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An Outlet for Anger, and Fear

Poems by Youths Jailed in the District Shared With Community in Readings

By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page C01

Most of the time, Love Cafe belongs to U Street strollers and laptop jockeys who sink into soft seats against the butter-yellow and exposed brick walls and sip iced lattes.

But on a recent night, the Northwest cafe belonged to voices of fear, anger and loneliness, and to people who weren't even there.

Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop participants, from left to right, Anthony Parker, 17, Delonte King, 16, and Lamarzs Wilson, 17. (Photos Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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Jail is everything bad

People get sent to jail

Because people think it helps

But jail makes you heartless and crazy

The microphone stand cast a shadow over Dexter Daniels as he calmly, clearly recited the verses of an absent 17-year-old. The words weren't his own, but he understood. Just a few months ago, he had been in there, too -- a teenager in the D.C. jail, an adolescent in a place made for adults.

As about 75 people nibbled on pastries, Daniels and other readers fed them harsh words about fast money, blood on the streets and feelings of being caged. The poems -- some rhyming, most free-form -- told of dreams of freedom: soccer games, all-you-can-eat buffets in Virginia and sleeping in a real bed. There were visions of gang life, friends slain by gunfire, and the resignation of being labeled a criminal.

The writers are or were members of the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, founded in November 2002 by two freelance journalists who wanted to make a difference in the lives of young offenders. In less than two years, the group has served more than 70 young men housed in a separate unit at the D.C. jail. Most are African American or Latino, and all are 16 or 17 years old and charged as adults. As they await trial -- or, for those who already have been convicted, transfer to a federal prison when they turn 18 -- they are looking for ways to ease the boredom and frustration.

"Once you're reading a book, a book will take you to another place, for a while," Daniels said.

He recalled his first days on the unit, after he was charged with armed robbery last fall. Someone stole his shoes. Other juveniles threw feces into his cell. He feared the recreation yard, so the book club became his escape.

"In jail, there were books everywhere, floating between cells," Daniels said. About eight of 22 youths incarcerated at that time joined the club. It was one of the few things they looked forward to, he said.

On the outside, Daniels, then 17, had been a senior at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, taking Advanced Placement pre-calculus and Spanish. Inside the jail, he was offered basic multiplication and division problems.

Daniels was released after about 10 weeks with charges dropped. He was the victim of mistaken identity, he said. Yes, he said, he had left his Petworth neighborhood headed for Adams Morgan with a group of teenagers on the night of Nov. 15, and some members of the group had stuck up clubgoers. He was not one of them, Daniels said, but the police stopped everyone in the group who fit the description: black males wearing dark clothes. After a short stay at the city's Oak Hill youth facility in Prince George's County and two hearings, he was charged as an adult and sent to the D.C. jail.

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