Silence filled the University Honors Program office Tuesday as students read poetry written by young inmates from Washington D.C. The inmates were not present, but their presence came to life through the words and experiences they put on paper.
This was the first time that Bonnie Gasior, interim director of the University Honors Program, and students from her University 300 class brought the Free Minds Book Club to Long Beach State.
“[Free Minds poets are] teenagers who were charged and incarcerated as adults in the D.C. jail,” Gasior said. “Approximately 60 youths are incarcerated every year…The majority come from the city’s most crime-stricken neighborhoods where nearly half the children live below the poverty rate. At 16 and 17 years old, they read, on average, at a fifth-grade level. And most have already dropped out of or are disengaged from school.”
This past spring break, Gasior and her class participated in Alternative Spring Break in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania which focused on community service and involvement. One of their many activities was participating in Free Minds Poetry.
Paulina Diaz, a fourth-year double major in human development and family life education, was one of the students who participated in ASB.
“I wanted to give these inmates hope through my feedback,” Diaz said. “I wanted to let them know that they’re humans and that it’s okay to feel what they feel. Too often we forget about these people and I feel as though the comments we give them makes them feel even the slightest bit part of society.”
There were about 90 people in attendance, and the room was so packed that some students were sitting on the floor.
According to Gasior, educational programs such as Free Minds allow these “young men to pursue positive new directions in their futures.”
Students were encouraged to write as many empowering and positive comments on the 120 different poems that were being passed out. About 10 minutes before the event ended, Gasior opened a forum for attendees to discuss how they felt about the poems they read.
“I’ve always loved poetry,” Alex Arroyo, a first-year pre-nursing major, said. “I’ve always loved writing it and just consuming it…It showed me that poetry is a vehicle for people to come together.”
Arroyo said he felt a strong connection with all the inmates who wrote a poem.
He was especially drawn to a poem called “Don’t cry” about a boy making bad decisions despite his mother’s attempts to stop him.
“I just realized all those nights I was doing something bad, my mom was folding my clothes and thinking about me,” Arroyo said. “Just seeing how much I could connect to him with just literally ink on paper—I just felt so close.”
Gasior read 22-year-old Robert’s letter from prison, “He wrote when he received his poem back, ‘I was shocked to learn I had love and support from people who didn’t even know me. I felt needed and useful. It let me know that I am apart of something bigger.’”
Gasior said that she hopes to see Long Beach State inspire and lead other universities to host their own Free Minds events.
“I think that tapped into emotions for a lot of people,” Gasior said. “It allowed students to talk to make their own connections with the poetry and hopefully might even inspire them to write their own poetry.”