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How has reading and writing impacted people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated? We talk with members of Free Minds Book Club and D.C. Books to Prisons about how reading and writing can impact people in the criminal justice system.
Plus, our panel will take writing and reporting questions from the journalists behind Inside Scoop, the monthly newspaper published by people incarcerated in the D.C. jail. And we’ll hear what it’s like writing for the paper.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Reading books, keeping a journal, taking a writing workshop, all things most of us can do easily. But if you're incarcerated, it's a different story. Books are scarce, as are the tools to be able to express yourself in writing. Right now, I'm joined by three people making books and writing workshops available to those on the inside. We'll also hear from the reporters behind Inside Scoop, a monthly newsletter published by people in the D.C. Jail. Joining me now is Jackie Snow, who is a volunteer with D.C. Books to Prisons. She's also a freelance journalist. Jackie Snow, thank you for joining us.
JACKIE SNOWThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso joining us is Sandman. He's an artist based in D.C. and member of the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop. Sandman, thank you for joining us.
SANDMANThank you for having me. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIAnd Clint Smith is a staff writer for The Atlantic. He's the author of "Counting Descent" and the forthcoming "How the World is Passed." And he's a facilitator of the Free Minds Book Club in the D.C. Jail. We've already gotten several calls from people who are participating in the Free Minds Book Club, so hang on. We'll get to you. Clint Smith, thank you for joining us.
CLINT SMITHIt's good to be here.
NNAMDIClint, what is the Free Minds Book Club, and what do you do as a facilitator for the program?
SMITHSo, Free Minds Book Club is an organization based in D.C. that runs reading and writing workshops for people who are incarcerated in D.C. Jail, but also does a lot of book outreach to people who are incarcerated in federal prisons across the country.
SMITHAnd so, we sort of have what we call monthly write nights, where we have volunteers come, and they respond to the poems that people in federal prisons across the country have written, providing feedback and affirmation and thoughts. And then we mail those back to the people in those correctional facilities, so that they can experience some semblance of a workshop experience, the sense that people are responding to reading and engaging with their work.
SMITHAnd then, also, Free Minds does a lot of work with recidivism and reentry and attempting to help people who have been part of the Free Minds organization while they were incarcerated adjust and acclimate to the reality of society once they have been released. So, it's a multipronged organization, but the sort of center of it is fostering a love of literature, a love of writing, and doing so in community with other incarcerated writers.
NNAMDII'd like to remind people that most D.C. inmates who are sentenced to incarceration are spread around the country, because, unlike most states, D.C. does not have its own prison where inmates who are convicted of crimes here can stay for long periods of time. Sandman, you participated in Free Minds for about a year. Why did you decide to join this book club?
SANDMANIt's actually an interesting story. I don't know if have the feedback (unintelligible) feedback of mine, but for the most part, one of the OGs of my unit, he basically came to me and he knew that I was a writer and a rapper, an artist, however. And he just said, man, I think it'd be nice if you can (unintelligible) represent (unintelligible) really do for (unintelligible) for the people coming up. And I actually didn't want to do it. I was just so focused on just doing my time and getting out. But I'm glad I did make that decision.
NNAMDITell me about your experience in the Free Minds Book Club. What were the conversations like?
SANDMANIt started off, you could say, I was more so resentful. I looked at it -- I was just doing him a favor, so I didn't recognize what I was actually gaining from the opportunity. So, it started off with me kind of being to myself, not really participating, as well. But then once I got comfortable and realized that there's a bigger purpose behind it, it just became a wonderful experience. It took you out of the cage. It took you outside of being locked inside of a cell and away from your family. It lets you realize that you have an escape.
NNAMDII gotta ask, with a name like Sandman, you seem to be doing something very cool. Tell me about what you do now.
SANDMAN(laugh) Yes. With the name Sandman, I'm an artist. I do music. I'm a producer, a rapper. But for the most part, it's about community engagement. I'm real big on making sure that my youth understands the many different ways that you can make it without the ways we used to and that's presented to us.
NNAMDIJackie Snow, exactly what does D.C. Books to Prisons do?
SNOWWe're a nonprofit that started in 1999 to send books to incarcerated readers that write us. Right now, we serve folks in 34 states and in federal facilities. And last year, we sent about 5,700 packages to people that wrote us. This year, you know, despite the pandemic and despite shutting down for four months, we have figured out a new system. And it looks like we're actually going to surpass what we sent last year and send about 6,000 packages this year.
NNAMDIWhat's the new system?
SNOWThe new system is engage volunteers who have been with the program for, you know, at least six months to a year who kind of know the ropes, are sending from home. So, you know, people get categories. They get a box of books that we either had in storage or in our former workroom. And they are then sent -- we get the letters sent to our P.O. box, and then those are sent to the volunteers, who then respond to the letters with the books that they have. So, there are some power volunteers who are sending, you know, dozens or scores every week, who are really keeping up with all the letters that we're still receiving from folks in prison.
NNAMDIYou mentioned people who know the system. It's my understanding that when sending books to prisons across the country, there are a whole lot of rules and regulations to follow, or the books might not get through. What are some of the restrictions?
SNOWOh, yeah. So, there's rules that we follow, just blanket rules to make it easier. So, no nudity whatsoever, which makes things like art books or medical dictionaries really hard, because those can be rejected even though, you know, they're, you know, not super-sexy or anything. We don't send things with local maps, which could be problematic. We don't send anything with stains, which some prisons will think that are, you know, pages that have been dipped in drugs. And that's a way to drug smuggle.
SNOWSo, those are kind of some of the rules that we follow. But then there's other places that have very specific other rules, like books have to be new, they have to be a certain size. Sometimes the packaging, they really want specific packaging around the books. Sometimes they don't want lined paper. DND, that is something that we get a lot of roleplaying request books, but those are things that are, you know, in some states and some facilities aren't allowed.
SNOWSo, we have a huge spreadsheet with 600 prisons and, like, all the different rules that each one has. And so, someone goes through each letter and writes on the letter about all the restrictions that we have to follow for specific prisons.
NNAMDIHere is Eon, in Washington, D.C. Eon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EONYes, thank you. How you doing?
NNAMDIDoing pretty good, Eon. Go right ahead.
EONYes. Well, I'm a Free Minds writing workshop and book club facilitator. I actually came in contact with reading and writing while I was in prison. I was sent to prison as a juvenile, so basically, was educated in prison through books and through writing. And I became a published author, and I own a publishing company now. And then I also wrote with Free Minds.
EONFree Minds is a thing that basically opened up my mind to all other types of lifestyles and cultures. You know, I visited many places from prison in these books. And now that I'm home, a large portion of my life is dictated by writing. And I basically moved forward in my life with all things concerning literature.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing your story with us, Eon, and continued good luck to you. Also, someone who wants to share a story is Jamion in Washington, D.C. Jamion, your turn.
JAMIONThank you for having me, Kojo.
JAMIONYeah, and so I'm a Free Minds member. I'm currently the John Lewis Fellow, and I was also previously incarcerated. And so, you know, just a small snippet of what Free Minds has done for me is, a lot of the times, people don't believe how much you can care unless you show how much you care.
JAMIONAnd throughout my incarceration, Free Minds has been that constant cornerstone, you know, inside of my life. And also, you know, when I was going through, you know, the reading and submitting my poetry to Free Minds, you know, they always had that uncanny ability to make me feel like I was, you know, complete and a human again, and that my voice mattered and that I was heard.
JAMIONAnd so, you know, there are important things that a person definitely needs in that particular type of struggle. And it helped me and my (unintelligible) and, you know, continuing to push forward and, you know, become the best human being I can in this world.
NNAMDIJamion, it seems like you're well on your way toward becoming the best human being that you can be. So, thank you for sharing with us, and good luck to you. And now, here is Shannon in Washington, D.C. Shannon, your turn.
SHANNONGood afternoon, everyone. My name is Shannon Badu, (ph) and I'm a returning citizen who did 25 years of incarceration. I've been home 18 months, and I'm a current Free Minds member who has been a former John Lewis Fellow, and now the current advocate and leadership specialist. And Free Minds has been intricate in my transition.
SHANNONAnd guys like myself and peers who's returning to society and peer support and programs of that nature to assist us, you know, through the organization's motto of reading and writing. Free Minds is an organization that helped returning citizens like myself through many ways. And it helped the process, and it's a great pleasure to be a member of it.
NNAMDIAnd it was a great pleasure to have you share your story with us, too, Shannon. Good luck to you. As I've mentioned, we have special guests tuning in today, the journalists behind Inside Scoop, the monthly newsletter published by people in the D.C. Jail. They have submitted questions and comments about writing in journalism for our guests to answer.
NNAMDIKenneth says: Writing for Inside Scoop is like a form of self-awareness. When you read Inside Scoop, you will read something to remind you to look at yourself in the mirror. Clint Smith, and the first question we have comes from Kenneth. What's the best way for a non-writing person to become a writer?
SMITHYeah, it's a great question, and put simply, it's to read. It's to read as much as you can, as often as you can. It's to read across genres, to read fiction, nonfiction, history, sociology. And it's to read with a specific eye toward the sort of literary and tactical decisions that the writer is making. So, you know, if you're struck by a word -- for example, if the -- you know, I was recently reading something, and the author said -- talked about how the rain freckled the sand. And I never seen freckled used in that way before, used as a verb instead of a noun.
SMITHAnd so, you retain things like that. You make a note of it. You sort of write it down, and you think about other ways that language can be used in interesting ways that can evoke images and meditations and thoughts that you might not otherwise have considered. And so, I think the more you read and the more you pay attention to reading as a writer and paying attention to the specific decisions that writers you admire are making, the more you can begin to sort of incorporate those sorts of similar decisions. And the more natural they become in your writing because you're sort of inundating yourself with the best of what literature has to offer.
SMITHSo, you know, it's a question that I always asked when I was young. I was like, what's the quick way to become a great writer? And, unfortunately, there is not a quick way, right. Like, writing is one of those things that sometimes people say, oh, you know, if I don't sit down and write something beautiful the first time, like, I'm not meant to be a writer.
SMITHBut writing is failure. It is failing over and over again, in the same way that you practice music and you practice a sport. You don't just show up to the court and play. You don't just show up to the concert and play. You do a lot of work that people will never see in order to make the work that people do see shine and shimmer. And so, writing is the same thing. You create and write a lot of work that the world will never see. But, ultimately, that allows for the work that you do present to the world to be its best.
NNAMDINoel sent us an email: I have a question for Sandman. What benefits have you gotten from reading together with others?
SANDMANBasically, really, what Clint said, actually, is learning and understanding different dynamics of what reading can do. I wasn't a really big fan of reading books. I was of reading (sounds like) I love learning. I'm an avid researcher. I love to research, so that was my form of reading. But when I dive into the book part, it became more of a creative, like -- it was different. It was like, like you say, you can look, and the author may say her hair was as bright as the sunrise or something.
SANDMANAnd it's like the creativity behind that that you know how far you -- what you can do and the limitless things that can be applied to your writing or reading. So, that's what I think, because we were able to dissect more in Free Minds. We didn't just read. We actually, like, dissected the book and asked each other, what does this mean to you?
NNAMDIVeronica wrote to us: I've never thought about writing poetry until I worked with a group of people from a nonprofit organization named Free Minds, where they sent my poems to universities all over, where I received encouraging feedback. Clint Smith, you're a published poet. Your award-winning poetry collection, "Counting Descent," was released in 2016. What advice would you have for people who are just starting to write poetry?
SMITHYou know, for me, poetry is a means of paying attention. I think, you know, it's paying attention to a feeling, paying attention to an idea, paying attention to a moment, paying attention to something in front of you. And so, you know, I think one thing -- one exercise people can do is sort of just sit in a place, you know, whether it's your cell, whether it's your room, whether it's outside, and just try to pay attention to the details that you otherwise might sort of look over.
SMITHWhen you, you know, are just kind of moving throughout your day, like, how would you describe the wall? How would you describe the smell that exists? What is the most, sort of detailed and evocative language you can use? And, you know, poetry is -- again, it is the arts of paying attention.
SMITHIt is like a photograph. When you see a photograph that captures something beautiful that you might pass every single day, but you would never stop to pay attention, I think the best poems are those that stop you and force you to pay attention to something that you may have otherwise overlooked. And I think the role of the writer and the role of the poet is to slow down and get us to pay attention to those things.
NNAMDIJackie Snow, if people are interested in donating D.C. books to prisons, what type of donations do you accept?
SNOWWell, if they're local, we're still accepting book donations. And more information can be found on our website, DCbookstoprisoners.org. But we also, you know, if you're not local, we have Amazon Wish List. We have Politics and Prose, a local bookshop here in D.C. We have wish lists online where folks can buy us books that get sent to our volunteers that can then send me out to people who are writing us letters.
NNAMDIOkay. Here is Scott in Washington, D.C. Scott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SCOTTHi, Kojo. I just wanted to give a perspective of when I was incarcerated and finally got library privileges, it was like a lifeline. I was, you know, isolated and scared, and I could suddenly read. But then it opened up this other avenue of guys who I normally wouldn't interact with, were coming up to me and saying, what are you reading? Why are you reading? And we'd have these conversations that I don't think, you know, people think happen in prison. And it was just my lifeline and my opportunity to connect with others.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. We heard from Kathleen, who sent us an email: Wanted to give a shout out to Tara Libert, the co-founder of the Free Minds Book Club who works tirelessly to help those in the D.C. Jail and those returning to D.C. She and the organization deserve as much support as can be mustered.
NNAMDIClint Smith, we had a couple of questions about book recommendations. Al says he likes to read things that help him learn and grow as a father and a man. Clint, you're a father and this is something you have written about and even done a TED Talk about. Any advice for books or essays that deal with fatherhood?
SMITHBooks or essays that deal with fatherhood. I think one of the books that I have come to appreciate most, it doesn't deal directly with fatherhood, but I think, you know, when I think about what it means to be a black man, a black father in this moment, I think of a poet named Ross Gay, who has a book called "Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude."
SMITHAnd, for me, it is this wonderful sort of meditation on -- kind of as I alluded to before, the ordinary and the mundane and the small -- you know, it's the -- Ross is this...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Only have about 15 seconds left, but go ahead.
SMITHHe's this -- it's an incredible poetry book that's written by, you know, a 6'6" black man that celebrates the small moments that we otherwise forget. And I think for me, as a father, it is those moments that make parenthood what it is.
NNAMDIClint Smith, Sandman, Jackie Snow, thank you all for joining us. We asked members of the community to record messages for those who are incarcerated as we head into the holidays and the new year. Let's take a listen to some of their messages.
LASHONNA THOMPSONMy name is Lashonna Thompson from Southeast D.C. I want you to know that my thoughts and prayers are with you during this very difficult time. I want you to know that I love each and every one of you, and that we're fighting every day for freedom and liberty and justice for all. You are not alone, and you are never forgotten. Happy holidays, happy Kwanza and happy New Year.
LAURA FORSYTHEMy name is Laura Forsythe, and I live on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Please know I am thinking of you every day, and that many other neighbors are doing the same. May you feel our love and support coming in through the radio waves. And may you go into the New Year filled with peace and hope and determination. Happy holidays.
SHANNON BADUMy name is Shannon Badu, and I would like to say thank you to all the men and women of the Free Minds family that's over D.C. Jail. Continue to do what you do, continue writing and reading and being a positive force within your community.
EMILYThis is Emily, calling in from D.C.'s Ward 5. I just wanted to say hi, happy holidays to our neighbors in the D.C. Jail. And I also wanted to say hi to my friends and penpals that I met through Abolition Apostles. So, hey to Eddy who's in Texas and Charlie B. in North Carolina, happy holidays. And I hope everyone is safe.
BERNITA JOHNSONThis is Bernita Johnson from Catholic Charities Welcome Home Reentry Program. My team and I would like to wish you all happy holidays. The Welcome Home Reentry Program is here to serve you. If you're interested in hearing more about our program, please write us at the Welcome Home Reentry Program, 924 G Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20001. Thank you, and happy holidays.
JULIE JOHNSONThis is Julie Johnson. I live on Capitol Hill in D.C., near the jail. To everyone at the jail, I want you to know that you are my neighbors. While I can't see you and don't know you, please know that every time my family walks, rides or drives by, we send you good wishes. Have a happy holiday, and be well.
NOELIAHi. This is Noelia from Martha's Table. We just want to wish you a happy holidays and a happy New Years and we just want you to know that we are thinking about you.
NANA ORCHEEMy name is Nana Orchee. I wish you all safety and good health. To all my black trans and queer siblings, I love you, and I see you. And as Assata Shakur says, we have a duty to fight for our freedom. We have a duty to win. We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
KELLY TAYLORHi, this is Kelly Taylor in Arlington, Virginia. I'm one of the cofounders of Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop. I want to give a shoutout to everyone currently at the D.C. Jail and correctional treatment facility. And know these have been difficult days, but I also know a lot of very strong and resilient individuals who are temporarily behind those walls. Keep reading and writing, and no matter where you are, always keep your mind free. Happy holidays and happy New Year.
NNAMDIA special thanks to our listeners in the D.C. Jail, the central treatment facility and anyone else tuning in who is currently or formerly incarcerated. We're wishing you all the best and thinking of you. Today's show on the D.C. Jail and this segment on reading, writing and journalism were produced by Cydney Grannan.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, holiday cooking may look different this year, thanks to the pandemic. Pati Jinich of Pati's Mexican Table and mixologist Derek Brown of the Columbia Room join us with tips on preparing food and drink for a stay-at-home holiday. Plus, we check in with local businessowners to see how the pandemic has impacted the shopping and celebrating season. That all starts at noon, tomorrow. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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