Laurel Reighton* is first and foremost a mom.

 She and her husband and their six children live in Mitchell, Indiana. Her son Skyler*, now 18, was two when they moved to Mitchell from California. In August 2011, Skyler was involved in a burglary with several other people. Skyler was the youngest. No one was hurt in the burglary. Because of his involvement in the crime, Skyler is now serving a 12-year sentence at Branchville Correctional Facility in Branchville, Indiana. Most of the other, older people involved in the crime were sentenced to house arrest. Laurel, who has been studying to receive her degree in Criminal Justice, has had a difficult time continuing her studies after experiencing the justice system fail her son and her family.

 [*EDITOR’S NOTE: To protect the privacy of the youth and their families, all names in the story are fictitious.]

She tells her story below:

We have six children, Skyler is our youngest. We’d never had a lot of problems with Skyler. He was a pretty good kid. He has an older brother Joey, from my husband’s previous marriage, with mental problems. We were always going through some sort of issue with Joey, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and has abandonment issues. We were always so wrapped up in Joey, Skyler was our good kid, he never gave us problems. So he just snuck under the radar. Moving from Cali to such a rural place like Indiana, where kids roam and wander, we still never let our guard down, we always kept the kids close. Skyler wanted to run a little more. About 13, he was really pushing for more freedom, he thought we were too over protective. Up ‘til that point, he’d always been a straight-A student… In 6th grade he got his first C and was devastated. After that he started to develop behavioral problems—he went from honor roll to flunking every class. He had been diagnosed with ADD in third grade, but I never agreed. The medicine he was prescribed caused him to have ticks, and I never felt comfortable with medicating him so I didn’t give him the medicine. When he turned 15, he started getting in trouble at school. He was getting in fights, acting out in class. But he wasn’t getting in trouble at home. That was the beginning of our problems.

Skyler was our good kid, he never gave us problems. So he just snuck under the radar.

Artwork by Skyler Reigton
“Dead Time” by Skyler Reighton, image courtesy of Laurel Reighton

The year he turned 16 he was charged with criminal mischief. He was supposed to be staying the night with a friend, they snuck out and ended up down by the highway throwing rocks at cars. A car ran over a rock and had some damage. This was the first time he got in trouble with the law. He had to do community service and was on probation. At home we were really hard on him. We made him do things on our own, not just what they assigned. We made him work toward paying off his restitution. He got out of trouble with that and did really well for awhile. And then I got a phone call that he got picked up for shoplifting at a Wal-Mart and I was thinking… there must be a problem, my kid doesn’t do that. The items he had “stolen” were girl items– he was with two girls at the time. What happened was one of the girls he was with had a kid, and was worried she’d lose her kid, so he took the blame for it. So then he’s on probation. Then he tried running away twice. I really thought the system was going to help me change my kid. But that’s not what the criminal justice system is set up for. It’s no parent’s friend and that is something I found out the hard way. They don’t really care about these kids. And that broke my heart because I’d always believed in the system. Every time he got in trouble at home, I called his probation officer, not realizing that these complaints were being charged against him. So not only would he get in trouble for being a run away, but also for being in trouble with his parents. At this point, we really started noticing a difference. So we started limiting who he hung out with, which we had never done before. We never picked our kids friends for him.

Every time he got in trouble at home, I called his probation officer, not realizing that these complaints were being charged against him.

It wasn’t until later that I knew he was using Marijuana. We enrolled him in a drug program, where he would learn about the effects of using drugs. He ran away again. Every other time before this I came and picked him up. I would chase him down and bring him home. This time, he calls me and I say, “Skyler. I’m too tired, I’m tired of this. You got yourself out there. You get yourself home.”

I wish so, so badly that I’d gone to get him that night. Later in the evening he robbed a gas station with some older guys. This was so… everything else had been piddly up to this point. At 16 he was the youngest involved. Two were in their early 20s. One was 17. It was the 17-year-old’s idea. One guy brought in a stick—not Skyler. Skyler and the other kid took four packs of cigarettes each. The owner tried to say that they stole money, but couldn’t prove that any was taken. Skyler told me he didn’t steal any money. I believe him.

We got a phone call about what had happened, that Skyler was at Jackson County Juvenile Facility and he was being held there. It happened on a Monday, he was supposed to go to court on Thursday. So, at this point, my husband and I are thinking, he needs to get a taste of what jail is like. So we show up for court Thursday morning and my son’s probation officer informs us that he’s been waived to adult court.  Also, that week he had a video hearing from jail. We didn’t know what was going on. We couldn’t even make sense of it. The other juvenile was brought in, brought to juvenile court, and he went home with his parent. Skyler was sent to adult jail. He had never spent more than three days in juvenile detention and now he’s in adult jail. This is a kid whose parents had done everything for him.

The night of the crime, Skyler apologized to the old guy at the gas station when they did it. Witnessed attested to that. I don’t know if he was drinking or smoking that night. Why don’t they drug test them? The town we live in is very small. Probation knew he was on probation. The cops knew him. But they took him to the jail without calling us, or questioning him.

In jail, Skyler spent six months in solitary confinement because, as a minor amongst adults, they didn’t have anywhere to put him.

In jail, Skyler spent six months in solitary confinement because, as a minor amongst adults, they didn’t have anywhere to put him. I have to say that the county jail was pretty good to him. They were always very concerned with his protection and they gave him an hour of recreation every night, after everybody was cleared out. We got to see him twice a week. Some of the guards would go in and chat with him for a little each day to keep him from going nuts. We didn’t know what to do, where to turn, what was going on. Around the same time, we found out he was bipolar. My husband and two of my other children are bipolar. He hadn’t been medicated at any point. Solitary confinement exacerbated his condition. After two months, we got an attorney, and we finally started getting some answers. It took us two months to save up for an attorney. We have what we need… but we don’t have $20,000 laying around for legal fees. We finally found one willing to work with us for $10,000. It turned out bad in the long run; we were very let down. Anyway, no one in the adult courts would talk to us, because now he was considered an adult. Whatever legal paperwork he was getting was being mailed to him at jail. He didn’t know what to do! He just shut down. He stopped talking to us. He was so scared.

At Christmas we bailed him out. We didn’t know what was going to happen with his case, so we borrowed money to bond him out. When he was out he got in trouble again. Just before this, the prosecutor had finally agreed to put him back into juvenile court. He got in a fight with a witness, his friend who snitched, and his case was put back in adult court.

"Music Is Life" by Skyler Reighton, image courtesy of Laurel Reighton
“Music Is Life” by Skyler Reighton, image courtesy of Laurel Reighton

“Mom when I’m here I can’t be the person you remember me to be. I have to be the person I have to be to survive. The things I do in here– I have to ask you to forgive me.”

Before all of this, we had a psychologist who would come to the house and talk to Skyler in the living room. They would talk about art, sports. It seemed to be working really well. Then we would get in a fight and he would run off. I have seen my child change from a little boy to somebody different. He talks differently. He carries himself differently. His vocabulary is different. He says, “Mom when I’m here I can’t be the person you remember me to be. I have to be the person I have to be to survive. The things I do in here– I have to ask you to forgive me.”

Skyler is currently at Brenchville prison. He was sent there this January on his 18th birthday. He is serving 12 years. All of this stemmed from a non-violent robbery, where he was the youngest. The other people involved in the robbery ultimately got house arrest. One of the two adults that actually manhandled the guy in the gas station, he got three years of house arrest. The guy that had the stick got eight years in a level I facility, which is more like a work camp, a halfway house. He goes to work during the day and comes back to his facility at night. He was 21 years old.

The 17-year-old boy talked, so he was waived to the juvenile system. Skyler wouldn’t talk.

My son was the youngest one out of all of them. Skyler was sent to a level II facility. Skyler is not a violent offender. The prosecutor wanted him to have 18 years. 18 years. She told me, “I have the absolute power.” She could have kept him in juvenile court, but she didn’t. I’m a Christian person. I try not to be angry.

Skyler doesn’t believe in God anymore. He doesn’t believe in the system anymore. All he believes in is surviving. All he thinks about anymore is survival. From the time he wakes up to time he goes to sleep. He tells me he almost prefers solitary, so he doesn’t have to watch his back all the time. He gets put in there for fighting, just so he can sleep. As far as I know, he’s not been brutalized… he’s been fortunate to have several old timers watch out for him. We would never let kids on the outside be beaten by adults… Why is it O.K for my kid to live in danger of being beaten every day?

I just think about all the things that he should have learned from his dad. That he is learning from these men… Skyler is a phenomenal artist. He draws portraits and pictures for other inmates and they will pay him in soup or coffee. He just finished a piece he calls “Dead Time” about his experience in jail. In the drawing he is in a sort of limbo.

It’s a horrible, horrible experience to go from nurturing your child one minute, to visiting them in prison. It’s as if your child has died.

It’s a horrible, horrible experience to go from nurturing your child one minute, to visiting them in prison. It’s as if your child has died. But that’s how we grieve. It’s like he was taken away from us. Now all I can do is hope and pray that in the 16 years that I had my son I was able to instill enough thoughts and beliefs and good character to override what he’s learning in there. We still grieve and grieve. We live from visit to visit. We only get to see him every two weeks. He can have a visitor every day, but that visitor can come only every 14 days. He has four brothers and sisters. So we set it up so they go in pairs at least once a week. They’re married and have families and work.  He has missed so much. He would be a senior in high school this year. He wants me to go cheer on his friends as they graduate. I don’t know if I can do it.

I’m currently in the criminal justice program at the community college. I have one more year before getting my associate’s degree, and then I would transfer to IU. I was going to go into probation… now I think I’m going to advocate. I think my heart is more there than it is anywhere. I was hitting a dark place. I felt that I failed him as a parent. These kids aren’t the only ones doing the time. The families are too. Every two visits means a month down, every four visits means two months, 24 visits will mean we’ve finished the first year. 11 more to go.

One thought on “The Criminal Justice System is No Parent’s Friend

  1. I am so sorry for you and your family having to go through this. I have a very similar story with my son. And I also trusted the legal system to do what is right. My son had no previous history with the legal system when he was arrested which made it easier for them to do what they wanted until I could afford a lawyer. Our children need to be taught there civil rights at a young age. Our laws concerning children need to change.
    The rights to people of lower class to be able to have a good lawyer need to change. It does no good to have our children locked in “protective custody” for months (my son it was 18 months waiting for trial). Shame on our laws, lawyers, judges and parents who have allowed this to happen.

Leave a Reply