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Teen inmates pen graphic novel about escaping criminal life

A scene from a graphic novel written by six adolescents in a British Columbia jail.

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Researchers are hoping that a graphic novel written by six adolescents in a British Columbia jail can help break the revolving-door syndrome in prisons and encourage literacy among young offenders.

With a recidivism rate for youth in B.C. jails at 76 per cent, and an average reading ability at the Grade 4 level, officials at the University of Victoria's Centre for Youth and Society thought a new approach was needed.

So masters student Kate Creedon, who works as a counsellor at the Victoria Youth Custody Centre, got a group of young inmates to write a graphic novel about their experiences.

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"I asked them: 'How do we get kids to stay out of jail? What do you wish you'd known when you first came here?'" said Ms. Creedon of the creative challenge she threw at them.

The result is In and Out, a graphic novel illustrated by Meghan Bell, a professional artist outside the system, based on a story line developed by the small group of 16-to-19-year-old inmates.

It follows the experiences of a young man who fights to get his life on the right track, while his brother and friends are trying to pull him back into a continued life of crime.

The goal of the project, Ms. Creedon said, was to both encourage literacy and find a way for repeat offenders to get across to their peers that there is a way to get out and stay out.

"They refer to themselves as frequent flyers," Ms. Creedon said. "They get out and then come right back in ... it is tragic."

She said the recidivism rate is in a large part due to the fact most young offenders have such poor literacy skills that they can't get jobs.

"One of the big challenges my kids face is just finding work, so they can get a paycheque and leave their other [criminal] endeavours behind," she said. "You can't do that if you can't read job postings, if you can't write a résumé."

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Ms. Creedon said the book, which is coming out this week, was done during a two-month period in which the group was challenged to write together – facing up to all their embarrassing spelling mistakes in the process.

"We met ... we brainstormed about ideas. They came up with the dialogue. They reviewed the graphics and made changes," she said. "It was intense and during the process I couldn't tell if they liked it or not."

But the feedback forms they filled out later showed they had.

"The program was good because it taught us a lot," stated one.

"It was cool because it was real kids talking about real stuff," said another.

One of the things that impressed her, was the way the group found ways to work together, instead of fighting.

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"Honestly, I was surprised at their desire to want to learn, to want to improve their skills, and to help others. They really wanted to give something back to society," she said.

The seven writers, who for privacy reasons are only identified on the book jacket by their first names, are: Kristian, Shymon, Lorne, Brandon, Devon and Mark.

Prison officials would not allow them to be interviewed for this story.

Ms. Creedon said the adolescents have not yet seen the finished book, which is due to be delivered any day, but they have had a party to celebrate the end of the project.

"We had pizza and watched X-Men, because it's a graphic novel that got turned into a movie," she said.

Tricia Roche, research manager at the Centre for Youth and Society, praised the project, saying Ms. Creedon had taken her research into illiteracy and recidivism, and turned it into something that kids in jail might use.

"It is really an interesting vehicle. We could have had her publish [an article] in an academic journal, but then the youth would never have been able to read it," she said.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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