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caption: A poem read by a teen reader at King County Juvenile Detention in Seattle. The reader, a teen girl, had memorized it and therefore didn't read from the page. 
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A poem read by a teen reader at King County Juvenile Detention in Seattle. The reader, a teen girl, had memorized it and therefore didn't read from the page.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery

Dark, sad poetry by kids in Seattle's juvenile jail

The girl had been raped as a child.

Years later, she was in juvenile detention in Seattle, telling her story to Richard Gold, who was helping her write a poem.

“The girl is telling me how her mom’s boyfriend would rape her when she was 10 years old,” Gold said. “But that wasn’t the heartrending part. The heartrending part was that she could tell when it was going to happen because she would watch him get her mother drunk.”

Gold has spent two decades working with kids at the King County Juvenile Detention. He started Pongo, a poetry-as-therapy project in 1996, and two years later brought it to juvenile jail.

I attended the Pongo graduation ceremony on a recent Thursday night. Four volunteers, all women, had spent the previous seven months meeting with students every Tuesday, from noon to 3:30 p.m. They ask the students, “Is there anything on your mind today?” and from there write a poem. Often they meet with students just once, because the average stay in detention is 13 days.

Read: Two short poems from Seattle's juvenile jail

The Pongo graduation took place in the jail library at the basement level, which is where the kids sleep. It’s a bright room, packed with books, including Dr. Seuss for those teens still learning to read. Low reading levels don’t surprise staff here; 80 percent of the kids weren’t in school before entering the jail. Colorful paper cranes hang from the ceiling, and there’s a post for Big Nate, the comic strip, on the wall. The library is the first room you see when you descend into the jail, but it feels different from the rest of the place.

The jail is cold. The vibe is institutional – long, white corridors that branch into pods with tiny cells. Ivan, a former inmate, wrote an essay about his experience, and describes his cell:

This cell is so small sometimes I think I am living in my bathroom. My bunk is welded to the wall, and I have a thin mattress and two thin, brown blankets. There is toilet paper hanging from my ceiling, lots of gang writing carved into the walls. All I can see are white bricks and my purple steel door. It’s a very cold cell.

It’s cold because the air system doesn’t work. When I volunteered there years ago, the vents blasted cold air during winter and seemingly no air in summer. It was sometimes so bad the teacher whose class I volunteered in would send the kids back to their cells – he didn’t like keeping them from class, but they were shivering in their thin white T-shirts, while we adults could bundle up in coats.

But on the night of the Pongo graduation, I noticed something new: The teens wore neon yellow sweatshirts. The jail bought the sweatshirts because the air just didn’t work, director Pam Jones told me.

The mood felt mellow, less tense than on school days. Someone said that might be because there were fewer youth incarcerated here now – 45 kids were booked that night. When I was there, it was closer to 60 or 70 kids. When Gold started volunteering at the jail in the 1990s, there were 120 kids, some jailed for skipping school and shoplifting. The county goal has been to reduce numbers until just the most violent offenders remain.

Ten students, nine boys and one girl, filed into the library to read poems written by other kids at the jail. One of the readers presented his own poem, but we weren’t told who that was.

Other teens filed in soon after, silently, with hands behind their backs, although not M hall, because they’d lost the privilege. The youth wore blue scrubs and orange shower shoes. Some of the girls wore nail polish.

Gold greeted them with a question: “Why do you write?”

A boy in the back raised his hand. He had chin-length black hair tucked behind his ears. Long hair is a way to identify the long-timers – it suggests they haven’t had a haircut for a while.

“Get my feelings out,” the boy said.

Gold nodded and echoed back to him, “To get your feelings out, yeah.”

The boy turned red and looked around. He tucked his arms into his loose top, what the kids call their blues. He slouched into his seat.

A girl with glasses in the front row raised her hand.

“It’s something to do,” she said. She didn’t look embarrassed.

The readers then stood up, one by one, to read. Some were shy and mumbling, others spoke with the confidence of a slam poet. The one girl reader memorized hers and spoke it with such heart that there was nary a dry eye in the audience.

“By a young man in juvenile detention, age 16,” a reader, a boy, began. He read from a sheet:

Sadness is like a lost puppy trying to find his mother,a puppy whines when he can’t find his mother,a puppy cries when he can’t find his mother.Sadness because I won’t be able to see my family for a long time.

“By a young man in juvenile detention, age 15,” started another reader.

I was at school one day,I went straight from lunch to recess.My brother was driving down the street.Somebody was shooting at his car.The police said that one of the bulletswent through the window andhit him in the back of his head.

He lost control of his carand crashed into the monkey bars.

I just remember him…he opened his door and leaned out.He was just dead.

(Read the full poem.)

And this poem, “by a young man in juvenile detention, age 16.”

My Mom asked me a tough questionWas it better that my father leftRather than stayed?Which is better?To have a father there who drinks and beats youOr to have no father at all?

When I seen my dad out in the streetsI tried to talkHe’d avoid meAnd not pay attention

Me and my dad had a bondI used to vent to him all the timeNow that he’s gone and ignores meI feel empty.

The jail is complicated, but it is also a place to reach these children. In a safe space, “it all comes tumbling out,” Gold said. “We can’t undo the terrible past. But we can hold that story. That’s a hugely healing experience for these kids.”

Gold doesn’t dwell on the controversy around the detention and whether a new jail should be built in the south end. He tells new Pongo volunteers that there is a continuum for social justice.

“There’s Che Guevera and people like him, who aggressively fight evil, and there’s Mother Theresa and people who represent the higher good,” he says. “We’re closer to Mother Theresa. We’re going in there representing caring and possibility and respect for everybody. That’s social justice too – that’s our way of doing it.”

He continued: “There are ways in which I’m not as outraged as I should be. But the world needs both. People who fight evil, and people who bring the love into dark places. We bring the love into dark places.”

After the Pongo graduation and after the kids had returned to their cells, the Pongo writing mentors – Sara Jones, Emily Caris, Becky Sherman and Amani Carithers – chatted in the library.

“This year, what stands out more for me than past years is that the youth are writing about the trauma after a death or watching a death,” Caris, the group leader, said. She’s been with Pongo for three years.

“These stories keep coming up more than the past two years,” she said. “It’s amazing to me that they’re sharing this, without any experience with someone, within 10 minutes of sitting down — the intimacy of that kind of grief.”

Upstairs, around 9 p.m., a delivery guy from Domino’s Pizza pulled into the jail parking lot. The pizza was for the teen readers, a reward and a thank you. The money for the pizza had been donated, Gold said, as extras usually are in the jail. In the past, Gold bought hair products for black kids, because there weren’t any.

The Pongo mentors were incredulous. “That’s the way it goes,” Gold said.

He knows these things because he’s been there for nearly 20 years, an institution unto himself. He sees generations of sadness, but he also sees the small joys that come from poetry – a child being celebrated at Pongo’s graduation, or a poem that makes its way to Grandma’s fridge.

“When someone has suffered the terrible things these kids have suffered, including witnessing violence and being the objects of sexual abuse, it changes the way a person relates to their world,” Gold said. “So much of this is wrapped up in a tight ball in your heart.”

“When you write,” he continued, “you’re taking it out of that, externalizing it. You go from, ‘I’m a terrible person,’ to, ‘This is a terrible thing that happened to me.’”

Learn more about Pongo’s poetry program.

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