Art Activism Propels New Juvenile Detention Policies

The cover of “Caged Birds Sing contains bold brown brush strokes that could represent bars.  This compelling 18-page booklet published by the Maryland ACLU, written entirely by girls at a juvenile justice facility near Baltimore, explodes with their artwork. The gifted adult ally, a brilliant young attorney, writes in the preface: “I cannot stress enough how completely this report is that of the girls themselves…I simply typed up their comments and strung them together, making minor changes or additions for tone, clarity and consistency only when necessary.”

One painting accompanies the commentary: “The Waxter building feels like a cage–not a place to help girls learn to do better.” Their heart-wrenching poems pack real punch:

Rescue Me (by T.)
Take me away from this world
full of hatred.
Give me the oxygen to breathe
before I don’t make it.
Rescue my heart before the
beating stops.
Wipe away every single tear
before it drops.
Give me the confidence I need
to feel good about myself.
Help me even when I say I don’t need help.
Tell me all the things I do best,
Before it’s too late and I live
my life full of regrets.

Unlike most reports that use graphs, quotes or photographs to break up the dense content, every page of “Caged Birds Sing” makes a splash with artwork and concludes with 41 specific recommendations.  The Baltimore Sun newspaper and other media paid attention which increased pressure on state juvenile justice authorities who adopted three significant proposals:

  • Create an evening reporting center for girls in Baltimore City, as an alternative to detention.
  • Hire more staff and make sure that the staff you have get good training/know the rules, and treat us respectfully.
  • Give girls the same types of opportunities you give boys, like hands-on experiences and different types of job training programs

This document demonstrates how “youth voice” and art activism, when combined with media advocacy and direct action with policymakers, can make a lasting impact.