Prisons should not be for youth
It’s the day I have been waiting on for a very long time. No, it’s not the day I met President Obama or hit the lottery for $50 million, but the day someone of political prominence gained the courage to speak heavily in favor of the negative consequences juvenile institutions have on youth.
Recently, President and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation Patrick McCarthy challenged governors and lawmakers across the nation to shut down their harmful youth prisons.
“I believe it’s long past time to close these inhumane, ineffective, wasteful factories of failure once and for all. Every one of them,” McCarthy said in his TEDx talk apart of his foundation’s mission to reduce youth incarceration.
McCarthy stated that states should commit to decreasing youth incarceration by half, improve existing systems by expanding community and family based programs proven to help kids with the most serious problems, and use small, treatment-insensitive secure care programs in place of the existing youth prisons.
This issue is very dear to my heart because the harsh conditions these young people are experiencing in these adult-like facilities are emotionally draining and mentally damaging.
I know because I was detained in a juvenile compound for almost two years.
From 2009 to 2010, I was housed at Sylmar, California’s juvenile hall in the “Compound,” which was basically a small jail within a larger detention center especially built for all of the juveniles who were being tried as adults.
The Compound was like a baby youth prison without the bars and caged cells. Its construction differed from the normal juvenile hall buildings located directly outside its confined gates. While the youth in the regular units could play outside and walk with their hands freely behind their backs, we were treated like wild animals and only allowed to leave its threshold in full-body shackles.
Sadly, the majority of the kids kept in the Compound do go off to the real youth or adult prisons, sometimes as soon as they turn 18-years-old.
During my time in the Compound, I experienced solitary confinement on many days. One senior staff in particular would only let my unit out one person at a time to eat or use the restroom. There were no toilets in our cells, so we usually had to bang on the door and wait all day for someone to come and let us out. My unit housed the older and mature youth and many of us were preparing to go to the “next level,” so we didn’t cause much trouble. However, the younger kids in the other units would have race riots, then we all would be on 24-hour lock down for weeks at a time.
And when one unit was on lock down, we all were.
This was devastating because who wants to sit in an empty room all day doing nothing? Many times we weren’t even allowed to keep our personal belongings in the room with us. If it weren’t for the composition book and pencil I had to constantly sneak into my room to write, I would have honestly gone insane! The only hour we were permitted for recreation was spent playing handball in cages or basketball in a small, hot gym. We were even strip-searched like adults, which is illegal to do to minors in California.
Why couldn’t these adults just treat us like the kids we were?
The bitter and baleful circumstances we had to endure on a daily basis were wretched to our overall wellbeing. I personally already had to deal with the fact that I was facing serious time for a crime that I did not commit, or was even involved in. It was tough trying to keep a healthy and positive mind considering the total and unnecessary burdens weighed upon me.
The results of these conditions can even be fatal, as America has witnessed with the death of Kalief Browder, a 22-year-old who committed suicide after being incarcerated at Rikers Island for three years. He spent more than one year in solitary confinement where he was physically, emotionally and mentally abused.
Thanks to the blessings from God, I was fortunate enough to not have made it to that next level, as my case was dismissed in adult court. But I could only imagine the trauma inmates have to bear in prison environments beyond.
I hope and pray that the states accept McCarthy’s call to abolish all youth institutions that resemble the atmosphere of an adult prison. No child, teenager, young adult or anyone should have to suffer these kinds of malpractices. These institutions are supposed to rehabilitate the youth, not punish them and make them worse.
In the words of Sam Cooke, “It has been a long time coming, but change gon’ come!”