Connecting with Incarcerated Teens

Image of Hannah Macias sitting at her deskIMAGE: Courtesy of Erin Corwin

Hannah Macias

In the university’s Center for Civic Engagement and Learning (CCEL), the virtual volunteer opportunities are plentiful: sew face masks for people in need, talk with isolated senior citizens via Zoom, devise solutions to COVID-19 challenges during virtual Hackathons.

Junior Hannah Macias, already active in CCEL, wanted to help incarcerated youth.

Macias previously volunteered at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center through the student group Cleveland Liberty Expressions (CLE). Members met with youth and discussed poetry. But the pandemic brought restrictions no book deliveries, no roundtable poetry critiques.

"So what can we do?" wondered Macias. Write to teenagers, she and other CLE members decided.

They melded a "pen pal exchange" with ideas inspired by the Washington, D.C.-based Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, which helps people who are, or have been, incarcerated explore their literary voices. Campus volunteers exchange letters with teens ages 15 to 17 at the county detention center.

They seek to develop a sense of a common humanity and encourage the youth to express themselves through poetry and discuss literature they enjoy. "This is just simply to help get their minds off the severity of their situation," Macias said. "Not, 'You’re a prisoner, you’re in jail.' But, 'You’re a teenager, just like I am.'"

— Mark Oprea