March 10, 2017

Giving a much-needed voice to prisoners through literature

Free Minds Book Club uses poetry and storytelling to support the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated

Free Minds Book Club member Gerald posing with his favorite books, all of which he read while he was incarcerated. Photo courtesy of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop


Meet the finalists for The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, underwritten by Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $100,000 in grant money. Five winners will be announced March 30 at The Renewal Summit in Washington, on, and here, on The Renewal Project.

Julia Mascioli is the director of development and communications at Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. Before Free Minds, Mascioli had “next to no knowledge about the criminal justice system.” But after interning with the organization in college, she became more committed to its mission and returned after getting her degree.

Through Free Minds, Mascioli—a writer herself—helps the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated develop literacy skills through book clubs and writing workshops.

Follow Mascioli on Twitter at @julia_mascioli. Follow Free Minds Book Club on Twitter (@FreeMindsDC), Instagram (@freemindsbookclub), and Facebook.

This questionnaire has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your community:

My community is Washington, D.C. Within that, at Free Minds we work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youths and adults.

What inspired you to do this work?

I am a writer and a reader myself so I was initially drawn to the idea of using books and creative writing as tools to bring about personal and societal change, particularly for people behind bars. At the time, I had next to no knowledge about the criminal justice system and had not considered working in this field. But when I read about Free Minds’s mission, it just seemed like such a good idea. Once I started working for Free Minds, I became more and more invested in criminal justice reform, in violence prevention, and in doing whatever we can to help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people succeed.

What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?

In my work with Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, we are striving to nurture and elevate the voices of those directly impacted by the criminal justice system. In the ongoing conversation about criminal justice reform, we all need to listen to those affected by the system. With our book clubs and writing workshops with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, we’re helping them develop their literacy and communication skills, improve their self-esteem, broaden their horizons, and really develop an identity as a reader, writer, and voice for change.

We have a community outreach program called “On the Same Page: Free Minds Poetry in the Classroom and the Community” in which members home from prison known as Poet Ambassadors share poetry and personal stories with students and other community groups in D.C. and beyond. The goal of this program is to use poetry and storytelling to build community, break down stereotypes, raise awareness about the causes and consequences of youth incarceration, and to promote hope and healing through the literary arts.

What do you love about your community?

I love the creativity, diversity, courage, and resilience of the D.C. community and the Free Minds community. I’m continually inspired and amazed by the Free Minds members, both those who are incarcerated and those who are home in the DC community. I’m especially impressed by the courage of the Free Minds Poet Ambassadors who frequently share their stories with total strangers—no easy feat.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?

Most of all, I want people to know that those who have been or are incarcerated are people just like them, who have hopes, fears, and aspirations. Everyone is capable of change. I’ve seen it many times. I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a lost cause or a point of no return.

What leader or leaders inspired you?

One of my personal heroes is Bryan Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative and author of the memoir “Just Mercy.” For those who aren’t familiar with his work, Equal Justice Initiative defends indigent people on death row in Alabama. They also do a lot of work to raise awareness about mass incarceration and racial justice. For example, they’re working on a project to commemorate victims of lynching. I’ve been following Stevenson’s work for several years ever since he did a TED talk about the death penalty. I read his book when it came out and it is one of my favorites.

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project
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