From the inside of a cramped cinder block cell, young voices describe childhood years locked behind bars, the searing pain of missing a mother’s smile, the tough front needed to survive brutal surroundings. Cell locks buzz. Guards bark orders.
When the lights go out, they share the mental trauma of being locked in, night after night, sitting awake for hours staring out the rectangular sliver of window in a heavy steel door before falling asleep.
Pan the cold, bare cell, and chilling statistics appear on the walls: tens of thousands of children incarcerated in America, hundreds ages 12 and younger, the vast majority with a disability or history of trauma.
On Wednesday, #NoKidsInPrison launched its multimedia storytelling project, designed to immerse viewers in the terrifying world of incarcerated children, expose the youth prison system’s racist roots and, ultimately, build support for its demise.
Young people across the country co-designed the virtual project together with the nonprofits Performing Statistics, Youth First Initiative and the Columbia Justice Lab research group. The website incorporates art and personal testimony not only to describe the horrors of children in lockups, but to inspire imaginative thinking – fueling a wider movement away from punitive juvenile justice and toward more rehabilitative models.
Recorded voices in the #NoKidsInPrison project describe visions of alternatives to incarceration that could better serve struggling children, families and their communities.
“I would have been doing community service this whole six months, I would have been in a substance abuse program, an anger management program, any of that,” one young person shares from inside a virtual cell. “It would have gave me more of a second chance.”
Through a jailhouse phone, a mother whose son’s learning disabilities landed him in shackles by age 12 describes being able to visit him no more than once a week. Yet rather than scaring him into better behavior, she recounts, his behavior just grew worse while he was incarcerated.
“We live in a society that criminalizes basic childhood behavior, but God forbid your child gets caught up in the system,” she says. “My son was harmed. It changed him.”
During the self-guided virtual tour that offers at least an hour of exploration, a narrated timeline explains the history of youth imprisonment – including the 1944 execution of a 14-year-old boy – tying its origins to the 13th Amendment. Though best known for abolishing slavery, the constitutional amendment ended forced labor “except as punishment for a crime,” and is fueling this country’s ongoing mass incarceration crisis. Within 45 years of the 13th Amendment’s passage, viewers learn, every state had a youth prison, with children of color vastly overrepresented to this day.
When the virtual tour returns to the present day, viewers land in a classroom and learn from an overhead projector about the school-to-prison pipeline, as well as all the lost learning resulting from incarceration.
The story continues on digital city streets, where art galleries of collages and mixed-media pieces created by young people implore adults to invest in education, mentors, jobs and community centers.
A multimedia mural created by youth advocates in Richmond, Virginia, appears next, envisioning alternatives to youth incarceration in bold relief. The brightly painted mural incorporates photos of teen activists, and audio elements triggered by sensors allow passersby to hear young people share their experiences behind bars and their visions for the future. By scanning a QR code, viewers are directed to an augmented reality to further explore these topics.
The #NoKidsInPrison digital project released to the public Wednesday closes with action steps and resources, including a network of local advocacy campaigns to join and a downloadable curriculum and tips for hosting community education and organizing events.
After immersing the audience in the darkness of youth incarceration, the virtual storyscape leaves viewers on a hopeful note. Floating through an ethereal, rose-tinted constellation of imagined futures – described as an “abolitionist galaxy” – young people describe what a world without youth prisons looks, feels and sounds like for them: parents free from worry, children playing outdoors and getting the resources they need and, above all, surrounded by lots of laughter.
“I feel completely at peace because I hear the laughter of children who will never experience the inside of a cell,” the recorded voice of one young advocate ruminates, “never experience the trauma I went through.”