Tales of Self-Harm, Suicide Attempts at Valley Detention Center for Immigrant Children

Dec 14, 2017

Around 30 unaccompanied immigrant children are being held at a juvenile detention center near Staunton.  In Part Two of our report, WMRA’s Jessie Knadler takes a look at how these undocumented youth cope with confinement and trauma.

This story has been updated from its original version.

Once a week, Washington and Lee poetry professor Seth Michelson travels to Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center just outside of Staunton.

[beep beep]

PRISON GUARD:  How can I help you?

SETH MICHELSON:  Seth Michelson here for poetry.

PRISON GUARD: Alright, go on in.

MICHELSON: Thank you.

He teaches poetry to unaccompanied alien children detained there.

[Michelson greeting children]

The minors range in age from 13 to 17 and hail mostly from Central America. They’re locked up for crossing the United States border illegally seeking to escape violence back home.

Shenandoah Valley Detention is one of two maximum security juvenile facilities in the country. The kids are locked up there because of the danger they purportedly pose to themselves or others.

Their migration stories are often horrifying: violence, abandonment, sexual enslavement. Michelson uses poetry to help the kids work through past trauma. Reporters aren’t allowed into the facility so these recordings were made by Michelson.



Sin razón de existir

siempre olvido que soy 

real y esto hace que 

me duela el alma

que no tengo o que 

ando por algún lado 

y no me encuentra.

[TRANSLATION by Seth Michelson]

I Forget--

Without reason to exist

I often forget that I am 

real and this makes

the soul I don’t have 

ache as if

I’m walking somewhere

unable to find myself. 

Some of the kids were conscripted into gangs and drug cartels before fleeing for the United States. A mural at the center features paintings by the children.

MICHELSON: One child’s work with the cartel was to dissolve dismembered body parts in vats of acid. That’s what he painted as representational of his past. This is a child who has been through severe trauma.

But the immigrant children at this facility are not receiving adequate care and attention. This, according to a class action lawsuit filed in October by a teenage detainee from Mexico. It alleges beatings and psychological abuse by guards. Children are locked in their rooms for 12 to 14 hours a day. Nutrition is substandard. Meals are often served cold. Some of the kids don’t even know why they’re there.


El casamiento--

Ayer en mi celda me 

dijo mi compañero, mira

¿quieres casarte con la vida

para siempre? Y yo le 

contesté ¿para qué 

casarme con la vida

si no puedo divorciarme 

de la muerte?



Yesterday in my cell 

my pal asked, Man,

don’t you want to marry life 

forever? And I 

answered, Why 

marry life 

if I can’t divorce


The brutal conditions of their confinement may end up re-traumatizing the children, according to the lawsuit.

Michelson uses the weekly workshops to try to inject a little beauty and hope into their lives.

MICHELSON:  Poetry gives them a language to think about what they’ve been through, why they came here, what they hope to achieve and become, how they’ve suffered—how do you cope with a lonely night?

The workshops serve as a form of therapy.

MICHELSON: Somebody reads something beautiful and everyone bursts into applause. It’s really special in that way.

The alternative coping method that is so prevalent among this population is disturbing and deadly.

Erin Ferber is a former student of Michelson’s who has attended some of the workshops.

ERIN FERBER:  One week I asked one of the kids, oh, where are your glasses at? And he was like, oh, they were taken away from me because I was hurting myself with them. It’s heartbreaking. I don’t think there’s another word to describe that.

Self harm and suicide attempts are widespread. The lawsuit alleges indifference by guards. Michelson says he worked with one child who attempted suicide six times.* I asked if he ever worries about giving these children false hope.

MICHELSON: If it’s false hope to keep them from committing suicide then I’m glad it’s a functional false hope, at least. Every one of these kids in different conditions would thrive. They’d do great in the local high schools. They’d be on the local soccer teams, local dance teams. They’d be dating and working.

A collection of their poetry has been published in a new book called Dreaming America. Most of the kids have never before owned a book.

MICHELSON:  So their first book that they possess is a book that they helped to write.

He hopes it gives them a will to live despite a very uncertain future. Proceeds from sales go to a legal defense fund on their behalf.

*CORRECTION: The original version of this article indicated that Michelson told the reporter he worked with a child who attempted suicide six times. This is inaccurate. Michelson was actually referencing a poem written by the child published in the book Dreaming America in which the child mentioned attempting suicide six times.