Who sets the direction for social change? For young people working to solve problems in their neighborhood, state, or the world at large, speaking out about their lived experiences, sharing their solutions, and being truly heard are critical parts of making lasting peace and justice.

As of Oct. 28, 2013, 40 young people under 18 are locked up in Philadelphia’s adult jails, awaiting court decisions on whether to keep their cases in adult court or try them as juveniles. Each one has been accused of attempting or committing a crime that, under Pennsylvania’s Act 33, prosecutors can contend is an adult crime that should be tried in an adult court.

There’s a sense of urgency built into the juvenile system that recognizes that young people are in a critical period of development; the adult system moves at a slower pace. Defendants are supposed to be brought to trial within 365 days, though in reality, people often wait much longer for their day in court.

Youth accused as adults are caught in an Act 33 loophole—there’s no limit to the time they might wait for the system to decide where their case will be heard, and that time doesn’t count toward the 365-day, pre-trial maximum in adult jail. Some spend years waiting. They enter jail barely teenagers, and leave nearly adults—returning home to try to pick up with their lives, or heading upstate to serve a sentence in a state prison.

A bright light in the darkness of having critical years of your life caught between systems is the weekly art, poetry, and music workshops that the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project (YASP) runs in Philadelphia jails. Participants released from jail have gone on to work for YASP, supporting youth in adult jails and advocating for an end to Act 33. They’re part of the national movement to end the school-to-prison pipeline and reform the way the U.S. approaches criminal justice.

Sarah Morris facilitated YASP workshops as a fellow with AFSC’s National Criminal Justice program in 2005–06 and was among the group that subsequently transitioned YASP into an entirely youth-led organization. She talks about why YASP works the way it does:

Quoted: Sarah Morris

There’s not a lot you can control when you’re locked up.

You have people basically telling you when to eat, when you can watch TV, when you can use the phone, when you can do everything, and what you think and write is one of the few things you can control. It’s as if it’s really set up to break people down.

I’ve seen writing act as a really important tool to maintain some sense of yourself and what you stand for and what you believe in. It can be a tool to fight back against a system that is constantly telling you that you don’t matter, that you’re not fully human, that you’re a number.

Krip is a really talented poet. He went through the workshop, and now he’s upstate at Pine Grove, serving a six-year sentence. Here is something he sent me:

My poetry is not merely just a hobby. It’s what keeps me sane. With no other outlet to express what I hate, love, and pity, I turn to the lines on the white backdrop and empty my mind by filling the paper. In prison it may seem you have no distractions, but my mind never stops anticipating. I think about more than I knew was possible. Everything makes more sense when I write, so I write. My fuel comes from what I’ve been through—abuse, neglect, hatred, fear, and what I’ve lost. It’s unexplainable in my mind yet it makes sense in ink.

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Lasting change happens when the people who are most affected by the problem are at the forefront of the fight. Young people are most impacted by the law and by violence—they have the best understanding of what it’s going to take to stop violence in Philly.

I think that young people who have been incarcerated in adult facilities ... have the deepest understanding of how that impacts people and what needs to be changed, and, I think, can provide a vision of what we should be doing differently.

I also think, in general, young people tend to have a little bit of a broader political imagination, and don’t as easily fall into the trap of just accepting things as they are. A lot of the young people in our workshops have a strong desire not to see their kids, or their young siblings, go through the things that they’ve gone through. So I think there’s a strong sense of urgency about why we need things to work differently.

YASP is focused on making long-term change, and in the short-term, thinking about how to empower people who are most directly affected and support people on a daily basis. It’s important that young people are the staff of YASP because there’s a lot of power that comes with doing the everyday work of the organization. You feel invested in the organization.

Find YASP online: www.yasproject.com