Letters Keep Incarcerated Youth Connected in Terrifying Times

A collage of letters to and from youth who have been incarcerated during the coronavirus outbreak. Image by Christine Ongjoco

In late March, as the coronavirus outbreak spread across the country, we published a heartfelt appeal from David Domenici on behalf of incarcerated youth. He has made it his life’s work to ensure that incarcerated youth are assured a quality education, and asked for letter writers to help keep youth who are locked up connected with the outside world. 

Today we follow up with an abridged letter from Domenici about the impact the letter campaign has had. 

It’s hard to believe that it’s May. My twins, Lucca and Indigo, turned 15 since I last wrote to you. We celebrated at our home, together. Plenty of young people held in confinement had birthdays while separated from their families. 

I want to thank each of you who have stuck with us and continued to write letters to young people locked up. For showing them that you care about them, and are thinking of them. We originally intended this campaign to run for one month. We are extending it through May because our kids need you in their lives right now.

What a committed, caring and diverse group you are. You include a student living in Spain, a city councilmember from Seattle, a high school sophomore from Palo Alto, a law professor from Hawaii, a justice reform advocate from New York City, and a family writing from Maryland.

We know that after five weeks of writing, often without hearing back from students, this effort can be tiring. But you are sticking with it. Thank you for that. One of you “commissioned” a friend to create a cartoon for your student, plenty of you are watching “The Last Dance,” and sharing your thoughts about Michael Jordan with your students; one of you gave birth on Monday and still submitted a letter by Wednesday. That’s commitment!

Thank you for sharing and for letting a young person far away, separated from you by miles and miles and cinder blocks and locked gates and a failed juvenile justice system premised on false notions of how to make our communities safe know you care enough to let them into your life. And thank you for asking them how they are faring. 

A collection of letters to and from incarcerated youth. Image courtesy of David Domenici

Shoshana, an illustrator and graphic designer, asks her student, Lauren, to please take care of herself. She lets her know that she does so by reading poetry, and goes on to share Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day, a gorgeous poem that starts with a detailed observation of a grasshopper and finishes with the question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 

Cymone, with a fun, upbeat handwriting, begins casually with her student: “Hey, checking in again from NYC!” After a bit about the rainy April, and her hope for a sunnier May, she reminds Kyden, her student, that “The spirit is resilient and can find ways to get through even the toughest of times. Even when we’re separated from our friends, family and others, our spirits are connected. Please know you are not alone. I’m thinking about you and sending positive vibes your way.”

Sarah, in perfect cursive, tells Jeremiah to “please know that I think about you each day, and wonder what your circumstances are. Remember, this situation does not define you or who you are.” And later she reminds him, “Stay positive, Jeremiah. I am sending you my best wishes.”

Once again, below is a montage of some of the recent letters that volunteers have shared. You can click on the image to read them. 

Our students continue to persevere. Last week I was able to join a video conference call with a young person in an adult jail. He shared a message to our staff, mostly filled with thanks and good will. There he was, locked in his tier – in a facility where COVID-19 is rampant – thanking the staff for caring for him, for supporting him and for treating him as a student and a scholar. And letting us know that “I keep all of you in my prayers, that y’all don’t get sick. I hope that each of you is standing tall and keeping your head up.” 

I was there, seeing him, listening to him, really hearing him. And it just didn’t make any sense to me. He’s 17 years old. He’s in jail. He’s afraid. And he’s telling us to stay safe and be strong. 

Bearing witness often doesn’t make sense. 

As we have written to you, it remains difficult for many students to write to volunteers. But some are able to send letters and notes back. They are sweet, caring and curious. Some tell bad jokes, too!

One student – whose volunteer has shared that she has two young children – asks: “What do your kids want to do when they grow up? What do you do for a living?” She concludes with: “I would like to say thank you so much for writing letters and keeping me in your prayers. You’re always in mine … I will write more soon. Until then.” 

Another student, responding to a volunteer who has shared that she’s been drawing to find strength, responds, “You’ve mentioned that you were thinking of drawing. So, I drew a quick drawing of what I believe is the tree of life. It’s nothing fancy, but I gave it a shot.” He closes out his letter dearly, “I hope you are having a beautiful day and I hope you get this note. Stay majestic-Jacob’e.”

Alanah, a student in Wyoming writes back to her volunteer thanking her for sending “corny jokes,” noting that “they give me a smile in this dark time.” She goes on to share one of her own: “What did daughter corn say to mother corn? Where’s popcorn?” Ouch.

A final student starts off his letter to his New York volunteer, “Greetings from someone in the universe” and goes on to write how he hopes to visit New York City one day. He closes his letter with a drawing that sums up what we are trying to do with this letter writing campaign: build connections.

I hope that each of you is well. That you keep the letters coming. That you let the students held in confinement know you care about them and their well-being. That you stay connected.

David Domenici is the founder of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings.

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