Books Behind Bars

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As part of our conversations with winners of The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, I spoke with Kelli Taylor and Tara Libert, co-founders of the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop.

Inspired initially by a connection with Glen McGinnis, a young man on death row in Texas for a murder committed under difficult circumstances while he was a teenager, the two women have built an innovative organization that provides prisoners with opportunities to express themselves and build community through reading and poetry writing. Starting in 2002 with youth convicted as adults in D.C. jails, the group now works with hundreds of incarcerated men and women as well as former prisoners reentering society. In 2015, the group published a book of their members’ poetry, The Untold Story of the Real Me.

Here’s a transcript of our exchange, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ron Brownstein: How did you conclude that you were the ones to address this problem?

Kelli Taylor: I feel, from my perspective, it happened to me rather than me seeking it out.

We had no business doing this. We were both doing television producing for foreign broadcasters. Both Tara and I had done a lot of stories on the justice system, because [the] foreign networks were interested in that.

Then I got a letter from somebody on death row in Texas [Glen McGinnis]. That relationship, which was completely unexpected, was what drew me to learn more about the justice system. I had never given a ton of thought to the death penalty [but]…we went and did a story about him, and I met him two times before he died, and just wrote to him over the course of four years before he was executed.

He and I read books together—and we would write back and forth about them or the television show ER—and it just really sort of hit home with me, how much stories and TV, you could talk about those—and it’s a tool about talking about life and sharing pieces of ourselves.

Brownstein: What were some of the books?

Taylor: He chose a lot of James Patterson. We read the first Harry Potter; Into Thin Air [by Jon Krakauer].

Brownstein: At what point did you think of doing this more systematically?

Taylor: Tara and I, neither of us planned to start this non-profit. That just evolved. We just wanted to do something concrete. We were specifically interested in catching people while they were young. That idea was really because Glen was so young.

The D.C. public school system was facing a lawsuit for not providing education [to youth offenders in the D.C. jail] so we started going in every weekend to read with them. That was maybe the end of 2002, and we got our first grant in 2005, and I quit freelancing [for television] about 2007.

In the beginning we were doing just the book club at the D.C. jail—we liked to say it sort of evolved as we became aware of the needs. So when the first kid in our regular group turned 18 and was transferred to federal prison, we wrote to him and started sending him books. And that was the second phase, the prison book club.

The next step was the first time one of our young men came home and we had to start thinking about reentry. By the time we established ourselves as a non-profit we recognized there had to be three phases.

Brownstein: Where did the books come from?

Taylor: Initially the street law program at Georgetown Law School would buy the books for us—we’d get one paperback for each kid every two to three weeks.

We would bring in a book ballot with six to eight titles and we’d put a picture of the book cover, and then the group votes on the top three choices and we’d go from there. Just from experience the books that speak to them are characters they can recognize themselves and their lives in, and they will suggest titles a lot—and sometimes they are appropriate and sometimes they are not. There is so little opportunity for them to make decisions so we try to give them as much input as they can.

Tara Libert: They look for characters going through what they are, who beat the odds. Once they turn 18 and go to federal prison, it is really fascinating to see them progress in their book choices—they want coding or to learn Spanish as well as Harry Potter. You see yourself and you are comforted that you are not alone. You see other places and realize they are very similar to you at home.

Brownstein: Did you have a plan to end up where you are now?

Libert: I would have to say this whole journey, we call it ‘the free minds magic.’ It is kind of amazing. We thought when we first went in: Will it connect? It’s really been driven by the members themselves and our whole expansion has organically grown and we are always checking in with the members and they are always spurring us in.

Today we were doing this violence prevention outreach and our members have a million other ideas about places we could go. It hasn’t been easy, but I think it just kept growing with the guys becoming so engaged

Brownstein: Were there points when you doubted you were the right people to be doing this?

Taylor: I think the most compelling argument that we had is that nobody else was doing it.

Brownstein: It seems to me several of our Renewal winners this year focus on helping people find their own sense of power and agency. Does that apply to you?

Libert: I see us as a mechanism—I don’t see us facilitating it. I see us as giving them the tools to have their own voice, and they really are the program. The act of empowering yourself by reading and writing, sharing your own story, we just facilitate it. The only thing we can offer is providing those tools and listening and encouragement. It isn’t even the books and the writing. It’s a support group—it’s building a community so they have a new network of friends, a new place to go with a new identity. The peer-to-peer mentoring that’s the most important thing that comes out of it.

What I see from the prison book club, from every phase, they are a peer support group—what they have bonding together is a common interest in the books and the writing and the common interest from the community. You give them something to bond around, but the bonding is what’s going to keep them alive and believing in themselves.

Taylor: I would add one thing. The other piece that is so important is the consistency—our consistency and the group consistency. So many of them will come home from prison and say their friends and family stopped writing but this has been constant.

Brownstein: Where do you go next?

Libert: We started [working on] reentry—we really just wanted to connect them to the resources and other groups doing reentry [after incarceration] but unfortunately they weren’t too many and we were so trusted—we kept coming back to us. We do our own job readiness and our own life training. We have businesses where we place them with paid apprenticeships. At the jail part, we have about 100 participants in the jail book club, federal prison we have about 500, reentry about 145. We have 56 prisons we ship books to.

We have a really exciting partnership with a federal prison FCI Petersburg in Hopewell, Virginia. [Our members there] write poems and they send them to the office. We type them up and take them out to community events, where people read them and write their own comments and feedback right on the page. Then we send the pages back to the inmates. I was shocked by the powerful connection this creates. They feel so isolated and stereotyped.

Brownstein: What kind of changes do you see in the people who participate in the program?

Libert: It is completely transformative. That’s what is so thrilling to see. When we first meet them, we do a new member interview and we say, ‘What are your plans and goals?’ And so many of them don’t have any because they don’t think they are going to be alive at 21. Now when you talk to them at our workshop reentry they have so many plans and goals. And it is truly freeing their minds, that they can see beyond their own circumstance.

They have been defined by so many stories, the news media, the prosecutor calls them a monster, even their families. Through the process of reading about other people they gain another identity, they do this journey of self-introspection and awareness. We have a young guy who is tough, tough, and his family is deeply into the street scene. He told us, ‘I remember being five and being groomed for this.’ Now he says, ‘For the first time I think I might be able to break the family tradition.’ It was incredible … [and] all the other guys [in the program] can say, ‘Yes, you can.’ Because it’s a lonely path to break such a huge magnetic draw of all you have known.