Tara Libert, 55, is the co-founder and chief executive of the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, a Washington nonprofit that works to engage prisoners and returned offenders with reading and expressing themselves through poetry and personal essays.
Why did you think to start a book club for prisoners?
It is all the vision of a young man named Glen McGinnis, who was on death row for a crime he committed when he was 17. So he was a youth charged as an adult. I was working as a television producer, along with Free Minds co-founder Kelli Taylor. We got a letter from Glen, and Kelli ended up producing a documentary about him. They began reading the same book and writing back and forth about it. So that’s why we call him the vision and the original free mind. He said, you know, my body may be locked up, but my mind is always free through books and writing. After he was executed, we started as a volunteer operation, and then, in 2005, became a nonprofit.
What do you think they’re getting out of this book club?
Most of our members have never read a book cover to cover before joining the book club. The model allows them to see themselves in the characters they read about. And then they write their own story to try to understand the trauma they’ve gone through, how they want to move forward. Then they connect to other people through the writing. So I think it’s books and brotherhood and being able to have your voice heard.
And you do this at the D.C. jail?
Yeah, it’s like any other book club where you gathered in a circle once a week. But we also do meditation to try to de-stress. We do a game because it’s creative and fun. We have reader leaders who lead the discussion. And even if you can’t read you can participate because it relates directly to your life.
You’re also in federal prisons?
With the federal prisons — we have members in about 56 prisons — we do what we call a long-distance book club. When you leave the D.C. jail and go to federal prison, we send you a letter right away. You might be 3,000 miles away in California and your family can’t visit you because they don’t have the money, and you feel completely lost in this federal system that already thinks you’re more dangerous than any other inmate. And so we send you a book a month, a newsletter, a postcard, a birthday card and personal letters. And then you can write your poetry, and we’ll bring it to volunteers and the community that read and respond back to it.
So what’s the selection of books like in prisons?
It’s very poor. I mean, it totally depends on where you are, but on the whole it’s pretty meager. You always have a legal library; that’s required by law. But the reading library selection is so poor, and that is something we are pushing now.
I know you’ve had a lot of famous authors come and speak to the inmates. What’s that experience like for the authors?
They love it, because our members are so expressive in their love for the book. Or, you know, their dislike. [Laughs.] All the authors are like, “Oh my gosh, all my times alone in my writing, this is all so worth it.” Because they’re just so real. And when someone’s a new reader, you just can’t beat that enthusiasm.
In many ways prisoners are a forgotten population. What do you want people to know about your book club members?
That we’re all connected, and they’re exactly like all of us with the same hopes, fears, desires, dreams. Our entire goal is connecting the community with those who are incarcerated because the prison system is an abysmal failure. I don’t think anyone on any side of the political aisle doesn’t agree with that. People who don’t know a lot about it aren’t realizing that it’s inflicting more damage instead of rehabilitating people.
This interview has been edited and condensed.