be free.
How do you choose what your students will read?
We take suggestions from our members to create a book ballot of six or seven books and the members vote. We like to include a good mix of genres. Fiction and memoir are often the favorites. It’s also important to vary the reading level of choices so that it is accessible to everyone.
In the wake of a renewed conversation about criminal justice reform, how do you see yourself and your organization adapting?
In the last few years especially, Free Minds has been able to provide an invaluable link between our currently and formerly incarcerated members and our larger society. That connection and that conversation is absolutely vital to positive progress and change. In addition to introducing our members to the power of reading and writing, I see Free Minds’ role as amplifying the voices—and consequently, the experiences—of our members, and facilitating the communication and understanding that absolutely must happen in order for us to move toward a more just society.
What adjustments have you made to the Free Minds Book Club in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?
First, to explain what we offered pre-pandemic, Free Minds programming is offered in three different phases:
Our “Jail Book Club” is offered to several populations currently incarcerated at the DC Jail, Correctional Treatment Facilty (where women are held) and also to Title 16 Youth who were moved two years ago to a juvenile facility called New Beginnings (and just last week moved again to the Youth Services Center).
Since DC is not a state and doesn’t have its own prison, residents are transferred to federal Bureau of Prison facilities across the country after they are sentenced. Our second phase is called “Prison Book Club” to serve people after they’ve been transferred. We continue to send them letters and birthday cards, one new book a month, and a bimonthly newsletter called The Free Minds Connect.
And finally, when our members are released, they are invited to join our Reentry Book Club. This includes gatherings every Wednesday night to eat dinner, discuss a reading, write together, and then share their experiences and support one another. We also offer a paid apprenticeship, job and life skills training, and connection to employment and education programs.
As it has for everyone else, COVID has been very challenging for Free Minds. All of our programming has been shifted to online platforms. We are fortunate that all of our members at the Jail and CTF have access to tablets, so we are ordering/mailing them books, uploading content with discussion questions and writing prompts, and corresponding via the tablets. We miss the group discussion and free exchange of ideas, but we are also just grateful to have the connection.
Similarly, members of our Reentry Book Club are still meeting every Wednesday, but it takes place via Zoom. They work individually with their reentry/job coaches via phone.
What were some unexpected challenges you have faced while doing this work?
As anyone who has ever worked inside of a jail or prison can tell you, the setting is the biggest challenge. There are understandably an enormous amount of rules that are designed for security and safety. Oftentimes though, they can feel extremely arbitrary and restrictive. We have to navigate those restrictions every day.
The other thing that is always difficult is how invested we become in the individuals that we work with. We want so much to see them come home, be happy, achieve their goals and never get reincarcerated. But they face so many absolutely daunting challenges over which we have no control.
What were some unexpected joys you have encountered while doing this work?
Since we began in 2002, we’ve worked with somewhere around 1,600 incarcerated teens and adults. My work has allowed me to meet so many amazing people and I’ve learned so much from all of them. Connecting with people through books and writing is extremely gratifying.
When someone who has never had a meaningful connection to reading before in their lives completes a book for the first time—seeing that look on their face of not just accomplishment, but discovery, it’s wonderful. It is the joy of sharing something that I have loved and valued all my life with someone else. Similarly, when someone who has never written a poem, or shared their writing, reads their work aloud and is able to see how their writing touched another—that too, is something beautiful. I feel so fortunate to be able to experience both of these things on a regular basis.
You can find more information about the Free Minds Book Club here.