By Alia Aidyralieva, 16, Bravo Medical Magnet HS
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I’ve never been inside a young criminal’s mind and couldn’t imagine the things going in and out of his or her head. It’s pretty hard to imagine their lives without being them. When I came upon this book, called What We See, which is a collection of poems and essays written by teens inside Juvenile Hall, I became very interested right away in finding out what they had to offer.

I found the writings provocative. They made me feel more understanding toward the struggles and sorrows experienced by these teens. One 19-year-old guy, Mario, while being taken to the county jail in a bus, remembered the little boy he once was and how he would never leave his mother’s side because it offered love and protection for him. "Like so many mother-and-son relationships in the barrio," he wrote, "we possess a love for one another that transcends explanation … and in blissful moments, it blooms in purity and emotion."

It struck me to find out how much emotion he had in his heart even while being a troubled adolescent. The saddest part came when he was describing his mom’s reaction when the cops broke into their house to arrest him. "What I remember most vividly is not the physical pain inflicted by the officers, it is the anguish I saw in my mother’s tearful eyes. She had witnessed the horrific sight, and I can only try to imagine what she was feeling as she stood just a few feet away … the guns were pointed at her as police barked orders."

It seemed the writers had hearts that were very sensitive, but burdened at a young age. I was surprised to find a former gangbanger admiring a puffy white cloud and confessing how being in a gang hypnotized him in a way that he didn’t pay attention nor appreciate the beautiful nature around him.

I came to understand the hard conditions some of them lived through and how it led them into trouble. One young man was raised in a broken family where the father fought all the time, then went off to gamble, taking away all the money and later coming back to stir more fights. The boy and his mother were trying hard to get by, but the trauma of having such a dad affected him so much that he joined a gang, where he felt safe and comfortable within his peers. It’s hard to be a morally upright person when someone as close as your father is being a bad example of what’s right and wrong.

All these things, like a wrecked family, lost childhood and other similar examples, made these young people vulnerable in a way that they needed to have some company that would give them a chance to feel better. That’s why they joined gangs, so they would be welcome somewhere and could feel important.

One big thing I learned is that all children are born talented in some way and motivated to improve themselves. This is proven by the fact that once they are given a chance to try something, like being exposed to a writing program, they’ve shown they have a lot to offer. But when you’re on the streets, you don’t really think about taking your artistic or verbal talents and developing them into something. You just go with the crowd that followed the crowd before them.

It seems like one good thing from incarceration is that some kids are pushed to do things that can greatly change their lives. When you’re imprisoned, you don’t have anything else to do but start a new life that consists of the things you’ve never tried before. Being forced to develop yourself in juvenile hall is one possible good outcome of being locked up.

Hopefully juvenile halls are like tough camps that teach discipline and hard work. Hopefully they open new, decent lives for those who want to improve themselves. I’ve heard they’re not always that way, but that’s how they should be. In my opinion, there should be more institutions and programs that could help troubled adolescents escape anger and violence, give them an affinity toward their world and help them find themselves through resourceful activities. It’s sad to imagine that one gifted child has to go through so much, like turn wild, commit a crime, be taken off the streets and locked up, and only then would he give up that ignorant life and pursue something more valuable.

To get a copy of What We See: Poems and Essays from Inside Juvenile Hall, send $9 to the Alethos Foundation at 23679 Calabasas Road, Suite 621, Calabasas, CA 91302-1502.

Call Karen Hunt at (818) 226-9130 for more information about the Inside Out Writing Program.

Excerpts from ‘What We See’

From ‘Unfit’ by Mario

The drive is smooth and feels like a boat cruise, the highway is like the sea, at peace; but as we journey the waves, gushes of thought try to swallow me into a deep state of fear and anxiety. I avoid making eye contact with other inmates, but as I peer into the distance I am struck by the cold sullen stare of my reflection in the window, observing my every movement and examining each breath I take. The engine’s vibration engulfs the sounds, but it is the strenuous rumble of suspense that is driving me crazy; and as I look into the eyes of the scared young man, something inside urges me to scream and shout. The glare into my soul suddenly thrusts me into a revelry. I begin to kick and pull at the chains until the metal tears into my flesh, making me bleed in agony. The handcuffs snap, unshackling my frustration. I then begin to pound on the window until it shatters and my face crumbles as the cold sullen stare of my reflection is broken. I gasp for breath. For redemption. I raise my fists in the air; for the metal that contains my body cannot contain my spirit. It has nothing to do with trying to escape, it has everything to do with crying for freedom.

From ‘Clouds’ by Ruben

Clouds, this is just a word. Where did this word come from? Who was the one to say that those white shapes that float in the blue skies are clouds? I never put serious thought into this subject, maybe because it was irrelevant to the life I lived. I never took the time to look up at a cloud and just stare at it. I was too busy with my everyday routine.

The things I looked forward to were tagging on the walls, kicking back with the homies. I was so focused on these insignificant things that I didn’t take time to look around at the beauty the environment had to offer. I didn’t appreciate anything. Hey, if I didn’t care about myself or others, how could I have possibly cared for a cloud?