By Sarah Shaney Reeves Director, Sending Solidarity At 27 years old, I am founder and director of a tiny grassroots organization called Sending Solidarity (SeSo). I began the organization by questioning what happens to youth who are adjudicated as adults: Where do they serve their time? What does that time look like? What services are they provided? And specifically, by asking: Are juveniles who commit adult offenses juveniles or adults? I place my faith in neuroscience and studies of trauma that state brains are still developing until age 25 and reflect the profound impact of environmental stressors on youth.  Whatever legal status these offenders have, SeSo believes these offenders are youth, and that youth have distinct developmental and physical needs that adult facilities struggle to meet.  SeSo feels youth would be best served in juvenile incarceration settings because of the programs that those institutions have that are specifically focused on still-developing brains. However, until that day comes, we strive to empower juveniles incarcerated in adult institutions by providing them with developmentally appropriate literature, an outlet for their creative writing and arts, and an intimate and real connection between them and their community through ongoing and continual correspondence. Approximately a year after founding this organization, every facet of Sending Solidarity is being affected by the wave of reforms to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) and the proposed changes to how youth are certified as adults. Who do these proposed reforms focus on? Are they about saving money? Protecting the general public from youth viewed as incorrigible? You see, I have met the 16-year-old youth who will carry “felon” next to their names for the rest of their lives.  I have been invited into the Clemens Unit in Brazoria, an adult prison housing anywhere from 50-80 male offenders between the ages of 14 and 18.   These youth are in the C.O.U.R.A.G.E. program for Youthful Offenders, separated by sight and sound from adult inmates in the prison. SeSo receives letters from youthful offenders, and the voices of these youth drip off the page and into our hands as they share poems and art and request books that will fill their minds and their hearts. The Contender is the first poem we received, from a Clemens youth about to age out of the C.O.U.R.A.G.E. program.

The Contender

Written by K.G.

Surely one learns,

Through suffering and pain in life as it

Twists and turns

When struggles arise I see my true ability,

It hurts when friends turn to associates,

then eventually enemies.

Words are uttered into the heart, and at

First believed.

The words uttered in time are shown to

Have one deceived.

Faces smile though thoughts plot.

It is exposed through character which

They cannot stop.

What the reflection reveals is only half,

But unravels many memories from a far

Past.

Surely one remembers,

From January to December,

The suffering, struggle and

Lies, but I rise above: The Contender.

The words of this youth contain basic truths we forget in the face of budget cuts, policy reform and legislation hearings.  We have all faced suffering and pain, and our behavior and responses are molded by each hurt.  These hurts and our response color our world and our work. We all share in the struggle: directors of organizations; youth searching for themselves behind bars and in the free world; advocates; legislators; and policy makers. Words surround us, and positive or negative, they take hold in our heart.  Words are as fossils in the sand and take root where they land and speak to those who begin to dig.  Through constant questioning and discernment, each of us rubs down the foggy mirror in wonder at the reflections of our lives.  Countless youth locked up behind bars have time to reflect but are given only pieces of the puzzle as they reconstruct their lives.  Collectively, we retell the same stories of past experiences, each time discovering a new truth, understanding the importance of change through action. To stand in solidarity with incarcerated youth is to reject the lie that any one person is less important than the rest.  Our youth were never meant to live in isolation, apart from their communities, separate from those who would help them discover their courage and wisdom.  We must rise above the history that keeps youth separate, silenced, and shackled. We must remember the basic truth - we are a community, of both free and incarcerated.  Only by recognizing the potential of that community do we rise up together. For more information about Sending Solidarity, contact Sarah Reeves at ssreeves@utexas.edu.