Richard Ross

Alabama: A Different Approach by richard ross

By Richard Ross Cathy Woods is the assistant director of one of the more progressive juvenile detention centers in the United States: Tuscaloosa County Juvenile Detention Center in Alabama. Tuscaloosa isn’t just the home of the Crimson Tide or where George Wallace stood on the schoolhouse steps trying to thwart desegregation; it’s the location of a reasonably progressive, private juvenile hall.

The director’s corner office at the facility is decorated with Alabama pennants, “Roll Tide” accomplishments, autographs and bobbleheads of Bear Bryant. Through some unusual series of events, the day-to-day operation has defaulted to Woods, the assistant director, and her cadre of retired female schoolteachers.

Far from perfect, Tuscaloosa still shackles its children as they are transported from the hall to the enclosed family court next door and takes mattresses from the youth kept in solitary—of which there are too many. Their practices are outdated and this can’t be overlooked, but there’s something about the approach to rehabilitation here that it is unexpected.


Let me explain: across the country the majority of juvenile detention administrators and staff come from mixed backgrounds, often from local law enforcement or military posts. While the traditional tenets of juvenile justice have been rehabilitation, deterrence, and punishment, the rigid and militaristic approach staff bring from their previous professions makes punishment the default. Here in the heart of Alabama, there is a focus on nurturing and rehabilitation.

In the family courtroom next door, Woods sits in on every hearing. She takes the time to drive a girl who was in custody for sex trafficking to a shelter she found for her in Birmingham, and assists her in getting a job at Subway. The detention center is regularly visited by a goat, pig, pony, sheep and a chicken—hardened kids from the inner city are exposed to lives that need them and don’t prejudge them. The kids are forced to step outside of their comfort zones and are encouraged with praise when they are successful with new experiences. It is tempting to attribute this contrast in treatment to the female leadership of the facility, but to credit gender alone would prevent us from getting to the heart of what is so different about this approach.



There is financial support from the community to assist with materials and equipment that couldn’t otherwise be obtained. The effort is spearheaded by Woods, who wears the hat of a smart politician and a development officer along with her official title of assistant director. Emotional support comes from staff within the facility as well as community members surrounding it, both providing attention and patience. There is so much going on here, all with the goal of nurturing the kids rather than punishing.

What they are still lacking and hoping to create is a shelter for kids that acts as an alternative to the detention center. Woods and the family court judge (also female) are adamant as to the need for this. There is only so much that can be done to enhance what a juvenile hall offers. The lack of a non-secure shelter is what all agree is a critical shortcoming. These women don’t want to create more punitive policy, they want to build a space where their kids can feel safe and protected.

Why is it that when searching for people to run juvenile detention facilities, we favor people with military backgrounds to those with teaching or counseling backgrounds? Is it such a radical idea that we hand over leadership of our juvenile detention facilities, perhaps even all detention and corrections facilities, to those who nurture and support rather than discipline and dismiss?

I wonder.

Finally by richard ross

By Richard Ross “I was in Isolation – the longest stretch was 80 days.”, said my friend Ronald Franklin, who was held for seven years and released about six weeks ago. His call came the same day as the passage of California SB 124, a bill that finally prevents kids in detention from being held in isolation for punishment. After numerous failures the legislature passed it. Ronald was held in Florida where, as in most states, “iso” is a normal form of discipline.

During a visit last year in Santa Barbara—my hometown—I watched a girl get into a dramatic shouting match with a guard. “I don’t care—I know I’m going to do my 72 anyway. I ain’t afraid of you.” She referred to the default procedure of three days in solitary. The policy around the country can vary. It is usually dealt as 23 hours in a closed cell, without a mattress, books or any diversion. It varies. Often kids are let out for one hour of “large muscle movement.” There are few states where this is law, but it has become customary.

I experienced the mind numbing boredom of 24 hours in an isolation cell in a Midwestern detention center. It was a limited time commitment and experience. It has to drive you crazy. The noise, the concrete walls the color of spit, the smell and the harshness. Yet a few weeks ago Contra Costa County in California passed a county ordinance ending isolation, and the state passed a broader ruling. Are we at a tipping point?

Perhaps there is a caution or a cynicism that warns me, “Will the same people running these places rename isolation to “administrative segregation?” Will there be the same practice under a different name?

Some small part of me believes that I witnessed the nadir of what we do to children who are in our care, and this is another sign of the path to better and more humane treatment of kids.

Take teenagers—who you must look at through the lens of trauma and deprivation—and when they act out lock them in a closet for hours, days or weeks. Who came up with that idea as productive treatment?

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Ronald is out. He did his time and is now enrolled in a computer technical school.

“What was that 80 days in iso like Ronald?” The normally loquacious 20-year-old went silent for a long period. “Terrible.” was the terse, concise response. He then repeated, “Terrible.” He couldn’t talk about it further. It had done too much damage.

We have damaged our children and ourselves too much by using this practice.

June 2nd, 2015 is the day that legislature was passed. Now it is critical that administrators of juvenile institutions “buy into” the idea that we can and should do better. The institutions have to be accountable, and there has to be people monitoring behavior of not only the children, but the custodians responsible for them. There will be a formal system in place. But, there also must be the will to understand that this is the current law of the land in California and it is going to be enacted in other states. Although an already sun-parched state, this is a lovely ray of sunshine in California.

Too many girls are locked up to keep them 'safe’ by richard ross

This story is also featured on the San Francisco Chronicle


By Richard Ross

There is a growing problem of girls and law enforcement. The problem is not the violent catastrophic deaths that have captured the news. It is the slower escalation in how we treat the girls — no less life threatening and just as destructive. This is the world of institutional destruction of girls.

We have begun to recognize that juvenile detention institutions are no place for kids. There has been real progress made in reducing the number of children held in the system. Yet the population of girls is growing. Twenty years ago, the percentage of girls in the juvenile system was about 20 percent. Today, we are closer to 30 percent. We know the way to change this equation, but we need the resolve to do so.

These girls have to be looked at through the lens of trauma and exploitation. Nothing is accomplished by putting them in hard detention units and further traumatizing a very vulnerable, already damaged, population of kids. Many of these girls come from homes of neglect and abuse. More than three-quarters of them are in need of mental health services.

I watched a well-informed attorney discussing with a dedicated Alameda County Family Law Court judge discuss the practice of putting girls involved in sex trafficking and survival sex into detention. The attorney said there was a bright line — no child involved in sexual trafficking should be in detention. The response from the judge was that she had no other place to put the girl where she would be safe. The judge didn’t want her out on the streets and at risk in her environment.

Yet, if we lock up these kids for days, weeks or months, do we have a better solution for them when they exit? The damage done to kids in these institutions is statistically documented and overwhelming. Due to higher rates of exposure to trauma among girls, post-traumatic stress symptoms can worsen as a result of juvenile justice system involvement.

I am optimistic enough to believe that if we asked ourselves as a society, “Do we want to keep girls in an unhealthy environment where they experience abuse, violence and deprivation?” our answer would be a resounding, “no.”

What should we do if we know that the support for a child for one year in California public school is approximately $8,700 while the equivalent cost of a juvenile hall bed is about $150,000?

What if the solution were pointed to as better resources in the community and the costs were shown to be equal or less? Wouldn’t we be overjoyed? And would we really want to take kids from neighborhoods with the least resources and the least political power and harm them further? I can’t imagine this is who we are.

Isn’t it time we end this cycle and begin reallocating budgets from incarceration to resources in the communities where these kids stand at least a chance of success? We are doing this wrong, and there is a way to fix it. We can and must do better.

Call Me Mandi by richard ross

Mandi in San Quentin An edited version of this text is featured on The Marshall Project


By Richard Ross

Just north of the city of San Francisco, across the bay at the tip of the Marin County, stands San Quentin, California Men’s Prison. The crenelated castle-like towers remind you it was built when Abraham Lincoln was still President. It is also the home to the only gas chamber and death row in the state with 550 condemned men.

It is also the work place of Mandi Camille Hauwert, the only transgender correctional officer on the staff.

Every work day, she walks into a hyper masculine world. In addition to the 4,000 male prisoners, many of the corrections officers are former military, forming their own band of brothers. As James Brown sang, “It’s a man’s man’s man’s man’s world.”

Hauwert had entered the correctional system after four years active in the Navy, deployed in the Pacific as a damage control and assessment officer. However, in early 2012, after seven years of working at San Quentin, Mandi ceased to hide her true feelings. She began to wear earrings and makeup and let her hair grow.

Mandi, 35, shows me her correctional academy graduation picture with her parents. It is not easy to recognize the broadly mustached officer as the blonde woman in front of me.

Six feet tall and solidly built, Mandi has been taking hormones for almost three years. She says they often make her emotional and teary. She’s especially emotionally as she recounts the number of times she is hurt by “gender misidentification” during her work day—when the guards and prisoners still refer to her as masculine instead of feminine. In fact, she has been sent home several times for crying, although it is nothing she can easily control.

An occasional misidentification of gender might be chalked up to preponderance of men in this world, but the body language of the world around her is often far from subtle. Two or three men, guards as well as inmates will stop a conversation, angle closer to each other and exchange words in a hushed tone as their eyes follow Mandi. Sometimes it is louder and more specific. The most insulting comments are from the inmates just coming into the system. Mandi says she’s heard comments like: “He’s just a fucking faggot with a fetish for women’s underwear.”

The people who do treat her with respect are usually those who get to know her better. “When the population knows me and knows who I am, they usually accept me more as a person,” Mandi says.

Still every day can be an endurance trial. “Being inside the prison everyday, it's tearing me apart,” Mandi says. “ It's erasing the sense of myself, my feelings of self worth.” She adds, “I believe it is partly the military mind-set which disallows flexibility when considering gender.”

In the prison with four cellblocks stacked five tiers high, the environment is pure masculine. Among the guards, who are primarily African-American, one of casual forms of address is “brother,” accompanied by clasped hands brought to the chest, an embrace and three solid pats on the back. But Mandi is not a brother. White, broad shouldered, she is nobody’s brother. While some people treat her with respect, others can be hurtful.

In the guards’ tan and black uniforms, gender is difficult to differentiate. Although her badge is the same, Mandi’s uniform is slightly different than those of her colleagues. She wears pants, but they are cut slightly differently than the men’s, and instead of a long black masculine tie, she wears a short, crossed ribbon. Her blouse also has pleats and buttons right over left rather than vice versa. Her long sandy blond hair is often tied up. She wears make up and has her nails done. Her voice with the inmates and peers is gentle and demure.

The ability of the institution to embrace her has been slower than she would like. She did receive formal notification about proper dress code and all the formal State of California notification as to her rights, but she was warned that “cross-dressing is not allowed.” Although the formalities hinted at what she might expect as a transgender, it is hard to translate that into a warm environment. If an individual worked, for instance, at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, which is just south of the prison, the transformation might be significantly easier--but this is California Men’s Prison.

There are three transgender inmates at the prison, Mandy notes. They are chromosomally male, and so they are housed at the men’s facility. Likewise those who are chromosomally women, even if they identify as male, are housed at the women’s prison.

Mandi’s work responsibilities are primarily patrolling the visiting room for inmates and visitors. Juan Haines, an inmate and managing editor of the San Quentin News, describes Mandi as one of the kinder officers in the system. He said, “Many of the guards feel that since you are in prison you are undeserving of kindness and love. They don’t realize that my job on visiting day is to be a father to my daughter. Mandi gets this and helps make visits positive.”

Mandi’s Facebook page reveals an open longing about what family means to her. She has been fortunate enough to be embraced by her mother and father, and Mandi herself openly laments her inability to have children. Transgender people are not allowed to adopt in California.

Her postings are a wealth of self-reflection—a complex narrative of the journey she has embraced since she came out to the prison staff. She is painfully candid and honest: “Each and every day I rediscover little parts of myself that have been long forgotten, or just never before accessed,” she wrote in one recent post. “I do not know, & I cannot say what the experience of growing up as oh girl is like, but what I can say with absolute clarity and certainty, is the experience of transitioning to womanhood later in life, is nothing short of mind blowing.

This transition is documented with an almost continual stream of selfies—mostly headshots of a shy but almost glamorous looking woman.

Mandi doesn’t write about any complaints against her work colleagues, as she fears more discrimination. “I have existed in a military or paramilitary world all my life,” she says. “I know how this works. And where would I start? I am misidentified by pronoun not once or twice a day but tens, hundreds of times a day—it’s endless and it’s crushing. It’s not worth it to me. It’s like Chinese water torture---one drop at a time, one pronoun at a time, one snide comment and aside---one after another. It’s torture.”

Still she knows that others have had it worse. Mandi herself attended the same junior high school in Oxnard where, in 2008, a 15-year-old gay student was shot twice and killed by another student. The assailant eventually pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 21 years.

Mandy’s “gender affirmation” surgery is scheduled for March. One advantage of her prison job is that the procedure is covered by her corrections officer insurance.

“I’m glad you are doing my story,” Mandi tells me. “I would hope the outcome would be to make life easier for other transgender people. Let's just say I'm not used to positive thinking and have not anything positive in my life in a long time. I have never really smiled much, but part of that also has to do this growing up depressed.”

She admits: “Yes, I am anxious” about the upcoming operation, as she sweeps a lock of her blond hair from across her face with her perfectly manicured nail tips--clear lacquer to comply with prison regulations. But she adds, “I will be home recouping with my family. My parents support me, and I am intensely close to my sister. My brother, who is a devout Christian, has disavowed me.”

[Family-in-Justice] A Mother Speaks by richard ross

-8 Last week, we brought you inside Santa Maria Juvenile Hall to meet S.D, a 17-year-old awaiting sentencing for a violent crime committed with a group of older boys when he was 14. S.D was facing 60 years to life, now he has taken a deal of "juvie life" which means he will stay in the California Youth Authority until the age of 25. To get the deal S.D had to testify against multiple other members of his gang, which has put him at serious risk even inside the juvenile hall...

A couple days after talking to S.D at Santa Maria Juvenile Hall Richard met with his mom who lives in Santa Maria and tries to maintain a normal life in spite of the rocky years she had with her son leading up to the arrest-- from camping out  in the 'hood at all hours to try and find S.D and bring him home, to his expulsion from school and ultimate initiation into the gang at the age of 14...

Read her story below:


Richard Ross /


"I gave my son his Grandfather's name... He will 18 in May. I hired an attorney for him... She gave me a deal, $15,000.00. I was going to do whatever I had to do to make sure he had a fair shot. This was his life. He was in trouble and being charged with something serious. I was going to do whatever I had to do to make sure he had an attorney. I was very fortunate and my uncle, my grandma passed away and left me some money. My uncle was the beneficiary and was able to send me more than half of what the attorney charged. Then I found out that my mother had another account in Arizona... but my lovely brother sort of wiped out the accounts and took all the money. So I was sort of stuck with half the balance. Fortunately, very fortunately, the courts took over and helped in paying the rest."

[superquote]He was only in the gang for three months and 20 days before the incident occurred. I noticed him drifting down the wrong road and tried to get help for him, doors were all closed on me. Every resource I tried... nobody could help me. They basically told me they could help me when a crime had been committed. I was even out there on the streets at all hours trying to pull him out of there and bring him home.[/superquote]

"He's propped up, charged as an adult. His charge was first degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and gang enhancement. He was 14 at the time. Lompoc has gotten so bad. The gangs have gotten larger, I guess you could say kids that are jumped in are younger. It's so sad. He was only in the gang for three months and 20 days before the incident occurred. I noticed him drifting down the wrong road and tried to get help for him, doors were all closed on me. He was never on probation. Since he wasn't on probation I couldn't get help. I tried the Grizzly Academy, they wouldn't help either, you have to want to go there on your own and you have to be 16, he was 14. Every resource I tried... nobody could help me. They basically told me they could help me when a crime had been committed. And that's basically false information because now that this crime had been committed, even through he didn't do it but he was there, I didn't have anyone knocking on my door saying O.K we can help you know. I went to Lompoc PD, narcotics officers, gang enforcement officers... I looked online. Tried boys town in Oklahoma. He had been in counseling, therapy, I had reached out to Victory Outreach, the big brother program... I mean you name it. I tried everything I could. I was even out there on the streets, they call it the hood, at all hours. It didn't matter if it was 10 pm or 2 am, I was out there trying to do what I could to pull him out of there and bring him home. I was ready to pitch a tent out there. Sometimes I could catch him and sometimes he'd run away from me. It was a nightmare. But I wasn't giving up. I was told him I would never let the gang win him over no matter what I had to do. So..."



[superquote]S.D is my only child. He's my baby. He's it. He's a good boy, he has a good heart. He just didn't make some good choices.[/superquote]



"S.D is my only child. He's my baby. He's it. He had been in trouble once before. It was a fight with another gang member, in the court he told the judge “Fuck you,” and was sent to Los Prietos Boys Camp. It was after a month in there that the gang enforcement agents pulled him out and charged him with the murder. He had changed a lot in Los Prietos, he said it was a good program for him. That camp was probably the best thing that could have happened to him."

[superquote]He was introduced to the gang life at El Puente. Lots of kids on probation, gang members, you name it they were there. I don't know if it was the excitement, the thrill of it all... I raised him to be different.[/superquote]

"What had happened was he was going to Vandenburg Middle School, he wasn't doing great. To make a long story short, a few detentions added up and then he and a friend made a hole the size of a quarter on the seat of school bus. Due to that he was expelled from the entire district. Forced him to to go El Puente School. I think that did it. He wasn't able to go to his school. He was introduced to the gang life at El Puente. Lots of kids on probation, gang members, you name it they were there. I don't know if it was the excitement, the thrill of it all... I raised him to be different. Maybe it was “this is new, I'm curious.” I mean I am a single mom, but I raised him well. S.D was never out in the street, never out past curfew, once it was nighttime 7 or 8pm S.D was home. I've worked since he was a baby. I also made sure that every time I got a job it was Monday through Friday during day hours so I could be here at night. I was working at Michael's, I still work there. After three years of day shifts my manager had a fit, and the district manager forced me to work nights. That was it. I had to start working nights, I couldn't be home 'til 11:30, I had to work weekends. That and El Puente is when things started falling apart. He was here by himself, I 'm sure that had an effect on him... but as a single mom I had to work. Didn't have a choice, I had to raise him. I don't have any family. My mom and dad, his grandparents are passed away."








"He started being disrespectful at home. I would take his cell phone away and he would fight me for it. I would ground him and he would just fly out of the house. I thought “Whoa, S.D has always listened to me.” I could tell he was doing drugs when he was out on the street, with the gang members, it was altering him. He was drinking, smoking, popping pills, I think he tried meth a few times."

[superquote] I think he's come a long way. He's doing awesome in school. I meet with him every Monday and Sunday, our last visit he was very proud and excited. [/superquote]

"S.D has come a long way. He has an attitude and a temper. He got in one fight a couple years ago, it was his fault. Once he was rushed by another gang member who called him a snitch, and then he got in trouble for defending himself. Other than that... I think he's come a long way. He's doing awesome in school. I meet with him every Monday and Sunday, our last visit he was very proud and excited. 20 credits and he's done. I am very, very, very, very proud of him. He wasn't doing any school outside, all Fs."


"He's a good boy, he has a good heart. He just didn't make some good choices. He was looking at 60 years to life. But... S.D's a good kid and he's always told the truth. I told him, “it's your decision. But I'm your mom and I don't want you to take the rap for something you didn't do.” I told him, “I understand you are in a gang, I get it. You might have a little bit of an initiative for his horrible crime but you need to speak up.” He was the youngest one out of all of them, so they expect him to take the rap. One day in juvie he said to me, “where are my friends? Why aren't they coming forward with the truth?” and I said exactly and we had a good conversation. It was a hard decision but he decided to take the deal. Which is a crappy deal, but, they are willing to release him when he's 25 years old. So, a few weeks ago he had to testify against 3 gang members. He's at risk in there right now. According to his attorney, they did a crappy investigation, they had the kid who actually shot and killed the man and they let him go, now he is at large. If they catch him S.D will have to testify against him as well. But he won't be at juvenile hall. They'll be transporting him to YA, Youth Authority, which is basically a mini youth prison to my understanding. They don't know which one they'll transfer him to. I'm praying for Camarillo. I can file a hardship, because I'm a single parent and this is my only son, so I can request for him to stay near. If not, my understanding is that the next one is 6-8 hours away in Preston."

[superquote]It was a hard decision but he decided to take the deal. Which is a crappy deal, but, they are willing to release him when he's 25 years old. So, a few weeks ago he had to testify against 3 gang members. He's at risk in there right now.[/superquote]

"S.D's never had an issue with my being gay. I've been with my current girlfriend Shady two years now, she writes to S.D. My ex and I had been together for 11 years. We were having relationship issues and S.D saw all of it. They'd known each other since he was 4. He used to call her dad. At the end he lost respect for me, having to watch our relationship crumble. I think it had a huge impact on S.D joining the gang. I blame myself. As a mom, I know it was up to him to make that choice, but I know that things at home weren't helping him to not make that decision. His father just barely came into his life. They met for the first time one day before he was locked up. So he's met him. He's not a great dad, that's all I can say. He visits him off and on. He might pop up and go with me faithfully to visit S.D for a few months, then disappear. He says he's been clean and sober and I think I believe him. He was a heroin addict. He was a gang member in Santa Barbara, he says no longer but sometimes I wonder."


"April 5th will be three years awaiting trial. There were so many co defendants. They were waiting for their trials to be through, which should finish up this month. After that, S.D will go back to court a couple times. Because he took the deal, S.D might be able to go back to juvenile court and he might be able to be charged as a juvenile. One of the facilities he might go to has fire camp, I'm really pushing for that. Encouraging him to take advantage of any and all opportunities he might have in there."