A fantastic evening of meet and greet, food and fun, and serious conversation happened last month with the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop. A poetry reading and community dialogue on Feb. 18 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company: Lansburgh Theatre in Northwest Washington, D.C. was filled to capacity as the organization presented “We Can Be the Change: Working to End Violence in Our City.”
Diverse perspectives came from poet ambassadors dressed in blue shirts; along with panelists in the fields of law, journalism, and activism. Introductions were made by ABC7/WJLA-TV anchor and host Leon Harris. Two panelists were presented; the first was Juan Peterson, Free Minds poet ambassador; Will Avila, Free Minds poet ambassador and CEO, Clean Decisions; and Anthony Belton, Free Minds job site supervisor and operations director, Perspectives Premiet Contractors LLC.
“You don’t have to be behind bars to be in prison,” said Belton, a returning citizen. “We can all be in prison in our own communities. If we change our mindsets inwardly, it reflects outwardly.”
Three poet ambassadors read poems by Free Minds members who are currently incarcerated. Kalef Seymore, Alvin James and Doug Chambers were the readers. One poem, called ‘What’s Your Number?” by Muquan, tells of a young man who saw his friend Dontae, a straight A student, killed in front of him. The poem also described the loud noise of the gun and blood pouring forth from his friend’s mouth as he blacked out
Chambers said about Free Minds, “They showed me that I shouldn’t give up, that it wasn’t easy, and I accepted the help they were willing to give.”
The other panel consisted of Tony Lewis Jr., community activist and vocational development specialist, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA); James King, attorney, DC Public Defender Service; George Pelecanos, author and television writer and producer; and Jennifer Donelan, reporter, ABC7/WJLA-TV.
Donalan covers crime in the DMV and said she was doing a report called ‘Heroin Highway,’ a weeklong series. She told the audience that she is saddened by “seeing young Black men in orange jumpsuits shackled in court cases time and time again.”
Pelecanos, a native Washingtonian, is known as a crime fiction author and a writer/producer for the popular HBO crime series “The Wire” based in Baltimore, Md. and the series “Treme” set in New Orleans. He gave kudos for the work done in Free Minds and stressed the importance of reading. Tara Libert, co-founder and executive director of Free Minds, wished Pelecanos a “Happy Birthday” in which the audience applauded.
Tamara, a probation officer, brought her daughter Laylah, 8, to the program. When asked what was the biggest problem with returning citizens she said, “The biggest is they’re going to one place and getting rehabilitated and they’re going back to the same environment that they were in prior to being incarcerated. It’s kind of hard to change your ways when you’re going back to the old way and then you’re trying to get a job. If you can’t get a job you’re going back to the old way in order to survive. More opportunities need to be available,” she added.
Attorney James King was 13 when he was first locked up and credits his mother’s support and getting a second chance that his friends didn’t get. He became a public defender because the ones he had were “terrible” and he wanted to make a difference. He said
the hardest part of his job is “gaining my client’s trust, and (a belief ) that I’m working for the government. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
“I try to pitch to prosecutors that many I see should not be locked up,” King said. “I see juveniles that are locked up for stealing a birthday card or toy from CVS for a little brother. I try to convince them they shouldn’t go to jail.”
On mandatory minimums King said, “I think it’s a mistake to prejudge any situation…what is applicable to one is not applicable to all, especially for people that are first offenders…and seeing someone who for the first time doesn’t know the severity with the law to go away for five or ten years for their first act is really disheartening.” Ninety-nine percent of his clients are Black.