Law & Justice

Incarcerated Teens Find Their Voices Through Poetry

Credits: Stock Photo by Chris Yarzab via Flickr Media Commons

NORTH BRUNSWICK, NJ — Parts of the Middlesex County Juvenile Detention Center located off Route 130 resemble a high school more than a place where people serve time.

Only the uniform orange slip-on shoes scattered across the floor distinguish the gym, with its full basketball court and ping-pong table, from that of your typical high school. After their studies, the good kids get to play Xbox and eat extra snacks. Even the center’s seven separated housing units resemble college dorm lounges.

But make no mistake: This hulking facility houses kids who have done some bad things. Many of the 65 adolescents who now live there carry tragic pasts and walk toward uncertain futures.

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“It’s like the last moment that you can catch them,” said Hugh Wilson, a volunteer and founder of the Hugh Henry Sarah Poetry Foundation, during a tour of the facility.

In an effort to straighten out these teens—mostly male and mostly African-American—Wilson began teaching some of them to write poetry about a year ago. He then launched a 10-week, facility-wide poetry contest, which culminated late last month in a reading and ceremony attended by officials from the four counties that send juveniles to the center.

At its heart, the poetry experiment is meant to help them buy into their own rehabilitation, Middlesex County officials said.

At first, it sounds strange: troubled kids who turned to poetry after years on the hard streets of cities like New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. Early on, the concept didn’t appeal to many of the newly-minted poets, either.

“It might sound weird, but a couple of years ago you probably couldn’t pay me to do poetry,” said the 18-year-old man who placed first among the poetry contest’s 14 finalists. “I thought nobody would want to hear what I got to say.”

It turns out, however, that some people are all ears.

Young and Locked Up

All entrances to the Middlesex County Juvenile Detention Center are locked down like a bank vault. Upon being buzzed in, visitors find a typical quiet, orderly office.

Beyond another secured door is a blue-and-white-walled hallway with a ramp to the second floor, faintly resembling something like a jail. There, officers monitor “residents” and visitors and control movement throughout the center.

“Wherever you see a kid, you’ll see an officer,” said Jim White, superintendent of the county’s youth services department.

The kids walked in single-file lines to their classrooms on the second floor. Unlike at home where they often skip school, young people here spend much of the week in classes of no more than 10 pupils, learning math, science, art and other subjects from seven in-house teachers.

Educating these kids is no easy task, officials said. Teachers can do little to reach them without first building trust.

“They know truth. If you’re fake, they’ll find out in a minute,” the county’s warden, Mark Cranston, said. “That’s their skill set.”

Youth services recently launched a visual arts course. Collages hung on the wall of that classroom, displaying magazine cut-outs of celebrities, cars and beer—reminders of life on the outside.

While the incarcerated kids don’t serve long-term sentences here, their art suggests that their time in detention affects them in a number of ways.

One teen’s poem, for instance, begs for forgiveness from a disappointed mother: “I bow my head humbly, to make amends with you,” it reads. “I apologize profusely for all I put you through.”

The writer of another poem seems resigned to a future spent in the system. Incorrectly, he notes, he will spend the rest of his days in this place.

But some of the poems acknowledge the authors’ misguided pasts and make resolutions to turn things around. The writing process itself helped one 18-year-old dream of redemption, he said.

“At first, I took it as a joke,” he said. “Now, instead of getting in trouble, I write poetry.”

Other outlets exist in the detention center. When the weather is right, the kids go outdoors to play basketball and volleyball on a blacktop enclosed not by barbed wire but a tall fence whose top bends parallel to the ground.

Many of them also speak with case workers and therapists. Their goal is to ensure stability on the outside, officials said.

After school, the teens return to their housing units. Some live in the general population, while others are assigned to an area for those who wouldn’t fare well with most of the kids. The facility also houses a unit for its handful of female residents, a temporary-stay “behavioral adjustment” ward for those who have been lashing out and an honors unit for kids who behave well.

It’s not home, though.

Their clothes sit in a storage unit, traded in for uniforms. Anti-drug posters line the walls of the medical office. Family members visit in a contained dining room.

“Once I start writing, it takes me away from here,” one young man said.

A Moment to Feel Special

The poetry contest ceremony was a big deal.

The detention center was staffed with additional officers. The teens, normally separated by their units, all came together in the gym. Outsiders—people who, Cranston said, don’t necessarily know the everyday reality of life in here—filed into the room, ready to listen to young people whose stories are sometimes ignored by the rest of the world.

Some of the finalists were nervous about reciting their poetry in front of the crowd. They asked friends to read their work on their behalf.

One by one, the writers walked before the room and read aloud their most intimate thoughts.

“Being vulnerable is in many ways braver than picking up a gun,” Wilson later said.

Their poetry touched upon dead relatives, police brutality and life in a tough neighborhood.

Afterward, they remained standing. White congratulated them and shook their hands. Guests asked them about their writing.

At least for a moment, they felt special, officials said.

No one knows for sure who and how many of these kids will get on the right track. Some prior residents have earned degrees or gone on to take jobs as supermarket cashiers. Others have retreated to what they’ve always known.

For now, though, Wilson and the county officials plan to help the kids create an editorial board that aims to publish a book of their poems.

“It’s time well spent, for sure,” Cranston said, “if you have to spend time here.”

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