Inside the Collin County Juvenile Detention Center, a poetry program is unlocking potential in locked-up teens many never knew existed.
The push to poetry for incarcerated teens was started by former convict Jason Hernandez. In 1998, at age 21, Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison for dealing drugs.
"I wasn't a bad kid. I was just a kid who made bad decisions," Hernandez said.
After 18 years in prison, it was pen to paper that earned Hernandez his freedom. He wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, asking for clemency.
"Asking him to give me my life back," Hernandez said. "I put it together like my life depended on it, because it did."
The 40-year-old was released in 2014 and has spent the last several years mentoring youth.
One teen who has touched Hernandez deeply is a 16-year-old boy who began writing powerful poetry at Hernandez's insistence.
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The teen, whose identity we are concealing for his privacy, spent the last six months and two weeks in the Collin County Juvenile Detention Center's post adjudication long-term unit.
It was his fifth time in the facility.
"I made dumb decisions and it led me here," the teen said.
"He came here a very angry individual," said Ben Pedigo, a juvenile supervision officer who spends 12 hours a day with the incarcerated youth. "He was kind of lost, didn't really understand what he was wanting to do."
That was until he turned a page – and discovered his passion for poetry.
"I didn't know that I could do things. The only things I thought I could do was get in trouble. Because that's all I saw growing up, that's all I wanted to do growing up," the teen said.
But putting his emotions on paper, he said, unleashed a desire for learning – and for higher education.
The teen earned his GED while in juvenile detention and was released several days after our interview. He is now making plans to attend college to study business. His ultimate goal is to own and operate a zoo.
More than 50 teens wrote and submitted poetry about their lives, on topics ranging from drugs, abuse, rape and more. All of the poetry is available to read here.
Below is one of the poems written by the teen whom we interviewed for this story, titled "Life of Pain."
Born into a Life of Pain,
Cloudy and Stormy vision, sadness sprinkling on me like rain.
Mama chose drugs over her kids, is she insane?
She feels guilt but a rush of heroin will seduce the pain.
Dad working constantly, when he’s home he’s upset,
This is all I’ve know, this is as close to family as I’ll get.
Dad’s mad at my sister but she’s quick to blame it on me,
She’s smart, instead of hitting her, he’ll beat on me.
Mama won’t’ help, she’s too quick to get high,
This living is pain, would it be better off to die.
Some years passed, still full of pain and depression,
I thought maybe after some time, she’d learn her lesson.
Pops did, he apologized, now he just calls me a mistake for correction,
Looking to the streets so I can get well-needed affection.
Jumped into the life of smoking, I was only age nine,
At the age of ten, I committed my first crime.
I felt better at least a little, someone else felt my misery,
I thought maybe if I robbed, I could fix our poverty.
Fast forward, now I’m stealing and smoking, same as my mother,
Only when I’m locked up, do I and my family actually talk to each other.
Dad’s struggling, apologizing for the problems blaming himself,
If I did this, if I did that, then we’d have wealth.I realized only recently, change would come only through my mind,
If I change my thoughts, then maybe I’d change my grind.
I was born into a Life of Pain but I don’t have to live one,
I can only look forward, I can’t change what’s done.