Through Envisioning Justice, Illinois Humanities partnered with Free Write Arts & Literacy to expand upon the organizations’ long-standing arts programming in Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (CCJTDC), that  holds a population of youth aged 10 through 17 years, who are awaiting adjudication of their cases by the Juvenile Division of the Cook County Courts

Free Write Arts & Literacy engages incarcerated and court-involved youth and young adults in the performing, visual, and literary arts so that they become the narrators of their own stories and the authors of their futures. By co-designing creative space with our students, Free Write supports them as they develop educational and career opportunities that reduce recidivism while also contributing to the public discourse around issues of youth incarceration.

In the summer of 2000, Free Write began working one-on-one with incarcerated youth in hopes of improving their print literacy skills. The project readily expanded to include creative writing, visual art, and music production workshops, resulting in densely packed and widely distributed anthologies and public exhibitions of student work. To date, Free Write has published seven anthologies, installed over 50 public exhibitions, and worked alongside over 10,000 detained and criminalized youth and young adults.

Free Write Arts & Literacy will amplify the voices of the youth who are experiencing incarceration, while working with them, CCJTDC staff, and guest artists to imagine alternatives to the present criminal legal system.

Three 10-week sessions of arts classes will culminate in Open Houses that invite fellow students, their families, community members, the staff of each facility, and other stakeholders to reflect upon the possibilities and take action to realize them.

Hub Staff/Organizers

Ryan Keesling

Ryan is Founder/Executive Director of Free Write. Since 2000, Ryan has been designing and implementing literacy and arts programming for youth in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

Billy McGuinness

Billy is the Director of Creative Strategies at SkyART, Founder of Just Art, an open studio program at Cook County Jail, and a Lecturer at the School at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mathilda de Dios

Free Write Associate Director

Roger Bonair-Agard

Free Write Program Director

Elgin Bokari Smith

Free Write Program Director

Alexandra Antoine

Teaching Artist

Tim Nickless

Teaching Artist

Toni Assante Lightfoot

Teaching Artist

Arnold Aprill

Assessment Consultant

Chelsea Ross

Public Relations Coordinator

Supporting Organizations


SkyART uses free visual arts programming as a vehicle for young people to create, to communicate effectively, and to learn the essential skills and creative thinking needed to succeed.

Billy McGuinness, Director of Creative Strategies at SkyART, founded Just Art, a visual art studio program for detainees at Cook County Jail, in 2015.

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