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The following poems originally appeared in a two-part anthology of incarcerated youth poetry: “My Life is Hard to Do” and “I’m Trying to See Free.” The poems were written by minors at the Monmouth County Youth Detention Center in New Jersey as part of a series of poetry workshops held there in 1997. They were shared with us by Flora T. Higgins, a local librarian who had led the workshops

“It is difficult for even experienced writers to create a finished poem in a workshop setting,” Higgins wrote in the introductory section of the book. “The young writers showed courage and imagination, verbal facility, a sense of humor, and in some cases, an impressive depth of emotion in the poems they created.”

According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, each day there are more than 48,000 youth incarcerated across the United States. They are held in a variety of different facilities from dedicated youth detention centers to adult prisons and jails.

In this first installment of a three-part series, PJP is featuring poems that deal with family relationships. They communicate a yearning to reconnect with family, despondence at slowly forgetting a loved one’s face, and, in one case, a desire to see the young writer’s own daughter.


When my mom talks
She makes me quake
She fills my mind with love and hate
She holds my heart
Then stomps it dry
Never to worry whether I laughed or cried.
I love my Mom,
I love her well.
But sometimes I feel
Like I’m living in hell.

Laugh Once More

I see you
I see you not
I see you laugh

Mom, why do you tear out
Why do you come out
Why won’t you stop tearing out

Let me tell you a joke
To cheer you up
Laugh once more
Just hear me out.


I wish I was red white and blue
I used to be those colors, but now I am just blue
If I were an animal I’d like to be a butterfly
I seem to be guilty, but I am really innocent
If I could have another chance I would prove to you that it’s worth it
My grandfather used to say that I’m his darling angel
The thing I admire most is how everyone is trying to help me start over
I regret the bad choices I made
What bothers me most is I’m only 13 and I’ve been here many times in my early life

My Baby Girl

When I first saw you,
I thought that I would cry,
Now not being able to see you
Makes me want to die.
Because you mean the world to me.
And I am begging God please
That when I go to court they set me free
So I can be with my baby girl.
And try to bless her with the whole wide world.

Whenever I look at your picture
I think about how much I miss yah.
And once I get you in my arms how much I will hug and kiss yah.

I will try my best to keep you away from harm.
And every chance I get I will hold you in my arms.

I love you so much
I will give anything to feel your touch.

I really with that you was here
And when I think about you I shed a million tears.

The thought of losing you is an awful fear
They say I may not be able to see you for a year
But that is not what I am trying to hear.

But if that is the way things work out,
I just want you to know that I love you without a doubt.

I will always care
And I will also try to be there.

But for now I will say goodbye.
And try my hardest not to cry.

I love you my baby girl.
And never forget you are my whole world.


A faded picture, as each day goes by
She doesn’t only fade in pictures
She fades by the wink of an eye.
I look out the window hoping and wishing she was there
But now I notice all I see is a trailer,
And I get left with a tear.
I’m trapped behind a reddish scraped up door.
Knowing but not wanting to think I can’t see her no more.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Max Grinstein is the prison newspaper project editor at PJP. Previously an editorial intern, Max has been affiliated with PJP since his freshman year of high school.

Max developed an interest in prison journalism while researching The Angolite prison newspaper at Louisiana State Penitentiary for a school project. Inspired by stories from PJP writers, Max led a successful legislative initiative in Nevada in 2023 to provide free phone calls to the state's female incarcerated population. He is currently an undergraduate at Yale College.