Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Beat Within VBehindW Column


Introducing the VBehindW Column

This past year joined The Beat Within family for a few sessions on Sundays to share out thoughts on weekly topics that facilitators were presenting to incarcerated youth and adults in workshop for the publication. The Beat hosted a Zoom Poetry Reading as well, dedicated to Beat colleague Pauline Craig. While The Beat family sessions on Zoom had to be discontinued to keep up with publication prep of the magazine, I'm thankful for the opportunity to connect with the founder of The Beat, Dave Inocencio to contribute a monthly column I title the VBehindW Column. VBehindW stands for Voices Behind Walls. In 2020, submitted several columns that included poems and writings titled, 'For the G'z from YGC (San Francisco)', 'For the Children Going Through It', 'When We ((listen)) to The Beat Within', 'Miracles', 'B.A.B.Y.', and the most recent for the 2020 wrap up issue, titled 'Dedicated to The Beat Within 2020'. I look forward to the year ahead and the opportunity to contribute to The Beat Within. It's an honor to be able to contribute to a publication that did so much for me in my development as a student and educator. 

Stay tuned!

(Click on the image to enlarge and see text to read!)

Friday, May 29, 2020

2019 Distinguished Resident: J. Paul Taylor

2019 Distinguished Resident: J. Paul Taylor

For his wide-ranging contributions locally and statewide, J. Paul Taylor has been named the Sun-News 2019 Distinguished Resident by Diana Alba Soular click here

"From working in the registrar’s office, Taylor shifted his career sights back to his childhood goal of education, becoming a sixth-grade teacher at Mesilla Park Elementary. It was the only job opening available to him at the time. He may have been the teacher, but, as he recalls, he was a student, as well. He spent his first year overcoming a big learning curve.

“Boy did I learn a whole lot,” he said with a chuckle. “I’d gone from college students who were just back from the war and who were very serious about their education to these little sixth-graders, who seemed very little then.”

A deep write up about the life of J. Paul Taylor. This note is to congratulate Mr. Taylor. I first met Mr. Taylor at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church on South Espina for a meeting with him, my CJ professor/mentor, and staff from the J. Paul Taylor prison. My goal was to propose an idea for a creative expression Hip Hop workshop at the J. Paul Taylor prison. He was a kind man, very open to ideas. He was very encouraging and overall the meeting went real well. For the next 10 years I'd have the chance to volunteer teach at the facility through our Voices Behind Walls program which had started a couple of years before at the Delta Youth Facility in El Paso.

I've always been interested in learning more about Mr. Taylor's involvement with juvenile justice issues in New Mexico. I've heard and from time to time saw him speak on the importance of addressing the juvenile injustice issues that seemed to be deeply rooted in New Mexico. I hope to learn more this in the future. There may be a few photographs I have somewhere of J. Paul Taylor's work with some of the programs I was involved in. There's not much mention of his connection to juvenile facilities one of which is named after him, the J. Paul Taylor Center. It's something worth exploring though, especially if there are any papers or reflections documented in J. Paul Taylor's historical records. 

Much thanks Mr. Taylor! I still remember that day at the Justice for Children symposium, when in a rare occurrence the facility had allowed a bunch of our participants that were incarcerated at the time to attend. You got up and asked one of our poets, "what can we do to help you? What can we do to help change things for the better?" And they answered your question. It was one of the most honest moments I'd seen in thinking about juvenile justice reform and just finally having a platform where an incarcerated youth could engage in a conversation with the public with a mic in his hand after having read his poetry. It was definitely a day to remember. Thank you for being kind to me and for encouraging me. It led to nearly a decade of connections with youth inside who were able to express themselves and document their voices. Some of them have passed on young, some of them are incarcerated for longer stretches of adult time, and some are finally expressing themselves outside the walls.What we refer to as our VOWs (Voices Outside the Walls). 

Thank you.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Beat Within 2020

The Beat Within 2020

Taking a moment to honor The Beat Within, a publication of art and writing from the inside...Here's to another year & all its challenges. Check them out at

Friday, November 29, 2019

Ear Hustle HQ

Ear Hustle HQ podcasts

It's been a while! While frequent updates are posted on the Twitter handle @vbehindw more often than not, I did want to slide into the VBW blog to put up a permanent note about this podcast right here. In a podcast landscape that continues to grow daily, this is one of the few that I often return to to make sure I don't miss a beat! Broadcasting out of San Quentin Prison, there is absolutely nothing like Ear Hustle. One of the most unique and interesting forms of storytelling about the American Legal System that I feel I've ever heard. It makes me wonder what other prisons sound like. It makes me wonder the role it plays in the lives of all those involved and how exciting it must be to embark on an opportunity as groundbreaking as the podcast universe. I'm a big fan of earhustle and encourage everyone to check in with this podcast at the following link:

Respect to the Ear Hustle family...can't even express how crazy it is to have followed Earlonne's journey from the inside out. That's a story I'll never forget, especially to hear it all develop through the podcast itself. Tune in world!

If you have a podcast that explores aspects of the American Legal System please reach out and let us know! We'd love to be your audience!

Monday, December 24, 2018

Tornillo Detention Camp (2,349)

An important article to reflect on as we move forward into the new year. Especially as we stop and think about incarceration, The New Jim Crow, immigration and the twilight zone that is our administration in the United States. 

Tornillo detention camp for migrant kids still growing

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) - TORNILLO, Texas (AP) - The Trump administration announced in June it would open a temporary shelter for up to 360 migrant children in this isolated corner of the Texas desert. Less than six months later, the facility has expanded into a detention camp holding thousands of teenagers - and it shows every sign of becoming more permanent.

By Monday, 2,349 largely Central American boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17 were sleeping inside the highly guarded facility in rows of bunk beds in canvas tents, some of which once housed first responders to Hurricane Harvey. More than 1,300 teens have arrived since the end of October alone.

Rising from the cotton fields and dusty roads not far from the dark fence marking the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the camp has rows of beige tents and golf carts that ferry staffers carrying walkie-talkies. Teens with identical haircuts and government-issued shirts and pants can be seen walking single file from tent to tent, flanked by staff at the front and back.

More people are detained than Tornillo's tent city than in all but one of the nation's 204 federal prisons, yet construction here continues.

The camp's population may grow even more if members of the migrant caravans castigated by President Trump enter the U.S. Federal officials have said they may fly teens from the caravans who arrive in San Diego directly to El Paso, then bus them to Tornillo, according to a nonprofit social service provider who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to publicly discuss the matter.

An Associated Press investigation has found that the camp's rapid growth has created problems, including:

- Costs appear to be soaring more than 50 percent higher than the government has disclosed: What began as an emergency, 30-day shelter has transformed into a vast tent city that could cost taxpayers more than $430 million.

- The government is allowing the nonprofit running the tent city to sidestep mental health care requirements: Under federal policy, migrant youth shelters generally must have one mental health clinician for every 12 kids, but shelter officials told AP the facility has just one mental health clinician for every 50 kids.

- Federal plans to close Tornillo by New Years' Eve will be nearly impossible to meet: There aren't 2,300 extra beds in other facilities. A contract obtained by AP shows the project could continue into 2020 and planned closures have already been extended three times since this summer.

Tornillo's teens were not separated from their families at the border this summer, but they're held there because federal immigration policies have resulted in the detention of a record 14,000 migrant children, filling shelter beds around the country to capacity. Almost all came on their own from Central America hoping to join family members in the United States.

Some children have been detained at Tornillo since the tent camp opened in June. As the population inside the tall wire fences swells, and as some children stay there longer, the young detainees' anguish has deepened.

"The few times they let me call my mom I would tell her that one day I would be free, but really I felt like I would be there for the rest of my life," a 17-year-old from Honduras who was held at Tornillo earlier this year told AP. "I feel so bad for the kids who are still there. What if they have to spend Christmas there? They need a hug, and nobody is allowed to hug there."

After his family passed extensive background checks, the teen was recently released to them, but said he still has nightmares he's back inside. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from immigration authorities.

Confining and caring for so many children is a challenge. By day, minders walk the teen detainees to their meals, showers and recreation on the arid plot of land guarded by multiple levels of security. At night the area around the camp, that's grown from a few dozen to more than 150 tents, is secured and lit up by flood lights.

The nonprofit social service agency contracted to run Tornillo says it is proud of its work. It says it is operating the facility with the same precision and care used for shelters put up after natural disasters.

"We don't have anything to hide. This is an exceptionally run operation," said Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman for BCFS Health and Human Services, a faith-based organization that runs Tornillo. "This isn't our first rodeo."

She said they have no guidance from the Trump administration regarding what will happen after Dec. 31.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mark Weber, said no decisions have been made about whether Tornillo will close by year's end as scheduled.

"Whatever it is we decide to do, in the very near future, we'll do a public notice about that," he said.


More than 50 years of research show institutionalizing young people is traumatizing, with harmful impacts on their psyche and life trajectories, prompting policymakers to seek alternatives to locking up children, said Naomi Smoot, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

"Hearing that more than 2,000 kids are in any kind of detention facility is alarming to me," she said. "That's not where kids should be around the holidays, particular when they haven't broken the law."

Most of the children locked inside Tornillo are never charged with a crime; crossing illegally into the U.S. is a civil offense. By law, migrant children traveling alone into the U.S. must be sent to a government shelter where they stay until they can be united with relatives or other sponsors while awaiting immigration court hearings. Migrant children's time in government custody has grown longer this year, in part due to the Trump administration's new requirements for deep background checks on sponsors who agree to take in young immigrants.

Tornillo currently has 3,800 beds for the teens, with 1,400 of those on reserve.

Annunciation House director Ruben Garcia, whose El Paso nonprofit works with recent immigrants, said Tornillo is far more secretive than other government shelters, where he and his staff are routinely allowed inside. At Tornillo workers must sign non-disclosure agreements and visitors are rarely allowed.

"What's happening inside? Nobody knows. They cannot speak about what they see," he said. "We've been doing this work for 20 years and we've never seen anything like this."

BCFS says the shelter at Tornillo has actually had more media, elected officials, advocacy organizations, child welfare experts and attorneys tour the site than any other operation for migrant children run by HHS. The nonprofit said confidentiality agreements are standard, to protect the privacy and rights of clients and those served.


In June, as migrant child detention centers overflowed, HHS announced it was opening a rapidly built tent city at Tornillo, with the idea that most kids would only stay a few days. But within the week there was talk of making a detention camp 10 times as big.

Because the detention camp is on federal property - part of a large U.S. Customs and Border facility - it is not subject to state licensing requirements.

BCFS, a San Antonio nonprofit, runs Tornillo as it operates evacuation centers for hurricanes: there's food, first aid, activities and rows of bunk beds, but no normal-life activities for stressed-out teens, like formal school or unsupervised stretches.

Federal officials have said repeatedly that only children without special needs were being sent to Tornillo. But facility administrators recently acknowledged to care providers that the Tornillo detainees included children with serious mental health issues who needed to be transferred out to facilities in El Paso in the coming days, according to a person with knowledge of the discussion. The person spoke on a condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly about discussions.

BCFS confirmed that the current ratio of mental-health clinicians to children is 1 to 50, and said that each child sees a mental health specialist every day.

"When a child is found to have a mental health need that cannot be best provided for at Tornillo, a request is made to HHS to transfer the child to a more appropriate facility," said Piferrer.

Dr. Ryan Matlow, a Stanford clinical psychologist whose work addresses the impact of early life stress, recently interviewed teens at Tornillo. He questions the facility's capacity to identify kids with special mental health needs given the large number of children and their tendency to suppress emotional distress in order to cope.

"The kids are able to get by in there, but the more time they spend in these sorts of facilities, the greater the consequences, especially when it comes to their emotional and psychological well-being," said Matlow. "It's a dangerous and harmful system for kids to be caught in."

Camilo Perez-Bustillo, who served as a Spanish-language interpreter at the camp earlier this month, said most of the two dozen children he met showed signs of depression and anxiety over when, or whether, they would be released. About two thirds are boys, and half of the teens are Guatemalan. There are no on-site interpreters for teens of indigenous origin who speak Spanish as a second language.

"They are all counting the days they are inside the way prisoners do," said Perez-Bustillo, who is advocacy director at the nonprofit Hope Border Institute. "Many of the kids have the sense of being suspended, and anxiousness about how much longer they will be held there."

Dr. Elizabeth Carll, a teen and trauma specialist who heads the American Psychological Association's Refugee Mental Health resource network, said institutionalizing so many teens in a geographically remote place makes it harder to recruit qualified clinicians.

"You have to find people who are licensed, who are experts in trauma, who speak Spanish and have worked with teens," she said. "Where would you find all these qualified professionals?"

Making things worse, Carll said migrant youth are likely to have higher emotional needs after going through hardship, enduring the journey north and being held in detention. They would do better if placed with trained, bilingual foster families, she said.

One shy 16-year-old from Honduras held at Tornillo told an AP reporter as she awaited her immigration court hearing that she was worried that it was taking so long to reunite her with family in Pennsylvania.

"I'm getting tired of waiting because I've been there three months," said the girl, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by staffers who were monitoring her and other Tornillo detainees. "I'm trying to keep the faith that I will be liberated soon."

$1,200 PER NIGHT

For each night each child spends at Tornillo, taxpayers spend up to $1,200 to pay the direct care workers, cooks, cleaners, teachers and emergency services workers, according to information staff at two congressional offices said they were provided on a recent visit. That's well above the $775 officials have publicly disclosed, and close to five times more than a typical youth migrant shelter costs.

BCFS did not dispute the cost, but said on average, actual costs are closer to $750 a day, which would bring current operations to more than $12 million a week.

The costs at Tornillo are so high because everything - water, sewage, food, staff and detainees - must be trucked in and out of the remote site. Every few hours, two teams fill up 2,000-gallon tanks of water from a hydrant outside the facility, then drive them back through the fences. Each day, 35,000 gallons of diesel are trucked in as well, to run massive generators that power air conditioners in blazing hot summers and heaters on frigid winter nights.

The teens can play soccer during closely watched recreation periods. They are given yarn to pass the time making brightly colored bracelets and scarves. There aren't regular classes, but teens have textbooks and workbooks.

Piferrer said BCFS was not charging the government for the tents, fire trucks and ambulance on site.

"We are not going to charge for resources that we already own," she said. "Everything that is being provided has been directed by the federal government to be provided."

Scant details about how those funds are spent motivated New York-based software developer Josh Rubin to set up residence in an RV just outside the gates, where he keeps a vigil on the vehicles going in and out. In recent weeks, he said, he has spotted new trends: construction trucks moving equipment in to build another tent, a vehicle carrying heaters, more buses with tinted windows taking children to immigration court.

Staffers are transported to the camp from motels near the El Paso airport, where the tour buses take pains to park on side roads, far from view. On a recent evening outside the Hawthorn Suites hotel, Tornillo workers filed off to bed in the darkness, many talking of feeling sick or exhausted.

Twice a day, the desolate stretch of highway outside Tornillo comes alive as more than a dozen tour buses pull up. Bells sound, lights flash. Workers walk in two by two, wearing khaki pants, neon jackets and backpacks, some wrapped in scarves to guard against the cool desert air.

Many days, Rubin is there alone, holding up a sign saying "Free Them" at the tent city's entrance. Sometimes the train rumbles by, or cotton drifts in the wind.

Protests began at Tornillo almost as soon as it opened. State and federal elected officials joined local activists and Hollywood stars deriding the Trump administration's immigration policies. But public attention turned elsewhere, and now demonstrations are rare.

On a recent afternoon, a group of about 60 activists including rabbis from Ann Arbor, Michigan and students from a local Catholic girls' school assembled to pray for the teens' release and sang a throaty version of "Let My People Go."

After a Department of Homeland Security official blocked them, the group ventured through a fence onto a private dirt road behind the facility. A group of teen boys could be seen across marshland, and a hole in the wire fence had been visibly patched.

"You are not alone!" the activists cried out in Spanish to the youth being led between tents. Some of the teens waved back. One protester wiped away a tear as another banged on a plastic drum, calling out "We love you! We miss you!"

Dalila Reynoso-Gonzalez, a program director for the Methodist immigration advocacy group Justice for our Neighbors of East Texas, said she was moved to demonstrate at Tornillo after helping an immigrant father reunite with his son held there. The boy told her stories of a stark and lonely place and spoke of isolation, fear, disorientation.

He still has a foil blanket issued to him when he first was taken into custody, she said.

"It's really heavy on my heart," said Reynoso-Gonzalez. "How did we get to this place, why do we have so many children out there?"

"Tornillo detention camp for migrant kids still growing." KTSM, 27 Nov. 2018 [El Paso, Texas]

Friday, January 6, 2017


About the #TBWMixtape click here

"...My responsibility if I'm your teacher is to teach you to think...if I want you to think, I must teach you to think about everything. I must teach you that there is a reason for everything you do and you must find that reason..." #JamesBaldwin 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Technology | Art of Voices #ZHill


This Art of Voices illustration is dedicated to Cody Brown. 

There are specific youth who inspired significant and creative change for how the Voices Behind Walls program was structured.  Especially when it came to technology.  Cody was a mastermind.  However, I didn't get that impression when he first visited the workshop.  He brought a lot of energy (sometimes too much) especially when it was his turn to get on the mic. He referred to himself as "Moose". I remember on one occasion an argument suddenly erupted with another youth about something Cody said in his rhymes.  The other youth was upset enough that I worried the disagreement would quickly turn into a fight.  At the conclusion of the workshop I had a talk with them to cool out as they made their way back to the unit.

Over the next few months there were gaps in time when Cody wasn't allowed to participate in the workshop.  In my early and scattered encounters with Cody I didn't get enough time to gauge just how talented he was.  I did know there was a lot he wanted to say.  He had composition books filled with rhymes and poems. During his first visits to our workshop he provided glimpses of his creative expression, reading and shuffling through pages and pages of some of the most chaotic handwriting I'd ever seen.  His composition books were riddled with disorganized sheets of rhymes and poems that I imagined only he could decipher.

Ultimately, there would be an extended time lapse before Cody would visit our workshop again. Then one day months later...he was back. I was definitely surprised since it seemed so much time had passed and I figured he'd either been released or incarcerated elsewhere in New Mexico's steel maze.  There was something different about Cody this time around. He was more patient, calm, and coherently thoughtful about his plans with VBW. It was at this point that he shared with us his knowledge of how to make music with the technology we had access to.

During Cody's absence, there was a day when I arrived to the juvenile prison and found someone else setting up equipment where we set up.  I had no idea who he was. After we introduced ourselves he told me he drove out from Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo and wanted to help.  Holloman is a long drive away from the facility.  His name was Frederick Tarantino and he mentioned to me his interest in teaching incarcerated youth digital art technology.  He had a couple laptops, a printer, and other gadgets. At first I was concerned that it would spread our time too thin to try and collaborate.  The juvenile prison's schedule required that our program work within a very strict and specific time slot. My focus was to use as much of that time as possible helping youth write and record their poetry or songs. I remember asking myself why the facility didn't grant Frederick his own time to engage with the participants. Frederick's approach was super humble and respectful though so I decided then and there that we could set up learning stations.  Our goal together would be to promote the opportunity for incarcerated youth to engage not only in creative writing and music, but digital art as well.  Participation on Saturday afternoons was on a voluntary basis. One of the challenges we faced was due to visitation with family that was scheduled at the same time. So we often worked around those times to see one group while another visited with family that we'd schedule later in the afternoon. Depending on how the visit went though, sometimes a participant simply wouldn't be in the mood to show up. Nevertheless, Frederick and I decided to work together to figure out how we wanted to structure programming so that it was convenient and respectful of the youth's time and circumstance. 

Over the course of my time at the juvenile prison, our workshop space often changed.  This especially depended on whether or not there was a key to open a specific door.  Security staff had what seemed like a hoolahoop of keys that gave access to specific classrooms, the library, and other spaces throughout the facility.  Sometimes I received an excuse that a supervisor's shift ended and they forgot to leave the right set of keys.  Since I had to travel more than 100 miles round trip to get to the facility, before deciding to cancel a workshop because of space I exhausted all options to improvise.  This often involved setting up our workshop in a lobby space or a hallway.  Anywhere that was allowable security wise and where there was at least one electrical outlet.  We also borrowed chairs from the gym nearby where visitations took place and helped each other drag table tops or desks closer to the outlets to set up and plug in equipment.  

As Frederick became familiar with the Voices Behind Walls workshop, he mentioned that one of the laptops he had contained music producing software.  Little did I know that things were about to change because of this.  Especially for participants like Cody who we learned grew up in a family of musicians and knew how to play all sorts of instruments.  Because of this Cody also seemed to know just about everything there was to know about music software programs.  We presented the laptop that included Fruity Loops music software to Cody and he quickly maxed out what it was capable of.  He recommended that we install another kind of software instead that had more functions.  Watching Cody work on the laptop was really something.  The new music software we installed that he recommended often made the laptop crash.  But Cody always figured out a way to work around it by saving, restarting, rendering, etc.  He was like a mad scientist with a solution for everything we thought the laptop couldn't do.  Often the laptop would let out all this air as if it was suffocating to keep up with Cody's imagination.  

Without Frederick, we would never have discovered what youth like Cody were capable of.  There were other incarcerated youth who thanks to the equipment Frederick gave access to were granted permission to check out the equipment for use in their units outside of workshop time. Progress like this inspired all kinds of dreams so we requested support from New Mexico State University departments to purchase more studio equipment. We even came up with a proposal for the juvenile facility to let us build a recording studio in a small classroom space that was no longer being used. The proposal involved collaboration with outside music educators, musicians and youth like Cody to build it piece by piece. I was also able to secure a donation of a piano from a tuner in El Paso who was willing to help transport and set up the piano at the facility.  I didn't foresee the problems ahead as leadership turnover and changes at the facility started to happen.  Before I knew it a different administrator would arrive and reject our studio proposal and the piano donation. Thanks to Cody though there were donations we were able to secure for portable recording equipment, headphones, microphones, blank CDs, composition books, and other items. This wouldn't have been possible without Cody who we regarded as a prodigy of creative expression.

In the illustration shown above, Zachary Hill depicts Cody's reflection from the laptop he used to make beats.  One day he was attempting to teach me how it worked.  Watching him compose a beat was a site to see as he went from one function to the next playing us clips to listen to along the way. "Just gotta read the manuals..." he'd say.  As I tried to follow his instructions from the angle where I was sitting, I noticed his reflection inside the laptop monitor and asked if I could take a shot with my camera.  I wanted to capture Cody's reflection along with the music software that he was teaching us from the screen. The illustration exaggerates his expression from the original photograph and is inspired by Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" video from 1986.  I got the opportunity to meet Cody's father who taught me a lot about the juvenile prison system's impact on families in New Mexico. He has quite a story in so far as what he did to advocate for the closure of one of New Mexico's worst juvenile facilities and one of the oldest in the country.  Cody's father is also a multimedia genius and musician. I remember Cody mentioning to me that his father was in a band during the 80s.  I also had the chance to talk with Cody's mother who I learned is also a musician and teaches piano in the community. 

In our workshop, Cody created original music thanks to the support of individuals like Frederick Tarantino.  Frederick literally came out of nowhere at just the right time with just the right equipment! I hope the future grants me with time to share Cody's audio recordings, including his poems and entertaining freestyle sessions.

Til' this day, whenever I'm conducting a recording session with someone I eventually tell them Cody's story...legend of the Moose.


Art of Voices is a Voices Behind Walls (VBW) project supported by Community Solutions of El Paso to recruit illustrators through Volunteer Match to help recreate VBW workshop photographs into art.  The photographs were taken during workshop activities in juvenile detention between the years of 2006-2014.  Artistic remakes of the photographs protect the identity of workshop participants by changing details of face and other identifiers.  The purpose of this project is to document the VBW program's history and the creative expression activities incarcerated youth were engaged in.  This project also offers the VBW photographer and illustrators an opportunity to reflect on what the images say about the juvenile justice system and the importance of creative expression activity for youth as a means of education, therapy, self-improvement, community engagement, rehabilitation, positive Hip Hop activity, and mentorship.