Writing from Kids in the Juvenile Justice System: In My Blood to Be a Drunk

[The following post is reprinted with permission from the blog at the Pongo Teen Writing website. The author has recently posted "Poetry as Treatment for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System" and "I Feel Like Weights Have Been Lifted" on this blog. Photo by Olivander. -Ed.]
juvenile-justice-system-youth-writing_colored-drinksAt 10 years old, the girl was always home alone while her parents were out doing drugs. I asked if she was scared at the time. No, not for herself. She was worried about her parents. Now, at age 13 and in juvenile detention, the girl has been smoking bud and doing things she isn’t supposed to do. She wants her parents to worry about her for a change. She writes about her parents: “They’re the only people who will be there.” But her poem is titled “When Nobody Was There.”

Pongo’s teen authors will often write about drug and alcohol abuse. They give multiple and contradictory reasons for their involvement. For me, as a poet working with the youth, one of the toughest knots to unravel is the role of family. Substance abuse often seems like a response to emptiness at home and also a confirmation of family connection, however flawed. Teens seem to be filling an emotional void with drugs and alcohol, but also emulating someone they love. And parents sometimes give their children drugs and alcohol, playing an active role in both distancing and dependence. Family is very important.

Here are three teen poems from this year’s Pongo project in juvenile detention, that describe substance abuse in the context of family.

by a young man in juvenile detention, age 16

It’s in my blood to be a drunk.
I can only think of one person who don’t drink in my family,
my brother, who’s a religious freak.

Things that are bad about drinking:
Kills muscle
Kills your brain
Kills your liver (my mom’s liver is really bad from drinking)
I don’t like that it makes my family violent.
And it makes me violent too
cause I’ve got anger inside.

Out on the street corner
I don’t even remember the night
I was out beefin’ with another gang,
got jumped,
woke up in my bed
all bloody.
I don’t even remember the night.

I think liquor makes the world violent.

by a young man in juvenile detention, age 18

We have had three consecutive years,
Same day each year,
Where someone in my family drowns.

First year, my cousin’s grandma,
She was drinking water.
Her husband found her.

Second year, my cousin on his fifteenth birthday,
He fell off a waterfall.
They found his body three days later.

Third year, my brother drowned
In our big, backyard swimming pool.
My sister stepped on him, in the pool.
The chlorine water was foggy.
It took the ambulance fifteen minutes to get there.
That was four years ago.

I’ve been to more than four funerals this year.
All of them, family.
When it happens, I think,
“Here we go again,”
Like it’s something that’s just gotta happen.
I needed something to forget about it.

I’ve been smoking crystal meth for the last three years.
It’s killing my brain.
I see myself getting slower.
I’m not emotional anymore.
I used to preach as a missionary all over the country.
Now, it’s like I’m drowning.


by a young woman in juvenile detention, age 15

My dad is the coolest dad,
But he’s not the best dad.
Once I smoked meth with him.
I know that’s really bad.
He was never really like a dad,
But he always bought me stuff,
Gave me money –
He said to make up for lost time.

He is the coolest dad,
He lets me and my friends hang out at his house,
But he smoked meth with all my friends and my boyfriend,
And I didn’t even know.
He never tells my secrets to anyone, not even my mom.
But he acts like he is my age,
Not like an adult.
I used to run away a lot,
And I could hide out with him.
He would always tell me I should make different choices
Than him,
But he will support me no matter what.

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