I work for a nonprofit, InsideOUT Writers (IOW). IOW’s mission is to reduce the juvenile recidivism rate. If you don’t really know what that means (and a surprising number of people don’t) they are trying to keep incarcerated kids from going back to juvenile hall once they get out. IOW teaches creative writing classes to youth on the inside, and runs a reentry program for their students when they get out. It all sounds really interesting, doesn’t it?
Except that my job is mostly doing mostly administrative duties; keeping the office stocked with supplies, reporting to the Probation department, editing student’s writing for the quarterly journal. I push a lot of paper around. It’s necessary, but, I’m not gonna lie, it’s not exactly intriguing. I’ve never been asked to speak at events or write an article about what I do for the organization newsletter; people aren’t terribly interested in what admin people have to say. Not complaining – I get it. People want to hear from the Executive Director, the Director of Programs, the case managers, the teachers – all the folks who provide direct services. Theoretically, I am not involved with direct services. Except that the former students come into the office throughout the day to visit with the case managers, take writing classes or use the computers. So I do get to interact with the students. But by the time they show up in the office, I already know all about them.
I meet the young people we work with first on paper. A name and a number on a list from the Probation department. I see how many classes they have taken and I see how many times they have been in and out of juvenile hall (the reigning champs have about 10 separate stays in juvie). I see how old they were when they started classes with us. I see how many times they’ve been in the SHU unit (where they send minors for being difficult – usually getting in fights). I see if they were sent to the CARE units – where the minors who are having emotional difficulties are housed, or the ESU units – where the most fragile of incarcerated young people get one-on-one care – the suicidal, the mentally ill. I see who is in the Elite Family Units – the youth who are crossovers from the dependency system – foster youth – in addition to being in the delinquency system.
I get to know them in their writing. Some of the most honest words I’ve ever read, poured onto paper without regard to grammar or punctuation – I am certain I could not have written that truthfully at seventeen. Their stories flow in a jumble of rhythm and rhyme, a little rap, a little hip hop, sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, sometimes a disjointed stream of teenage consciousness – sometimes a drug induced haze lingers over the page on the pieces from the ESU units. They tell stories of abuse, poverty and neglect, of searching for families and trying (and failing) to find them in gangs, of the regret they feel for their actions or the anger that they can’t quite control.
When they finally walk into the office, I always have a moment of disconnect, trying to reconcile the young person in front of me with the person I know on paper. To see past the tats and piercings, the heavy makeup and teased hair, to the person who, while in jail, poured a little bit of their soul onto a piece of lined paper.
In my first few months at IOW I read a piece by a 14-year-old girl that stayed with me. She wrote, “I am not a memorable person, mostly ignored, but nonetheless, I am a person, like the rest of these girls, like anyone on the outside.” I took note of her name as I placed her piece in the student journal. Julia.* I wondered what would become of her. A month or so later I saw her name in the reporting spreadsheet I was sending off to Probation. Julia B-. When the report came back from Probation, next to her name was a “no match” – meaning Probation did not have her in their system (at least not under that name). I thought back to her poem. “I am not a memorable person.”
I called her teacher to confirm her name. Yes, said the teacher, she goes by Julia B-, but sometimes she’s mad at her father so she uses her mother’s name, and goes by Julia R-, and sometimes she combines them and goes by Julia B-R-. The teacher wasn’t sure what her legal name actually was. I emailed Probation again, asking them to check all the variations. No dice. Furious that the Probation department couldn’t identify a girl in their own custody, I called the unit itself and explained the problem.
“I’ve looked her up under every variation I can think of, and they can’t find her,” I whined. “But I know she was in class on July 14, because I have a piece of writing from her from that class. Her teacher remembers her. Maybe she’s not there now, but she existed, I have her writing, and someone has to know her name.”
The unit officer thought for a moment. “Do you mean Julie R-? Cause we had a Julie R- and that sounds like her.”
“No,” I said, “her name is Julia. With an ‘a.’”
“Well, we had a Julie. With an ‘e.’”
Sure enough, they had her name in their system wrong. And they weren’t going to change it, ever, even though it was truly, legally, actually wrong. Mystery solved.
That might have been the end of the story, except one day, several months later, the case manager came to me to get some pdj numbers (unique identifying numbers assigned to each minor by the Probation department) of kids he had met while visiting in the halls. He needed the numbers to get information on their release dates so he could try to get them into our reentry program. Julia’s name was on his list. I warned him about the name mix-up, that he might have to ask for her by “Julie,” and her multiple last names. I showed him her writing, the piece that had moved me so much.
The case manager kept track of her after her release (and he did have to ask for her by her incorrect name), and when she was admitted to a rehab center, he and the Program Director continued to keep track of her. When she was finally released, she came to the IOW offices. She was a tiny thing, not even five feet tall, less than 100 pounds soaking wet, with beautiful dark brown hair, big brown eyes, light brown skin and a shy demeanor. How this ethereal creature could think she was not memorable was beyond me. I welcomed her, and walked her into the case manager’s office.
And went back to pushing papers.
*Name has been changed.