Poetry as Treatment for Youth In the Juvenile Justice System

Poetry can heal traumatized youth. It also creates a community of openness, connectedness, and strength, which helps treatment providers. Poetry particularly serves teens who have a hard time expressing themselves. Here is a poem by Payton (pseudonym), a first-time writer in juvenile detention:
I am 15 and I am lost don't know
what to do.  lost because I get no love.
lost because I messed up my life.
lost because my dad left for some
women.  lost because I got caught
up in gangs.  lost because I lost
real friends my family.  lost
because I screwed my life
up.  lost because I lost
respect and trust.  lost
because I am a kleptomaniac.
lost because I don't show enough
love or respect to peers or elders.
lost because I am always in detention.
lost because I got nowhere to hide.
lost because I got no guardians.

This young man not only wrote with insight and feeling about his life, he was also excited and proud to write. He shared his writing with others, youth and adults in juvenile detention. He discovered a new skill and a new way to address life’s difficulties.
That’s why I founded the Pongo Teen Writing Project 15 years ago. Pongo, which has served 5,000 teens, sends teams of trained volunteers into agencies for weekly writing sessions with youth. Its primary sites are a juvenile detention center and a state psychiatric hospital for children in Washington State.
In addition to the benefits for Payton I mentioned above (insight, feeling, pride, skill development), we see that, through poetry, teens are able to view their own experience more objectively, with less sense of personal responsibility and shame. Writing speaks to people’s strengths and goals, their desire to make a difference, their developmental needs.
How does Pongo achieve these results with teens who have suffered childhood trauma and who may have low self-esteem, an understandable lack of trust, and perhaps poor language skills?
Here is a partial list of techniques we use:

  1. We listen. We stay present and value the teens’ own words.
  2. We are poets (as well as teachers and counselors). We focus on the neutral object of the poem that the teens want to create.
  3. We personalize our poetry exercises. We address issues that are central in the lives of our authors, including loss.
  4. We provide a poetic structure. We do NOT give the teens a blank piece of paper. Instead we ask the teens to tell us a story which we transcribe. Or we provide a fill-in-the-blank poetic construct.

Want to try this in your community, but need advice on how to set it up? The Pongo web site has resources you can use, especially writing activities that are personalized and structured. Or, drop me an email, and we can discuss it.

juvenile-justice-Pongo-founder_Richard-GoldRichard Gold founded and runs the Pongo Teen Writing Project, a writing therapy nonprofit that works with teens who are in jail, on the streets, or in other ways leading difficult lives. An award-winning, published poet himself, Richard has taught remedial English and run a writing therapy program he developed at Children's Hospital in San Francisco.
The Odd Puppet Odyssey, a collection of Richard’s own poetry, with illustrations by his wife Celeste Ericsson, was published by Black Heron Press in 2003.

Updated: February 08 2018