Poetry anthology gives voice to immigrant children in prisons

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AUGUSTA COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) — Following an Associated Press report of alleged abuse of immigrant children housed in the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, state officials are investigating the facility and a lawsuit is moving forward.

A book published by a Washington and Lee professor offers new insight into the mindset of immigrant children who are reported to have crossed the border alone and find themselves housed in prisons.

The Associated Press reported that poems in the anthology "Dreaming America" were written by immigrant children in the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center. Washington and Lee Professor Seth Michaelson published the book, working with a Washington and Lee undergraduate class this past fall.

He cannot confirm where they were working, but there are two maximum security detention centers used to house juvenile immigrants in the country; one in California, and one in Verona, only about 45 minutes from the university.

"Dreaming America" is a collection of poems written by immigrant children housed in a maximum security prison.

"All I can say is that they're all from one institution where I have been volunteering to lead poetry workshops," said Dr. Michelson.

The book is a window into the minds of incarcerated children.

"There are a lot of poems about sadness, loneliness, isolation, self-harm and suicide," said Dr. Michelson.

Some are despairing; others are hopeful, as the children write about their dreams.

"Wanting to come here. Wanting to make friends, wanting to become a chef, a musician, a mechanic, a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher," said Dr. Michelson.

Dr. Michelson says poetry is a unique way for incarcerated people to communicate.

"It's good to speak it, it's a pleasure to hear it, the language is very musical and enrapturing," he said.

Some of the children were illiterate, and many had a second grade education level. The undergraduate students worked with the children, helping them to write the poems.

"They were capable of tremendous trust, compassion, spirit, generosity, and humor," said Dr. Michelson.

Michelson says since these children are here, in our care, it's our responsibility to nurture them.

"I tried helping them to reclaim that sometimes dampened or darkened space in their imagination of joy and love and kindness, compassion," he said.

Attorneys for the immigrant teens alleging abuse in the Shenadoah Valley Juvenile Center are pushing ahead with a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Immigrants as young as 14 at the center said they were beaten, locked away in solitary confinement for long periods of time and left alone naked in cold cells. The AP's reporting also cited an adult who saw bruises and broken bones the children said were caused by guards. In court filings, officials at the detention facility denied all the allegations of physical abuse, which the lawsuit asserts happened between 2015 to 2018, during both the Obama and Trump administrations.

The book's publishing company, "Settlement House," donates all proceeds from book sales to a legal fund for the children. When teens in this situation receive legal representation, their chances of being freed rise.

You can purchase the book at this link.