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.