Surviving lock down

Posted: August 27, 2012 in Uncategorized
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You really haven’t lived until you’ve walked into a jail that was in lock down.

Lock down is when something bad happens inside and all communication in and out is cut. There is no visitation and all inmates are confined to their cells 24/7. This can go on for a few days to a few weeks. Inmates are escorted by armed guards to use the bathroom and showers, but all food is eaten in their cells.

This occurs after there has been a violent incident in the facility. There are other things that happen, but you get the general idea. It’s not a fun place to be at the time.

Well, no one had told the group of us that arrived at Juvenile Hall that they were in lock down. We were supposed to be called if our class for the kids was called off for any reason.

The call never came and so we showed up, like we had been doing Tuesday and Thursday nights for the last two years.

I remember thinking it was way too quiet as we walked in. The night was cool and there didn’t seem to even be a breeze in air. No one was walking in and out. The building loomed before us as we walked in and I got a shiver up my spine.

Something was wrong, something was off but I didn’t know what it was. I just followed my friends, but even they started to sense it.

We got to our first check point to gain entry. This is where you sign-in, provide your ID and sign all the documents. The staff are behind a bullet proof glass wall. You have to go through two doors. The second door will not open until the first door is locked. This prevents anyone escaping or gaining unauthorized access. Purses, cell phones and any other personal items are left in the trunk of your car. I always removed all my jewelry at home. I didn’t do that because I was afraid of it being stolen. I did it because I didn’t want one indication of anything that I had that they did not.

Why rub anything in their faces?

These kids came from all different backgrounds. Some came from affluent homes and some came from very poor living conditions. They were various ages, but none of them were older than 18. If they were, they were shipped to the Main Jail to fend for themselves.

No one said a word to us as they buzzed us in. We walked up to the second floor and went through our next check point. Every move is recorded on camera. Approaching us was a handcuffed prisoner walking towards us, escorted by two armed guards. Etiquette is very specific here as it is everywhere else. We stopped, backed up to the wall, put our hands behind us, leaned against the wall and looked down until they passed.

Never look a prisoner in the eyes in a hallway unless you are staff. It’s considered rude and it can humiliate or antagonize them.

We were cleared and went to cell block to collect our kids. None of us spoke as we walked as that is the correct way to behave. We walked with our heads down and our hands at our sides, in plain view.

When we walked in, it was deathly quiet. Normally the kids are out of their cells, watching TV, talking or reading. There were about 5 staff to handle 25 kids. But tonight, no one was out, all the kids were in their cells and you could hear a pin drop. We stopped at the desk and waited. Again, we kept our gaze down and did not make any eye contact with the inmates.

One of the staff looked up and said “What are you guys doing here and how did you get through?”

We had no idea what she was talking about. My friend Steven spoke up. “Well, it’s Thursday night, our usual night…”

“But you can’t be here! We are in lock down for two weeks!”

She explained that there had been a fight the night before – about 20 feet behind us -and someone had been stabbed. We listened quietly and nodded. I guess it was time to leave and I started towards the door.

“Hold on, don’t go. You want to hear something interesting?”

Like this evening could get any more interesting.

“The only kids who weren’t involved in it were yours. Whatever you guys are doing with them is working, so I’ll tell you what; I’ll make an exception since all of you are here and they behaved themselves. You can have them tonight, just like always.”

We smiled and went into the room they had for us, trying not to jump up and down. The program was working! Who knew?

We unpacked our gear. Soon all 10 of our kids were running into the room (a big no-no, that running shit) and grabbed us and hugged us. They were all talking at once and laughing. It took us a few minutes to get them to calm down. I said one person could tell us the story. Jose raised his hand and asked if he could. We said yes.

“You should have been here! This one kids shoved another one and then suddenly there was this huge fight! It was so cool! Everyone was screaming and yelling, but all of us remembered what we had learned about not responding to violence with violence and all the practicing you had us do on being patient. So, we all ran in here, grabbed the chairs and sat and watched. We just stayed together, kept telling each other to not react and it would be OK. And it was!”

My friends and I all got teary eyed. You try, you work hard but you never know if it does any good or not. You hope it does, you hope you are making a difference but it wasn’t until that moment that all the hard work was worth it.

By then the others starting talking and telling us their version of the story. They were proud of themselves and none of us could have been happier. We didn’t get much done that night, but it was OK. They had to participate in the lock down too, but they didn’t care. They were now using the time to read and write. They had never done that before our program. Some brought us their writing and discussed the books they were reading, quietly, intelligently and with great passion.

You never know when you will make a difference, so never give up. Some of these kids were in for felonies, some were thrown away, many were gang members. Say all you want about how we need to handle crime, get rid of the gangs, make things better for the rest of us.

Talk all you want, stand on as many soap boxes that you have, but there is only one way to deal with problems. Face-to-face. You save one child at a time and no amount of posturing for election and getting a degree and thinking you know all there is to know about people will accomplish a damn thing.

For every child you save, you save the future of this society. Save the child = save the future.

  1. Onions, someone around here is cutting onions.

  2. Wow – everytime I read one of your stories, Susan – it makes me cry. Not because you write sad stories, or you write about sad things – it is because all of your stories are filled with such compassion, caring & truth. The significance of how one human being can change the path that another life is taking, just by showing a small amount of love towards them, is truly amazing. I find that your stories touch me so deeply, in a way that makes me want to reach out and hug you, but most of all I want to thank you – for being such an unselfish person & for all that you have given to others… It has been a pleasure knowing you & having a friendship with you. You are a gift to this world… xoxoxox

    • Susan Lewis says:

      Now you are making ME cry.

      I am so happy you and others like my stories. It’s funny, anyone can write about anything. I know my writing has gone through a lot of changes over the years and there have been different topics.

      But the last few years, when I see what people talk about and what they share online, you would think we are all going to die any moment.

      It’s not true. There is so much more goodness in the world and if my stories can remind people of that, then that’s what I’m going to spend my time and energy on for the most part.

      If I can make you smile or cry or laugh and improve your day if only for a moment, that’s what I want.


  3. Anonymous says:

    Again, with the damned onions…
    (she says, wiping her face)

  4. Paul says:

    I don’t what lined up in the universe to get you through the first sallyport, let alone the rest of the institution, but it worked. And that night, like your conversation with Chanteel, you and your friends needed the help. The group of you needed to hear that it works.

    I think it’s easy for people to volunteer to go into a prison to facilitate a program. I believe most of them think they are song some wonderful thing for “those poor wretched inmates”. But, I also think there are a few – like you and your friends – who will not stand for simple warehousing of convicts, who believe in potential for change. I love you and people like you.

    How the hell you got in there… shaking my damn head. And smiling.

    • Susan Lewis says:


      I still don’t know how come it worked out or why we were even allowed in to GET to the first check point. We talked quite a bit about it after we left that night. We went to get some coffee and we all kept shaking our heads. I have no explanation and neither do my friends. We should have encountered locked doors so that we couldn’t get into the building.

      All I know is that everyone smiled at us, were glad to see us and no one said a word all the way through the buildings and the second check point. I sometimes think we were invisible in a way. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”


  5. doovinator says:

    beautiful story–

  6. Laurie Morrison says:

    Damn freakin onions EVERYWHERE …. sniff … sniff …. sniff !

    I don’t even KNOW these kids & I’m so very proud of them & of you & your team Susan!! It’s not every day that you get to realize that you helped in such a tangible way. Thank you for helping them find that they DO have value & in recognizing that they make the right decisions for them & those around them. They did what they were taught to do & they supported each other in times of trouble & great stress, what more could we want from anyone, but those that have had such a difficult past it’s exceptional that they’ve come so far. Very well done, Dear Heart on ALL sides.

    May you & this lovely program continue to change lives in just such a way. 😎