About

Mission

FreeWriters provides inmates in the county jail system with creative writing opportunities that improve mental health, reduce recidivism, and inspire hope about life after incarceration.

Vision

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

Values

  • 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 500+ inmates who have written and performed 1500+ pieces of writing.

Nate &  Joe, 2020

Board of Directors

Timothy Carey, Chair
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney
Nate Johnson
Founder/Executive Director, FreeWriters
Thandisizwe Jackson-Nisan
Community Organizer
Justin Goldstein
Math Teacher, Minneapolis North High

Tom Beimers
Partner, Hogan Lovells
Aminah Harut
Wells Fargo Bank
Ryan Hamilton
Lobbyist, Minnesota Catholic Conference
Kevin Gaffney
PR Consultant, Seiche

Strategic Partners

Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office \ Creative Fundraising Advisors \ Parenteau Graves \ Deloitte