Program Provokes Honest Words From Incarcerated Youth

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Melanie Robinson headshot FEB 2014The boys come over right after school. They are grouchy and tired. The instructor reads to the class for a while to settle them down. He then asks them to do some free writing before the work begins.

There are some days when a few of them won’t want to come to class, won’t want to write. Some of them want to give up. In a system often characterized by its abandonment and indifference, these adolescents were not allowed to quit when class got hard.

To participate in this poetry workshop at the Cyndi Taylor Krier Juvenile Justice Center, each resident had to express an interest to their therapist and submit three poems for review. Out of 72 boys, 15 were chosen – the idea is to show commitment.

Cyndi Taylor Krier Juvenile Justice Center. Courtesy photo.

Cyndi Taylor Krier Juvenile Justice Center at 301 East Mitchell St. Courtesy photo.

Under the guidance of Jim LaVilla-Havelin, the small class of residents at the Juvenile Justice Center met once a week for ten weeks in the fall of 2013 and eventually produced an anthology titled “Words Across the Wire.” The book was released in mid-January and is the tangible product of a ten-week residency as part of Gemini Ink’s Writers in Communities program.

LaVilla-Havelin recently retired after 17 years as director of Young Artist Programs at the Southwest School of Art. He is also the author of four books of poetry, coordinator for San Antonio’s National Poetry Month (April) and poetry editor for the San Antonio Express-News.

“These young men were already writing when I arrived,” said LaVilla-Havelin. “They were reading, journaling, thinking about expressing themselves – ruminating on their situations, and on their futures. What we were able to do together was to look at the process of writing – poems, prose poems, rap, song – to listen to some significant voices, some of whom had been incarcerated, and to explore their own particular voice, and where they wanted to go with it.”

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Gemini Ink’s Writers in Communities program sends published, professional writers into schools, institutions and other community settings to work alongside students of all ages and abilities.

“The act of writing is the act of codifying your world – literally,” said Lisa Cortez Walden, programs director of Gemini Ink. “You define your reality by how you write it. So, writing as a poet – learning to see the world through a poet’s eyes and put that to paper – is transformative.”

Sheila Black. Courtesy photo.

Courtesy / Sheila Black

Sheila Black. Courtesy photo.

Sheila Black, executive director of Gemini Ink, says its important that these young men find a means of expression.

“One function of metaphor – the central engine of poetry – is that it literally creates new language relationships that often give you new appreciation for and new ways of ‘seeing’ the familiar world,” Black said. “That is how poetry often fuels personal transformation. The young men of the Krier (Juvenile Justice Center) did this beautifully.”

“Words Across the Wire” is filled with poems of resilience, bravery, and optimism. Many of the boys wrote of the disillusionment of the “system” as illustrated in a line from a group poem titled “I am waiting…” that reads, “I’m waiting so I can be with my little girl, but I guess / I’m still waiting for the magic to come my way.”

This particularly poignant piece by Juan R. is formatted as a letter to his daughter, Angelina. He apologizes for the absent role he has so far played in her life.

"I woke up the hear the noise," poem by a resident at the Cyndi Taylor Krier Juvenile Justice Center.

“I woke up the hear the noise,” poem by a resident at the Cyndi Taylor Krier Juvenile Justice Center.

LaVilla-Havelin then wrote a response poem as a third party speaking to Angelina about her father’s love for her via the imagery, “you hang the moon for him.”

Krier Program Coordinator Jessica Maupin said that despite the weight of the issues these boys are facing, “(the classes are) just writing time. For them, these problems are part of their everyday life.  It’s not dark and heavy, it just is.”

Maupin has been involved with Writers in Communities for four years and speaks of the experience with warmth.

“I am always moved by their insight and creativity. They are so proud of their accomplishments, and their family as well. Even their peers are amazed that someone in their own peer group could produce such an art piece,” Maupin said.

One of this year’s participants, Donnye, spoke of the freedom and pride he feels about his now-published writing, “I got to speak my mind about the struggle and it was fun. The best part was when we got to perform it.”

For these young men to find a place of comfort – a place to be vulnerable – is crucial.

Jim LaVilla-Havelin

Jim LaVilla-Havelin

“It is more than providing an outlet – it is a conversation with the world, a world which has sometimes forgotten them,” LaVilla-Havelin said.

LaVilla-Havelin hopes that he will be afforded the opportunity to work in the program for many years to come, “It is, as I have told many people – the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

He also hopes that one young man in the program, when released, will be become the instructor at the center. Full circle.

“Honest words cross the wire and into to other hands, into those fiery sunsets. And into me–and you.”


Melanie Robinson graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a concentration in professional writing and a minor in anthropology from the University of Texas at San Antonio in December 2011. Her current marketing position at the local nonprofit organization ARTS San Antonio has afforded her the opportunity to further explore her love of the arts. She now spends her nights among local musicians, artists and poets – finding beauty in self-expression. You can contact Melanie through her Facebook.


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