In the “juvenile justice” system, who is receiving justice? It cannot be the youth in prisons, confines of cement, wired walls. It cannot be the youth whose dignity is stripped from them when they have to wear underwear that some other inmate wore a few hours ago. It cannot even be the person who pressed charges, because taking away another person’s freedom does not undo the crime that was committed. How can we throw children away, isolate them in cells, provide subpar non-nutritional food, limit their call time with the outside world, provide anything but rehabilitative services — and call it justice?
By imprisoning youth, our society creates two victims: the person who pressed charges and the person found guilty by a jury of their peers. Locking young people up is a twisted form of justice; it is a punitive and retaliative way of handling an issue. Once inside the confines of juvenile hall, youth are victimized and dehumanized.
I recall my time in juvenile hall when I was 12. I went once, for six days, which was enough to paint a clear image in my head — there is no justice inside the hall. It struck me to my core. I was confused when I had to use brushes filled with other individuals’ hair. I was ridiculed because my hair did not look “presentable” in a place that treated me like less than human. I traded my iceberg lettuce and meatloaf with people for their sweet cake bread. I remember crying as I was eating, and people just staring at me. I remember laying on my cot, with a thin blanket, in a 50-degree cell. I remember 106 KMEL being my only solace. I remember so much, but the thing I do not remember is justice.
The foster care-to-prison pipeline is real, especially for children of color. According to the 2013 Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, within two years of exiting from care a quarter of foster care alumni will become entangled in the penal system. I am not one to believe in coincidence. There are practices in place that directly funnel foster youth into the penal systems. The current child welfare system fails to provide quality of care for the youth it has sworn to protect. It is a shame that we mask these tragedies in a system proclaiming to exude and produce justice.
Punitive disciplinary actions that disproportionately affect minorities need to be abolished. Locking someone’s child, niece, aunt, mom, uncle or dad in a cage needs to be abolished. Nothing about these practices is rehabilitative. The harm they cause lasts long after a person is released. It radiates from the previously incarcerated and ripples through that person’s community. What does this say about these systems put in place to help people?
Advocates, policymakers, judges, lawyers, social workers and everyone in between must do their due diligence to work at a breakneck speed to correct the foster care-to-prison pipeline. It is problematic, intentional, dehumanizing and, frankly, crusty that such institutions are given free reign over our youth. I was traumatized before I entered the system and traumatized while in the system. The system shaped the way I navigated a world that showed me anything but love.
Though I was sucked into a funnel, I was able to make it out. I went to juvenile hall one time and never went back. No, it wasn’t because the treatment I received inside was so profound. It was because once I went behind those walls, it became evident to me that I was no one’s child: No one gave a damn about me, and anything could go down behind those walls and there would be no sense of accountability. At that moment, I realized I had to do whatever it took to release the system’s grip on me. Once you are behind bars, they have a hold on you and can control every aspect of your life, making it near to impossible to break free. I remember the system tried to tighten its grip when I was 12 years old, when I was nearly sent out of state to a youth camp until I turned 18. It had a death grip on me, and it was ready to squeeze any life I had left in me.
I was one of the lucky ones — good with my words, personable and likable, with an amazing advocate on my side who saw my potential. I got a second chance and escaped one system, juvenile hall, for a lesser-evil one, foster care. But how many people are not so lucky? How many people succumbed to the criminal justice system’s death grip? We may never know, but we can begin to do the work to ensure that the youth of today and tomorrow do not end up at the mercy of the juvenile justice system.