Special Feature: BEHIND THESE WALLS by Heidi Mendez Harrison
The juvenile rehabilitation system is an oft unexamined aspect of law and order in the United States. What happens to young souls who are consigned to spend years behind bars, to simultaneously undergo both punishment and reformation? How does this process change them, and what becomes of them afterwards when they are released into a world that may not understand them? Their circumstances are definitely not idyllic, yet there’s a dearth of depictions painting any picture - accurate or otherwise - of what’s going on. In response, author Heidi Mendez Harrison gives readers a stark and truthful glimpse of the realities faced by youths living “Behind These Walls” of Utah's youth detention centers.
According to the ACLU, on any given day almost 60,000 youths younger than 18 years old are incarcerated in juvenile jails and prisons in the United States. While these numbers are staggering, the social and psychological effects on the youths and their families are much harder to quantify or even describe. On her end, Harrison has been volunteering at Utah's youth detention centers since 2014. And now she shows how teens behind bars cope with their conditions, battling depression, anger, abandonment, substance abuse, suicide, criminal influences, and abuses. Unfortunately, this enumeration goes on, creating in her own words a list that can take one's breath away.
Yet despite these conditions, the youths also display a breathtaking capacity to transform their desperate situations into beautiful if poignant works of art. So Harrison compiled their works in “Behind These Walls,” resulting in a collection containing songs, rap verses, poems and stories, even visual artwork. With these, the youths' realities are depicted on their own terms, conveyed with their own voice. Thus their humanity and agency are revealed as readers are immersed in a first-hand view of their experiences. Perhaps no other perspective could do the teens’ struggles true justice.
This compelling compilation includes works initially created by teenagers who have transitioned out of the detention system who also perform it again to those still inside. The process is reflective for those who have “made it” and are looking back at their past while providing those still behind bars with a taste of what lies outside. The outcomes are cathartic and in some cases even life-changing when they resonate with their audiences and show them that there is still hope, that there is still life beyond the walls around them.
Readers can appreciate this themselves by seeing the heart-wrenching albeit inspiring works that, as a whole, show how art can be a redemptive force. They will witness the process of creation and connection, of hearts and minds reaching out and touching one another through various mediums of conveyance. Creation and connection results in the acknowledgment and affirmation of humanness, which is vital for those behind bars and walls, subjected to conditions designed to disconnect and thus dehumanize. This is water for the thirsting, air for the drowning, embodying the spirit of perseverance like no other.
"Behind These Walls" is the first volume and its collected works are unmodified, unadulterated and raw. It is a showcase of language, style, and emotion that are authentic and unchained. These are expressions of anguish, longing, and freedom - showing just what these individuals and their chosen mediums are capable of creating.
Reviews and What Readers Say
This is an amazing compilation of writings from gifted youth with such a future. Heidi has done a terrific job reaching out to this age-group and helping them express themselves and find their value. What a great project! Looking forward to more!
― Tish Rowley, Amazon Client, Verified Purchase
Note: Now Available Click here
Heidi Mendez Harrison (a.k.a. “Rapping Grandma”) is a bilingual actor, director, choreographer, and member of SAG-AFTRA and Actors’ Equity. She has worked professionally in New York, Mexico City, and Madrid. She has a BA in acting and an MA in directing. Her love for teenagers drove her to receive two teacher’s certifications. As a teacher, she is in her dream job at Pioneer High School of the Performing Arts, teaching improve, speech, acting, and playwriting. As an actor, she has most recently been seen as Mrs. Peterson in the TV series Granite Flats. As a director, she returned to the Jackson Hole Playhouse for a production of Steel Magnolias. In August of 2014 and in response to a personal spiritual revelation to her question “Now that I am an empty nester, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
Heidi started volunteering nine hours a week, doing theater with kids locked up at two Utah detention centers: Slate Canyon in Provo and Salt Lake Valley DT. “I’ve always had a gift and soft spot for adolescents with an attitude,” she says. She encouraged the kids to write autobiographical stories, raps, poems, songs. The first one turned in was titled Behind These Walls.
In a year, she has collected over 150 writings. Every week, more are added. Volume 1 is just the tip of the iceberg. “These are not throwaway kids. They are artistic and unique. Their voices need to be heard, and these kids should have a safe place to create when they get out.”
Heidi Mendez Harrison is CEO and founder of Act Risk No More , a nonprofit youth theater company where teens can write/perform their heartfelt, edgy works. It doesn’t matter if they are bipolar, ADD, depressed, OCD, etc. As someone who also deals with ADHD and bipolar issues, Heidi realizes that God has given us weaknesses that will be turned into strengths. To those with drug issues, she preaches that applause is the greatest high. To those who have made bad choices or are suicidal due to abuse or neglect, she points to the arts as a rescue. Heidi often goes to court to convince the judges to allow the kids to do community service hours through Act Risk No More. The nonprofit creates original plays from these writings and performs them for the kids in rehab, DT, O and A programs, work camps, group homes, etc., all over Utah Valley. The dream is that this book will be soon turned into a Broadway musical, all the over 150 writings will be used in a documentary, and the rescue mission of Act Risk No More will become a national institution.