Guest Post

Let facilities take root in our neighborhoods by richard ross

A version of this article was originally published by the NY Daily News.

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At age 15, I was arrested for stealing a car and was sentenced to juvenile prison until my 21st birthday. In mid-90s Illinois, the sole female juvenile prison was located in a Chicago suburb, five hours north of my rural town. Visitations were held weekly, but without public transit options, my single mother — who bicycled to work — was unable to come.

In the two decades since, several states have shifted from warehousing delinquents in remote prisons to localizing them in treatment centers that address their psychological needs. In 2012, Gov. Cuomo approved the Close To Home initiative, which relocates young offenders nearer to their communities, where they can restoratively transition back home.

The idea is sound and progressive: Being within MetroCard proximity to their families allows kids to stay in touch with their support networks while receiving transferable school credits, reducing both dropout and re-entry rates. Close to Home facilities offer enhanced counseling services, too.

But not everyone believes in the project — especially not when it’s in their backyard. On Tuesday, residents of South Ozone Park celebrated the city controller’s decision to reject a contract to operate a facility putting up to 18 teenagers in their neighborhood. This comes after months of heated protests and a civil suit filed against the children’s service agency, which locals claim was trying to turn their neighborhood into a dumping ground.

After hearing plans to build a treatment center in Queens Village, neighbors there erupted into their own revolt, vowing to follow South Ozone’s example.

Opponents say they have safety concerns. It can appear they are more motivated by fear of diminished property values. Neither reason justifies blocking the program.

Kids eligible for it are either non-violent offenders like me or do not pose a clear or present danger. They’re just young people in need of a second chance.

If, that is, they’re anything like me. My delinquency started when I was 13, after my parents divorced and my siblings fanned out among friends. I went from a crowded bedroom to an empty trailer and was left confused and angry. I didn’t understand my mother’s need to work 16-hour shifts and sleep during her time off.

I began running away, committing petty crimes and using various substances to numb my sense of loss. By the time I was arrested, I knew that being taken off the streets probably saved my life.

During the first year, letters home were frequent. I sent, “Miss you,” crayoned with blue bubble letters, followed by, “Please send a photo, I’m afraid I’ll forget your face.” Correspondence rapidly dwindled, and in a final note, I wrote, “Sorry for the pain I caused, wish I could have gotten it together sooner.”

I got used to the locking of steel doors, barbed-wire fences and caged windows. Stifled cries echoing down the hall as I tossed in my sleep became home.

After two years, I was paroled for good behavior to a group home in a small town, still out of my mother’s reach. My progression into independent living was hinged upon finding a job — but the revelation of my facility’s address sabotaged employment opportunities. The resentment among the locals in Illinois mirrored the current climate in Queens. My existence had pockmarked their town.

New laws bumped my release date to age 19, but I couldn’t celebrate; I wasn’t really ready to be freed.

Landing in a battered women’s shelter and acquiring a mentor was my turning point. Through her nurturing, I was able to find something positive within myself and walk a different path.

I’m now a 33-year-old college grad who lives near South Ozone with my husband. I’ve been in the city for almost a decade, and as I witness these protests, I’m reminded of how it felt to be loathed by people who didn’t understand my predicament.

If they keep juvenile facilities out of their neighborhood, NIMBY opponents may win a small victory. But it will pose a larger, lasting threat to the city’s future.

Blanchard is a writer and teacher.

"I lost my freedom in detention!" by richard ross

This week, Juvenile In Justice concludes the features on two adults who spent much of their childhood lives in detention.
Jose Vidrio shares his experience of being in and out of the juvenile justice system and the conditions of confinement, and touches on his achievements as an adult now.
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by Jose Vidrio I was physically abused by my father. When I was young, my sister and I were always afraid of my father because we didn't know what mood he was going to come in. My Dad was this big macho guy that didn't like hugs and or kisses for his birthday or Father’s Day, especially coming from me. He thought that it was a gay gesture and if I attempted to do so, he would hit me of course. I can say that alcohol did play a big factor here; when my father was drinking his mood was unpredictable.

I started to get into trouble when I was 10 years of age. I did three months then because of tagging and refusing to give my name. I guess when my mother left my father I kinda took advantage and would leave the house a lot. When I was 12, I was arrested for armed robbery and did almost 2 years in Juvi. When I was 15, I was sentenced to 10 years and did 5 and 1/2. I came out when I was 21 years of age.

When I was in CYA, I was in isolation from 6AM to 10PM. They put me in a "cold room" with just my boxers on—there was no mattress, no sheets. All day I walked around the 8’x10’ room and did random workouts because the room was so cold. By the time that they put me back in my cell I was so tired that I just wanted to go to sleep. Sometimes the staff members would go inside when I was asleep and they would beat me before putting me in the cold room. Sometimes the staff members would put me with other rival gang members to fight in the rec room.

Sometimes the staff members would go inside when I was asleep and they would beat me before putting me in the cold room. Sometimes the staff members would put me with other rival gang members to fight in the rec room.

I guess that I can say that there was no love at home. My mother was always yelling and screaming at us. We didn't understand and take into consideration that she was going through a hard time divorcing my dad and she hid us while doing it for a while.

I lost my freedom in detention! I have learned that it is easier to mess up your background than it is to restore it. I also gained some knowledge about my history, family, and also graduated high school in there as well as doing my first communion. As far as the food, if we ever had meat, it didn’t taste like meat. We called it mystery meat because it tasted funny. We joked and said that maybe it was gopher meat because they had a big problem in the yard.

I lost my freedom in detention! I have learned that it is easier to mess up your background than it is to restore it.

I was just approved for a Certificate of Rehabilitation on Oct 8th and I am very excited about that. I currently work for a radiology company processing insurance claims and reconciliation from complicated claims. In April 2016, I will be graduating with my Bachelors of Business in Health Care Management.

I talk to all of my family, including my father and we talk good. I am not going to say that we have the best relationship but he is in our lives. I talk to family that I have never spoke to before. I am married and have been with my wife for 13, going on 14 years. I have 5 children that keep me busy and love them to death. And yes, I give them all kisses and hugs, both my boys and my girls.

—Jose Vidrio

"I am very happy with my life now." by richard ross

Over the next few weeks, Juvenile In Justice will feature the stories of two adults who spent much of their childhood lives in detention.

This week, Amy Stephens-Vang shares her story of resilience and recovery.

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by Amy Stephens-Vang

I moved to California when I was six years old. My parents are both alcoholics and drug addicts. My Dad was in and out of youth authorities and boy’s camps. My Mom was a run away from a very young age because she had an abusive father. I have an older brother and a younger brother and sister who are twins.

After we moved to California, my parents became very bad in their addictions and they started fighting a lot. They neglected us and I started being Mommy to my siblings. I missed a lot of school and there was so much drugs and violence around us. In July 1993 we went into foster care. At first, all of my siblings and I were together, but eventually we all got split up and my younger brother and sister were adopted.

Amy Lynn Stephens-Vang 2

Amy Lynn Stephens-Vang 2

I moved to Redding, CA when I was 14 years old. Within six months I had attempted suicide and was arrested for 1st degree murder, 2nd degree robbery and false imprisonment and conspiracy to commit murder. I was running around with people much older than me and I got with a guy who ended up killing someone. I was in juvie for 15 months fighting my case. This was April 1998. I was tried as a juvenile but was found guilty of all four charges. I was sent to Ventura Youth Correctional Facility when I was 15, in July 1999.

When I got there, the parole board gave me seven years. I felt like I was so alone and that I was never going to get out. I had no outside support because my parents were still in their addiction and in and out of prison. My older brother wanted nothing to do with me because I was an embarrassment. I was involved in many physical altercations and I was put on suicide watch many times. I was medicated so heavily during my stay there that there are periods of months that I can't even remember anything. I got involved with many intimate relationships with other girls there and I clinged to those relationships because it's the only love I could get.

I had many horrible counselors and I had many wonderful counselors. The food in there was not the best but I've had worse. I was put in isolation many times and it was one of the worst things. During the day, they would take our mattresses away so we couldn't sleep and they wouldn't give us a spork to eat with. I saw a girl go schizophrenic in there and they would mock her and experiment psych meds on her instead of sending her to a mental hospital. She wasn't faking and is still schizophrenic now.

I used to pray every night to God that he would let me die in my sleep so I wouldn't feel any type of pain anymore. Emotional pain. The whole time I was locked up I got 3 visits from my family. I rarely got any mail so while the night officer slid mail through our doors at 4 or 5 in the morning I always knew he would be skipping my door... No one wrote me after my 5th or 6th year there... I would just lay there and cry and wish I had died in my sleep.

I graduated high school in there and took some college units. When I got out nine and a half years later, I didn't know how to do anything as an adult. I had no work experience. I didn't even know how to get my identification card. The only program that really helped me in there was fire camp. It showed me how to set goals and work harder mentally and physically. I completed every program they had to offer. I still have nightmares to this day that I am back in there and I wake up sobbing.

Amy Lynn Stephens-Vang

Amy Lynn Stephens-Vang

Today I am married to a wonderful man and we have two beautiful children together. The worst thing I have done since I was released eight years ago is I got a speeding ticket. I am a law abiding citizen and have a house and a couple vehicles. My brothers and sister are back in my life. We all found each other again. I see my Mom almost everyday and my father passed away a couple years after I got out. I am very happy with my life now.

—Amy Stephens-Vang

Children of the Abyss by richard ross

By Jason Sexton

It was the end of an era. But one that must be told.

I watched it growing up in Tracy, a California prison town. Older guys would leave for prison. Bay Area rappers spoke of being brought up middle-class yet catching cases, doing “lock-down” in Preston. Fast juvenile crime and doing time earned stripes and cred for a meaningful street economics.

Racist social injustice yielded police brutality that swelled into events like the Rodney King riots. I was expelled from high school that year, my freshman year; a big gang fight.

The wider scenario everyone knew of but didn’t speak much about—someone [anyone!] would sort this out. Lock ‘em all up.

The scenario, especially in the slowly burning-over suburbs, was fueled by transient youth moving around with their families into more affordable living situations, hoping for a better life. Kids need identity, and often found it in gangs and crime. This was the tempest fueling mass juvenile incarceration during California’s 80s and 90s. CYA held over ten thousand in 1996, when I was there. Conservatively, that’s 135% capacity.

But it’s over now. Closing eleven of fifteen prisons in the past twelve years, it’s over. Kids are not held in cages, raped and abused, made to fight to survive in our prisons. Growing research continues arguing that juvenile incarceration doesn’t work. We’ve climbed out of the abyss.

 

I’m confronted with it as my children get older. They often wonder about my childhood, where I grew up, where my tattoos came from, what constituted my friendships, how I grew up.

A lot goes unspoken, but they wonder and appreciate a warm friendship I maintain with one of my former cell-mates. What is this profound friendship, easily quickened and rekindled with the depth of familial blood, or more?

Their eyes were opened December 2012. Living in England on a Cambridge postdoc, we travelled home to California for Christmas. We spent the holiday with my grandmother in Reno.

She asked if I wanted to visit the downtown art gallery and insisted I go. It was on juveniles in prison. She didn’t realize what she was asking. It’s not easy staring back into the abyss that was one’s former dwelling. But I obliged.

The gallery was more important for my own healing than I realized at the time, for which I’m profoundly grateful to Richard Ross. I took my kids, pointing out places I lived (Ventura, &c.). I wept once or twice. The gallery took me back where I hadn’t been in fourteen years. My children didn’t have words, and I had few to give them.

In my mind I go back more frequently now, teaching university courses on U.S. Institutions and Values, focusing on the prison. I teach an intensive Whittier College course on prison religion. Sometimes I write about prison.

I’ve recently been involved in discussions about the redevelopment of the oldest California juvenile prison, in Whittier, named after eugenicist Fred Nelles. I’ve taken students to it, always with a deep sour feeling in my chest, wishing I didn’t have to.

After a talk Miroslava Chavez-Garcia gave recently, a heated discussion about Nelles transpired. A former Nelles guard was asked pointedly by another audience member if he’d confirm that juveniles were abused there. Hesitating, he responded, “Not on my watch; and when I was there I didn’t tolerate it.” Then, in a flash of foolish honesty, “Nothing happened to them that they didn’t already have coming and didn’t deserve!”

My undergraduate students heard it, and were stunned. The state archivist was shocked. I wasn’t.

I recently took my twelve year old son to Whittier City Planning Commission discussions about the Nelles redevelopment. He was bored, but still wonders. He feels things about the prison, but has few words for it now. Yet his favorite author is Luis J. Rodriguez. I wonder how he will read the era of mass juvenile incarceration.

As they voted 3-2 to develop the Nelles site, one commissioner urged the acknowledgement of those who went through the system and made something of their lives. Nice idea. But we don’t know who these are. There remains a shame and stigma accompanying those who served time as juveniles, especially in their own minds, and in their families, and cities. They don’t want to be known.

We did time for things still difficult to make sense of and speak of. The number of exploding plea bargains must have been obscene (I’d love to know the number), generating endless lambs for the abattoir. This isn’t France, where once a carceral sentence is served nobody dares speak of it. Nosy Americans want to know. “What did you do?” “What were you in for?” Admitting one was incarcerated is not easy, and risky. The abyss is real. Americans love its utilitarian function for dealing with the “other.” But in this moment, should the tens of thousands of formerly incarcerated youth from the era of mass incarceration dare look? Should they come out? Perhaps they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. But they’ve been damned before.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve really climbed out of the dark era of U.S. juvenile mass incarceration. Perhaps it’s still trivial for some, perhaps for politicians, who likely won’t bring any lasting change. I worried about this recently as did someone serving life from a juvenile sentence.

The mass youth incarceration era in California has ended, they proclaim. Or at least it’s on its way out with currently under a cool thousand in the state system. After being closed a decade, the forthcoming development of Whittier’s Nelles property signals the era’s final blow. (The ballooning county juvenile carceral situation is another story.)

Hopefully the ultimate end of the juvenile prison will come sooner rather than later. Those who endured its violent clutches continue trying to make sense of it, eager to make meaningful lives after such a destructive era. And we still struggle for words to speak to our children about it.

Jason Sexton is Lecturer in the Honors Program at California State University, Fullerton. He's writing two books on the prison, one introducing the subject of the prison to an evangelical Christian audience and the other giving an interdisciplinary theological account of the incarcerated church. He can be contacted at jsexton@fullerton.edu and his other work is found here: https://fullerton.academia.edu/JasonSexton