Words Stronger Than Walls: The Poetry of Girls Incarcerated at JTDC

Cross-posted at Prison Culture

My friend and colleague Katy is a passionate advocate for young people. She has devoted a large chunk of her life to working with young people who are in conflict with various institutions (including the law). Along with being a gifted therapist, she also ran a poetry circle for incarcerated girls. As part of that work, she and the young women produced an excellent poetry chapbook titled “Words Stronger Than Walls.” I plan to feature poems from the chapbook periodically on the blog to highlight the talent that so many young people in trouble with the law possess. This is part of a continuing effort to feature more prisoner voices on this blog.

By a young woman at JTDC (August 2010)

From the introduction of the book:

CC JTDC is a closed system within a segregated city, and this is our attempt to communicate beyond these white walls. The girls at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (CC JTDC) are housed under the WINGS (Working In Nurturing Girls’ Success) program, and range in age from 13 to 18. In a given week, there could be more than thirty or less than fifteen girls detained for over a year or for just one night. I am the clinical social worker providing mental health services to the girls of WINGS, along with all levels of amazing staff. (Adults working in detention are known by their last names only, and the juvenile residents cannot have their last names published.) There is much to say about our current (deeply unjust) justice system, but one of the fundamental issues is how it dehumanizes Chicago’s children. I started the poetry group in April 2009 as a space in which these kids were not being corrected, shaped, or taught, allowed to share a quiet moment of creativity and equality between staff and residents.

Once a week the girls who want to participate in Poetry Circle move downstairs to the classroom area. We put the desks in a circle, pass out the opening statement, pencils, and notebooks, and get to work. Everyone reads a poem, everyone writes a poem, and everyone shares their poem in an atmosphere of supportive listening. We snap our fingers after each poet reads, you know, for a jazzy vibe. The Circle has had two fantastic Poetry Slams (and counting) where the girls and staff perform their work and everyone pitches in to provide artwork, snacks and support.

Ugly Little Monster
By Alejandra

All my life we lived with pain,
I’d rather sit here and watch the rain.
It all started when I was a little thing.
I would beg my daddy for stuff but nothing would he bring.
Alcohol and drugs took over his body.
All he ever does now is hit my mommy.
“Daddy please stop!” me and my sisters would yell.
He always yelled back, “I don’t care, I know I’m going to hell.”
Days went by and he stopped drinking.
Weeks later he’d come home and start again with the beating.
Mommy and my sisters moved out and left him.

I had always said I wanted to be like my daddy – a hero,
Once beer, weed, and cocaine took over I realize he wasn’t no “hero” –
He was a big old zero.
He passed away on August 22, 2008.
I want this to be a dream so I could awake.
I’m getting older and I wanna live my life,
But I’m going through his same steps, playing with knives.
Weed, liquor, and cocaine have all been in my system.

Now mommy don’t want me
cause she compares me to Daddy
She keeps calling me a monster.
I guess I’ll live my life full of pain and disaster,
Because as much as I wanna change I keep dancing with the devil.
I hope and pray he doesn’t take me forever.

For now I am what everybody calls me:
“Ugly Little Monster just like yo daddy.”

My Life
By Ray

My life it’s not perfect or right.
It was almost taken overnight.
Bullet to the hip could have paralyzed me for life –
Tears running down my eyes
Screaming for help
no one in sight.
Laying in the hospital bed,
I thought I was gone.
Never going back to the crib
leaving my family all alone.
My life it’s not perfect or right
In and out of JTDC
How did I end up here
Well: gang banging drug slingin’
Not going to school
All of this, it’s not cool
My life it’s not perfect or right
But I thank God every day of my life.

Wait Patiently & Pray
By Rikita

I hate being locked up in a place where I can’t get out.
I hate that the system is slow and don’t go the full route.
I hate that Cook County don’t report what is really going on behind these walls.

All I can do is wait patiently and pray

I hate hearing these doors “POP” when it’s tome to get up.
I hate wearing the same color clothes — pink and blue.
I hate seeing WINGS CCJTDC everywhere I go.
I hate going back and forth to court every two weeks.

All I know is God will lead me on and I will continue to PRAY.

Girl Talk Facilitators Talk ‘Whale Rider’

Yesterday, Girl Talk facilitators visited young women incarcerated at JTDC for our regular bi-monthly programming. We watched the film “Whale Rider” which the girls really seemed to enjoy and then we sat together to make masks. The girls really seemed to thrive doing this activity. Some of the girls generously agreed to allow us to share the products of their work with a broader community. We are doing so here.

Created by a young woman at JTDC

Created by a young woman at JTDC

The Girl Talk Leadership team would like to thank the young women at the JTDC for their participation in our programming. We also want to thank Mykel Selph for being a terrific ally and all of our volunteer program facilitators who take time out of their Saturdays to share their talents and hearts with the young women.

“Bad” Girls: Demonizing Girls in Conflict with the Law

Cross-posted at Prison Culture

I read an article yesterday that crystallizes some of the conventional thinking about girls in conflict with the law. The Superintendent of Jersey schools was speaking with a group of pastors and had this to say:

“Young ladies” are the community’s “worst enemy,” Superintendent Charles T. Epps Jr. said today to a group of Jersey City pastors.

Discussing the $1 million that Jersey City public schools pay to staff police officers at its facilities, Epps blasted the district’s “young girls.”

“Our worst enemy is the young ladies,” Epps said. “The young girls are bad. I don’t know what they’re drinking today, but they’re bad.”

By Rachel Williams (Cradle to Prison Project)

Concern about girls’ aggression and violence has rarely been higher; largely because the general public feels that girls’ violence is increasing at a remarkable rate. The media has played a central role in this perception, not only in showcasing girls’ violence, but also by providing the public with explanations for this perplexing “new” phenomenon. Headlines have referenced hazing incidents, stories of vicious fights among girl gangs, and an overall explosion of the rates of arrests for aggressive acts.

The past 15 years have seen an explosion in the popular media of books about girls’ aggression and violence. In the 1990s, several popular trade books (Odd Girl Out and Queen Bees and Wannabees among them) announced the emergence of a new prototype of young woman – the “mean girl.” At the turn of the century, media accounts began to concentrate more specifically on the increase of young women’s use of violence. The “mean girl” image would soon be supplanted by the notion of the “violent girl.”

Researchers point to the fact that the image of the “mean girl” is just the latest incarnation of a time-honored stereotype that goes back to the 1960s. First there were the young women revolutionaries like Patty Hearst and Angela Davis, then there were the “gang girls” of the 1980’s, this moved to the “tough girls” of the 90’s, then morphed into the “mean” girl of the early 2000s, finally culminating in today’s “violent bad” girls.

Over the past years, researchers have struggled to catch up with the reality of these popular constructions of girls and young women. Their findings have presented a complicated picture about girls’ aggression and violence. On the one hand, they note an increase in the number of girls who have entered into the juvenile justice system. On the other, they disagree about what this means as to whether girls’ are indeed becoming more violent. In fact, several researchers suggest that a changing culture is more to blame for this rise in the number of girls referred to the criminal legal system than is an actual increase in girls’ use of violence (Chesney-Lind and Irwin, 2007).

In the introduction to their edited anthology “Girls’ Violence: Myths and Realities,” Christine Adler and Anne Worrall (2004) acknowledge that some statistics do suggest “an increase in violent offending by young women in particular (p.5).” While some of these statistics have been used by the media and popular authors to support the view that young women are indeed becoming more violent, Adler and Worrall (2004) caution that “such statistics are as much an indication of definitions of particular behaviors, and criminal or juvenile justice system responses to them and to particular individuals, as they are about the actions of young women (p.5).”

The notion of whether girls’ violence has really increased over time is contested (Adler and Worrall, 2004). Some researchers suggest that the rates of arrests and the reclassification of violent acts are the real culprits for the increased involvement of girls in the criminal legal system (Chesney-Lind, 2004). They contend that on average girls’ actual behavior has changed very little.

I will posit the following ideas:

1. The labeling of girls as increasingly violent is widespread whether or not it is based on actual fact.
2. We need to listen to girls’ voices and contextualize their use and experience of violence. Girls’ violence needs to be contextualized rather than sensationalized.
3. There is a blurred boundary between girls as perpetrators of violence and girls as victims, survivors or witnesses of violence.
4. We need a better understanding of how and why girls end up in conflict with the law and what their experiences are once they get into the system.

Superintendent Charles Epps actually presents us with a valuable opportunity to do some truth-telling and to smash some stereotypes. Rather than demonizing young women we need to seek opportunities to better understand their lived realities. We need refrain from stigmatizing and further oppressing young women.