Youth Behind Bars: Voices From Inside


10.07.09juviOnce a week for the next two months, The Crime Report will publish writing by young people incarcerated in Illinois. “Looking In, Looking Out: Reflections of Youth Changing Their Lives” was compiled by the John Howard Association of Illinois and features poetry, essays and artwork. This week, Executive Director Hanke Gratteau introduces the project, followed by a short essay by a 16-year-old entitled “Things I would say to my mom.”

Clutching several white sheets of paper, the boy walked deliberately to the front of the room, took a deep breath and began reading aloud his essay. The words tumbled quickly from his lips, a speedy delivery that was in stark contrast to his message–an impassioned plea to end the deadly sport of dog fighting. When he finished, the audience of two dozen adults–educators, administrators and visitors–burst into appreciative applause. The youth beamed with self-conscious pride, a big smile spreading across his face as he ambled back to his seat.

Such scenes–students presenting the results of their classroom efforts–are commonplace in private and public schools across Illinois. What made this one unique is that it took place in a library tucked within fences crowned with razor ribbon at the Illinois Youth Center at Joliet, the maximum security facility designated for violent, aggressive youth who are sentenced as delinquents or felons to state custody.

In many ways, our Illinois juvenile facilities look just like adult prisons. But the juvenile justice system, created here in Chicago over 100 years ago, is based on the promise of affording opportunities to learn from past mistakes and create productive lives free from the stigma of past transgressions. It remains a worthy goal that requires constant vigilance.

It is difficult, both literally and figuratively, to get past the security fences and the labels like “delinquents” and “felons” and get to know the 1,350 boys and girls in the institutional custody of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) as they struggle to overcome their pasts and forge new paths. But this book, a collection of essays and poems written by these teenagers, is an attempt to do just that.

In early 2009, the John Howard Association of Illinois challenged the students in the eight residential facilities operated by IDJJ, to become published authors and see their work in print. Nearly 100 students enthusiastically answered that call submitting work that demonstrated not just dogged effort but often painful, soul-searching thought. This collection provides readers with close-up images inside institutions that few ever see and paints vivid portraits of the troubled neighborhoods and families the youth left back home. With submissions ranging from elegant and inspirational to coarse and dispiriting, the students reveal the events that influenced them, the fears that haunt them, the tragic mistakes they made and the promise of futures they are determined to achieve.

As you read, consider, too, the profile of the student body that produced this revelatory poetry and prose. Most read between the 5th and 9th grade level, but many fall below that benchmark. An assessment from 2007 found that 67% of youth in IDJJ custody had yet to receive their 8th grade diplomas, and only 4% had a high school diploma or GED.

Confronting those myriad challenges are the 103 teachers and eight principals of School District 428, the district that administers the schools operating in IDJJ facilities. On behalf of all of Illinois, the John Howard Association extends deep thanks to these educators for their dedication to students who are too often forgotten, and for their indispensable assistance on this important project.

Our pledge that we would help these students become published authors would not have been possible without generous grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Foundation. We are ever grateful for their unflagging support for our work on behalf of juvenile justice reform in Illinois.

As JHA staff began reviewing the poems and essays students submitted to us, we found ourselves riding an emotional roller coaster alongside these teens, from the depths of their despair to the soaring heights of their hopes and dreams. It is not an easy ride, but it is one well worth taking. These students have opened their hearts so that you might see them and know them in a way you have not previously experienced.

Please answer their call and join them on their journey.

–Hanke Gratteau

Executive Director

John Howard Association of Illinois


Dear Mom,

The first thing I would like to ask is, why, why, did you give me away? I was just a baby. People tell me maybe you did it so I could have a better life. But I think my life would be better if I really knew why. I love you even though you made me cry. You made it hard for me to believe, to achieve, and to be free. But now that you're gone, I can't ask you why did you leave me alone? You left me to care for myself, even though you left me with dad's sister. It still felt like I had to care for myself.

Sometimes I wish I was dead. I even tried to kill myself because I didn't understand why. But now, I know it's not my fault that you missed out on me growing up. It's been hard for me to trust people because you left me, and I'm afraid if I trust them they will leave me too. But I won't let what you did to me mess up my future. Every time I think about you, I seem to cry because I still don't know why. So, I try to ask myself, why did you leave me? But, the only answer I come up with is you didn't give a f**k from the start and that really breaks my heart. Still, I love you and wish I had a reason to love you as a mother.

People say I should love you for giving birth to me, but who ever said that was a good thing? You know what they say, forgive, but you can never forget. So, I forgive you but I can never forget what you did to me. I am going to set myself free from all of these bad memories of you so I can start to believe, achieve, and be free.

–V.J., 16

Comments are closed.