Jane Guttman’s “Kids in Jail: A Portrait of Life Without Mercy” gives poetic voice to children who are trapped in the catacombs of society with little hope of resurrection. It is a gut-wrenching, graceful and dignified look at lives that are painfully scarred by conditions and circumstances that were preordained out of neglect, abuse, poverty, chance or a combination of all these elements.
It is not a light or easy read, but a necessary read. I had to put the book down on several occasions because the depth of despair, lack of hope and painful reality of these poems lit upon my nerves like a hammer. Too many of our children are trapped in inhumane conditions of juvenile prisons around our country. They are thrown away without the hope of redemption or rehabilitation even though leading brain development research shows that the brain is not fully developed until age 25. It was painful to read and absorb the stories of our nation’s greatest resource, our children, being subjected to a life without an opportunity to discover their true potential.
Each of the 13 poems has a preamble that gives a name and backstory for each incarcerated child and is followed by a quote that defines their personal struggle. Quotes from the likes of Kahlil Gibran, Harvey Milk and Luis J. Rodriguez beautifully encapsulate the spirit of each child, before you even begin to read their story in poem.
Jane Guttman’s experience and careful, compassionate observations of each child she writes about powerfully portrays their pain, anger, hopelessness and personal struggles. As adults, we should be ashamed if we can read these cries for help, love and redemption and not become deeply concerned that we are exacerbating social issues that have reached crisis levels by tediously adhering to many of the current practices of our nation’s juvenile justice system.
Judge Peggy Walker — former president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Juvenile Court judge of Douglas County, Ga., and consummate child advocate — once elegantly stated, “after chronic, painful trauma children’s actions often become their language.”
A translator of their lives
Jane Guttman tirelessly works with children whose actions have led them to the juvenile justice system. With empathy, love and passion she observes the trauma-induced actions of 13 kids and elegantly translates it back into the poetic, tragic language from which it was birthed.
The poem about William was one of the most difficult for me to read. He is a cutter and suicidal.
His never-ending pain and anger haunt him, even in his sleep. The depth of despair he sees from his past, present and future are perfectly summed up in 21 words:
“No one will ever call me a rising star.
My life just rolls on
With no beat, no tune, no song.”
With a beat we can step forward with a rhythm or direction, with a tune we can assign a vision and write our future, and with a song we can tell and share our story. To feel absent of all three is to be completely lost, to feel as if you don’t exist.
Sophie’s story hits hard on the ideal of judgement and of reading only the outside, visible actions of a child’s story. Judging the behavior without understanding the language they have learned to speak from the pain they have felt and choked on for years is a disservice served up daily to children in the juvenile justice system. It is summed up in the description of Sophie:
Raised in the hall
Now you know everything
and you know nothing. …”
To read Jane Guttman’s poetic tribute to incarcerated children is to put your finger on the pulse of everything that is wrong with this nation’s juvenile justice system. It is also a glaring and shameful look into what we need to start doing right for our nation’s most neglected, vulnerable and hopeless resource.
Sheryl Teske is a former English teacher, a former juvenile justice specialist for the state of Montana and served as the executive director of the Clayton County System of Care, which provides services for students with trauma. She currently writes grants for juvenile justice in education and was a state sponsor for Do the Write Thing.