Before the age of 15, Will Roy would write love poems to girls for recreation. But when he was faced with six years in juvenile hall for robbery, it became his survival mechanism, he said.
After being introduced to the writing program The Beat Within while in jail, Roy, an undeclared student at SF State, was able to continue expressing his reality apart from the stigmatized personae that accompanied incarceration.
“[Writing] was a liberating experience,” said Roy, 25.
Now, as a free man motivated by what had once helped inspire him to change when he was behind bars, Roy –– along with criminal justice major Perry Jones, 25, and business management and entrepreneurship major, Nick Jones, 23 (not related) –– is helping to produce and facilitate The Beat Within.
“In jail, everyone you talk to is virtually telling you stuff that you need to do or should have done. But [The Beat Within] is all about helping [the teens] get their experiences out,” said Roy. “They’ve been told that they haven’t had anything to say for so long that now they have a chance they take it and run with it.”
The Beat Within is a writing and conversation program in Bay Area juvenile halls that allows incarcerated youth to write for the weekly magazine that has grown out of the program.
“It’s like an out-of-body experience for me [going back to juvenile hall]. It’s where my journey started at… I don’t consider them as ‘them.’ I see them as me,” said Perry Jones, who was found guilty by association to an accidental killing and served nine and a half years. “But then it motivates me ‘cause I know how much work needs to be done. [The youth] are dealing with a lot of trauma and they don’t always have opportunity to heal up those wounds.”
The Beat Within was founded in 1996 as part of the Pacific News Service, after a social worker inside San Francisco’s Youth Guidance Center, SF State alumnus David Innocencio, realized a vital need for the voices of the youths he worked with to be heard.
“[Innocencio] noticed that all these kids, supposedly the ‘outcasts,’ ‘fuck ups’ of the community, were dying to say something,” said Nick Jones, 23, who served three and a half years after being convicted as an accomplice to a shooting.
An hour-long workshop is held every week at 50 different juvenile hall units in San Francisco, Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin and Santa Cruz counties in California, as well as in the Walden House Facility, Natural Bridge Juvenile Correctional Center in Virginia and Maricopa County in Arizona.
“We watch many of [these youth] fall in and out of the system… grow up in the system. The Beat Within is the most consistent thing in their lives,” said Innocencio.
The program also reaches out to juvenile halls in New York, Rhode Island, New Orleans, Los Angeles and New Mexico, according to Innocencio.
“They get a sense of joy and self-respect when they see their writing,” said Nick Jones. “They can take [the magazine] to their moms and are hella happy, which helps them mentally, paints a picture in their heads that ‘I am capable of anything.’”
With about 100 pages of writing from over 500 to 1,000-plus contributors per week, the magazine includes the contributions of other imprisoned youth and adults around the country who have discovered the Beat through its Web site, outreach and word of mouth.
To protect their identity, some writings are published anonymously or go unnamed. But most are published under a nickname that the teen creates for himself or herself.
The Beat’s program facilitators encourage the youth to tell their personal stories and be as real as possible.
“They’re our greatest facet to what’s going on in their communities, what’s going on in society today, telling you what’s missing, what’s needed and what’s wrong with the family dynamic,” Innocencio explained.
“Some stuff is disturbing, but it lets them get it off their chest,” said Perry Jones.
Every week, three topic ideas are pre-selected for participants to choose from and write on during the session, although they are not limited solely to those topics.
“‘If you had 24 hours to live what would you do?’ to serious topics that delve deep… ‘What was your earliest memory of violence?’ ‘Why do you feel the system is broken?’ ‘Why do you feel like you got locked up?’… and a light topic, that’s usually universal, like ‘What would you do if you had three wishes?’” said Roy.
The magazine has a readership of a couple thousand, it circulates to participating juvenile halls and is sent to parents, judges, parole officers and to subscribers across the country.
“It gives others a better understanding of who they are as a person, instead of seeing them as just a case,” said Perry Jones. “Many people want to do so much for the youth; be the Good Samaritan, but most people are reluctant to actually face the harsh reality that [incarcerated youth] want to express and just listen.”
“Growing old behind bars/ Only build inner scars/ They always want to/ Get in your face/ Shakin’ up that stupid mace/ But if they were here in our place/ They could never/ See us face to face.” This is an excerpt from a piece written by an incarcerated youth pen named Aleshia, titled “A Lot of Things Happen Behind Bars.”
Every Thursday, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. in Humanities 283, Beat Within workshops are held at SF State for those who wish to contribute to the Beat Without, a section in the magazine containing writing from those who are still incarcerated, but no longer participate in the workshop and from others beyond juvenile and prison walls.
Visit The Beat Within at http://www.thebeatwithin.org and subscribe to the Beat for free.