Alexis Underwood Launches People Who Are Incarcerated Awareness Day


On a Thursday morning in April, students at LaSalle-Backus Education Campus in Washington, D.C. were crafting birthday cards. On colorful construction paper, these students wrote messages expressing love, compassion, and respect. Throughout the day, they composed more than 200 cards for members of their community who often don’t receive unexpected greetings: people who are incarcerated. 

People Who Are Incarcerated Awareness Day

Elementary school student writing a birthday card for a person who is incarcerated
Students at LaSalle-Backus Education Campus wrote birthday cards for DC natives who are currently incarcerated.

This project was part of a full day of activities at LaSalle organized by K-3 Literacy Lab tutor Alexis Underwood, for the school’s inaugural People Who Are Incarcerated Awareness (PWAIA) day. Beyond writing messages of support and birthday wishes, students learned the definition of incarceration in their homeroom classes, read poems written by people who are currently incarcerated, and reflected on how these poems made them feel.

“The goal was to raise awareness to the humanity of people who are incarcerated,” Alexis says. “All the poems we read were written by DC natives who are currently incarcerated.”

As a Literacy Lab tutor and a volunteer with Free Minds Book Club, an organization that uses books and creative writing to empower people who are incarcerated, Alexis saw an opportunity to build a positive bridge between her students and members of the community who are currently incarcerated.

“When I started with The Literacy Lab, I had the thought in mind that I wanted to find a unique way of combating the school to prison pipeline,” Alexis says. “There’s a high correlation between people with low literacy skills and people who are incarcerated.”

In fact, approximately 75% of adults who are incarcerated do not have a high school diploma and/or have low literacy skills, according to The Literacy Center. Programs like Free Minds are helping people who are incarcerated build literacy skills while in prison. Alexis sees the opportunity to interrupt the school to prison pipeline by keeping her students on track to reach their reading targets and read proficiently. In doing so, they will be more likely to graduate high school and less likely to interact with the criminal justice system later in life.

Creating Safe Discussion Spaces for Students

The PWAIA program was designed in conjunction with the administration to open up a conversation about something that affects many students at LaSalle. A number of current students have a family member who has been incarcerated at some point. Some of the school’s students have experienced incarceration, as well. By encouraging dialogue in an emotionally safe space, Alexis hopes PWAIA will help dismantle some of the stigma surrounding incarceration.

“It might help them open up and talk about their lives more,” Alexis says about her students’ participation. “It’s good for the community as a whole, but definitely for students who are trying to navigate talking about their own lives and how they feel.”

Literacy Lab tutor holding a sign that reads 'PWAI Awareness Day'
Alexis Underwood organized PWAI Awareness Day during her service year with The Literacy Lab.

In the future, Alexis hopes to expand this program to other school communities. Long-term, her goal is to make PWAIA available to anyone who is interested in exploring the curriculum in their schools. She sees a definite opportunity to share this work with other schools in Ward 4. She also wants this curriculum to be accessible to any schools interested in participating. 

“Every community and every school could benefit from talking about these things,” Alexis says.

For more information and updates about this project, follow PWAIA on Twitter. To learn about Free Minds Book Club and their work with Washington, D.C. natives, visit their website. The Literacy Lab is recruiting changemakers like Alexis for the 2019-20 school year!