Category Archives: Emotional health

What Else Could I Do?

Published by: Olivia

A recurring theme in conversations with the girls is revenge.  Many have experienced the loss of their loved ones, partners and friends, and have expressed their desire to let out all of the pain, suffering, and anger that they feel when confronted with violent death.  This young girl writes about her reaction to the turture and murder of her beloved aunt.

What else could I do?

Young girl, 17 years old

It feels awful knowing you can’t do anything.
Seeing my grandmother cry for her daughter
Seeing my mother, my cousins, when we buried her
I did her makeup for the wake
her blood was the same as my blood

That they sent him with a meal-ticket to prison while my aunt was 9 feet under the ground?  That wasn’t good enough for me.

I couldn’t resist the urge take revenge
I knew who had done it, so i did the same to him
It made me feel good.  Afterwards I felt more peace
I got it all out.  Neither him nor her alive.
At least he wouldn’t be laughing for having made a good kill


You have never felt desperate

You have never felt desperate
Young woman, 20

You have never felt desperate
until you come to a place like this.
For a screw-up that was so insignificant
I lost many things.
My hands started to sweat.
I felt like when someone hits you
and you want to take it out by punching something,
but you know if you do
you’re going to lose more.
I turned red,
I felt my skin stand on end from my rage.
I felt the words that I wanted to say to her.
My mind was racing
like when a clock is broken
then you put in batteries
and it starts to run really fast.
You try to control yourself
but I just start crying
because of my powerlessness,
not being able to do anything,
knowing that I lost
what was right in front of me.

You’ve never felt desperate
until coming to a place like this.
I felt that everyone was staring at me,
I felt rejected.
I wanted to put up a wall
around my world.
Put it in a box
so no one could see or touch me.
In the box I would put my bitterness,
my pain and my love,
to not feel love for anyone.
I wish I were a rock
that didn’t have emotions.

You’ve never felt desperate
before coming to a place like this.
To vent I just cry.
I cry until no more tears come out.
I sleep all day,
I don’t even feel like eating.
Thinking of not making the same mistake again.

Something bad, something good

Posted by: María

Here is a reflection on every day life and struggles by a teenage girl that has been in detention since September. I asked her to reflect on the last year, and she said, ‘this year? But only bad things have happened!’ She began to talk about struggling in school and the disappointment of not being allowed to go on a special excursion to a tourist center and pool that the majority of the girls went on. Her struggles, disappointments and anxieties are not so different from any other teenage girl living a different situation; the ups and downs, the need to distract herself from sadness, the tendency to pretend that everything is fine.

This is a great moment to reflect on survival mechanisms, on how we survive the day-to-day when the world seems to be collapsing on top of us. It is interesting to notice that the first thing she talked about was math! It is too exhausting to constantly think about the bigger picture, for example, to think about the amount of time she will be incarcerated. She focuses on the present, and her present struggle is not failing one of her classes. We can all relate to the feeling of desperation, frustration and distraction that she shares in the following poem. How do we cope when we are living a difficult moment in our lives? How do we distract ourselves? Where do we find strength?

Something bad, something good

Something bad that has happened
are tests!
I’m doing bad in math.
I have a zero
because I don’t understand.
It makes me so angry,
because I couldn’t do it.
So I just gave the test back to the teacher
and told him that I couldn’t do it.

Something bad that has happened
is that I didn’t go on the trip to the pool.
I felt like crying.
I knew that there had to be a reason,
God knows,
maybe something bad was going to happen.
I had been so excited about the trip,
but the judge didn’t give me permission,
I don’t know why.
I just saw when they were leaving.
We went up to the room,
listened to music
and started to dance.
I didn’t want to be with this other girl
who was going to cry,
because I would have cried too.

Something good that has happened
is that my family comes to see me,
to be with me.
I’m not doing that bad here
But sometimes
I want to get out of here!
I feel so desperate to get out.
So I just sit and think and
ask God for patience.
I run around
so that the desperation passes.

Something good that has happened
is that I’m alive,
that I’ve behaved well.
I did well in the first revision with the judge.
hopefully the second one goes well too.

Welcome to the Cuéntame Project!

Post by: María

Cuéntame: Spanish, informal. Definition: Tell me

This blog follows the work of the Cuéntame project, an initiative focused on improving the emotional health of incarcerated girl in the youth detention center in Ilopango, San Salvador, El Salvador.

Who we are

We are three North American women, María, Jenna, and Olivia, who are dedicated to the rights of youth, juvenile justice, violence prevention, and the construction of a culture of peace. The project works in collaboration with the Foundation for Applied Legal Studies, FESPAD, within the Program for Citizen Security and Penal Justice.

How we started

I first went to the detention center in October of 2010 with a coworker from FESPAD, a lawyer that focuses on juvenile justice and children’s rights. We worked with approximately twenty girls who were detained provisionally, meaning that they had not yet been sentenced. Our workshops focused on issues of human rights, the youth penal code, the anti-gang legislation, and conflict resolution. We always left space for the girls to share their personal experiences and opinions. Once getting to know the girls and hearing parts of their stories, we realized the great need they had to express themselves and the high level of emotional stress that they were living. Many had suffered abuse by the police, didn’t know their rights, didn’t understand the details of their court case, and was the first time they had been incarcerated and far from their families. We saw such great need that we weren’t able to touch through workshops on human rights.

The Cuéntame Project begins

Inspired by the work with the group with provisional sentences, I began to design a project directed at improving their emotional heath, creating a space in which the girls could express themselves and work with the girls who had already been sentenced, especially those who had received longer sentences, that surely were suffering the emotional consequences of being incarcerated for a long time. Based on the experience of FESPAD working with incarcerated youth and the work of other NGOs that focuses on emotional health and personal growth with the prison population, we initiated the Cuéntame project in February of 2011.

In the detention center, there are approximately forty girls that have been sentenced and about twenty at any given time that are in provisional detention and have not yet been sentenced. They are serving sentences for robbery, extortion, drug posesión, rape, kidnapping and homicide. One concerning trend in the juvenile justice system is defining a person by their crime, and as a result, dehumanizing them and justifying punitive actions to repress and incarcerate them. By defining the girls as extortionists and murderers, we stop recognizing them as human beings, with pasts, presents and futures, who have suffered the trauma of abuse, loss and abandonment. We remember that they have been victims in addition to being victimizers.

Therefore, the principal objective of this project is to provide a space in which the girls can express themselves, for them to share their life stories, memories, dreams, opinions and feelings. We believe that their experiences are valuable and deserve to be listened to, written down on paper to be read, shared, learned from and appreciated.

Sharing our work

This blog is an opportunity to share our work with the girls, to share, with their permission, the poetry that they write, and reflect on the topics that come out of their work, such as abandonment, abuse, violence, love, family, street life, violent death, and migration. Additionally, we want to touch on broader topics such as the situation of marginalized youth in El Salvador, youth violence, and trends in the juvenile justice system. We are working against the popular belief that incarcerated youth are inherently bad people that only do damage to society and don’t deserve an opportunity to succeed in life and develop as human beings. In order to acheive integral justice, we must open up spaces and processes for personal and community healing to everyone.

We welcome your thoughts, experiences, and opinions! The purpose of sharing this project is to touch your hearts, inspire you to reflect about youth justice and youth offenders through a new lens, and to become more connected to fellow humans through hearing their experiences and struggles!


In the next post, I’ll talk more specifically about the project, how we interact with the girls, the writing process and share some of their poetry!