FreeWriters provides incarcerated men and women with mindful writing opportunities that improve mental health, inspire hope, and reduce recidivism.


To help county jail inmates rediscover their existing aptitudes and aspirations for a future free of incarceration.


  • Self-Expression. We believe that creative self-expression fosters self-esteem, hope, and inspiration for a better life.
  • Potential. We believe in the dignity and inherent potential of those we serve, and we recognize that our systems have failed many incarcerated individuals far too early and often in their lives.
  • Empathy. We believe that fostering empathic connections among inmates through group writing experiences can help relieve the pressure, anxiety, and trauma of incarceration.
  • Equity. We believe in providing the affirmation, encouragement, and opportunities that many inmates have never received in a world of systemic disparities.

Our History

Prior to founding FreeWriters, Nate Johnson served as a prosecuting attorney and a mentor to a highly gifted young man named Joe. Joe was a county drug court participant and the victim of an extremely traumatic childhood. Nate and Joe bonded very quickly and they remain close today.

In early 2019, Nate left his prosecutor job and elected to participate in a writing workshop at the Loft Literary Center. While at the Loft, Nate learned about “free-writing” — prompt-based, timed, spontaneous writing followed by reading aloud — and found in free-writing a great tool for self-reflection and stress relief. Around that time, Joe violated probation and received a 60-day jail sanction. While visiting Joe in the county jail, Nate learned disturbing things about Joe’s environment: no outdoor time or space for inmates, no windows, and no classroom programming besides occasional bible and 12-step meetings.

Concerned for Joe’s mental health, Nate taught him the free-writing method. Joe took to it immediately. Joe made a habit of free-writing during difficult moments in jail — and the writing helped. Near the end of Joe’s sentence, Nate asked if other inmates would like free-writing. Joe said he was sure they would. Nate pitched the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office about his leading free-writing groups in the downtown Minneapolis jail. The classes were an instant success with inmate-students, and since fall of 2019, FreeWriters has held classes for 1,000+ inmates who have written and performed 3,000+ pieces of writing.

Board of Directors


Ancinetta Caldwell, Chair

Damian Johansson, MFA

Melissa Martinez, MPP, JD

Nate Johnson, JD, ex officio 
Founder/Executive Director, FreeWriters

Strategic Partners