Orleans Parish Prison, New Orleans, Louisiana. An adult prison with an adolescent wing.

As a kid I was sent to juvenile hall four times. When I was seventeen I was sent to Orleans Parish Prison for a fistfight. My cellmate there was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. The fear I dealt with there must have given me something close to post traumatic stress disorder. I was locked up about 16 times all before I turned 20. I am passionate about real juvenile justice.

My brother spent practically all his formative years, ages 12-18, in juvenile hall for stealing a gun from our mom’s boyfriend who we lived with. When I was 12, my mom got 40 years for manslaughter for killing the baby she was a nanny to. After which she said was my fault. All this is to say that I am well versed in the workings of the juvenile and adult prisons.

Now, things in my life are so different. I am almost 30 years old. I’ve worked as a counselor at the Boys and Girls Club dealing with a lot of troubled youth in foster care and who have been in juvenile correction centers. Right now my wife (of 7 very happy years) and I are fostering a 10-year-old who has been kicked out of four other placements. We are his “therapeutic” foster parents, and have been seeing a lot of hopeful progress.

It’s really neat what you do. The “correction” centers for juveniles need to be closely scrutinized because the youth have no voice and no money. Congratulations to you for doing that.

When I was in Orleans Parish Prison, There was a place called HOD, House of Detention, but we all called it House of Death. HOD was where they kept all the offenders between the ages of 17 and 22. When I was in there as a 19-year-old they had no heat, no A/C and no hot water in the winter. Which means I was taking a shower in the middle of winter in freezing water. I was nearly killed in there when someone mysteriously got in my cell when I was in solitary confinement (where I was put after fighting for my piece of bread). My skull was fractured as well as my jaw, plus I lost my two front teeth and if it weren’t for getting a good doctor I would only have half of a bottom lip.

My brother spent his childhood in a quaint little hellhole called Jetson Correctional Center for Youth, aka Scotland. Thankfully, JCCY was shut down in 2008 because of so many violations, so many kids being mysteriously injured. When my brother finally got out I honestly didn’t recognize him. It had been so many years since I had seen or talked to him he was like a stranger. He has gone back to jail a few times since then but not for any violent crimes. One time for about three years and he is still on parole. Prison really is the equivalent of beating someone for what they did wrong in hopes that the fear of the beating will deter future misbehavior.

It makes me sad to know that our past has so corrupted our future. If we had parents that tried a little harder or somehow managed not to fall so thoroughly through the cracks of society, where our lives might be now..

– Justin Sweeney, December 2011

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