‘Escape Route’ Exhibit Features Art, Poetry by Youth at Cook County Juvenile Detention Center

Last Friday, the Free Write Jail Arts and Literacy program held a book release and art show for the young men and women in its program. What makes this gallery show different from others is that all the featured poets, painters and artists created their work while in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where many of the artists are still held.

The book being released, entitled Escape Route, is the fifth anthology that Free Write has put together. In its introduction, program directors Amanda Klonsky and Ryan Keesling describe what they feel Free Write does for the people involved: “Our workshops provide students with a supportive space for self-expression and community-building inside an institution that can feel lonely and isolated.”

Free Write Instructor Elgin Bokari Playing Piano before the Poetry Slam

The book release was held at High Concept Laboratory at 1401 W. Wabansia, where original copies of the work of dozens of poets and visual artists featured in the book were up on the walls.  The event also featured a poetry slam.

Roger Bonair, a poet and a teacher in the program, hosted the live performance. He acknowledged the difficulty of reaching or materially changing the life of a person in the detention center, but went on to say that that change isn’t the only aim of the program. Free Write also looks to help students define themselves not just by whatever crime put them into jail, but also as something more. “Maybe they still think of themselves as a hustler, but maybe now it’s, ‘I’m a hustler and a poet, a hustler and a painter, or a murderer and an MC.’”

The poetry itself is often grim, a lot of young people dealing with difficult situations, but at the same time, much of it is aspirational.  It’s full of young men and women hoping to be better or do something else with their lives. What it’s not full of is irony or artifice.

The first lines from this poem by Kenneth L. are an example of that sincerity.


“Life will be tough 

if you don’t believe to change

Life will be tough 

if you don’t receive the change 

Life will be tough

from now til then.”


Free Write’s work is ongoing.  Information about the program is available on their website, freewritejailarts.org.

 This article was originally published in Extra Newspaper.  It’s available in English and Spanish on their website.