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Seattle University


Writing Behind Bars

Written by Annie Beckmann
February 11, 2013

They peek out the slim windows of their individual cells with curiosity. Then the heavy metal doors unlock simultaneously and eight girls at the King County Juvenile Detention Center walk into a common area for their literacy and writing class.

The average age is 15. There's a look of vulnerability among most, save for a couple of students who present a tough-girl swagger. Drug charges, first-degree assault and domestic violence are typical reasons they're incarcerated here; only rarely more heinous crimes.

In just minutes, Stephanie Guerra, above right, grabs their attention. This teacher's magnetism has a captivating effect on the girls. She is well acquainted with how to offer inspiration and brighten a stark setting.

It was a passion for literacy that drew Guerra to work with incarcerated girls and women. As a Seattle University adjunct professor in the College of Education's Literacy for Special Needs program, Guerra volunteered for seven years as a creative writing teacher for women at the King County Jail when she felt she also wanted to teach literacy to teenage girls at the county's Juvenile Detention Center, a few blocks south of campus. Her expertise in this area comes from her volunteer work with the incarcerated as well as her scholarly research. She says her real motivation, though, is twofold: a higher religious calling to serve and a kinship with these teens.

"I understand them, I've been on the roads they're traveling and I've come out the other side," she says. "Writing has been a tool for me professionally, emotionally and socially and I want them to have this tool, too. I want them to feel comfortable writing about their thoughts, feelings and experiences to arrive at better understandings of themselves and others. I want them to write for joy and healing."

Guerra is thankful she landed a youth arts grant from the Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, which provided a new opportunity to share her talents with teen girls in detention. Catherine Gribos, education coordinator at the jail, describes Guerra as creative and resourceful.

"It's difficult to understand the level of appreciation the incarcerated have that someone who teaches college, is an author and has a successful career would volunteer to teach them," Gribos wrote when she recommended Guerra for the grant. "We usually have a waiting list of women wanting to attend her creative writing class."

A 17-year-old girl who participated in six of Guerra's classes at the detention center wrote, "Life in jail isn't easy at all and easily can get overwhelming and stressful. Having the writing class every week really helps a lot. I believe that no matter who ends up in the unfortunate situation of being in jail has a story to tell and deserves the chance to tell it."

The weekly class at the juvenile detention center starts with Guerra reading aloud. During a recent class she read from Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. Typically she selects young adult urban literature with African American or Latino protagonists and cautionary or redemptive tales.

Unna Kim, the recreational coordinator who supervises Guerra's efforts at the detention center, says the girls, often unfamiliar with books of this genre, frequently are mesmerized by Guerra's readings and relate to the characters.

"Reading out loud, we've lost that. Today everybody says, 'Here, watch a movie.' These are really talented, intelligent girls in unfortunate circumstances. Stephanie is like a ray of sunshine," says Kim. "She encourages the girls and is positive, yet firm."

After her reading, Guerra talks about the craft of writing, focusing on topics such as voice or character development before the girls take about 20 minutes to write a few pages of their own, either fiction or nonfiction. Then they read aloud and discuss their work.

"We set a few boundaries. They can't use what's in their writing against one another, for example," Guerra says.

With an MFA in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame and subsequent research in literacy education at the University of Pennsylvania, Guerra discovered healing is the number one reason incarcerated students choose to write.

"In many cases, they've had terrible educational experiences in the past so I try to show how there can be magic and fun in writing. … I just step back and let it happen," says Guerra, author of the new young adult novel, Torn. Thanks to her grant, each girl receives a copy of her book, a realistic story about allegiances in a friendship between teen girls who encounter bullying, an abusive relationship, drug use and other issues recognizable to at-risk youth.

"The purpose of this teaching is to give them an engaging and affirming literary experience. There's a high drop-out rate among these kids. This is their last gasp chance. Most drop out of high school within a year after their release. Only about five percent go on to get their high school diplomas," says Guerra, who in April will present research on building literacy with incarcerated teens at the annual convention of the International Reading Association in San Antonio.

Write to Heal

With pencil to notebook paper, what incarcerated teenage girls at the King County Juvenile Detention Center write in a mere 20 minutes can be edgy, deeply personal, provocative or heart-wrenching. As those who supervise Stephanie Guerra's efforts with incarcerated girls and women can attest, she elicits incredible writing from her students. Here are some examples.

She's all about winnin'
She hates it when she loses
It hurts her like her bruises
She can't function right, she feels lost
She questions herself
Till she finds the answer on what was the cause
She tries to fix her problem
But that gets her even more lost in the fog
I think she needs some help
I think she needs support-drug court
'Cuz I think she's on drugs
I think she's on shots
She's always trynna find her answers
At the bottom of a bottle
Or by smoking on them rocks


My mom always used to say we were fraternal twins. I was white and he was black but we were so much alike, we didn't let our skin color bother us. So one hot day in July, I was drinking Kool-Aid when my little brother told me Ky, my cousin, got caught up in a drive-by shooting. My hands shook so bad, I shattered the glass on the floor. As I was running out the door, I could hear the car's wheels screech against the asphalt. After I was outside I saw my cousin on the ground. As I went to hold him for comfort, Rakeem bust through my back door. He ran and grabbed me and I just let all my feelings go. He said it was going to be okay. Since that, I knew he was going to be right there for me. That's the day I realized our friendship meant family, too.

Going to Jail

Being young and knowing that I was going to jail was one of those things I will always remember. I was in the back of the police cruiser, silent tears running down my face. All I could think about was, What did I do? Everything happened so fast, so quick.

My emotions were all out of control. I was 14 and on my way to juvenile detention for some stupid stuff. The seats were hard and cold. The handcuffs were way too tight, cutting my skin. The plexiglass separating me and the police officer was all up in my face. All I could think was, What the hell? I didn't even know what I was feeling. My emotions were too strong. I looked out the window and saw the only city I knew.

I was on my way to jail for arguing with my aunt about something so petty, so childish. The only thing bothering me was the look in my mom's eyes when I got handcuffed. It was hurt. It was sad. It made me cry. And I never cry.

I went through the process: strip-searched, clothed and thrown in a dirty cell tons of girls lived in. I still didn't know what to think. I didn't know what I was feeling. I knew I was pregnant. My mom didn't. That's what I was thinking. I was mad at myself. I was thinking only about my mom. The most important person to me.

I looked at myself in the mirror that had tons of gang symbols. I knew this place wasn't for me. I wanted to feel pain. Like the white walls that I stared at that whole night. It was time for a change. People make mistakes. And I make lots. But no matter what, I kept moving forward. All I let myself think about was my mom's eyes. And how next time I would make sure things were different. That was the last time I seen my mom. And that was a year and a half ago.