Posts Tagged ‘juvenile hall’

“But I WANT to be in jail.”

Posted: December 27, 2012 in jail
Tags: ,

“Say what?” I wasn’t quite sure I understood what Damien had just said.

I was sitting across from him. We had 20 students that night and we were running around like crazy. The kids kept us busy all night. When I had first started working with them in Juvenile Hall, I had jumped in with my 3 friends who had been doing it for a year. I was still learning the ropes and getting to know the kids.

At first I was very stressed about the way they behaved. They were ages 13-17 from all different walks of life. They were very demanding of our attention and would get quite vocal if they needed some help or had a question.

At first I thought it was rude and wanted to say something. I was advised by one friend to not worry. It was just the way they were.

This confused me but I knew I didn’t know, so kept quiet.

It wasn’t until the 3rd night that I realized what he meant.

They had their own way of relating to us, of drawing us in and letting us know they needed help without losing face with the other kids. If they said something, anything at all, what was important was the effort on their part to get my attention.

What they didn’t want to show was they couldn’t read or didn’t understand or wanted to talk about something private.

So instead of raising their hands and waiting patiently, they would laugh or make noises or drop things. Anything that would cause us to turn and look at them was what they were after.

So you learned to wait patiently and not ask direct questions. Sort of read between the lines.

For Damien to make such a blunt statement threw me off. I assumed he was kidding. Looking down at him I could see he was not.

He was 15 years old and being held for trial for murder. He had been in the facility for 6 months. He was tall, dark-skinned and thin. He acted confident and was a bit of a bully. I knew he had status here because of the charges brought against him and the way the other kids would never look directly at him, but with me and the other women, he was a bit shy and quiet. Around the men, he stood taller and had an amazing sneer.

He never showed us his sneer. We would have laughed if he had.

All I knew about the charges was that it was gang related.

“Never mind,” he said and went back to reading his book. I had asked him what was on his mind as he had been distracted all evening.

“No, Damien, you said something and I want to know what you meant,” I said as I pulled a chair over and sat down next to him. I looked at the table and not at him. I leaned back and waited. He was either going to tell me or he wasn’t.

He looked up at me and then back down at his book. He casually flipped through the pages.

I waited. My friends were busy but everything was under control. I had time.

He leaned over, still looking at the table and whispered “I don’t want to go back. I want to stay here.”


“Because I get food 3 times a day, a bed to sleep in and books to read,” he said. I nodded.

“So I am assuming you don’t have that at home then.”

He chuckled. “Ah, yeah, you could say that. I wanted to come here. What I did was…”

I quickly put my hand on his mouth to silence him. He looked surprised.

“Anything you tell me, I have to report. Do you understand? It is not privileged.”

He nodded his head and I took my hand away.

“I don’t want to be found innocent. That’s what I’m trying to say. Because if I am, I have to go back to the streets and that ain’t good. I like it here. Can you say something for me? Talk to someone maybe?” he asked. His lower lip was beginning to quiver. He was scared of being released.

“No, there’s nothing I can say or do. I’m not even going to ask about your family. I assume it’s not a good scene.”

“You could say that. Please help me. Please.”

Here was a child that was begging me to help him be incarcerated for the rest of his life because that was the only way he could have food and a place to sleep.

I leaned over and looked directly at him. “Just be honest with your attorney. Let him do the talking for you. You are very young and there is a lot of help here for you. There’s no reason you can’t work this out in the long run. It would be different if you were an adult, but there’s still hope.”

He shook his head. “You ever been hungry and cold?”

I knew what he meant. No, I had never been as hungry or as cold as he had been. I had maybe missed a meal here and there but I’d never been without a roof over my head, clothes in my closet and a place to sleep.

“No,” I said.

“Then you don’t know, do you?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

He chuckled. “Well, at least you’re honest,” he said and started reading again.

I got up and walked away.

He got his wish. He plea bargained it out and was sent away.

He had been hungry and cold for too long.

I never got used to seeing people caged like animals. Yes, I had heard the stories and I understood that many of them were in serious trouble but the fact that they were children only bothered me more. Some of them were only 13 years old and no matter how tough they tried to act, they were just kids.

Kathy walked-up to the desk. There were 3 staff standing behind it. One of them I had never seen before. He was about my height, overweight and had a buzz cut. My first thought was he was ex-military. His name badge said “Steve” and he was the only one that looked up and smiled at us. The other two ignored us and stared at the monitors.

There were a few kids that were out of their cells sitting around on the couches they had out in the main area. They were talking or reading. No TV was allowed in.

“Hello guys! How are you?” Steve asked. He looked at each of us and came around from the desk and shook each of our hands. “I was told you were coming in tonight. What help can I give you?”

I was a bit surprised by his helpfulness and demeanor. The other people we had spoken to were always a bit clipped and abrupt as if we were in their way. I was often told to keep my mouth shut and not say anything. That was difficult for me because I had no problem telling someone when they were being rude. Apparently the deal was because we were volunteers and therefore not considered employees; we didn’t have much say about anything. None of us had degrees like many of the employees did so we were often brushed aside. This bothered me at first but I soon became accustomed to it as did Kathy, Martha and Matthew. What was important was the work we were doing. Side-stepping someone’s ego was just part of the game.

“Hi Steve. I’m Matthew and this is Kathy, Susan and Martha. All we need is our kids. We know pretty much everything else. Are you going to be on-point with us tonight?”

Matthew was the person in-charge of our group. He was the one that got the program into Juvenile Hall. He was the one that got us to help him and he was the one where the buck stopped. Because of my friendship and respect for him, I kept my mouth shut at times when it was almost impossible to do. Working in this field had taught me some degree of patience and tolerance but I still had a long ways to go.

Steve nodded his head and walked with us to the room we used. It was a conference room that had tables and chairs in it. ‘Yes, I’ll be keeping an eye open. If you need anything, you’ll know where to find me,” he said. He helped us with our briefcases and opened the locker where we kept our supplies. Fortunately we didn’t have to carry them in and out every time we came. All we brought with us were our notes. Anything and everything the kids wrote belonged to the State and we not allowed to leave the premises. Inmates were considered property. We could not take anything out any more than we could walk out with one of the inmates.

Soon the room was filled with several teen-age boys all between the ages of 13-17. They were different shapes, sizes and race. Some were quiet and some were not. A few of them liked to flirt with Kathy, Martha and myself and others were terrified if we even looked at them. All in all there were 20 of them and only 4 of us. We all seemed to manage and they were well-behaved, if not loud, for the most part.

They were happy to be out of their cells so it didn’t matter what the class was about. They were out and talking to others and we were well aware of that. We gave them some slack and knew that in-between them blowing off some steam, some of what we were teaching them was getting through.

As we were going along, I glanced behind me. Sitting on the couch that was tucked away in a corner was a young boy. He wasn’t part of our class. He looked to be only 9 years old; much too young to be in this ward. He had his arms wrapped around him and his legs crossed. He looked as if he was trying to melt into the couch. His eyes were large. His hair was short and brown. He was so white he almost looked blue. His eyes darted everywhere and when he saw that I had seen him, he shrank further down into the couch and began shaking.

I walked up to him and smiled. He reminded me of an injured animal who didn’t know where to go or what to do.

I sat down next to him. He shrank away but didn’t leave. He looked down at his lap and his shaking increased.

“Hi. I’m Susan. What’s your name?” I asked. I tried to keep my voice as quiet and pleasant as possible. I was worried that if I scared him further he would run.

He mumbled something.

“What? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,” I said.

“Bobby. My name is Bobby and is it OK if I sit here because I don’t know where else to sit and I promise I won’t say anything or do anything. I just want to sit here.”

He was trembling and about to cry.

“Sure you can sit here. You can stay as long as you want. How old are you?” I asked.

He bit his lower lip and quickly scratched his nose and then wrapped his arms back around him as tight as he could.

“I’m 13,” he said.

I knew he had to be at least that old. He looked like an orphaned child in the middle of a war zone.

“What are you doing here?”

I saw tears suddenly appear in his eyes. I knew crying is one of the worse things an inmate can do. If anyone saw it, the teasing would never stop. He quickly closed his eyes, looked away and tried to covertly wipe them away. I looked around the room and  gave him a few minutes.

“I got in trouble at school.”

“For what?” I asked.

“For smoking,” he said and looked at me briefly and then down at the floor. “My parents said they didn’t want me anymore because I am bad and I have to come in here and learn my lesson.”

This didn’t make any sense to me but I didn’t want to push the point. This child didn’t look like any of the other kids in there. Some were being held on attempted murder charges and some for manslaughter. Most of them looked as if they were raised on the streets but Bobby looked like he had come from a more affluent area. It was hard to tell because they all wore the same uniform, but there was a lack of harshness and cruelty about him. His face was soft and his hands were flawless. This child had never lived on the streets and yet here he was.

“OK Bobby. That’s fine and it’s not important why you are here. How long are you here for?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno, couple of days maybe. I just want to go home,” he said and suddenly the tears were running down his cheeks. I wanted to get him out of there before anyone noticed. I stood up and held out my hand for him to take it. He did and I pulled him out of the room as quickly and quietly as possible. I motioned to Matthew that I would be right back.

Once outside of the room, I found a couple of chairs and sat down. He was trying so hard not to cry but couldn’t stop it. This was the first person I could ever remember who wasn’t afraid. He was in terror.

Steve saw us sitting as far away from everyone as we could. He walked up and looked at us for a minute. A slight smile crossed his face. He walked away, grabbed another chair and sat down next to Bobby.

“What’s wrong buddy?” he asked. Bobby shook his head and buried his chin further down into his chest. I looked at Steve and shrugged my shoulders. I put my hand on Bobby’s back and gently rubbed it. I knew I was not allowed to touch the kids but I didn’t care. This one was terrified. Steve saw me do it and said nothing. He moved his chair closer and leaned over to look at Bobby closer.

“You’re going to be OK. You’ll get through this,” he said.

Suddenly Bobby let out a loud cry. “I want my Mom! I want my Mom!” he screamed and suddenly he was in my arms and burying his head into my shoulder. I held on and pulled him onto my lap. I put my hand on the back of his head and held him as tightly as I could. I glared at Steve, not because I was angry at him. I glared because I was overcome with emotion that any child would be in this condition. I looked at him as if to challenge me on “the rules” of no physical contact with an inmate. Steve nodded his head, put his hands up and sat back.

I let him cry. I rocked him and tried to soothe him. His words came out jumbled and incomplete. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t trying to understand him. I was trying to prevent a nervous breakdown. What had happened prior to this did not concern me. What concerned me was the shattering of a soul and a child’s lost youth. I wanted it all to stop. I wanted to be home in my small living room with my dogs and watching a stupid TV show. I didn’t want to know these things. I resented all of it.

Bobby finally stopped crying but would not let go of me. We sat there for a long time. Kathy peeked out of the room and saw us. She gave me a “thumbs up” and went back to the class.

Bobby pulled away and wiped his face. My sweater was wet where he had cried. I didn’t think I would ever be able to wash it again. I did not want to wash away the tears of a child and forget. As much as I resented all of it, I knew I would stay. I knew I would not turn my back and I knew that I would hope that I could say or do something that would put this broken kid back together again. I didn’t know what to say or do so I sat there and rubbed his back again.

Steve came back and put his hand out to Bobby. “Let’s get you to the restroom and you can wash your face, OK?”

Bobby nodded. He stood up and began to walk away. He stopped and looked back at me. I smiled. He smiled, walked back to me and hugged me. Now I wanted to cry. He turned and walked with Steve to the bathroom. I sighed and stood up. There was still a bit of time left for the evening.

I walked back into the class room. My friends looked up and smiled. They understood and I knew no words would be spoken. There was nothing to say. This was part of the job.

I got the call that I didn’t want to get. It was from a woman who heard about the work we were doing in Juvenile Hall and she wanted us to come to her place and work with her kids. Her name was Mama Betty. I didn’t know who she was but that didn’t matter. She wanted our help and insisted we show up. She gave me the directions and told me what time to be there. She got my name from my friend Denise. After I wrote down what she said, she hung-up.

I called Denise to find out what was going on. Denise had run into her on something else she was doing and they got to talking.

Mama Betty was from the South Pacific. She found a place to rent and started grabbing South Pacific Islander kids out of jail and having them live with her. How she was able to do this was something she never explained to us.

The problem wasn’t what she was doing. The problem was where the location was. It was in East Palo Alto which, at the time, was one of the top 10 worse ghetto’s in the United States. No, not in the Bay Area; in the United States. Everyone stayed away from there. My cousin had been a fireman and they would not go to a fire there without a police escort. He had been shot at several times before retiring. It was a place that was scary to see as you were driving 75 MPH down the freeway.

I didn’t want to go and I told Denise that. It was a very dangerous place and based on what she said, we were going to be walking into a situation without any security. A bunch of white people going to that part of town was a very bad idea.

Denise convinced me to go meet her and at least see the place. She said she would go with me, so off we went one afternoon.

The place we ended up was an abandoned store that was rundown on the outside. It was located in a tiny strip mall with a few other empty stores. I was nervous getting out of my car. There were lots of teenagers standing around on the street, all staring at us. Some called out to us. We kept our heads down, walked up to the door and knocked. Some of the kids were starting to circle around my car. The door opened and that was the first time I met Mama Betty. She looked up at the teenagers and they quickly ran.

She was short, very large with piercing brown eyes and dark skin. She looked us up and down, held the door open further and told us to come in. As soon as I stepped through the doorway, I was transported to the South Pacific.

Everything was spotless with lots of plants and furniture. The floor was bare. We walked into what looked to be a huge dance floor with couches and table all around. There were at least 10 teenagers sitting on the furniture, reading and talking. She took us into the kitchen and made us eat. The place smelled like heaven and I was suddenly starving. Before we could say anything, we each had a plate of food piled high. She looked down at me with a very stern look and said “You need to eat and get some meat on those bones. Eat and then we’ll talk.” I nodded and dug in. I was overweight at the time, but not to her. You just knew to do exactly what she said.

After eating, we sat and talked. She worked in the criminal justice system and was able to work with judges and probation officers to get the kids released to her custody. No warden was ever as tough or as kind as her.

She wanted us to run our program and was very clear that she couldn’t pay us.

“What makes you think we want your money?” I asked. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No, I pay my debts, but I want to make it clear that I will pay you. I will feed you when you come.”

I smiled. “That’s very nice of you. I have to be very honest with you. I am going to have a very tough time getting anyone to help. The neighborhood…”

“Then you must meet the children and after you do, then you come back to me and see what you think.”

With that said, she brought them in and had each one sit down and talk. They had all been in jail, they all had their stories and they were the politest kids I had ever met. I asked one a question and when he gave me a smart ass answer, she actually did smack him on the back of the head, made him sit up straight and apologize to me.

All was good until she brought in the last young man. His name was Timothy. He was very tall and large. He sat down and never once took his eyes off the floor. He would not respond to me. I waited for her to nudge him, but she did not. She stood back and when I looked up, I saw a tear run down her face.

Then I knew. This was the one she wanted help with. Whatever had happened to him was bad. He would not speak or look at anyone. I thanked him and he stood up and walked away with his head down.

I told Mama Betty I would see what I could do. I was not hopeful I could get anyone to help me, but she was right; after meeting all of them, I wanted to help.

It took a lot of work and quite a bit of pleading, but two weeks later I had a group of five additional people. Four women and one man. Driving up there that evening, we were nervous. We pulled up and they didn’t want to get out of the car even though the building was ten feet away. Just as I was opening up the car door, five of the young men from Mama Betty’s came out and escorted us in. Mama Betty had arranged the furniture so everyone had a place to sit at the tables. Food was brought in and so we began.

Timothy was there but sitting off to the side by himself. No one would go near him and he scared my group. I asked Mama Betty what to do with him.

“If any of you can get through to him, that would be enough.”

Over the next few weeks, we developed a routine. We would arrive, be escorted in and someone would stand by the car. We would be escorted out after hours of eating and teaching. It was difficult not to fall asleep on the way home from the work and the food.

Everyone had tried to get Timothy to talk and I started to see that the more they tried, the further withdrawn he would become. He also made them nervous and I was certain this made him more reluctant to talk. It was his size that was scaring them.

One night, I turned to class over to someone else and went and sat next to Timothy. I said nothing, I didn’t look at him or try to get him to talk. I just sat there. I did this every week and on the fifth week, I put my hand on his hand, very gently. He reached over, squeezed it and held on. We sat like that for over an hour. I still said nothing and didn’t look at him. When the class was over, I got up and left.

The next week, I did the same thing. This went on for three more weeks until one night, right after I sat down, he reached over and held my hand. I looked over and he looked up. He smiled. I smiled back. He then mumbled something.

I nudged him and indicated I hadn’t heard what he said. I was not going to speak to him until he spoke to me first. Until then, I would sit and we would hold hands.

“Do you think you could like me?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“That would be good,” he said and smiled. Mama Betty saw the exchange and was smart enough to leave us alone.

That’s what we did throughout the program. We sat and held hands. He would say something once in a while and I eventually started to see how bright and intelligent he was.

One day, I decided to ask him something.

“How come you don’t talk much?”

He squeezed my hand harder. “Because I don’t have anything to say to people who don’t listen.”

I chuckled. “That makes sense to me.”


I now smile every time I drive through East Palo Alto. I miss Timothy.

Surviving lock down

Posted: August 27, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

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.