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SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

[Poem + Eight Poems by Students + Commentary]

by Jim Moreno

Existential Freedom Pens

My students write in teen prisons with large, burly guards—3 to 4—
standing behind their old, scarred desks—pepper spray at the ready. 
My students write poems about their search for meaning in the mean,
senseless streets—young existential poets composing poems about
meaninglessness—Sartre & Camus nodding, smiling—the poems
don’t sound like they’re penned by thugs or criminals: homesickness,
confusion, regrets, fear, anger, depression, wishes for another chance 
written in verse that searches for solutions, sets goals, asks forgiveness—
What I want is 1 month off 1 poet’s sentence for 1 existential poem;
What I want is for young incarcerated poets to be young and free. 
Write for your freedom. Where is your pen?


If I Had My Way

by S. (16 years old; Juvenile Hall, 04-19-12) *

If I had my way children wouldn’t be given away,
If I had my way girls wouldn’t get raped,
If I had my way pain, hurt, and deception wouldn’t exist,
If I had my way there would be no more hate,
If I had my way poverty will end,
If I had my way my mom will love me,
If I had my way people wouldn’t judge me,
If I had my way children wouldn’t get sold in any country,
If I had my way mass genocide wouldn’t exist,
If I had my way there would be no cries over violent deaths,
If I had my way children wouldn’t get beaten or mistreated,
If I had my way my innocence wouldn’t have been taken,
If I had my way the death penalty wouldn’t be a sentence,
If I had my way graves wouldn’t be diggin’,
If only I had my way.


Knowing the Meaning of the Word Kind

by Maria J. *

If you knew what kind was
you would dress that little girl who’s
in her underwear wrapped up in newspaper
trying to get heat from the cold.

If you knew what kind was 
you would feed that man that’s in 
jail who’s hungry for liberty

If you knew what kind was 
instead of giving a quarter to 
that old woman in the wheelchair
sitting in the middle of the street praying for food.

If you knew what kind was 
you would help that poor little girl
with her four or five brothers & sisters
by taking them home or to a shelter
in the middle of the night.

If we knew what kind really is
we would know what the taste
of LIFE really is.


Fake Smile

by S. C. *

You see this smile on my face?
It’s just a mark trying to hide my place,
Going on day by day like nothing’s wrong,
But you don’t know the things that go on.
Raised by a single mother, never had a father—
He was a low-life person in and out of jail,
Couldn’t even send me a letter in the mail,
Leaving me when I was just four years old;
But yet, he called prison a home. 
My smile may fool you to think everything’s ok,
But beyond that smile you’ll see a little girl in pain.


Warrior ’n Soldier

by G. (Unit 800, Juvenile Hall, Sarah Anthony School) *

A soldier obeys
A warrior knows
A soldier does
A warrior does not
A soldier destroys
A warrior protects
A soldier will
A warrior won’t


Our Hands

by C. T. (Juvenile Court Community School) *

We fight so pointlessly
Black vs Black—Brown vs Brown
What’s the point to fight?
Is it to prove we’re down?
We say we got pride for our color,
So why do we fight one another?
I wanna see peace,
But it won’t happen whatsoever.
I wanna see peace in my life,
Not see another homie six feet deep;
I wanna see my nation stand high,
Not down low,
Not trying to see them behind bars
In their prison cells,
Tired of hearing the moan.
So, we are all the same,
Time to make a stand
And put out our hand.


Would It Be So Easy

by V. R. G. (Juvenile Hall) *

Would it be so easy to redo what we have done?
Or should we allow it to happen?
Would we be who we are now if we didn’t do it?
Would it be so easy to take back the evil caused,
The tears shed, the blood spilled,

Would it be so easy to be forgiven?
You see, we want to be forgiven,
But yet we can’t even forgive ourselves,
We want to be able to hide behind our Mothers
So the bad man can go away,
But our Mothers aren’t here,
So we now have to face the man in black
Who slams a hammer that can easily end lives,
And tear apart families into pieces,

Would it be so easy to forget?
It’s easy for us not to remember 
But the world can’t seem to forget,
Instead, it’s forever written 
In the same blood that’s been spilled,
What’s worse is we know it in our tarnished souls
Those words are true.

Would it be so easy for a second chance?
Like a baby learning to walk before it falls,
Someone there to pick him up,
He was given a second chance,
But we can’t be given one because
The world is afraid of repetition,

You see we are doomed,
Forever to be in a dark world
Filled with evil and pain,
Never to see light because the darkness surrounds us,
Engulfs us filling the cracks in our hearts till it is full,
But in this world there is light,
Love is sent in paper,
Pictures of people who care,
That alone lifts us to the light,
Like moths to a bulb,
We are drawn to it with the hope of leaving the darkness,
But again, would it be so easy?


Have You Ever

by D. F. (15 years old; Juvenile Hall) *

Have you ever lived my life?
Sweat one minute in my shoes?
If you haven’t, then tell me why
You judge me as you do?

Have you awakened in the morning
Wondering if this was your last day on Earth?
Have you ever left your house
Unsure if you’d return?

Have you seen your step-mom get beat up
By your mom messed up on booze?
Have you ever had something in your life
Forcing you to choose?

Have you ever considered suicide
As the only way?
Have you ever tried to hide yourself
Behind the things you say?

Have you ever wanted to protect
Your friends and everyone in sight?
Have you ever felt such pain
That you cry yourself to sleep at night?

Have you ever lived my life,
Spent one minute in my shoes—
If you haven’t, then tell me why
You judge me as you do?

* Due to Probation Department’s confidentiality policy, Jim Moreno could not send us full names of student poets.

On Poems from Juvenile Hall, San Diego:
Commentary by Jim Moreno

On Learning Styles of Our Youth as Well as Ourselves...

“...each individual within a family, classroom, or culture has unique learning-style preferences that differ from those of their siblings, parents, peers, and cultural group... teachers (legislators & government leaders)...need to be aware of three critical factors:

1) Universal principles of learning do exist.

2) Culture influences both learning process and outcomes.

3) Each adolescent has unique learning-style preferences that affect his or her potential for achievement.

Multiculturalism & Learning Style (Dunn & Griggs, Praeger, Westport, CT, p. 37)


Robert is a tall African-American teen of 17 difficult years. His 6’7” frame includes hair neatly arranged in corn rows, wide shoulders, and a baritone to bass, articulate voice. On this sweltering summer morning in east San Diego County, he was working on a picture puzzle when I entered his classroom to begin another rendition of the Cultural Circle Poetry Workshops.

Robert’s regular classroom teacher patiently asked him three times to put the puzzle away and move to his desk. On her third entreaty, he acquiesced, albeit in an exasperated huff, tension filling the room.

After my 20-minute prompt, setting up the writing segment with song, poetry, and cultural respect stories, it was time for my young incarcerated students to write. I walked over to Robert’s desk. Thirty years of counseling and teaching experience, and a similar number of poetry and prose images, perched on my shoulders. I was prepared to offer him a way out of his struggle, not with the threat of a draconian sentence, not with punishment in loss of privileges or extended chores in lockup, and certainly not with any type of power designed to bring him to his knees. This type of “crush their spirit power” purveys in lockups simply invites resistance, if not revenge (“The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” —Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice).

My Life

My life is like a puzzle

There are many different pieces

Some are big and some are small

And some mean more than others

Some are filled with happiness

Some are filled with sorrow

And some are filled with love

Some pieces make you stronger

And some pieces make you smarter

Some pieces bring you joy

And some pieces bring you

nothing at all

—by Robert (age 17) *

At the same time, we must remember that prison administration and guards are caught up in this law-and-order punishment web, forgetting, as have our legislators, that law and order starts with social programs and not with, as Laurie Schaffner of the University of Illinois at Chicago has written, criminalization of social problems. Instead, I would offer Robert a power that would bring him to his senses and invite him to change: poetry.

“You really like puzzles, don’t you?” I asked as I kneeled on one knee, looking at him eye-to-eye.

“Yes sir, I really do,” he answered respectfully. He had calmed down during the prompt but was still frustrated.

“Could you write me a poem about why you like puzzles so much? I’d really like to read a poem like that from you.”

We then explored how to go about a puzzle poem of that sort, with my asking him for ideas and also offering suggestions and encouraging him to write so he didn’t explode and receive negative consequences, i.e., more time.

* Due to Probation Department’s confidentiality policy, Jim Moreno could not send us full names of student poets.

—See also Editor’s Note: Issue 8 from our Poetry Editor, Steve Kowit.

SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Jim Moreno

created and developed “Cultural Circle Poetry Workshops” as a Language Arts Teacher at the All Tribes American Indian Charter School on Rincon Reservation. He then taught poetry to incarcerated youth in San Diego Juvenile Hall from August of 2005 until June of 2013.

Moreno is the author of Dancing in Dissent: Poetry for Activism (Dolphin Calling Press, 2007) and two CDs: reversing the erased, exhuming the expunged and A Question From Love (Dolphin Calling Press, 2007 and 2011). His next books, Jim Crow Poems: Teaching Poetry to Incarcerated Youth and Songs From Grandfather, will be published before the end of this year.

His website is; contact him at jimpoet [at] hotmail [dot] com for more information.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury