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At Louisville's Youth Detention Services, Girls Become Poets

On Friday afternoon, Tasha Golden guided her students through a poetry reading in what looked like a normal classroom. It’s covered with bright motivational posters, portraits of presidents, and a hand-drawn timeline of World War II.

But sitting in the front row are only four students — all young women under the age of 17 — wearing soft, green jumpsuits, white gym socks and slip-on sandals. To get here, the rest of the audience had to come through a metal detector and a half dozen steel doors that immediately locked behind them. No cell phones or recording devices were allowed.

At the beginning of the week, Golden said, there had been seven students, but by the time the reading came around, three had already been released from Metro Government’s Youth Detention Services. She kept their poetry though, which will be included in an upcoming anthology by Louisville-based Sarabande Books.

Both the book and the reading are part of a new partnership between Sarabande Writing Labs and Golden — a career songwriter turned public health researcher, who has conducted writing workshops for girls in secure facilities since 2012.

According to Golden, national studies reveal that girls have different pathways than boys into and through the justice system, including higher rates of trauma and abuse. Although girls make up a growing proportion of detained youth, the juvenile justice system — historically designed for males — often fails to adequately meet their needs.

In response, Golden developed trauma-informed workshops that offer creative programming — like this poetry workshop.

“So the idea was to give them a chance to be heard,” Golden said. “And then also to expose them to other people who are creating work, so we had a couple poets — Hannah Drake and Kiki Petrosino — both sharing some poetry and talking about creative writing.”

Golden says a week is the ideal time frame for this workshop because it ensures the majority of the girls with whom she is working can complete it from start-to-finish. During that time, she leads the group through a variety of writing exercises.

“So usually you come in with a really low-stakes prompt, like I think the first or second day we did something like ‘Write down the first line of your favorite song,’” Golden said. “Then they had to pass it to their right to have someone add to it.”

They also took inspiration from published poetry. For example, Emily Dickinson has a poem that reads:

How many Flowers fail in Wood --
Or perish from the Hill --
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful --

Afterwards, the group discussed people in their lives who didn’t know their true value. And in response, one girl wrote a letter:
Dear Momma, I love you and I appreciate you for all you do. I appreciate the fact you taking of my son while I’m locked up. I know I’ve been careless lately, but everything is about to change. I’m going to try my best. No, it’s not going to happen overnight, but soon I’m going to be that daughter you’re proud of. It’s time to get my life on-track. I don’t want you to be stressing no more. I love you.
Golden says these are the feelings that the poetry workshop can help the girls sort through, especially since they aren’t allowed pencil and paper in their cells.

“You know, I had just imagined that if I were in jail maybe I would just write day after day, and that’s how maybe I would process the fact that I was in there,” Golden said. “And I didn’t know that’s not an option for them — and that still floors me that they are sitting there thinking about a lot of things, but don’t necessarily have a way to articulate it or process it.”

The anthology is expected to be released later this summer.

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