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Out Of Juvenile Corrections, Poems Of Fury, Loss — And Lingering Beauty

"If you can write this out and give it to society," Jimmy Santiago Baca told NPR last month, "it's going to allow them to take the blinders off and see what's really going on with you in your life."
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"If you can write this out and give it to society," Jimmy Santiago Baca told NPR last month, "it's going to allow them to take the blinders off and see what's really going on with you in your life."

It has been nearly a month now since National Poetry Month wrapped up, but don't let the calendar fool you: All Things Considered still has some unfinished business with the month that was.

That's because, just a few weeks ago, NPR's Michel Martin checked in with the Words Unlocked poetry contest. The competition — launched in 2013 by the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings — drew more than 1,000 poem submissions from students in juvenile correctional facilities across the country.

Here's how the final judge of the contest, poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, broke it down then.

"They have a national program where kids submit their work, and they go into literacy programs in the facilities," Baca said. The students' work "goes to several judges, and ultimately it gets to me. And I have to pick the winners out of the top 15 poems."

Well, Baca and company have now picked those winners for 2016. After three rounds of reviews, two poets emerged with a tie for first place: C.R., from Utah's Salt Lake Valley Detention Center, and Kevin, who is at Duval Academy in Florida.

Because they are minors, NPR could not use their last names, but the poets themselves did us one better — they recorded their winning poems for us.

Below, you can find those poems in full, together with audio of the poets winning their work aloud. And you can read more of the Words Unlocked finalists right here.

I feel the heat in my body like I am bathed in sun.
Palms sweaty. Muscles tensed. Tears well up.

I won't let them run.

My face red, the flames of fire, angry thoughts screaming louder than the screeching of a vulture over a traveler's carcass.

I look for a way to escape the flames, but I am trapped in a box.

Punching white walls as jagged as rocks, my knuckles bleed.
I want to shout behind the green door that won't let me out.

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie – to me they're all the same. I feel more like the number on my file than my real name. When I speak to my father, I leave ashamed. I try to do my best but anger, stress, sadness are hidden in my chest, heart, soul.

Group homes, proctor care, secure facilities hanging over my head like a
knife swinging from a rope.

They try to dissect me. I guess they're curious.

I don't even understand: Why am I so furious?

Visions of joy slowly spiral
into view, mid-slumber

Desire always hits hard

I remember the paleness of her features,
recognize her desperate pleas

but I'm lost
like the first chances
I will never get back

I lie in bed, consumed
by her breathtaking smile

I reach out

as she drifts further and further away

I awake from my slumber
hoping to see her
by my side

Reality hits me hard
like a hurricane in mid-August

strikes me like the uppercut
I wasn't expecting

fills my body
with a familiar, pulsing pain

All I can see
are the white brick walls


The tree branches sag
outside the bars of my window

The scenery brings me back
to a small town in North Dakota,
a place I found comfort

I think back to hiking up a hill
on a beaten path overgrown with vegetation

I remember my grandpa,

remember our first tee-off
under a sky of velvet,

how proud he was
when I scored my first par

But I'm still here

on the top bunk,
a cold, dull slab I call home


I strain to see them
from behind these numbing bars

There is beauty in the struggle
I must remember that

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.