For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a complete bibliophile. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than delving into a really good book—a book that captivates your imagination or challenges the way you think. That’s why I couldn’t think of a better fit for me than my placement at Free Minds, a book club and writing workshop for incarcerated youth. Free Minds works with teenagers at the DC jail who have been charged with adult crimes. The organization uses literature and creative writing to help these youth process their emotions and trauma, and to inspire them to find a new direction for their lives. We stay in touch with our members throughout their entire incarceration period, sending them letters, books, and cards. And when our members are released back into the community, we help ease the reentry process by providing job readiness assistance and support.
By far the most humbling and inspiring part of my job is reading and responding to letters from our members, who are often shipped thousands of miles from their homes in DC to federal prisons around the country. Through the letters and poems from our members, I get a glimpse into the most personal aspects of their lives. They write love poems to their girlfriends and share stories from their childhood. They vent their anger and frustration about their sentences. They write about sports and philosophy and prison food and politics. They dream about going to college or running their own businesses. And of course, they talk about books.
It was in one of these letters that I first heard of the book I am currently reading: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. It was a Free Minds Book Club pick several months before and received an enthusiastic recommendation from one of our members. Curious, I picked up a copy from the local library to see if he was right.
I’m only a third of the way through, but I can already tell that it was a good pick. Civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander examines the connection between the civil rights movement, the war on drugs, and the disproportionate number of African Americans in the prison system. She argues that even in the Age of Obama, America has not managed to triumph over racial discrimination. Rather, America has developed new ways of stripping racial minorities of rights via unfair incarceration policies that target impoverished neighborhoods. Alexander contends that the incarceration system today holds stark parallels to Jim Crow policies of the past. Convicted felons are denied basic rights while incarcerated. Even after they serve their time, ex-offenders are denied the right to vote, stigmatized and shunned by the general population, and face job and education discrimination that is almost impossible to overcome.
In every page of The New Jim Crow, I find reminders of the population I serve and the seemingly endless barriers in the way of their success. We live in the context of a flawed criminal justice system, one that has devastated communities and literally destroyed lives. But then I think back to the letters I receive, the poems I am entrusted with. And I know that my clients are determined, hopeful, and resilient. Their optimism and strength inspires me to work even harder on their behalves. The New Jim Crow is not necessarily an easy read. But it is an important one. It is a provocative, fascinating, and above all else, eye-opening social commentary on the intersection of incarceration and racism.
What are you reading?
Sarah Mintz is an Atlanta native, who spent the past four years in Saint Paul, Minnesota, studying creative writing, human rights, and how to survive in negative degree weather. Sarah’s AVODAH placement is Washington DC’s Free Minds, a book club and writing workshop for incarcerated youth in the adult prison system. When not at work, you can find Sarah biking around the city, dancing to bad pop music, or volunteering at the farmers market.