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At this D.C. jail, a book club offers a safe space


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: And now a look at some bards behind bars.

For some, reading and writing is a past time. For others, it's an escape from reality. And for a group of inmates, it's a little of both.

Jeffrey Brown takes a look at an organization aimed at helping the incarcerated express themselves and prepare for the outside world through reading and poetry.

It's part of our series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Kamaal: My small voice sounds like a 5-year-old's. I sit up straight and try again.

Jeffrey Brown: A Tuesday morning book club, one that includes poetry written by the members.

Kamaal: Mind free, but incarcerated, that's the truth. We need better guidance, starting with the youth. Close friends fade away, dead or in jail. The traumatic situations push most to fail.

Jeffrey Brown: This group meets weekly in the Washington, D.C., jail, part of the Free Minds Book Club.

Kelli Taylor And Tara Libert started Free Minds nearly two decades ago. Taylor, a former journalist, got the idea after sharing books with a Texas inmate who'd been the subject of a documentary Taylor made about young people on death row.

Free Minds also runs a remote book club for prisoners who've been moved to federal facilities.

Tara Libert: Prison is a really isolating, harrowing place. So you have this safe space where you can go, oh, he understands me and we can talk about feelings without having to put our guard up, because we have had to our whole lives.

Jeffrey Brown: Free Minds, which gets funding from individuals, foundations and city government, selects books they feel their incarcerated members will relate to.

Kamaal: "My parents are watching me. Khalil needs me. I straighten up and allow the tiny brave part of me to speak."

Jeffrey Brown: On this day, it was "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas.

The novel, which tells the story of a black teenage girl who sees her friend fatally shot by police, triggered conversations about identity.

Momulu: I thought I had to project myself in a mentality that was more so based on machismo. By 16, I'm locked up, incarcerated with a life sentence.

Jeffrey Brown: Inmates spoke of violence in their communities.

Bikila: Individuals like as early as middle school ages that basically are facing the same trauma as soldiers in Iraq are facing, a kill-or-be-killed situation.

Jeffrey Brown: And of their own need for self-acceptance.

Halim: I told my judge, like, until I found love, genuinely loving myself, what makes me uniquely me, then I feel free to express who I am.

Jeffrey Brown: Everything that you're talking about here, how much of that comes from reading this book or reading books?

Joel: I would say, for this community, everything comes from reading the books, because the book, it allows us to be able to go within.

Michael: Having that space to express and to heal, to listen, to get the different, the varying perspectives is growth and is therapeutic.

Jeffrey Brown: Libert says she knew from the beginning that they were onto something, after an inmate read the first poem he'd ever written.

Tara Libert: And he said: "I am like concrete. People step on me, but I am strong."

And it was like -- right from then, we're like, OK, this works.

Jeffrey Brown: One person who has seen it work is Joshua Samuel. He first joined the book club at age 16, while serving time in the D.C. jail.

Joshua Samuel: I wasn't a reader until I really went into prison and Free Minds came along, and they gave me these books. And these books, I use it as tools to release the energy and the bottled-up feelings that I have.

Jeffrey Brown: Samuel was released last year and now works as a fellow with Free Minds.

Joshua Samuel: You could fly to heights and be the greatest person that ever walked this earth. You're a god.

Jeffrey Brown: Part of his new role, outreach and mentorship to at-risk kids at schools around the city, particularly young people with behavioral and academic issues.

Joshua Samuel: Just because they come from poverty or broken homes or certain backgrounds or been discriminated at, they don't have to end up in a situation that I ended up in.

And showing that education and reading and writing is a tool and an escape, it's a substitute from the condition that they're in.

Jeffrey Brown: Samuel and Libert both say this kind of work can prevent more people from turning to crime.

People on the outside who are the victims of crime, what do you say to them about why they should support a program like this?

Tara Libert: It helps for those who have perpetuated the harm to understand hurt people hurt people, and to heal from that hurt, so that I can give back to the community and build it up.

My number one thing, I always say, support this program to stop more victims.

Quincy Booth: I have seen personal testimonies, as well as the results.

Jeffrey Brown: Department of Corrections Director Quincy Booth supports programs like Free Minds.

Quincy Booth: As long as they have the commitment, the background to prove that they're actually going to do it, because I have to make sure that I protect the men and women that we have in our care -- at the end of the day, I don't want to send them up for false hope, because it has an impact on this population that we have to collectively deal with.

Man: "On the same block where the rich women jog with their strollers, the school-to-prison pipeline breeding ground produces super predator childhood soldiers."

Jeffrey Brown: And Tara Libert cites numbers that support another kind of impact of the program. Free Minds members return to prison at far lower rates than the national average.

Momulu: Love conquers hate. There is no time to wait. Gotta get better than never. Salute the azy base.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Washington, D.C.

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