Free Verse project gives a voice to kids in detention centers


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Ashley Warren makes a point during a Free Verse writing class in the Ted Lechner Youth Services Center in Billings.

Sarah Kahn has been running the Free Verse Writing Project for almost three years, taking creative writing programs to youth detention centers in Montana.

The aim of the project is not just to give the young detainees a chance to express themselves, but also a reason to hope. Kahn remembers one boy in particular, “an incredibly talented kid” who was being held at the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City.

One of his poems appeared anonymously in a chapbook published by Free Verse, and the booklet was being used in class during a later visit to Pine Hills. The young author was still there, and he watched as two other kids, who didn’t know they were using his poem, latched onto it, turning it into a rap that they performed for the rest of the group.

“He was just glowing,” Kahn said. “He came up to us after class and said, ‘I’m going to make it. I’m going to write.’”

After starting at the Missoula County Juvenile Detention Facility and expanding to include occasional visits to Miles City, Free Verse recently established a chapter in Billings, where Ashley Warren and Brittani Hissom have been offering classes at the Ted Lechner Youth Services Center on South 26th Street.

During a visit to the center last week, Warren and Hissom put on two classes, one for youths using the shelter care side of the Ted Lechner center and the other for inmates in the maximum-security detention center on the other side of the building.

Both classes listened to and discussed “We Real Cool,” by Gwendolyn Brooks and an excerpt from a story by the novelist Junot Diaz. They also read selections from The Beat Within, a collection of writings by incarcerated young people from across the country.

The shelter care, explained center director Valerie Weber, “is a port in a storm. It’s a place to go while other things are worked out.”

It’s for 12- to 18-year-olds whose foster care arrangements have broken down, kids who are in an intensive youth and family stabilization program. Sometimes, Weber said, it’s for kids who have nowhere else to go because both their parents are in jail. That side is operated under the auspices of the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The detention side is under the purview of the Department of Corrections and is reserved for kids charged with “detainable offenses” whose cases have not yet been adjudicated.

Weber said she welcomed Free Verse into the center because “learning how to express themselves—it’s really important. That’s why I’m interested in this program. It gives these kids a voice.”

Warren expressed the same idea, only a little more broadly.

“The goal is to give these kids an opportunity for engagement,” she said. “It gives them a little more freedom.”


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

In a writing class at the youth detention center in Billings, a young man gathers his thoughts before employing his pencil.

Hissom, for her part, said one of her goals “is to try to get the kids to write something—anything—because so many of them are resistant.” But they are also generally mature for their age and they’ve experienced so much, she said, so once they do start writing, “they’re so darn good at it.”

Kahn had previously volunteered in juvenile halls in San Francisco, and when she moved to Missoula to work on a master’s degree in literature and an MFA in fiction, she wanted to continue doing that outreach.

But there was no organization in Missoula like the one she worked for in San Francisco, she said, so “I was like, well, I guess I’ll start one. Once they let us in, it became a bigger part of my life than I thought it would.”

In San Francisco, she said, the detention centers were huge and there were many volunteers working on all sorts of programs.

“Which is one of the things I love about Montana,” she said. “There aren’t a ton of resources, but doors open in ways that they wouldn’t in San Francisco or other big cities. We just really got close to these kids. … We’re some of the few people that see them consistently that aren’t guards.”

When she started the program, Kahn enlisted a couple of friends from the MFA program, and all of them were volunteers. But she realized that if Free Verse was going to last and have a real impact, she needed to be able to pay her teachers stipends, so she started applying for grants.

One of the project’s main supporters is the Missoula Writing Collaborative, and other donors include the Washington Corp., the Montana Arts Council and Humanities Montana. Free Verse also ran a Kickstarter campaign to launch its fund drive and continues to receive individual donations.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Free verse instructor Brittani Hissom participates in a writing exercise during a visit to the shelter care side of the Ted Lechner Youth Services Center.

Hissom, who works as a legal assistant and waitress in Billings, earned her master’s degree in literature from UM and heard about Free Verse from Kahn during the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula.

Kahn also mentioned the project to Tami Haaland, a poet and professor at Montana State University Billings, who talked about it with Warren, who also teaches writing at MSUB and at Billings elementary schools through Arts Without Boundaries. Hissom and Warren decided to start a Billings chapter of Free Verse.

Hissom used to teach undergraduate writing and literature classes at UM, and said teaching at a detention center “is a whole different social world we’re stepping into. It takes some adjustment.” And even though the kids in the detention center are required to attend the classes, she said, “they’re almost unanimously grateful.”

“These kids are so open and honest and they have so few people to talk to,” Kahn said. “You feel so close to them after meeting them once. … These kids are the best kids in the world.”

Warren said Kahn has intentionally recruited other women to teach the classes because the authority figures most of the kids in detention centers have dealt with in their lives are men. “This is something a little more relaxed,” Warren said.

Kahn said she wants to continue expanding the program to other parts of Montana because “it’s just something people don’t think about too often—incarcerated kids.”

It means so much to the young people they’ve come in contact with, she said. She told of another young man, this one at the detention center in Missoula, who was detached and disengaged during the Free Verse class and in school in general.

“And one day he wrote a poem about his dad committing suicide,” Kahn said. “He said that was something he hadn’t really talked about.”

He continued writing and then he started producing drawings, too, and doing some really good work.

“He’s become much more vocal and engaged,” Kahn said. “He’s something of a star.”

Epistolary poem

(From a letter to a little sister, by an inmate at the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City.)

For all the times I said good bye
I’m writing now to say hello
For all the times I made you cry
I’m writing now to say I know
For all the times you’ve prayed to god
And asked him how or why
I’m writing now to say please
Just let your heartache go
For all the times I said good bye
I’m writing now to say hello

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