Two weeks in my life working in the world of juvenile detention

I was in Florida last week, talking to a group of adolescent males serving time in a non-secure juvenile detention program. The young men were initially nervous and wary, yet sat up straight and tried to be on their best behavior. I pleaded for their help in helping their program better serve the needs of traumatized youth. Then, they started opening up. They said they just wanted to be treated with respect and to be recognized as people, not as criminals. They all admitted that they did things to make them land in the program and they took responsibility for what they did. Yet, they wanted to be seen, not seen through. They wanted simple things, like an explanation for what they did wrong and a small word of encouragement to try harder next time, not more tones of threat, disappointment or disbelief that they would ever amount to anything. Most were grateful for the program and felt it was helping them get back on track.

Near the end of the hour, one young man, the youngest of the young men (and the smallest too), finally raised his hands after spending most of the hour looking disinterested or uncomfortable. He said slowly with stilted English, “Yo, I’m … a … criminal. I don’t deserve a second chance and ain’t nuthin gonna change for me.” I later find out that this young man comes from a life of gang-banging and will be going back to it when he leaves, whether he wants to or not. My reply to him was, “What you just said breaks my heart because you are always better than the worst thing you’ve ever done” (quoting Bryan Samuels). The other boys are silent with the gravity of what’s said, resonating with their fellow inmate. One tries to reassure this boy that he felt the same way when he first got into the program.

But, what happens next is most powerful.

The direct care staff who had been sitting in the distance monitoring the youth in the group comes forth and stands behind this young man. He says, “Let me tell you something about this young man. He’s always the first one to get between two boys who are fighting, even though he’s the smallest kid here. He stands up for anyone and tries to help other kids when he can. He tries to treat everyone with respect and I see him trying to get better every day. He’s a GOOD kid.”

The other boys point to this man shouting this is what they mean by being seen! They point out that this staff person doesn’t even work with or is responsible for this young man in any way, yet he knows him, sees him.

We go over the allotted hour. All the boys are leaning in, fully engaged. I thank them and wished aloud that the conversation had been recorded. They agreed. They want others to know them. They all shook my hand and thanked me for listening to them and wanting to help them. At various points throughout the rest of the day, I pass them in the halls; they let down their guard and wave with the enthusiasm of young school children seeing someone they knew …and who knew them too.

In another meeting with other staff, I ask that direct care staff person from before what his secret was. He tries to say it’s just time, that he’s worked with these boys for so long that he learned a thing or two. He had also been a corrections officer in NY prisons before. I reply with an edge of disagreement, “That’s bullshit. You can’t just chalk it up to experience. That’s really not fair to you at all! I think your secret is that you just really care about these boys an incredible amount and they all feel it. What you did for that young man can’t be taught by time alone!” He tears up through all his crusty tough guy veneer and shrugs his shoulders.

The week before I reviewed videos of detention staff terribly abusing young boys and girls in secure detention centers in Connecticut. Sick to my stomach, ready to quit. This week, I witnessed and partook in precious moments of healing and recovery, so grateful I didn’t quit the week before. Every week, I'm either buoyed or crushed--if it's a good week that is.  ;-)