AT KING COUNTY Juvenile Detention on First Hill, a 13-year-old named Kevin and a 51-year-old volunteer poet named Richard Gold sit in a classroom, in desks jammed too close together. School is mandatory for every one of the 162 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 who are housed here on the day I visit, but this one-on-one session is no ordinary class.
For the past three years, Richard has come here to help kids write poetry. It’s a simple idea, with low overhead. He says he’s not so much trying to change the kids—who’ve been sent here for committing crimes such as drug offenses, violence, and prostitution—as hoping to create a fundamental shift in the way parents, teachers, and judges view young offenders.
“These kids’ lives are chaotic,” Richard says. “You think they’re confident, assertive, aggressive, but basically they are very, very scared. They are heartbroken.”
In the classroom, posters of Miles Davis, Che Guevara, and Jimi Hendrix hang on the walls above Richard and Kevin as they work. The room is packed with computers, the result of a recent grant, and a nearby screen saver personalized to read “Tight Stuff” flashes as Richard and Kevin talk.
Kevin is less than five feet tall and wears the detention center uniform, a navy shirt and drawstring trousers.
“Damn, my ass is going to boot camp, one, two, three, one . . . ,” Kevin says; soon a judge will decide if he’ll be sent to a camp or face more time in detention. He flips nervously through a book of poems by kids in juvey that Richard has given him. “Forty-five days then I’m out. The lawyer said if they took it to trial and lost I was looking at one to two years.” Kevin points to one of the poems in the book. “Getting Out the Gang, man, that’s right. That’s exactly it.” As he bends to read it, his face slackens. He looks like any little boy reading a school assignment.
“Images from your life, then,” Richard says to Kevin to recapture his attention. He has only 50 minutes with the boy. Richard likes to create an entire poem per session. He then types the poems at the detention center library. Three copies goes to the child and one remains in Richard’s files to be considered for publication.
“What comes to your mind when I say that, images from your life?”
“The first time I was arrested, they came to my house 20 cops deep,” Kevin says. “I come out with a knife. Ooooo, they were about ready to shoot the hell out of me. That’s a mistake I’ll never make again—never seen so many guns pointed at my head.” (Richard declines to let me ask what Kevin’s crime was; he wants the kids to be taken at face value.)
Richard writes furiously. He has learned the power of dictation. He provides the structure—line breaks, stanzas—on which the kids can hang their feelings. “OK, now shut that one down. We need a different image, something else important in your life.”
“I don’t know, something about your family.”
“I’m a criminal.”
Richard hesitates. “I’m not hearing you’re a criminal,” he says slowly. “I’m hearing your life is hell.”
“You got that right.”
“So let’s call this, not images of life,” Richard scratches out the title he has written in his notebook. “But Images of Hell.”
Images of Hell
The first time I got arrested
They must’ve come about 20 cars deep
Why’d I go outside
With a knife
That’s a mistake
I’ll never make again
All those guns pointed at my head
From every direction
The session continues. Richard has to keep pulling back Kevin’s attention, but they work well together. Some of the kids prefer to rap rather than write poetry, and some are very good, Richard says, but that isn’t what he’s trying to accomplish. He says it’s blowing smoke, and he’s trying to clear the smoke to get to the cinders.
Kevin talks about an ass-whipping he got once. He says his “booty cheeks were all red.” He cannot believe Richard writes this down word for word and stands up to watch him do so.
The first time I got
Kicked out of school
I didn’t want to go home
Cause when they called my grandma
All I heard was screaming and yelling
My uncle came to school
I got an ass-whipping
Ice would not make it better
My butt was hot
Booty cheeks all red
After spending the last three years working behind locked doors, Richard is now determined to get the story of these kids out to the public. He self-publishes the teens’ poetry in paperback journals through his own company, Pongo Publishing. He sends the books to judges, teachers, libraries. This year, he’ll set up a stall at Bumbershoot and sell them.
“Teens in general are not being heard,” Richard explains. “It’s especially a problem that these teens feel like they don’t have a voice. The way I serve them is not by giving advice. I take dictation and just let them express their emotions.”
Psychiatrist Ted Rynearson, who more than 25 years ago started the psychology department at Virginia Mason Hospital and now works with teens at Echo Glen, the youth prison in Issaquah, spent nine months with Richard at the King County detention center.
“In our society we’re going through a mean time, we’re not really taking care of our kids,” Rynearson says. “The attitude is lock them up. Keep them away from us. We’ve known for decades this doesn’t work, but it gets people elected. What people don’t get is, these kids are not so much in for the violence they’ve committed, but for the violence they’ve suffered.”
IN THE CLASSROOM, at the mention of his grandmother, Kevin goes quiet. As I make notes of the details surrounding him, he gets out of his desk to stand over me.
“What you writing about me? You’re writing bad things about me. She’s writing shit about me,” he says to Richard.
With only a few moments left to go in the session, Richard tries to bring Kevin back to the task. He asks him about his parents. *
“That was hell, all right, when I got taken away.”
When I got taken away from my parents by CPS
Cause they said my dad
Wasn’t fit to take care of kids
I was about six
I was sad
I was very very very sad
I liked living with my mom and dad
If I asked them for something
They’d always get it for me
Class is over, and Kevin—along with the other teens—marches single file back to his cell. Richard goes to the library and types up Kevin’s Images of Hell—he is particularly insistent on maintaining the teen’s voice. (During the session, he read the piece back to Kevin numerous times for clarification, but he still agonizes at the keyboard over word usage—was this the boy’s intention? That?)
The poetry is then delivered. Richard walks the gray corridors to H Hall. There are a dozen orange doors with thin rectangular windows. Behind each door is a cot, a toilet, and exceptionally bright light bouncing off the white walls. When Richard arrives most of the kids are curled up under their blankets. But they hear Richard and suddenly all of the narrow windows are filled with young faces. Most of the children are so short only their eyes and noses clear the window.
Richard slips the poem beneath the door of dorm 3. Kevin has to put his mouth right at the crack of the door to have his voice heard.
“You going to publish this?” Kevin asks.
“It’s a good candidate. You’re a good poet. In a few months, the book’ll come out,” Richard says.
“I’m not going to be here then, man. Forty-five days in boot camp. I ain’t never coming back here, man. No way.”
It takes Richard more than a few minutes to leave H Hall. Several of the boys want to slip him poems beneath their doors. A few want to know if they can get a copy of one of the published books—Richard says it’s a tremendous boost for these kids to see that other kids have similar issues. Numerous faces disappear, as voices come out of the doorjambs.
After the last poem is collected, Richard waves goodbye and half a dozen faces stare out windows and watch him leave.