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The following poems originally appeared in a two-part anthology of incarcerated youth poetry: “My Life is Hard to Do” and “I’m Trying to See Free.” The poems were written by minors at the Monmouth County Youth Detention Center in New Jersey as part of a series of poetry workshops held there in 1997. They were shared with us by Flora T. Higgins, a local librarian who had led the workshops.

“It is difficult for even experienced writers to create a finished poem in a workshop setting,” Higgins wrote in the introductory section of the book. “The young writers showed courage and imagination, verbal facility, a sense of humor, and in some cases, an impressive depth of emotion in the poems they created.”

According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, each day there are more than 48,000 youth incarcerated across the United States. They are held in a variety of different facilities from dedicated youth detention centers to adult prisons and jails.

The second installment of a three-part series, these poems center around how minors cope with incarceration. Often, writers’ approaches to incarceration starkly contrast with each other. Some poems, for example, reflect a close relationship with God and an abounding optimism, whereas others take a more pessimistic view, with one writer questioning their incarceration in light of their faith and another communicating the futility in wishing for their life to improve.

Why Don’t You Listen?

I remember when we were standing in school lines from shortest to tallest, when Mom and Dad spoiled me rotten Christmas and birthdays were never forgotten, but now we’re growing. So damn fast. How long is life? How long will it last? Many people I love so much can go so fast with just one touch. I asked God, “Why do you take the ones I love?” but there’s no answer from the one above. I know I have a god, I’m supposed to, I’m a Christian. But how can I believe if my god never listens?

Give It to Thee

My life was real bad, taken with sorrow.
Don’t ever look back, there’s always tomorrow.
I want to go down that long road of hope.
I thought my life was swinging on a rope,
Just waiting for that last string to snap.
But I’ll give my life to God,
And He’ll take it back.
My belief is so strong in my higher power.
God will be there — anything bad, He’ll devour.
I hope you like this message by knowledge so strong.
Life is so short, but seems so long.
I believe in myself, in my mom and my dad.
When they go to Heaven, I shouldn’t be sad
Because I know God will treat them like dreams
Upon my awakening of drama it seems.

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I am Brown
I am a man lost in society
I feel pain in my heart and ask the Lord to ride with me
I must prove haters wrong
I secretly want to succeed
I fear no one but the Lord
I will not give up on my dreams

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I am Preston
And when death comes near,
I tuck my chest in
I am little and small,
The type of kid that wish he was tall
I feel stressed out, so I walk around
All day with my hips poked out.

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I wish for nothing cause wishes don’t come true
I wished I wouldn’t get arrested
But then I saw the red and blue
I wish I could go home
But I don’t have a home to go to
Wishes are just fairy tales
They’re never going to come true

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Max Grinstein

Max Grinstein is an editorial intern at Prison Journalism Project and a student in Nevada. He developed an interest in prison journalism while researching The Angolite prison newspaper at Louisiana State Penitentiary.