Friday, September 25, 2009

Incarcerated Youth & The Arts

Antonio Ramirez's article, "Minor Offenses: The Tragedy of Youth in Adult Prisons" on Wire Tap Magazine, details a compelling interview with Campaign for Youth Justice's Liz Ryan about racial justice for young people of color in the prison system. In this interview, Ryan says that over 7,000 young people can be found in adult jails and about 2,000 young people can be found in adult prisons every day.

She explains, "The deeper you go into the [prison] system, the more young people of color you find. And you see disparate treatment of young people of color when compared to their white counterparts." (Liz Ryan, Campaign for Youth Justice, Interview with Antonio Ramirez). Unfortunately, negative social and media perceptions of young people in incarceration/juvenile detention convince authorities that it is okay to mistreat and neglect these young people.

The article mentions Dwayne Betts, author of the memoir A Question of Freedom," who came of age in the prison system. As Betts indicates in the video below, youth in solitary confinement have very little access to educational resources, such as libraries. Lucky for him, someone passed him a book of poetry by black authors, and he discovered that he could use his voice as a vehicle for change in his life and in his community.

The work that I do with Voices UnBroken, a nonprofit organization based in the Bronx of New York City, seeks to address these issues and allow more youth to experience the power of creative writing. The core of Voices UnBroken's work is based upon the use of art to reach these young people and help them to develop communication skills that can help them to succeed in life. Voices UnBroken provides high quality creative writing workshops to youth in highly transitional settings, such as incarceration/juvenile detention, drug treatment, and residential and rehabilitative programs.

Voices UnBroken understands that incarceration is a traumatic experience for young people, as they are often exposed to violence and rape, and that this trauma compounds the ill effects of any prior negative life experiences on their emotional, mental and physical health. In workshops, these youth show that they are mislabeled as "disconnected" or "at-risk" youth by the state; in fact, they are very connected to their experiences and want only to be heard. Like Betts, these youth are able to use creative writing to engage in self-reflection and critical thinking about their persons, their lives and their communities. Through creative writing programs like Voices UnBroken's, youth can access the tools they need to heal and to grow. And those who judge them can recognize all of the potential that lingers in confinement.

Prison Poet

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