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Poetry Behind Bars

By Donna Mallard | May 2, 2015

Law Office Management

May 2, 2015

Poetry Behind Bars

A law school student describes her life-changing experience with children in juvenile hall.

On an overcast day in October 2010, I passed through security to enter Central Juvenile Hall, a bleak building four miles east of downtown Los Angeles. I was there for the first time, volunteering with a student-run legal clinic to help monitor conditions of confinement. We were a small group of first- and second-year law students there to interview young people every Friday throughout the school year. There were barbed-wire fences around the facility, and a pack of feral cats roamed the premises. A sign in the hallway stated: "How you see them is how you treat them. How you treat them is what they become."

I had no idea what to expect. We were there to interview boys and girls about their lives. I asked the young people I met about educational, medical, and mental health needs. After many of them expressed concerns about school and special-education services, we created a clinic to focus exclusively on academic barriers faced by students in juvenile hall.

When I began to talk to the kids in custody, I initially wondered what these young people had done to end up in juvenile hall. During the interviews, I was surprised to learn that a number of them mentioned how much they loved participating in an extracurricular writing program called InsideOUT Writers. As a former public school teacher, I was intrigued by the idea that writing could have such a tremendous impact on incarcerated youth. I had gone to law school to become an education attorney. As a third-year law student I decided to apply to become an InsideOUT teacher. After an orientation and trial period, I spent every Wednesday night teaching poetry in Unit M/N at Central with twelve boys aged 14 to 19, all of whom have been charged with serious crimes.

Many of the boys come from rival gangs, but here they enthusiastically write and share their poetry. Gathered around a table covered with "tags" (graffiti) in a tiny, locked room, we have built a community. By penning their life experiences, my students have begun to connect childhood trauma with the choices that led them to join gangs and to subsequent arrests. Their prose is introspective and raw.

One of my students-I'll call him Samuel-had never written a poem before he got locked up. He was initiated into a gang as a young boy, and by 16 he had been in and out of juvenile halls for most of his young life. He was covered in tattoos that broadcast his affiliation, and he was housed in a unit for youths attempting to convince a judge of their fitness to be tried in juvenile court (and not as adults). They were labeled the "unfits" by the probation department. If Samuel were tried as an adult, he faced the possibility of 60 years to life behind bars.

Bright, funny, and charismatic, he was a leader amongst his peers. But until he picked up a pen and began to write, he'd lost all hope about his future. The first night that Samuel read his work aloud, I watched other students nod their heads and murmur in understanding. Here's an excerpt from a poem he wrote the first night of class:

You tell me I should be tried
as an adult
But I never lived a childhood
A lil' kid looking for guidance I
could never really find ...
Quick to judge me on my negatives
I've never had no positives
A life full of sadness
You'd drown in all the tears
I've seen ...

He also described watching his mother pick food out of a dumpster, and the day his father left. His peers praised him for eloquently expressing the circumstances many of them could relate to.

Through writing about typically taboo subjects in a correctional setting-sexual abuse, feelings of abandonment, and fear-boys who were formerly sworn enemies realized that they had a great deal in common. I have been accused of naiveté when I tell people that I believe poetry can serve as an antidote to the violence permeating the underserved neighborhoods of Los Angeles, as well as a vehicle for transforming hardened gang youth. But I respond to detractors by inviting them to spend a night with my students at Central. It usually only takes the observation of a single class to convince them that the potential for change exists when youth are given the tools to find their voices and know that someone is listening to what they have to say.

Samuel told me recently that he believes his final stay at Central was a blessing because it was when he began to write. Slowly, he says, his wounds began to heal, and he was able to envisage a future beyond the streets. When a gang-related fight broke out on his unit, he was instrumental in achieving and maintaining peace. After receiving multiple letters from teachers and staff commenting on his conscientiousness, commitment to self-improvement, and enormous potential, a judge found Samuel to be "fit." He is now college-bound and plans to attend law school, to advocate for young people caught up in the criminal justice system. He also hopes to publish his writing and recently entered a poetry contest.

Author James Baldwin said that the role of writers and artists is "to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not lose, in all our doing, sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place." Now, when I meet incarcerated youth, I wonder what has been done to them to land them in juvenile hall.

The adolescents that I have met in the hall inspired me to change my career trajectory. I now plan on becoming a juvenile public defender, to advocate for the rights of young people like the students in my InsideOUT writing class. I am forever grateful to Samuel and all of my other students for possessing the honesty and courage to share their pain, and opening my eyes to the harsh realities behind the statutes and statistics I studied in law school. Poetry has made their world and mine a more humane dwelling place.

Megan Quirk is a student at UCLA School of Law, where she is studying public interest law and policy with a critical race studies specialization.


Donna Mallard

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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