For the past five years I have been running a literacy/reading program for in custody boys in our local Juvenile Hall. Tonight’s events were typical of what keeps
me coming back, enlarging our goals and working on grants for the creation of a library for the facility. I ran into half a dozen of my former Justice Studies students who have been working in the Hall as counselors and probation officers, some as long as fifteen years! It is so rewarding seeing our student’s transition to professionals and infuses the Juvenile Justice System with notions of social justice they gleaned from our Department courses.
The boys were also more enthusiastic than usual and I hadn’t been there long enough for it to be a sugar-high from the brownies I baked. Imagine how incarceration impacts an adolescent who is not allowed out of his Unit except to exercise on an outdoor cement slab, surrounded by a razor wire topped fence. I could identify boys who are new or have violated probation and are back to complete their sentences. They don’t have that jail house pallor. David was one of the boys back to complete his sentence—-an uncertain experience for him but ironically a pleasure for me. David reads more than a college English major and we swap books. We had both just finished House of Scorpion, a book on the 12th grade AP reading list. David has been out of custody in a group home for a few months but was eager to talk about the sixteen books he had read. All boys who read five books and can relate plot, characters, themes and new vocabulary earn a gift card. Kevin’s excitement had a contagious effect. Soon all the boys wanted recognition for what they had read, and were writing down requests for books they wanted me to find and planning a pizza party for the end of the summer if they could meet their reading goals.
We all know the stereotypes about juvenile delinquents in custody; out of control, violent, predatory, even sociopathic young men. The reality I experience is often different. I have represented minors as Defense Counsel for twenty-five years and mentored them through Freedom Readers for five years. While California has a decarceration policy from budget woes, it continues to lock-up kids for minor offenses. There are the heart-breaks- those with dysfunctional, neglectful and abusive families who have given up on them producing the inevitable chronic runaway with a misdemeanor rap sheet. That would be Christopher, an engaging, cherubic fifteen year old with ADHD whose Mother managed a motel for which they received a free room. She also entertained men on the side with no time for Christopher who quickly found the motel door lock permanently changed. Without family or friends to take him in, he was soon picked up for trespassing—sleeping in an abandoned building. Once in custody his life began to unravel. Mom would come to Court without a plan to accommodate her son and soon I was looking for a foster family for this charming, bright young man. And here’s the rub, older children are less likely to be placed and Christopher was past the magical age. So it was group home to group home, never receiving appropriate treatment for his ADHD, never receiving the permanency he craved. The last time I saw him he had so grown I hardly recognized him. I wish I hadn’t as he was being loaded into a DOC van. It was his eighteenth birthday and now the Adult System would determine Christopher’s fate.
Many kids suffer from emotional instability or mental illness which is strongly correlated with acting out, conduct disorder and delinquency. So the undiagnosed bipolar who is self-medicating finds himself in custody because his parents cannot afford a residential drug treatment program. That would be Jake, a young man who was so ‘chill’ as the kids say, and wise in his observations I could hardly believe he was just sixteen. Jake had been living on the streets for the past year and the sores on his face gave away his meth habit. He described with complete candor seeing two buddies die-one from an overdose who collapsed in his arms and another boy from electrocution when he climbed a building to sleep on the roof and became tangled in wires. Jake disappeared on an OT (out time temporary release); I have to believe he is out there somewhere receiving the support for his meth habit and PTSD.
As strange as it sounds, some kids who commit minor offenses actually want to stay in Juvenile Hall. One young girl I had managed an expedited release for actually refused to leave. She was very close to her sister who was also in Juvenile Hall and once I met the parents the explanation became clear. The lack of interest, domestic abuse and constant moving had created an insecurity which the company of her sister and structure of the Hall mitigated. Another boy had become so comfortable with the counselors in the Hall he ran away from his placement near Lake Tahoe, stole a bike and rode the 250 miles back to Santa Clara County!
The weekly literacy program offers only limited time with the boys, but with Carlos Nava (one of our JS grads who has been with me from the beginning) we make our time together meaningful. The range of topics covered is extraordinary. The Da Vinci Code introduced them to art history and a genius confronting many of the issues they face; a chaotic family life, a failure of recognition of their achievements and family secrets too difficult to divulge. They also read biographies, fantasy, parenting manuals for teenagers and post-adolescent romance. We read it all, even poetry! Someday we will have our library, but in the meantime we our doing just fine. But it’s a team project, and I want to thank the counselors and supervisors who support our program and all the Justice Studies students who volunteer their precious time to contribute to this wonderful effort.
Tags: Juvenile Hall, literacy, outreach