Children in Jail: Healing Trauma with Poetry

People who work for Street Poets standing together and smiling

Street Poets

Do you remember going to camp as a child? I certainly do. I spent every summer from about when I was six to fourteen years old at the Downtown Los Angeles YMCA summer camp. We went on trips and had a massive amount of fun. I met new friends and learned about different cultures. It was one of the highlights of my childhood. I now teach poetry at a camp. Camp Rockey Glenn is not a day camp though: it is a jail for children. Currently, Los Angeles County is the nation’s leader with 16,000 youth under the jurisdiction of the Probation Department, incarcerating more than 1,800 children. It is one of Los Angeles’ best-kept secrets.

Street Poets Youth with people who work for the Street Poets Youth non-profit organization

Street Poets Youth

My students range between fourteen and seventeen years old, either Latino or black, and are serving time for reasons I don’t care to ask. Generally, my students come from low-income families, are first-generation American or have a disability. Most of my students have been away from their families for six to eight months and often talk of hoping to get their “early or mid.” They are referring to their possible release dates, but nothing is promised while incarcerated.

My residency is through a Los Angeles based non-profit, Street Poets Inc. We teaching artists show up to 12-week residencies in classrooms or facilities for incarcerated youth with the goal of sharing poetry as a healing and transformative art. Street Poets Inc. is part of the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, a collection of organizations working together to advocate for and teach youth about art. My personal goal is to give these youth a tool they can use to process the extreme amounts of pain and trauma they experience living in heavily impoverished and gang-infested neighborhoods. I invite them to tell their story, to unpack what others have told them about their potential, to write about how being criminalized has made them feel, about anger, and about being male in a culture that dictates what that means. We discuss patriarchy, the impact of sexual assault and consent. We discuss and write about anything they bring up or fail to. There are daily writing prompts, community agreements we form together and a culture of mutual respect and encouragement.

Over the last 12 weeks, we created a Chapbook of poetry entitled Hidden Scars and recorded a mixtape by the same name. These are accomplishments to celebrate in any setting, so to create all of this in 12 weeks – while in jail – some would say is impossible. My residency is proof that these same young people that our justice and education system deemed unteachable and criminal are in fact ever-evolving, positive, thoughtful and growing young people, should they be given the opportunity and chance. Through the sharing of their stories, I learned about their families, their pain and connected deeply to how badly they have been failed by the education system that deemed their cries for help disruptions. Research shows that black and Latino children are more likely to be suspended for disruption/defiance, and through this process of suspensions young people of color are being piped into the prison system. In the state of California, 150,000 + days of school were missed in the 2016-2017 school year due to disruption/defiance suspensions.


Charts of disparaties in students suspended for disruption/defiance in Los Angeles County 2016-2017 this can lead to Jail for ChildrenAn image of 12 ways suspensions push students through the school-to-prison pipeline


The issue of mass incarceration is overwhelming no matter where you stand or sit in the conversation. What I now know to be true from my hands-on experience is that in the middle of the policy debates and human rights violation talk are people. Incarcerated people who are currently sitting and waiting for a release date that may never come, and worst of all, too often those people are children. Children who have entered the school-to-prison pipeline long before they had any awareness that such a pipeline existed. They deserve better.


Listen to the mixtape:

Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network:

Saving Lives One Rhyme at a Time: