Posts Tagged ‘Juvenile Justice’

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Suggest that the way to end recidivism is to reform the prison system, and you might be accused of caring more about criminals than the crimes they commit. It’s happened to me. Often when I write or give a talk about my work with minors in adult prison, I describe the deplorable conditions in which inmates live, and advocate for reform of those conditions. Inevitably someone comments (and not always politely) that I’m “soft on crime,” that I don’t care about victims. But this is how I see it.

Given our present prison system with its emphasis on punishment and retribution, everybody suffers. Inmates, correctional officers, victims, the average citizen and taxpayer.
Prisons are violent, toxic places. They are often overcrowded and smelly with the soup of open toilets, the effluence of crammed together bodies under stress with little or no physical or personal space. The noise is deafening. TVs blare (in English and Spanish); metal gates clang; the overused PA system squawks, and inmates and correctional staff shout over it all trying to be heard.

There’s no trust in a prison, no safety, just the constant threat of violence, intimidation, the need to never let your guard down, to “give as good as you get.” If an inmate wants to survive in prison that’s the way he or she must act. If they can’t, they find themselves in protective custody which translates as months of numbing isolation in solitary confinement.

When you look at these conditions honestly, without the filter of righteousness—“that’s what they get for breaking the law”—how could you not see that the present system (the very thing people insist will deter crime) only breeds anger and resentment, hostility and hopelessness in offenders, and finally leads to more crime?

And more crime means that victims are not only not served by the system but are further threatened by it, and that their suffering reverberates into their families and communities. More crime means that other citizens become victims until nobody feels safe, and the whole cycle starts all over again. A simple statistic: Kids handled in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend and their behavior to more quickly escalate into violence than those young people who remain in the juvenile system.

But there are other “victims” of the prison system and its harsh, dangerous, and degrading environment. Correctional officers operate under the same conditions as those locked up, many times for up to 16 hours a day as they choose or are pressed into working overtime. That point came home to me at the end of one school year. As temperatures soared, the heat in the hallways and cell blocks of the older buildings of the prison where I taught (luckily with an air conditioner supplied by the school program) was insufferable. Huge floor fans only moved the suffocating air around, offering no relief, and only adding to the noise. That’s when it first hit me that the COs I interacted with every day were as trapped in the same punishing conditions as the young offenders I worked with.

But it goes beyond the everyday level of physical discomfort for COs. The need to be hyper-vigilant, the defensive stance engendered by the institutionalized hostility of the prison power structure—“us” and “them”; the keepers and the kept—takes its toll not only on COs, but also on their families. Studies have shown that 31% of correctional officers meet “the criteria for full PTSD” (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder); that the average life expectancy is 58 years old, and that correctional officers have a 39% higher suicide rate than any other occupation.

Even those of us who are not personally caught in the web of incarceration are affected by the prison system. Our tax money is spent building and maintaining these institutions and supporting what goes on inside them. In many states these funds are diverted from basic, essential services such as education. For example California spends on average $47,421 per inmate a year while the average spent per student a year is only $11,420. (A telling tweet is going around Twitter that sums it up for many states, “The people of CA are tired of Cadillac prisons & jalopy schools.”)

So when I find myself labeled as “soft on crime” I have an old jail comeback: “Don’t take my kindness for softness.” Restructuring a broken prison system so that it protects and respects all citizens while holding offenders accountable is not “soft” but commonsense. We need to create prison conditions, both physical and psychological, that encourage cooperation on all sides and that supports change as opposed to conflict and calcification of negative behavior. Programs must be developed that challenge offenders to change their counterproductive behavior. Training in real employable occupations is essential. And support services must be established that help ex-offenders meet the demands of “going straight.”

Of course, the economic watchdogs will howl. But the human costs—to inmates, correctional officers, victims and society in general—are too high to be ignored. Reforming is better than warehousing people in prison for years, leaving them to await the next dead-end. You can call it soft. I call it the only way.

Originally appeared in Gandhi’s Be Magazine

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I have been asked to become a contributor to the progressive journal Gandhi’s Be Magazine. The journal and the work  its supporting community does is inspired by the courage, the wisdom  and the philosophy  of Mahatma Gandhi. The magazine takes as it’s call to action Gandhiji’s challenge to “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” As you’ll notice looking at the magazine’s articles and the wide scope of the organization’s outreach and social action programs they are determined to do just that.  And so I’m honored (and more than a little humbled) to be invited to write for the journal’s opinion section.

I was recently interviewed via email by the magazine staff. It was an interesting opportunity for me to think about and clarify the roots of my own commitment to social justice. I’m happy to re-post the interview here on “Kids in the System” whose readers and guest contributors, so many of whom in their own work have taken Gandhiji’s words to heart, have become such an important part of my own community.

Profiles in Change

Editor’s Note: David Chura recently joined Gandhi’s Be Magazine. Teacher, Youth Advocate, and Author of the book “I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup,” David Chura blogs on youth incarceration and youth stuck in the social welfare system.

Tell us about your journey. From being a young boy to the environment you were raised in, and the adult influences that helped shape you both good and bad.

I grew up in a working class neighborhood and family where the shaping culture was an oppressive 1950s Roman Catholicism. Luckily I was a teenager during the early 60s, and so the rather closed world of 50s America was opened up for me by the Vatican Council’s social justice doctrines, the civil rights movement and eventually, the peace movement. It was in high school, a Catholic high school, that I became a fledging activist inspired by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I wrote editorials for the school newspapers that the principal would pull, organized a tutoring program for inner city kids, and started an inter-racial council. In college my commitment to social justice strengthened and expanded; at the same time my Catholicism withered but soon was replaced by a growing interest in Eastern religions particularly Buddhism. While studying in college, I volunteered at and, for a time, lived in, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality which provided meals and shelter to homeless men. Eventually I gave up my student deferment to protest the Vietnam War and applied for conscientious objector status. My long held innate pacifism found firmer footing in the teachings of Gandhi and Dr. King. To my surprise (and, I think, to the surprise of the Selective Service Board) I was granted conscientious objector status and was assigned alternative service at a psychiatric hospital. It was there that I began my forty year journey of working, at various times, as a counselor, teacher and advocate with young people pushed to the margins of society by poverty, racism, violence, addiction, abandonment.

Running tandem to these life experiences was my struggle to accept myself as a gay man in the face of a condemning culture. While the years of prejudice, self-hatred, dishonesty, and fear were damaging, in many ways they are the foundation of my deep commitment and identification with “the outsider.”

The prison industrial complex is in a downward spiral with a generation of youth incarcerated. Can you share with us your feelings on this?

I’m often asked if I see any hope of change in the criminal and juvenile justice systems—the prison industrial complex. Sadly, I feel that any change that comes about will be the result not of commonsense or of humanitarian concerns but of economics. Unfortunately prisons are a big money making industry in the United States. This is apparent when states spend more money on building, maintaining and staffing correctional facilities than on schools. I recently was in an upstate New York town where a large Federal prison was the main source of income for the community. A local newspaper headline caught my attention: “We Care About Our Prisoners.” I was intrigued—and perhaps, naively hopeful—and bought a newspaper. At issue was not the welfare of the offenders housed in the local prison but the possibility that the facility might be closed. Needless to say that never materialized; it rarely does. But it illustrated to me the cycle of dependency that the prison industrial complex creates: Prisoners, especially young people, are a commodity. Communities count on there being a steady supply of that commodity so that the money continues feeding the local economy. This economic dependence is a strong deterrent to improving the criminal justice system. If change happens it will come about only under the crush of failing state budgets.

 Tell us about your prison experience.

My ten years teaching minors (some as young as 15) who were incarcerated in a New York county adult prison was a transformative experience. When I started working in the prison I was clear about who the “good guys” were and who the “bad guys”; the “us” and “them”; the “oppressors” and the “oppressed.” I saw the correctional staff—whether officer or administrator—as the enemy. I was there for my students and thought of them as the victims of an unjust system. But as the months went by I began to see the prison culture was based on a hierarchy of power and that I was doing exactly what everyone else did who was caught up in the penal system: I was taking sides, drawing lines in the sand, deciding who people were based on what I saw or what I thought I saw.

Over time as I got to know the correctional staff, especially the correctional officers, I began to realize that they were as oppressed by the toxic prison system as the inmates—they worked sometimes for as many as 16 hours a day under the same conditions: the close, foul smells of overcrowded blocks; the crippling noise and dirt; the constant threat of violence. As the COs began to trust me more, or at least get used to me, they shared their life experiences. In many ways they were not much different from the people they were charged with “overseeing.” For some, their lives mirrored that of the young people I taught—poor, from fractured families, struggling with addiction. The difference was that they had had enough resources or supports, perhaps just barely but enough, that saved them from the same path. They were as much, what I came to think of as, “children of disappointment” as my students.

Then as I looked around me I realized that those of us who worked there as “civilians”— medical personnel, chaplains, teachers, social workers—were also deeply affected by the same oppressive prison conditions. Until I finally understood that all of us, inside and outside prison walls, are “children of disappointment.” I saw that every person I knew had experienced hardships which they handled as best they could. This final insight is what made it easier, and intensely rewarding, for me to work in the prison system 5 days a week, 7 hours a day for ten years. It is what has supported my work to break down the barriers that separate all of us from each other.

There is a movement going on that includes “New Jim Crow” focusing on how there is a disproportionate number of African American males in prison, and the failure of the system in general. In your opinion, what can we do to change this revolving door and injustice?

The metaphor of Indra’s Net, an image that speaks to the interdependence of all experience, comes to mind when I think about our racist prison system. What happens in our prisons is a reflection of our society at large. The racism of our criminal justice system won’t change until we confront the bigotry of the larger American society; it won’t change until we confront poverty and violence in our communities. Our prisons are emblematic of our standard way of solving problems: instead of addressing the roots of crime we build more prisons, impose harsher, more punitive sentences, all in an effort to turn our backs on what is obvious and must be done.

I am a “personalist” and believe that change can only come about when each of us takes responsibility for what happens around us. One way that I can do this is to heighten people’s awareness of the inherent racism and brutality of our prisons. A phrase that I pointedly use more and more in my writing and in talking to people about our prison system and its culture is that these practices are “done in our name.” Prisons are built, more people of color are arrested and harshly sentenced, inhumane practices such as extended solitary confinement (in some cases for decades) are used even for young people. All these laws and practices are implemented and sanctioned by the legislators we elect and policymakers we listen to. A Buddhist meditation teacher I have practiced with urges his students, “Don’t turn away.” That teaching holds true for all of us as we confront the injustices in our world. This personalist approach is perhaps a slow means to change but it is the only one I feel can work, as each of us, person by person, confronts and takes responsibility for the actions of our society.

If you had one piece of advice to share with a young boy, what would that be? What would you share with adult men?

“Advice” can sound so lame but indeed is so true and profound: To a young boy I would say, “Hold on to your faith in life even when your simplest hope seems out of reach.” To an adult man I would say, “Kindness is your only true legacy.”

We have an initiative called “Boyz, Inc.” which calls for more positive mentors and role models, as well as getting our young men focused on character, values, and helping to create an awareness of the importance of a positive community to support our youth… What ideas and work are you doing that corresponds with this?

I’ve always been a teacher, it seems. In my 40+ years working directly with at risk kids, my efforts have been to crack open their rather narrow, constricted and impoverished lives and show them a different world. Likewise I’ve strived to do the same for the adult world by writing in various forums about the reality of my students’ lives and the things I have learned from them.

Recently I have been working with juvenile justice advocacy groups who on the state level are pushing for reform of the regressive laws that for decades have hindered the positive development and rehabilitation of young offenders. Through my writing and public speaking I’ve tried to educate a public that, when they hear about what it’s really like for a young person in prison, will often confess, “I had no idea.” It is that awareness and concern that I hope they will then express to their lawmakers.

Hope is a rare commodity in the juvenile justice field. So when I can, I also support and mentor people who are doing frontline work with youth in crisis by nurturing their commitment and enthusiasm, and by reminding them that although what they do every day to help young people is often unappreciated and disparaged it is essential and noble work. One of my favorite Zen sayings is that life is made up of “the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows.” I know that on some days people working with troubled kids can feel as though it is nothing but “the 10,000 sorrows.” But I like to remind them that at other times it is also “the 10,000 joys.” And most days it’s just a crazy mixed-up mess.

Tell us about the inspiration for your book “I don’t wish nobody to have a life like mine” as well as the ongoing discussion you have about the prison system.

I have written all my life. I enjoy capturing the everyday in words and trying to make what I see and feel real to others. As a result, I have written about the young people I’ve encountered over the years in counseling programs, psychiatric hospitals, homeless shelters, or schools. So of course when I started working at the prison I wrote.

The longer I was there, teaching in such an alien and difficult place, I began to see that my writing was a way to understand what was happening around me. The pieces I wrote focused on the young people I taught and the world they were forced to live in, inside and outside of prison. However, I wasn’t interested in writing political science or sociology. As important as that is, there was enough of that around. What I wanted to do through the writing process was to get to understand the people, young and old, “keepers and kept,” that I encountered every day. To do this I wrote the kind of literature that I knew from my own years of reading allowed me to experience and understand worlds very different from my own: I wrote stories that had all the elements of fiction—character, dialog, point of view—yet were true to what was happening; stories that put faces to all those statistics and studies about young offenders that periodically appear; narratives that would make people say, as they have said, “I had no idea.” Overtime the stories became I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup in which I not only shared stories about the people I met but also described my own personal journey of recognizing the common humanity I shared with everyone I encountered in the prison and outside it.

Do you have anything else to share with us?

My belief in the power of the written word to change the world and the people in it has grown and strengthened over the years. That power may reside in great literature, in an article, or even an email. An awareness of this power is something I have tried to share with my students, urging them to read, and to write their own stories and share their opinions. And I’ve tried to bring that power into my own writing in whatever form it takes.

Words have carried me through some very difficult places. I’ve often reminded myself, and others, of the lines from a Galway Kinnel poem, “for everything flowers from within of self-blessing/though sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness.” Or Rumi’s “This being human is a guest house. /Every morning a new arrival.” And finally, I like to pass on to people who are feeling discouraged about their work for criminal and juvenile justice reform these words of Barry Stevenson, executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, from an interview on The Root, “…if we’re going to be a just and fair society, the place where we test our commitment to the rule of law and human dignity is not in how we treat the gifted kids, the privileged kids, the talented kids, but really in how we treat the kids that are broken, that have failed and struggled and been condemned.”

One thing you take away from Crosswinds: Memoirs of a Jail Teacher by D.H. Goddard (a pseudonym for the author who is still teaching at the jail he writes about) is that the prison system, no matter where it is located, no matter what the setting—big or small; urban or rural; county, state, or Fed—is pretty much the same: inefficiently run, punitive in its approach, more interested in retribution and warehousing than helping people change their lives. Another thing that strikes you after reading this memoir is that in these toxic systems there are always people who want to make a difference in inmates’ lives, who understand that what we are doing is not going to cut down on crime but only increase it and in the process tarnish our national character.

D.H Goddard is one of those people. A high school teacher in a county prison in what he describes as a “cow paddy town” where cows outnumber people and “the major industry is incarceration”, he cares about the young people he works with, guiding them through the high school equivalency curriculum while motivating them to change the behaviors that got them locked up in the first place.

He doesn’t hesitate to share his frustrations and failures along with his successes. The reader sees him feeling his way through an arcane system that nobody bothers to explain to him. He gets no help from his supervisor who seems more afraid of his students than interested, or from the correctional staff who are, at best, hapless if not indifferent or obstructive. Yet Goddard learns as he goes along, developing respect for his students, recognizing the lost worlds they come from and trying to make a difference.

Interspersed throughout the book are the projects he instigates—a classroom aquarium and an ambitious unit on aerodynamics, both serving, it seemed to me, as metaphors for these young people’s lives in and out of prison—as well as the risks he takes to engage his students in discussions that might help them see beyond the block, the razor-wired walls, and a world defined by abandonment and defeat.

Crosswinds: Memoirs of a Jail Teacher is filled with the author’s efforts to educate and engage students, to connect with them and mentor them as one of the few adults in their world who not only cares about them but also enjoys their company. What might happen to our penal system if every incarcerated kid—whether locked up in a cow paddy town or in an urban swelter—was given the same opportunities?

We always talk about how our future as a country and as a world is in our young people. The American Friends Service Committee has an interesting info-graphic showing who exactly we are talking about when we say “young people.” It’s certainly true that they hold the future of the globe. What I want to know is why we treat young people–in all countries–so shabbily, so disrespectfully–cutting budgets, services; limiting their choices by society’s expectations; labeling them in ways that damage how they see themselves. So many limits on the future. In the end it’s our loss.

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“Words: Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty” is Lauren Norton Carson’s second contribution to “Teachers in Their Own Words.” As she shared in her first piece, Lauren has a passion for books and for helping young offenders locked up in a juvenile center turn their lives around through them. These passions come across loudly in her newest piece in which she grapples with the “verbal poverty” of her students. I was struck by several things—Lauren’s love of the written word; her professional pedagogy (belying the common stereotype that if you teach in a lockup situation you’re not a “real teacher” but a “bleeding heart”); and her sense of teacher as activist,  shown in her determination to make a difference not just in the lives of the young men she teaches now, but in the lives of their children, present or future, by sharing with her students what she has learned about reducing poverty’s “word gap.” Using facts and personal experience, Lauren teaches all of us the importance of words in shaping better lives for the children we know.

Words:Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty

 Verbal poverty, I called it in 2002 when I first encountered the disturbing gap.  Theyve grown up in verbal poverty.

“They” were students in the 50-bed juvenile jail unit where I taught literacy skills, teenage boys ages 14 to 19 years old.  Virtually all had had dismal school experiences due to their behaviors, known or unknown learning disabilities, poor attendance, fractured family lives, gang involvement, or all of the above.  I knew that.  What I didn’t know was just how verbally arid their lives had been.

“I asked them once,” Deb, the lead teacher, told me when I first started working in the jail, “how many of them had been read to as children.  One.  Then I asked how many had seen their parents read at home–anything, ever.  Four out of fifty.”

No books?  No newspapers?  Nothing?  No wonder the boys skills are deficient (most reading at a 6th grade level), no wonder they hate to read and write.  How does a child acquire words (let alone the imagination, knowledge and interior life that reading builds) without someone reading to them?  I realized that oral language had been their primary teacher. But that didn’t bode well either.

As a reading specialist, I knew that research ties children’s pre-school oral language and vocabulary knowledge with later successful, grade-level reading comprehension. And that children—based on socio-economic differences—start kindergarten with vastly differing deposits in their “word banks”:

Children with professionally working parents                         1100 words

Children with working-class parents                                         700 words

Children with non-working, welfare parents                             500 words

(The Early Catastrophe, Hart and Risley, 1995)

Research also shows that this “word gap” (as it’s currently called) strongly correlates with a student’s life-long ability to read and comprehend:

First grade: Orally tested vocabulary was a proficient predictor of a student’s reading comprehension ten years later. (“Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later,” Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997)

Third grade: Children with restricted vocabularies have declining comprehension scores in later elementary years. (The Reading Crisis:  Why Poor Children Fall Behind, Chall, Jacobs, and Baldwin, 1990)

What happens at 4th grade is an axiom every educator knows and proffers:  “In grades K—3, students learn to read.  By grade 4 and after, they read to learn.”

But if a child doesn’t have the skills to read and comprehend at grade level, his learning is hampered from 4th grade on.  His skills and knowledge stay limited.

Like 16-yr. old Hasaam who asked me (when he knew for certain no one else could hear him), “Yo, miss.  What’s out there?” He pointed to the sky outside my cell-classroom’s barred window.  “Like, past the clouds.  How come we don’t just fall off Earth and fly out there?”

Hasaam had no concept of gravity and the solar system, truly no knowledge of what was “out there.”  He read at a 4th grade level.

So if a child has parents (more often than not, just one) whose economic resources are limited; who themselves work long hours to keep the family afloat; who are under-educated, tired, stressed and without many supports, he’s going to start life with a verbal deficit that will have a sequential and long-lasting impact.

He’s more likely not to become a strong reader.  As a poor reader, he’s likely to fall behind in academic skills.  Knowing his deficiencies and feeling embarrassed, he’s likely to act out in school, which will lead to suspension, maybe expulsions, maybe incarceration. Without an education, he’s likely to possess an earning power nearer the poverty line.  And the cycle continues.

Not all struggling students commit criminal acts, I know.  And I make no excuses for the choices my students have made; they made them and are living the consequences. But I can’t help wondering, what if?  What if they’d been read to, talked to, listened to more by their parents—who themselves probably had no model for doing so? What if their parents had been taught that regular conversation (literally giving their children more words) could help them become better readers and stronger learners?

I thought my son would be a rabid reader like me, but he wasn’t.  In spite of my tireless efforts he had no interest in books.  So when his 6th grade teacher told me how well-read he was, how much broad knowledge he shared in class, I was confused. But it hit me in just a second. “No,” I answered, “He’s well-talked-to.”  I had talked to him constantly from the day he was born, and told him stories, and asked him questions, and sang him songs.  Apparently, it helped.

What if all parents could be coached to do that, too?  Talking and reading and using vocabulary could be done by parents at any income level, if they only knew to do so.

NPR recently featured a story called “Closing the Word Gap Between Rich and Poor” that outlined the results of a 2012 Stanford University study. The study sadly revealed that the word gap seems to start even younger than age three, as previously believed: “By 18 months of age, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency.” (Standford News, November 25, 2013).

But the good news, the article continues to say, is that the research is finally affecting practice and the cities of Chicago and Providence are leading the charge.  The campaign to close the word gap is called 30 Million Words in Chicago, which is about the number of words three-year-olds from low-income families are ‘behind’ their middle-and-higher income peers in being exposed to.  Providence Talks, the Rhode Island initiative with the same aim, begins next month.

Both programs offer low-income parents training in the three “T’s” that develop vocabulary and early literacy: Tune-In, Talk More, and Take Turns.  They also offer technology that will make these efforts more than just words on paper—a “word-ometer” of sorts, a device that literally measures the number of words spoken between parent and child and the response time involved.

I was thrilled when I read the article.  It gave me hope that the playing field of the future might be more level and accessible to low-income children like my students. They deserve an equal chance to learn at grade level.

I can’t re-create what wasn’t done for the boys I currently teach in a different juvenile facility, but I can help increase their vocabularies.  Even for teens, increasing vocabulary is still one of the strongest ways to build knowledge and increase reading comprehension.  And they love it. Throwing words like “egregiously” and “voracious” at each other and the guards, they are empowered to understand and take part in more of the world around them.

I’m going to share the word gap research with them, too.  Make a Power-Point, video clip presentation to show them what they can do to stop the cycle, regardless of what income bracket they’re in when they become parents.  How they can talk and read their kids into becoming grade-level learners.

Because verbal poverty doesn’t have to bleed into the next generation and beyond.  They can stop it if they know how and are empowered to do so.  They can make their children rich—in literacy, knowledge, and spirit.  They can turn the cycle of academic struggle into one of academic success.

Word.

“Teachers in Their Own Words” is a forum for teachers, not “education reformers,” to talk about schools, students and what really happens in a classroom. Despite the title of her piece, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher,” I’m happy to add Anna Feldman’s voice to the series. As you’ll see, Anna, who is a facilitator for a creative writing workshop, is very much a teacher despite the difference in nomenclature. She has all the best qualities of a real teacher: she fosters openness and trust among her learners; gives each of them the freedom to create and explore; is interested in what her students learn, not as a testable commodity but as way to explore the world and themselves. And she does this all in a very challenging environment—a Department of Youth Services detention center for girls. Just as working in a facility like that is complicated, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher” is a complicated piece. Anna’s essay raises a variety of issues—the role of teacher, the stumbling blocks to learning, the impact of outside influences on a young person’s ability to learn. Yet she does it with a good bit of humor (most teachers will chuckle at her description of giving assignment directions to her learners), honesty and humility.

Anna has worked with Voices from Inside since 2010 and is editor of Women Writing in Jail: An Anthology (Voices from Inside & Levellers Press, 2011). A Wells College graduate in creative writing and psychology, Anna is passionate about at-risk youth advocacy, the arts, and animals. Her dream job would probably combine all three. She would like to thank Pauline Bassett, her co-facilitator, for all of her help and support.

Confessions of a Non-Teacher

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

Voices from Inside, a Florence-based volunteer organization that provides writing workshops to incarcerated women using the Amherst Writers and Artists Method of workshop facilitation (AWA),  has recently expanded to a Department of Youth Services facility for teenage girls. One of the first tenets of the method is that the workshop is never a class; there are no grades, no critique, no negativity. Internal editors present in every other aspect of life are not invited.

A writer, as we say in AWA, is someone who writes.

On the surface, it sounds like it would be so much easier than a class. So much more comfortable, so much more…free. That’s part of what I’ve always loved about this method when I’ve worked with incarcerated women in the past. Without the pretenses of grades, competition, or judgment, participants have often surprised me – and, more important, themselves – with their expression and their vulnerability. Women who are barely literate write hauntingly beautiful prose; women who think they’re going to hate the workshop end up being the most active.

So, when I was asked if I wanted to co-facilitate a workshop at the DYS site, I barely thought before saying yes. At-risk youth is one of my favorite populations to work with, partly because it’s humbling to watch them find their strengths and come into their own, and partly because, at 26, I feel like I get them in so many ways. While I haven’t had the same struggles many of them have had, there’s an unspoken understanding between us wherein they can see that I’m more similar to them than many of their teachers and clinicians. I look like them. I speak their language. I come to each workshop in jeans, a fun shirt, and funky jewelry; when they converse about their celebrity crushes and movies they like, I know what they’re talking about. And, in that understanding, I take that implicit trust they place in me and guard it as safely as I possibly can.

When I hand out prompts, this is usually the conversation that ensues:

Me: They call these “story starters,” but they’re just ideas. You can do anything with them. Use one of them, use all of them, use none of them. Remember, prompts are always optional.

Girl: Do we have to use these?

Me (cheerfully): No, you can use them if you want, but if you don’t like them, you can write something else.

Second girl: Can it be a poem?

Co-facilitator (cheerfully): Sure. Anything you want to write.

Third girl: What do we do with these?

Staff member (exasperatedly): You write a poem or a story about any of these lines. If you don’t want to use them, write about something else.

After about four weeks of this, it was hard not to wonder what we were doing wrong. While there was no question that most, if not all, of these girls struggled academically, they were also smart and literate—the writing they had produced thus far spoke to that. It didn’t seem likely that they would flat-out forget from week to week, either.

What was it, then? Were the prompts too complicated? Did I talk too fast? Were the girls not paying attention to us? Did they simply not care?

It wasn’t until I had a conversation with my co-facilitator about something unrelated (or so I thought at the time) that it began to dawn on me.

Another tenet of the AWA method is that when we comment on each other’s work, we focus only on the positive aspects of the writing—what struck us, what we remembered most vividly, what we particularly enjoyed and why. The women in the jail workshops tended to do well with this, but halfway through the session, the girls still had trouble. Sometimes they’d respond with an “I like it!” but wouldn’t be able to follow up if we tried to press for more details, and most didn’t say anything.

“What is that?” I asked my co-facilitator on our drive home one evening. “Why do they have so much trouble giving comments? Are they just really eager to get to their turn?”

“Probably,” she acknowledged. “They’re probably also not used to being asked what they think.”

That was about when the proverbial light bulb turned on above my head.

The girls’ facility is very different from the jails I’d been to in the past. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve interacted with a corrections officer at the jail; here, staff are everywhere. They sit in with us during our workshop (not writing, mind you) and bark at anyone who speaks out of turn. Where we would politely ask a girl to participate, a supervisor turns it into an order. More often than not, they respond to girls’ questions with exasperation. They keep a keen eye on the clock and herd us out the moment it’s to leave.

There’s a rule for everything. (Whether or not it’s going to be enforced on any given day is a different question, but that could be a topic for whole other entry.)

The workshop had all the potential in the world to be freeing, but the girls had no idea what to do with the freedom we were bringing them.

I don’t have any kind of plan or formula for how to address this; for the most part, I don’t have any more information than I did a few weeks ago, nor do I have the authority to make—or suggest—changes to how things are done at the facility.

What I can do, though, is be conscientious, and really, that may be the most important thing. How easily we forget that some of the most mundane things in our lives are uncharted territory (and, therefore, probably scary) for others. Just as someone would feel self-conscious and daunted walking into a party full of people they don’t know, so too would someone who has never been unconditionally complimented or told her opinions truly mattered, when all of a sudden she’s being showered with praise and asked repeatedly what she thinks by people who really want to know. Just recognizing that allows me to be present in each workshop with a perspective I hadn’t had before.

I can provide them with a space where vulnerability is safe; where being wrong is okay. (In AWA workshops, there really is no “wrong,” but if, for instance, a girl slipped and mentioned something she didn’t like about someone’s writing, we wouldn’t respond with anger or hostility. We would simply remind her why it’s important to focus on the positive and encourage her to try again.)

With the trust the girls have given me, I can encourage them out of their comfort zones, and I can come out of mine around them, too. My co-facilitator recently mentioned that I sing, which of course prompted the girls to ask me to sing for them. I was nervous, but I sang a verse of “Blackbird.” They didn’t care that I wasn’t warmed up or that my voice shook a little at the beginning. I had done something that scared me and come out of it perfectly fine on the other side. I gave them my trust and they handled it with care and grace – just as I handle theirs.

I can be myself and encourage them to do the same. I can remember what it’s like to be sixteen and know that sometimes who said what at dinner is the most important topic in the room. We’ve all been there.

And though I’m neither a teacher nor conducting a class, I can acknowledge them when they use literary devices in their writing. (“That’s personification!” I excitedly explained to a girl one week in response to how she’d described a wall.) The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t have to be dry and tedious.

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

I think we’ve all managed to learn something anyway. And I think we’re all feeling a little freer for the process.

I’ve written a lot about solitary confinement and the terrible damage it does to anyone–but especially young people who are still physically, intellectually, psychologically unformed, vulnerable–children. I’ve seen kids in solitary lock-up; in a very small way I’ve experienced the sensory deprivation that they experience 24 hours a day, and witnessed what that deprivation does to them. There have been calls, pleas from all kinds of organizations both nationally and internationally, for the US to end the practice of putting kids in isolation. To no avail. Why? I can’t help asking. Why?

Solitary Watch is our watchdog site that won’t let us forget what goes on in these rooms of isolation. They recently had a graphic that brought back to me the times I’ve been able to visit young people in solitary. I share that graphic.

This is what we are talking about when we talk about “solitary confinement.” Imagine yourself in that room, 24 hours a day, month after month. Now, imagine you are 16 years old.

https://i2.wp.com/solitarywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/adx-florence-7.jpg