As a person who taught creative writing for seven years in both medium- and maximum-security prisons for women, I was very interested to attend a talk last week at the Seaside Public Library given by Mindy Hardwick, author of multiple books, many of them romantic fiction, and specifically author of a memoir, “Kids in Orange: Voice from Juvenile Detention.”
In a midlife career change as Hardwick transitioned from teacher to writer, she volunteered to facilitate a weekly poetry workshop in a juvenile detention center in Everett, Washington. Most of the teens she worked with were in for drug-related charges. Many, if not most of them, returned to the facility multiple times over the 10-year period Hardwick ran the workshop. Their stories and their voices became very familiar.
Hardwick holds an MFA degree in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College. She currently lives in Cannon Beach where she can be seen walking her cocker spaniel, Sunny. She is an advocate of the Pongo Method of teen writing, inspired by the work of Richard Gold, Pongo’s executive director.
The Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project is a nonprofit, volunteer-based effort working with Seattle teens who are incarcerated, on the streets, or leading difficult lives. Traumas from their childhood have made them depressed, angry, and prone to substance abuse and other destructive behaviors.
But the writing process, specifically poetry writing, has made a difference.
At the library, Hardwick read from her own book a passage about entering the juvenile facility. It was a detailed description of storing personal items in her locked car and passing through detention security, knowing exactly what she needed to do — and not do — to avoid getting “wanded.” Despite the facility’s clearly delineated rules about not engaging with others, which would include even looking at the faces of strangers, she couldn’t help but read the looks on the faces of other people waiting in line to get in — most of them the incarcerated teens’ own family members. She could see how they stared at her, sometimes with hostility, wondering how she was able to move so swiftly through the procedures, what made her so special. Allowing that she is by nature a person who often breaks rules, Hardwick relayed how she spoke to one child’s distraught mother, fibbing, actually, when she said she knew the child. It wasn’t really a falsehood, as Hardwick had been working with incarcerated teens for years. In the way that is particular and perhaps only understandable to those who work with that population, if you knew one, you knew them all.
Before the talk was over, Hardwick read several of the teens’ poems. One poem, entitled “Somehow,” seemed to summarize the lives of them all:
“Somehow I will find a way to get out of this cage,” the teen wrote. “The cage that keeps me locked up.”
Hardwick sadly related that while she doesn’t keep in touch with her former students, she knows some are likely still caged. After aging out of juvenile detention, many went on to prison.
“They get clean inside but after they’re back home or on the street, many go back to their old habits,” she said. This, of course, is just another tragedy of the ongoing opioid crisis.
The power of therapeutic poetry writing is that it has the ability to heal. As an honest expression of emotion, poetry transcends stigmas and stereotypes to embody feelings and resilience that are universal, empathetic, and admirable.
Hardwick no longer works with juvenile offenders, but she is running writing workshops. For more information, log on to www.mindyHardwick.com.