PHILADELPHIA — A dozen slouching teenage boys shuffled into a makeshift classroom just off the juvenile block at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, one of the city’s adult jails.
They were awkward and reticent at first as Jacob Winterstein, a poet, worked the room, challenging them with tongue twisters, icebreakers, moving to the beat playing from an iPod and a portable speaker. Two hours later, the teens were writing poetry and rapping — about street life and family, about the rhythm of the cell block and the fights that can disrupt it, about their regrets and hopes.
Winterstein was impressed.
“The best sessions,” he said, “are where, by the end, we all kind of forget that we’re inside of a jail.”
It’s a rare reprieve, courtesy of the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project — a program created and run by former juvenile inmates to provide support to kids in Philadelphia’s adult prison system. It also acts to fuel a movement to treat kids as kids in Pennsylvania courts and jails.
“Young people are better off in the juvenile system,” said YASP co-founder Sarah Morris, who began visiting teens in jail in 2004 on a fellowship with the American Friends Service Committee. “They’re less likely to be abused, to be assaulted, to commit suicide and to be arrested in the future. Being in an adult prison just retraumatizes people.”
After Morris’ fellowship ended, she stayed in touch with the young people she met on those visits. When they returned home, they started meeting and talking about creating an organization that would bring arts into the jails, support kids during and after incarceration, and maybe even change the system.
They created YASP in 2006, and, by 2008, had enough money from a patchwork of grants and donations to start paying facilitators.
Juveniles in adult prison
At any given time, there are 30 to 50 juveniles younger than 18 in Philadelphia’s adult jails. A few are transferred by judges from Juvenile Court. But the vast majority are sent there automatically under a state law, Act 33 of 1996, that applies to kids 15 and older accused of serious crimes, like aggravated assault or robbery with a deadly weapon. (Kids of all ages charged with murder also are automatically tried as adults.)
YASP activists want to see Act 33 repealed.
People like Terrance “T.A.” Williams know the law’s impact firsthand. He was 17 when he was locked up in adult jail on charges that included robbery and aggravated assault.
“It was the worst time of my life,” he said. And, he was told, a long stay in state prison would be next unless he took a plea deal: 18 months of juvenile detention and five years of adult probation.
He took the deal but didn’t anticipate the sweeping consequences.
He has had trouble finding work and getting his own apartment.
“One lady, I went to the interview and she said, ‘You’re perfect for the job,’” he said. But when he followed up later, she told him, “I wasn’t going to call you back at all. Do you know what your record looks like?”
Williams, now 20, eventually landed a part-time job as a YASP organizer, talking to student groups about the school-to-prison pipeline and offering support for those returning from prison.
The most important work, though, is in the jails on State Road, where YASP organizers visit weekly, bringing with them poets, theater artists and visual artists to work with the boys at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center and the girls at the Riverside Correctional Facility.
Hoping for no-shows
On a recent Saturday, Winterstein, 29, a teaching artist from West Philadelphia and a YASP regular, wrapped up a session at PICC and headed to the women’s prison. Often, there are no juveniles there, or there are only one or two.
“It’s the only teaching gig where you hope the kids don’t show up,” he said. “It means they’re not in jail.”
There were two kids, though: 17-year-old girls who have been in just a few weeks each. They share a cell on an adult segregated-housing unit.
The girls were cautiously enthusiastic. School was on winter break, they said, so this was the only programing they’d get all week. They talked about poetry, about a rap they were working on together, about their hopes of getting back on track and going to college, and about a novel one was working on, an adventure story about people “who want to live in a free society.”
Romeeka Williams, 22, a YASP organizer from North Philadelphia, spent seven months on that unit as a juvenile. She was held separately from adult inmates but could see and hear them: She observed fights and endured harassment from adults at the door of her cell.
“Being locked in a cell 24 hours a day, it was a blessing for (YASP) to come and help us let our emotions out,” she said.
She was released in 2011, but her felony record stayed with her. “We can’t get jobs. I’m still with my mom. A lot of us is getting stuck,” she said.
Working with YASP gives her hope.
There are actually far fewer young people in Philadelphia’s adult jails than when YASP started a decade ago.
That’s in part because the overall number of arrests involving juveniles has declined, said Angel Flores, juvenile division deputy at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. It’s also because the D.A. is seeking to transfer fewer cases than ever from juvenile to adult court.
In 2012, 71 cases were “certified” to adult court, according to an annual report from the Family Court. In 2015, just six were, Flores said.
“We scrutinize the cases in which we want to move for certification,” he said. “The way I view it is, certification is for people who we strongly believe the juvenile system can no longer treat … and for community safety.”
YASP wants that same consideration for teens currently sent to adult prison under Act 33’s direct-file statute.
To that end, YASP organizers have been taking their stories to high school and college groups across the region, and to legislators. They’re compiling an anthology of poetry collected over the last 10 years as an advocacy tool. And they’ve made a documentary to spread the word.
Recently, they visited YouthBuild, a charter school that has many students who had dropped out of school, including some who’ve been locked up. They showed the film and asked the students to debate statements like: “Locking young people up doesn’t keep communities safe. Agree or disagree?”
By the end, they’d signed up one or two new volunteers and maybe even changed a few minds.
Legislative change seems far off, but the impact of the work in and outside the jails is immediate.
Williams and Morris helped Zekey Simmons, incarcerated from ages 15 to 26, to fill out job applications and put together a resume for the first time. Simmons, who got his GED and a carpentry certificate while incarcerated, recently — with referrals from YASP and the American Friends Service Committee — landed a job restoring doors and windows.
Although he just got out of prison, he’s spending as many Saturdays as possible back in, as a YASP volunteer. “I just want to help somebody. I know it’s cliche, ‘If you can help just one person,’” he said. “But one life is a whole lot.”