Veterans of youth detention, teens who have lived on both sides of Victoria Youth Custody Centre’s walls, are sharing their wisdom in an effort to keep other young people out of jail.
Six youth in custody contributed to a graphic novel based on personal experiences – their hopes, fears and challenges as they attempt to successfully transition back into society.
“We took kids who were in the system quite a bit to share their insider knowledge to other youth who are new to the system,” said project co-ordinator Kate Creedon, a counsellor at the custody centre. “The ones who are in and out are experts in what to do and what not to do because they’ve lived it for years.”
Creedon was a graduate student researching youth transitioning out of custody through the University of Victoria’s Centre for Youth and Society during the creation of the graphic novel.
In and Out follows Corey as he violates his probation, reenters the custody centre, builds a relationship on the outside and fights pressure from his brother to reoffend.
The story is based on the experiences of the authors and their peers who were successful in transitioning out of custody – a process they agreed was reliant on establishing new, healthy relationships, connecting to school or training programs and finding employment. But with incarcerated youth in B.C. reading at an average Grade 4 level, job prospects are dim. The 76 per cent recidivism rate in the province is closely correlated to their literacy skills, Creedon said.
As Creedon helped the teens identify which ideas they wanted most to impart on new offenders, some would stop short of writing on the white board for fear of demonstrating weak language skills in front of their peers.
“We just talked about (that) we were trying to educate people about literacy and take the shame out of it. They were willing to work through that together and be patient with each other and write as a team, to use each others’ strengths and weaknesses to come up with the final project.”
Words are paired with illustrations by Meghan Bell, a former employee of the Centre for Youth and Society, a research centre that promotes the health and well-being of youth.
The authors took ownership of both the content, reviewing pages from Bell as they were completed.
“I was surprised that a lot of the kids were really interested,” Creedon said. “I wasn’t really sure if the idea of the literacy angle would be appealing and I wasn’t sure if a graphic novel would be appealing, but they were really excited.”
The Centre for Youth and Society regularly disseminates research through a variety of mediums, including visual art and video, with the aim of making knowledge accessible to those who will make decisions and act on it, said Tricia Roche, manager of research and community partnerships for the centre.
“(We) wouldn’t have been satisfied with the knowledge sitting on a shelf in the library,” Roche said. “Not everyone’s going to sit down and read a thesis and people with literacy issues aren’t going to.”
The youth who participated can’t be identified, or contacted for interviews, but have submitted 100 per cent positive written feedback on the project.
“It was cool because it was real kids talking about real stuff,” wrote one youth.
“It was cool people trusted us to do this,” wrote another.
For Creedon, the steps between pitching the project to celebrating its completion with a group viewing of graphic novel-inspired film X-Men, didn’t come easily.
“It was one of the hardest groups that I’ve done,” she said. “I was so proud of my kids for completing this and working through the challenges and being patient with the process and I’m thrilled that the community is so interested in what they’re doing.”
In and Out will be distributed to youth custody centres across the province and is available to the public online at youth.society.uvic.ca. The Victoria Community Literacy Plan and the Victoria Family Court and Youth Justice Committee funded the project.