When I first saw the listing for a poetry mentor in the King County Juvenile Detention Center it was on my university’s career newsletter. I was working on campus as a Conference Assistant at the time and while sitting at the community center’s front desk I thought the volunteer opportunity was a dream come true. Knowing that this temporary employment would be ending soon I wanted to fill my schedule with things that I liked to do that would contribute to a ‘greater good’. By the time I’d seen the opportunity the application date had passed but against my gut I decided to send my resume in anyway. The assistant director of the program responded requesting an immediate interview. I was offered the mentorship position on the spot while being told I was a gift in the 11th hour, just as someone had left the program they’d received my application. There’s no such thing as too good to be true, I knew this arrangement was to good to not be God.
It was a regular procedure that I learned but it never felt natural. The first day I took it in like a toxic gas, trying not to breath too hard but I couldn’t help what surrounded me, chaos controlled by fear.
Metal Detector one.
Stairs going down to,
Metal Detector two
Metal Door One then,
Metal Door Two.
Stairs going underground?
And when I looked up the first thing I saw was young Black boy in uniform with his hands behind his back, he looked up at me we connected eyes and I was sad to see him but I smiled. I didn’t know him, we never spoke, he was being escorted to court but I smiled because I knew that’s all I could give him. Knowing that the majority of their adult interactions are negative: yelling, commanding, demanding and demeaning; from that moment onward every time I locked eyes with a child in detention I smiled. Because the center was at such a low capacity we were given an empty hall to work in, some of them had windows while others didn’t; some had more tables than others; but each one had beige walls and colored metal doors. After we settled into our hall I went to the bathroom and that was more of a mistake than I expected. I walked down the long hallway past each of the circled posts labeled, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, each with a guard that stared, sometimes asked where I was headed or who I was with. “The bathroom, I’m with Pongo” I responded. I continued and past the first post was the library and then further down was the school where I entered the staff bathroom.
On my way back from the bathroom I counted each post: 1, post 2, 3rd post, 4th and 5th before turning right to enter into the hall. A woman met me at the door startled, “What are you doing?” She asked me, “I’m with Pongo, we were assigned this hall” She looked me up and down before saying, “Oh I thought you were one of the girls,” One of the girls? I thought to myself, I’m not even wearing a uniform what could have made her think that? I awkwardly moved past her. It was plainly obvious that my young Black face was the only one uncaged in this entire building. I came into the space feeling uncomfortable knowing that I would see more people that looked like me behind bars than working or volunteering, but this situation made my discomfort skyrocket. Staff stared at me as if they were trying to figure me out as I walked the halls and now I was literally taken for an inmate. I wrote a poem inspired by this once I got home entitled ‘One of the Girls’.
The following week I saw that same supervisor sitting at post 1 as I was signing in. She had long straight brown hair and pale skin, “I used to work with the girls more,” she started, “but now I don’t so I don’t know any of their names.” I nodded to her, she continued,“It’s so easy to mistake you for one of the girls, you have such a young face.” She proceeded to ask how old I was and said, “See you’re so young.” I looked away from her at that point. She was a nice woman but there was no way I could respond to her ignorance in a way that was appropriate. There were so many things wrong with, not only the initial incident, but also with the way she chose to follow-up. The fact that it was ‘so easy’ for her to see me as incarcerated young person for any reason stabbed me like a knife, I was insulted but I wouldn’t dare let her know that. At that moment I realized that the staff were not trained to work with people, especially not damaged people like the incarcerated youth that are forced ton live here. The way they talked to and treated young people could only cause more damage, the entire situation added greatly to my discomfort.
But the feeling of discomfort subsided after sitting down with my first student, a 15 year old young black man. He wrote a poem about his infant daughter. I realized that no matter how painful it was being in the jail, it was my duty to work past it so that I continue to serve. As the only person of color on my team, which was composed of 3 incredible white women that I’ll continue to stay connected to after this experience, It was important to me as a young Black woman to introduce the youth to a person of color that was young, not detained, intelligent and caring towards them. There were several moments where the students would enter the room, see me and call my table, “I’m sitting with her” one student would establish. It was always flattering in the way that I was glad that my presence was one sought after for the students. My long term goal for the organization was to diversify its mentors. There should be more people of color coming into this space dominated by Black and Brown youth. In a chaotic environment where arguments and punishments broke out of the majority of person-to-person interactions. When I was involved in a session I told the girls they were beautiful and the boys that they were smart. When they instinctively sat across from me, I asked them sit next to me while we worked together. I brought in my own pens because the pencils we were provided were too small and if they were curious I’d tell them as much about me as they wanted to know. I wanted them to go back to their ‘room’ with the thought of the Black girl with the big afro from Detroit who graduated from UW to study Law to volunteer to sit with them and write poetry, they were the culmination of my work thus far.
At the end of the school year Pongo hosts a Finale Poetry Reading where a group of readers are selected to read their own or another’s work in front of their peers and the staff. We work with each reader a week before they perform in front of an audience. A lot of the students had never presented in front of an audience before and this gives them a valuable opportunity to work on their oratory and public speaking skills. We worked on pacing, punctuation and posture. There was an overwhelming amount of excitement buzzing throughout the center on the day of the event. We were set up in the library, the only rooms in the building that felt outside of the jail. The readers sat in a line facing the audience. Leija Farr, Seattle’s first youth poet laureate, opened the reading with a few of her own pieces from her book Outweigh the Gravity. One of her pieces, For Black Boys: ‘You Are Beautiful’ so heavily related to the space we were in that it gave me jitters,
“In a place that will never understand you are amazing, in a place that will put fire to you then say you are callous, they will burn you then say you are reckless, some mothers won’t tell you because they think it is feminine and they want you to prepare for a battlefield your whole life but I tell you, you are beautiful, you are grand, you are too permanent to be unloved.”
Her spoken word hit my heart as I looked at the Black boys who were about to read their own work and the others in the audience who had fallen victim to the trap created just for them, the American criminal justice system. I hoped that her words resinated with them as strong as they had with me. It was a poem written for them to hear and Farr was the perfect reader to open this evening.
Throughout the presentations a guard next to me was wearing a walkie talkie that would go off what felt like every five minutes. Each time while I was engrossed in the words of a poet I’d hear the static and would be forced back into my setting. I’d pray to myself that the noise wouldn’t distract the reader, the guard never left or tried to turn the volume down, she stood next to me unconcerned by the distraction she was. The moment reminded me of so many where I felt powerless in a moment where I knew I could help a kid if only I could. There were several incidents throughout the year that gave me that feeling. From my first day when a young girl boasted to a guard, “I’m getting out today!” “Oh? What’s your plan?” the balding white man interrogated. The girl struggled to respond at first. “You don’t have no plan, nowhere to go so you’ll end up here like always,” he continued as I was sitting in the hall with my fellow mentors. We looked at each other disgusted by the way the guard handled the situation.
Even during the finale reading there was a reader removed from our lineup by staff, we didn’t know why, but he’d been approved and prepared with us the week prior. He wasn’t even allowed to sit in the audience. There have been several times where I’ve witnessed staff unnecessarily interrogate and verbally abuse unprepared youth. It was common practice. It was as if the staff created chaos because their job was to control chaos, they created their function by irritating and aggravating young people to the point that a staff would be needed. It was a violent cycle that made me feel very uncomfortable and helpless.
Working with Pongo this past year has been an incredible experience. Founded by Richard Gold, the organization focuses on helping children with trauma and healing through the reflective method of writing poetry. It embraces the fact that a poem can be anything, it doesn’t have to rhyme or be a certain length and it can be general or personal and still be enlightening for the writer and inspiring to an audience. Poetry is a method of transferring emotion, sharing experiences and relating across boundaries. As mentors we were given the opportunity to connect with writers on deep levels through the common goal of writing a poem. Through this practice children would open up about subjects that they hadn’t even expressed with their counselor ranging from their case details, abuse, neglect, and witnessed deaths. The vast majority of our writers were victims of serious trauma, harboring emotions that they wouldn’t have felt comfortable to express otherwise. I felt extreme pride after sitting with each writer. I was so proud of them and even in all of this I still felt an extreme amount of conflict within myself. Because as long as I wanted to be present to write poetry with the youth I had to witness and be complicit to their mistreatment in this facility because so long as I was a volunteer I couldn’t interfere. This created a violent inner conflict within myself.
My inner conflict entangles between working against and within a system I hate. I joined Pongo to get a better idea of how the CJS worked and how we continue to justify its use in America. After a few weeks I realized that the only people that justified the CJS had never truly experienced it and now after experiencing it I couldn’t bring myself to continue to be apart of it. It’s emotionally draining being complicit in situations where I would otherwise protest. Sitting and smiling while screaming inside of myself is a strenuous task. I knew throughout it all I was doing exactly what I needed to do in this moment, especially with the New Youth Jail being built down the street from this location I wrote this letter in the form of poetry to Detention for all of those who are tricked by verbiage, the Family and Justice Center is in fact a jail.
Watch a video on the Pongo Poetry Project in Juvenile Detention below: