How Poetry Gave Voice to Three Men Who Grew Up in Prison

For three Washington, D.C. men who were incarcerated during their youth, poetry is a powerful means of self expression.

Nokomis Hunter, Shannon Battle, and Cliff Yarborough all grew up in the criminal justice system, where they were introduced to Free Minds Book Club.

Hunter, Battle, and Yarborough all participated in The City of Takoma Park’s Arts and Humanities Third Thursday Poetry Series on Jan. 16. as poet ambassadors for Free Minds Book Club. The men joined to Free Minds when they were incarcerated. They’ve all been released within the past couple of years, but and have stayed involved in Free Minds.

Free Minds Connects Poetry to D.C.’s Incarcerated Youth

Free Minds Book Club is a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. that uses literature and creative writing to awaken the potential of men who were incarcerated during their youth. Free Minds has two book clubs in Washington D.C.— one in the D.C. Jail, the other in the Federal Prison.

Tara Libert, cofounder and executive director of Free Minds, said once incarcerated men make the choice to join Free Minds, their membership lasts a lifetime. Free Minds continues to support its men once they are released from prison by offering them reentry support.

Libert said many of the members come into the group having never read a full book or written a poem since they were incarcerated so young. They can sometimes be hesitant about the group in the beginning, but eventually, Libert said many of them take off the mask they put on while incarcerated and poetry takes them on a path of self discovery.

“Once they get excited and that spark is lit, they just rocket to the top. They just want to read more and more titles about different subject areas.” Libert said. “Their world view is expanded, they build empathy, they connect with their fellow Free Minds members in a safe space.”

Hunter, Battle, and Yarborough – Former Prisoners, Forever Poets

Hunter, Battle, and Yarborough all currently reside in Washington D.C.and were all transformed by the criminal justice system when they were teenagers.

All three of them read their own original material, as well as poetry written by current inmates, at Takoma Park Community Center’s Third Thursday Poetry reading. The theme of the night was “Poetry from Behind Bars.”

Yarborough, who entered the prison system when he was 16, shared poetry that reflected on what it was like to be away from his family as he was growing up. In 2018, Yarborough was granted parole after he was found wrongfully convicted of murder—this story is the subject of an episode on the Netflix documentary series “The Confession Tapes.” Now Yarborough educates the community about wrongful convictions and advocates for youth violence prevention.

Battle shared a poem dedicated to Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL player who controversially took a knee in protest of the criminal justice system. He dedicated another poem to victims of the Pulse Night Club shooting in Orlando in 2016. Battle said when he was in prison, he was involved in the group Prisoners Against Gun Violence. Since he was released from prison in 2016, Battle has been involved the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network.

Hunter was incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system when he was 16 and served time in five different states. After he became involved in Free Minds, Hunter remained an active member in prisons outside of D.C. Free Minds would mail books to Hunter and would share his poetry while he was incarcerated at different poetry readings.

Now that he’s been released from prison, Hunter has continued writing.

“Poetry is like a spa day to the soul,” Hunter said.

He has poetry featured in Free Minds poetry anthologies and he recently published his own book of material in Poetry of a Caged Bird.

“When you come to Free Minds and you see all these guys [around who’ve] been through all the same life experiences as you, but able to overcome all the adversity, all the rejection out in society, you know it [gives] you a push, it [gives] you hope.”

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