Incarcerated youth learn to express themselves through writing
Four teenagers sat around a table in a classroom tucked deep into the confines of the Westchester County Jail recently. They were in week four of a nine-week creative writing program intended to teach them the basics of short story writing.
The initiative, known as Spoken Interludes, was brought to the SWBOCES Incarcerated Youth Program three years ago by Delauné Michel, founder of the non-profit that bears the same name as the literacy program.
Ms. Michel first launched the program in Los Angeles in 2000 for at-risk youth attending L.A.’s inner-city schools and juvenile detention halls. The decision to take the program to the County Jail was based on discussions with BOCES District Superintendent Dr. Harold Coles and officials from the Westchester County Department of Corrections.
Spoken Interludes is also offered at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, at Abbot House in Irvington and in the Hawthorne Cedar Knolls School District.
In addition to the Spoken Interludes initiative, students in the BOCES IYP, known as the Sprain Brook Academy, have access to a curriculum that includes ESL/literacy for non-readers, high school equivalency exam prep, life skills and career development.
Program Offers More than Just Writing Support
While the initiative focuses primarily on teaching students the essential elements of a short story, including voice, story structure, characters, setting, style and tone, there’s so much more to it than that.
“Storytelling is our oldest art form,” said Ms. Michel, a Louisiana native who now lives in Irvington. “It’s how we survive, how we process, how we connect to others and how we understand ourselves in the world.”
That’s a vital skill that incarcerated youth don’t often possess, she said, as they learn to cope with lives that are often marred with despair and hopelessness. Even when they have the chance to express themselves, it’s without the feeling of authority that comes from being able to successfully recount one’s story, she added.
“Unfortunately because of their life situations, most of their experiences of feeling powerful and in control have been absent due to the choices they’ve made,” she said. “For them to write a story, to tell it from their viewpoint, to do whatever they want with it, is a very deep experience.”
On this particular morning when the students gathered to read from their work, there was a new girl in the classroom.
Writing instructor and clinical social worker Erin Marra flipped through the girl’s notebook. “You’re welcome to share anything you’ve been working on, she said. “Do you like to read?” she asked. The reluctant student said she enjoyed reading vampire books and romance novels.
Ms. Michel said that based on her experience of teaching in the program there’s a basic bell curve that emanates from the group, with two or three students who emerge as eager writers, another group who can write but are not as enthusiastic and then a couple of others who show no interest at all.
Teachers in the program forge on nonetheless, encouraging them to open up, giving them writing exercises that prompt creativity and helping them grow both academically and emotionally.
Many of the students choose to write quietly in the classroom, away from their cells and the constant reminder that they’re in a prison.
“The idea behind the program is to take the foreignness away from writing and to help students break down its components,” explained Ms. Michel, the author of two novels and other writings.
A Way to Deal with their Past
One student recalled growing up in the Soundview section of the Bronx and loving the streets. “I know that everyone tells me the hood is a bad place to live in,” he said. “But it’s where I learned my survival skills, it’s why I’m alive today. The streets were like my classroom. I have all sorts of talents because of it.”
Ms. Marra urged the student to provide more detail to his story. “If I explained these things, a lot of people would look at me differently,” he responded.
It’s that kind of fear that Ms. Marra works to deflect in her class. “We can’t control what other people think about us,” she said. “Some things are meant to be left alone.”
“Being a good writer is making the reader understand,” she explained to the group. “I know it’s hard to sit down before a blank piece of paper, but it’s good to get feedback once you’re finished because people really want to know more. Remember, you have to do most of the heavy lifting. You have to be willing to lose a little of your vulnerability.”
On the other side of the jail, Deborah Jurkowitv’s classroom looked like any other room you’d find in a regular school building, with a map of the U.S.A. on the wall and pictures of former President Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela looming large.
Students are encouraged to “find their own way” and to write at their leisure in this classroom, said Ms. Jurkowitz, another instructor in the program.
Reading from his diary, a student recalled a shooting incident he had been involved in at age 16, but wasn’t found guilty of. He was later accused of another crime, which he is currently serving time for. Writing about the incident was a release of sorts and not something that was difficult to do, said the student.
Learning to let go of the past is as important to these incarcerated youth as is the craft of writing, said Ms. Michel, a former Hollywood actor.
“Many of their stories are heartbreaking,” she said. “What these children have gone through and are going through is the real crime.”
Tamira, an August 2016 graduate of the BOCES program, said the program was a “therapeutic” experience. The teen was released at the end of 2016 and who plans to enroll in the BOCES Adult Education HVAC Program.
Referring to the program’s instructors as her “BOCES family,” Tamira said the exercises helped her gain a newfound confidence and the motivation to do well outside of prison.
“I’ve truly gained more than I lost,” she said. “I feel like I’m not a prisoner anymore.”