Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Beat Within: UNO Students Help Incarcerated Teens Write—and Breathe

Mike Mosko will always remember the day the 17-year-old boy came into the room, shaking uncontrollably before sitting down and burying his head in his hands.

Mosko, a University of New Orleans student, was visiting the juvenile corrections facility to try to help youth offenders find a measure of comfort in self-expression through a program called The Beat Within. But the heaviness on this teen was unavoidable.

Just breathe, Mosko advised the boy quietly before the start of the volunteer writing workshop. Breathe in for six counts and out for four.

In for six. Out for four.

Mosko, 24, a senior planning and urban studies major from Oakland, Calif., last year spearheaded the effort to bring The Beat Within, a biweekly magazine of writing by incarcerated youth, to New Orleans. Originally established 20 years ago by a social worker in San Francisco, The Beat Within’s concept is fairly simple.

Each week, volunteers visit detention facilities across the country, welcome the incarcerated teens to a group setting, provide them with writing prompts that they take turns reading aloud and discussing, then ask them to write or draw for a half-hour in response. The writings are compiled into a magazine that comes out every other week and is distributed to the writers. For each featured piece of writing, The Beat Within volunteers provide a written response designed to encourage them and spark further reflection.

“We’re giving them an opportunity to get their voices heard,” Mosko says. “They’re in a controlled environment where there’s always someone telling them what to do, so we try to be there for them and take them out of the facility. If they don’t want to write, it’s fine. We can talk about whatever. Whatever they want to write.”

The writings they get in response are equal parts inspiring and devastating, simple and complex.

“I never had a father,” writes a New Orleans boy named Devonte in one issue. “He was never in my life, but it never really bothered me. I never really even cared about a father because I guess I was used to it. But at the same time, that’s a bad thing, because if my father were in my life, I probably would have been better than I am and would know a lot more. As far as I know, my mom is my mother and father.”

“Your mother must be a very strong person,” the volunteers respond in the magazine. “Do you think the lack of a father figure, father-son relationship might affect your relationship with your own children?”

In another issue, a 17-year-old Jefferson Parish youth named Chico reflects on the hopelessness he feels knowing all his friends are either dead or in jail. “My best friend is in parish prison with a colostomy bag, facing death,” he writes. “I’m in on the same charges, but I’m in juvie.”

“That is some real-life talk, man,” the volunteers respond. “Too many of our friends and family are caught up in this system … While you go through this process, think about changes that you would make to prevent you, or someone else from getting caught up in the street life.”

The kid with his head in his hands had a name, too. Ryan. He didn’t start to contribute to the discussion right away. But each time Mosko and fellow UNO student volunteers Trey Caruso, Cameron Cameron Boissiere and others showed up at the Youth Study Center, Orleans Parish’s juvenile detention facility, Ryan returned, too, displaying more and more openness and, eventually, picking up a pen.

Mosko, who transferred to UNO after falling in love with New Orleans during a family vacation at 16, says he’s found working with the kids to be incredibly inspiring.

Though his mother had been volunteering for the program in California’s Solano County for years, it wasn’t until Mosko took a sociology course on juvenile delinquency with Elise Chatelain, then a visiting assistant professor, that he started to consider its applicability for youth detention programs in the New Orleans area.

Louisiana, after all, has the nation’s highest incarceration rate. Issues involving youth detention reform are frequently in the news.

Christopher Bruno, supervisor of the 55-bed Rivarde Juvenile Detention Center in Harvey, La., said he was reluctant at first to entertain Mosko’s pitch to bring The Beat Within to Jefferson Parish. Bruno had thumbed through a hard copy of the publication and wasn’t immediately sold.

But the soft-spoken, upbeat Mosko was persistent. Rivarde houses about 25 or 26 offenders per day, median age 16, 85 percent male, 75 percent African-American. Certainly, Mosko pressed, there was a need. At Bruno’s behest, teachers at the center met with Mosko and other student volunteers and told Bruno they were impressed with what the UNO group had to offer.

Just weeks after Mosko’s team started holding workshops twice a week, Bruno says, the youth participants were already showing enthusiasm for the program. Now, the number of weekly workshops has climbed to three. Mosko, Caruso and fellow UNO student Cameron Coulon are regular volunteers.

“The thing that I appreciate the most,” Bruno says, “is that when they come and they work with the kids and they talk to them for a while—at a time when I have very minimal programming in any way—the kids talk and they get a few things out and it doesn’t rile them up. In fact, it helps calm them down.”

Those who attend once become return customers, Bruno says.

David Inocencio, national director for The Beat Within, first had the idea of offering writing workshops to juvenile offenders in San Francisco two decades ago. He was looking for a way to give institutionalized youth a means of creative expression that went beyond the popular public testimonial format. “I thought, ‘There has to be another way, and maybe a more creative way, for those who are more introverted or cautious about what they want to say,’” he says.

Today, the program touches 5,000 youth per year in 25 institutions across six states. In addition to including voices of juveniles, a section in The Beat Within features the writing of imprisoned adults or adults who are in community treatment and want to share their insights and lessons with those younger than them.

Mosko’s crew started its outreach in May 2016 at the Youth Study Center in Orleans Parish. The students held weekly workshops until December, when the center saw a change in administration and halted programming.

While Mosko sought to expand the workshop to other youth facilities like Rivarde, the UNO students were welcomed into Odyssey House, an inpatient addiction treatment center for adults. There, the students interact weekly with people who are sometimes three times their age and are desperate to change.

They gather in a high-ceilinged room with stained glass windows on one wall and framed motivational sayings on another—sayings like, “What we can’t do alone, we can do together” and “You can’t keep it unless you give it away.” Unlike the often-guarded youth who the UNO students interact with during workshop, these adults seem to come hungry and ready to share.

“Are there more stories for us to write about?” asks a woman in her 50s after responding to two writing prompts. “I’m in a writing mood.”

“What y’all are doing, man, is beautiful,” a tattooed man says. “It’s a blessing.”

The Beat Within is fueled by donations to the program—dollars that cover printing and shipping of the magazine to the incarcerated youth across the U.S. who don’t have access to the internet. The establishment of the program in New Orleans makes Louisiana the only state in the South to have the program, Inocencio said.

Mosko, a senior bound for graduation in May, is working now with the Office of Service Learning and the Department of Sociology to make The Beat Within a permanent internship course that will help ensure the University’s students continue to lead this work. The project has been so inspiring to him that Mosko is currently creating a nonprofit organization to partner with The Beat Within to provide support for teens who have been released from juvenile detention by matching them with artist mentors.

Now, Orleans Parish Prison has given the nod for the group to start offering weekly programs to 16 youth detained there. Last year, a 15-year-old jailed at OPP was found dead of an apparent suicide. Mosko has been working hard to try to expand the scope of The Beat Within’s work and isn’t shy about sharing what he believes could be the impact of being in New Orleans’ prison.

“Our program,” he says, “has the potential to save a life.”

He means it.

Three weeks after Mosko and his team first met Ryan, one of the writing prompts included a simple question: What do you do when it gets hard?

Ryan’s response was brief.

“I breathe.”

Learn more about The Beat Within online at To donate to the New Orleans program, click “Donate” from the home page and select “The Beat Within by New Orleans.”

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University of New Orleans Office of Service Learning
The Beat Within
UNO Department of Planning and Urban Studies
UNO Department of Sociology