The 15-year-old breathed in deeply on a recent November day before reciting her poem at a New York juvenile facility on Long Island. She called it: “Self-Love.”
A Youth Support Specialist at the Brentwood Residential Center stood a few feet away during her performance because she was on suicide watch. And nearby, a visiting “teaching artist” beamed.
“People must think I’m crazy, but I’m not,” the young teen housed on Unit A pronounced. “My heart tells me to be free, and my brain tells me to be me.”
Joining her this early November morning were other 15- and 16-year-old girls of color who have been adjudicated for low-level crimes as “Juvenile Delinquents” through the Family Courts. In addition to reciting poetry, they displayed fine art and delivered monologues before an audience of facility staff, a handful of peers, and artists Sammy Taveras and Vanessa Pereda, who work for a program called Fresh Start.
Their goal that day at the Brentwood Residential Center: to reduce recidivism and process trauma. Most girls in the juvenile justice system, particularly those who end up incarcerated, have suffered physical or sexual abuse. Through sharing their art on a stage of some sort, they have an opportunity to prepare themselves for a healthier future.
When asked how she felt after reading her poem, the 15-year-old responded: “I feel achieved.”
‘Something to look forward to’
After a detailed negotiation with state officials, an Imprint reporter was granted limited access to observe the young performers housed in one of the two red-roofed buildings at Brentwood. The 25-bed “non-secure facility” is located on a grassy school-like campus. There is no fence around the perimeter, but upon entering, visitors go through multiple reinforced doors, a metal detector, and the girls’ rooms lock on the outside. The visit was part of the outlet’s exploration of ways in which children who have grown up with trauma receive opportunities to heal.
Citing privacy concerns, officials with the New York Office of Children and Family Services allowed the Nov. 12 visit, as long as the youth held at the facility were not interviewed or identified. Instead, they offered to ask one young person questions provided by The Imprint about the performance, and record her response.
In a 1-minute and 15-second recording sent by a state spokesperson, a girl states: “It definitely gives me something to do, it kinda gives everybody something to look forward to, because sometimes we have nothing to look forward to.” She later adds: “I’m capable of doing more than just being here and just not doing anything.”
Director of the Brentwood Residential Center, Edward Figueroa Jr., said the girls were somewhat hesitant in the initial weeks of the three-month performing arts program. Fresh Start, which began at Brentwood last year, is run by the Catskill-based Lumberyard Center for Film and Performing Arts. Curriculum and instruction is provided by Modesto Flako Jimenez and his team from the Oye Group arts organization.
It can be hard for the youth to openly express themselves at first, Figueroa said, noting that for a lifetime, many “have held things down and have not known how to express themselves in a positive manner.” But that reluctance changed over time.
“I would walk on the unit, and the girls would be practicing monologues,” he said. “They’d be writing poetry, they’d be asking me to go out and buy more journals.”
One teenager at the facility was eager to share her drawings, some inspired by Juice WRLD, a legendary Illinois rapper, singer and songwriter who died at age 21 in 2019 of a drug overdose. Her drawings depicted a portrait of the late artist on a bed of flowers, holding a bleeding heart. Others pictured the world around her, and her still-strong connections to childhood: an elaborate cityscape, and a rendition of the cartoon character Lola Bunny.
Teens performing nationwide
Since the 1990s, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has funded arts programs for incarcerated juvenile offenders — with the goal of curbing delinquent behavior and reducing recidivism. Over time, theater and performing arts have shown to be particularly beneficial.
“For young people living in detention facilities, theater lends itself to rehabilitation because it requires actors to understand the identity and truth of the characters they portray,” states a blog post published by the National Endowment for the Arts, which partners with the federal justice agency.
In his critically acclaimed book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk laid the foundation for healing through art forms, as well as yoga, dancing, martial arts and acting — therapies that are particularly effective for youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.
“Despite their differences, all of these programs share a common foundation: confrontation of the painful realities of life and symbolic transformation through communal action,” he wrote. “Love and hate, aggression and surrender, loyalty and betrayal are the stuff of theater and the stuff of trauma.”
One popular program, launched in Massachusetts, serves youth in Illinois juvenile corrections facilities through acting workshops, text analysis, theater games, and youth-performed productions of Shakespeare’s plays.
“The reason that I use art, theater, the works of William Shakespeare, and original writing is that trauma can’t heal until the human being who’s experienced it finds language for it,” Shakespeare Behind Bars founder Curt Tofteland told the blogger. “Shakespeare gives them language, and then as we rehearse, and as we talk about what’s happening to each individual, eventually they begin to find their own language for their trauma, and that’s when healing can happen.”
In Chicago, the Storycatchers Theatre nonprofit works with 13- to 17-year-olds in juvenile facilities. Participants write their life stories, explore futures and craft theatrical performances through ensembles called Temporary LockDown Ensemble, Firewriters and Word Warriors.
A spokesperson for the New York Office of Children and Family Services, Solomon Syed, described “a full spectrum of educational, recreational, and vocational programs” in its residential facilities statewide, “including multiple opportunities for youth to develop their voice through art.”
Art programming has also been offered to male juvenile offenders who committed violent felonies before they turned 16 and had their cases processed through the adult courts. The artwork of youth housed at the Goshen Secure Center in Orange County is displayed at a state headquarters in Rensselaer and was recently shown at a local library. Youth held at the MacCormick Secure Center located in the Shindagin Hollow State Forest, helped on a mural displayed in downtown Ithaca.
But Brentwood is the only youth facility in the state with a performing arts program.
The November performances at Brentwood took place in the day rooms of the living units. The youth prepared over three months with warm-up exercises, including neck rolls and an emotions check-in where they describe in one word “a happy and a crappy” part of the past week. The girl who had been on suicide watch said her week was going well. But she had a bad dream the night before.
One girl, who had arrived the night before and only spoke Spanish, waited for teaching artist Taveras, 21, to translate the session for her. Another sat at a bolted-down table with her chin resting on her folded arms. One girl on the unit slept through the day’s program.
Taveras and co-worker Pereda rely on encouragement and support to coax participation, offering words of affirmation, pats on the back and offers to help with performances for those feeling shy.
Pereda, 39, delivered a poem written by a girl who had left the facility earlier that week.
“I love my son,” Pereda recited. “He is the definition of perfection.”
Girls who’ve experienced trauma
Females make up 15% of the population placed in youth facilities operated by New York’s Office of Children and Family Services. All are under age 21, the majority between 15- and 18-years-old. They are predominantly Black and Latina, mirroring disproportionality in juvenile justice systems nationwide.
At the time of the performance, Brentwood was roughly half full: five youth in Unit A, and seven in Unit B. Last year, the average length of stay in New York facilities for juvenile delinquents was 9.4 months, according to the state’s annual Youth In Care Report.
In 2021, 23 girls were admitted to Brentwood, some more than once during the year, said state spokesperson Syed. The majority had been adjudicated for assault or “criminal mischief,” which involves property damage.
According to a summary of studies published by the Justice Research and Statistics Association, there were roughly 7,300 girls incarcerated nationwide in 2017. And although the girls made up just 15% of the detained youth population, they comprised 38% of those locked up for “status offenses” such as truancy and curfew violations. More than half of the youth sentenced for running away from home were girls.
The research round-up includes evidence of these girls’ levels of distress. Before becoming involved in the juvenile justice system, girls experienced “higher rates of trauma and sexual abuse than systems-involved boys.” One study cited showed more than 70% of incarcerated girls reporting being exposed to trauma, with 65% showing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
“Behaviors that are coping mechanisms for trauma experienced by girls, such as alcohol and drug use, and status offenses such as running away from home or shoplifting, are criminalized,” the report stated, “leading to their system involvement.”
Fresh Start describes itself as an “arts education intervention program.” It was first launched in the Hudson Adolescent Offender Facility in 2018 in response to a new state law that raised the age of juvenile criminal prosecution. Prior to the Raise the Age reform, New York was among a dwindling number of states treating all 16- and 17-year-olds arrested for crimes as adults.
Fresh Start’s motto is “Transition and Transformation,” and it relies on “the expressive power and discipline of the performing arts.” Lumberyard and its Oye Group partner hope to expand the program to serve the 125-bed Brookwood Secure Center, a coed facility located in the Hudson Valley region. Oye Group founder Jimenez — a 40-year-old Dominican-born, Bushwick-raised poet, playwright, educator, actor, producer and director — said his love of theater dates back to age 9 when he began reading and performing Shakespeare.
Now, as a professional who has spent time as a member of a gang in New York, he said the things he did in the past were required by his neighborhood, and “made normal.”
But when he grew up he asked himself, “How do I prevent that to be the future kids have?”
Finding strength in front of an audience
On some days when Fresh Start artists attempt to begin classes, things don’t go as planned. Daily life in a facility housing youth with troubled backgrounds can be somewhat unpredictable at times in terms of sticking with schedules.
Some classes are delayed because the girls are behind on chores. Sometimes, they simply don’t want to participate — and the arts programming is not mandatory.
Susie Schutt, a registered drama therapist with the North American Drama Therapy Association who has worked in Michigan and Rhode Island juvenile facilities, said the reluctance makes sense.
“Sometimes the first time they’re being asked to share their experiences is when they’re incarcerated,” said Schutt of Cranston, Rhode Island. And whether or not a full-scale theater piece is performed, the simple act of reading a poem in front of others can have the same positive effect on a young person.
“The act of standing up and sharing something is vulnerable,” Schutt said. “It requires voice, it requires body, it requires some performative action or fiber to it.”
Jimenez of Oye Group expressed a similar sentiment, describing the three-month program at Brentwood as a success: “At the end of the day, they got up, they were able to read things that they wrote, shared them with the public, and that is the first level of performance.”
On the day The Imprint visited Brentwood, five of the seven girls housed on Unit B came out of their rooms to share their art, or watch others perform.
“I have to find the strength within myself when I know I’m not bad,” one girl said during her monologue. “My family is all I have.”
By day’s end, everyone received a certificate and a pizza lunch. Fresh Start provides participants with a tote bag of gifts that awaits them when they are released, including a notebook and a pair of new sneakers. Given that the youth and teaching artists can’t share personal contact information, the November send-off was also a farewell.
“We’re so happy to be here and learn from you, even when it’s been a crappy day,” Pereda said. “I appreciate you all being artists, still showing up, and writing your stuff down.”
Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this report.
Other news outlets don’t cover child welfare and juvenile justice like we do.
News for people, not for profit.