Writing Behind Bars
SU faculty member brings literacy to incarcerated teens
The College of Education’s Stephanie Guerra listens to girls read aloud what they’re inspired to write while incarcerated at the King County Juvenile Detention Center.
They peek out the slim windows of their individual cells with curiosity. The heavy metal doors unlock simultaneously and eight girls at the King County Juvenile Detention Center walk to a common area for their literacy and writing class. The average age is 15. There’s a look of vulnerability among most. Drug charges, first-degree assault and domestic violence are typical reasons they’re incarcerated here.
Within minutes, Stephanie Guerra has a captivating effect on the girls.
It was a passion for literacy that drew Guerra to work with incarcerated girls and women. As a Seattle University adjunct professor in the College of Education’s Literacy for Special Needs program, Guerra volunteered for seven years as a creative writing teacher for women at the King County Jail when she felt she also wanted to teach literacy to teenage girls at the county’s juvenile detention center, just south of the campus.
She says her real motivation is twofold: a higher religious calling to serve and a kinship with these teens.
“Writing has been a tool for me profession-ally, emotionally and socially and I want them to have this tool, too,” she says. “I want them to write for joy and healing.”
Guerra discovered healing is the number one reason the incarcerated choose to write.
“In many cases, they’ve had terrible educational experiences in the past so I try to show how there can be magic and fun in writing. … I just step back and let it happen,” says Guerra, author of Torn, a young adult novel Writing Behind Bars SU faculty member brings literacy to incarcerated teens about teen girls who encounter bullying, an abusive relationship, drug use and other gritty issues.
She starts her weekly class at the juvenile detention center by reading aloud. Typically she selects young adult street literature with tales of caution or redemption.
Unna Kim, the detention center’s recreational coordinator who supervises Guerra’s efforts, says the girls frequently are mesmerized by Guerra’s readings.
“These are really talented, intelligent girls in unfortunate circumstances. Stephanie is like a ray of sunshine,” says Kim.
After her reading, Guerra talks about the craft of writing before the girls take about 20 minutes to write a few pages of their own, either fiction or nonfiction. Then they read aloud and discuss their work. (To see samples of their writing, visit www.seattleu.edu/magazine/.)
At the detention center, Kim says she’s blessed to have as much help as she does from community partners for recreational programming, Seattle University among them.
“It’s all about empowering these girls to share and heal,” Kim says.