"Mom does the best she can." by richard ross

I’m from the East Side. I have two sisters, 12 and six. I think they probably took over my room. I was 15 on my first visit here. I was picked up three days ago on a warrant for not appearing in court. I got out of camp and didn’t check in with my PO (probation officer) for eight months. I just wanted to be done with probation and all that shit. I was chilling with my homie and the cops stopped us for open containers and they ran my ID and found me with an open warrant. They would describe me as gang affiliated. I been here a bunch. Maybe 25 times. Mostly violations, and little misdemeanors. They always portray gang members as a negative thing, but there are different levels. Some people just like to hang with their homies rather than hard core banging. If you are identified as a gang member they finger print you, take your DNA. They make you sign a document that you are affiliated. They showed it to my mom and told her what it was about but she didn’t understand it. I have minor charges “hanging” over me. These are forgotten if you don’t stray as an adult, but if you do, they make those charges a part of your history and you have to answer for them as an adult. I didn’t really go to school on the outs. I think I am supposed to be in 12th grade. I go to court tomorrow.

"I been here a bunch. Maybe 25 times. Mostly violations, and little misdemeanors."

My mom visits me. She’s a box checker in the strawberry fields. She has her resident papers and has been here 18 years. My dad passed away when I was 5. He was DUI and went off a cliff. I was in AS (administrative segregation) for a week one time. I try to stay straight here. I was never in foster care. I had lots of issues when I was young. There was no dad in my house and there was a lot of domestic violence. There were always men beating on my mom and myself. Her ex-husband was violent. I think it was because I wasn’t his real biological son. My mom filed a restraining order against him. He was arrested and kicked out of the country.

Mom does the best she can. She works in the strawberry fields Monday through Saturday. When the girls are in school sometimes my aunt helps out. She lives with us. I will tell the judge, “you gave me a lot of chances but I blew most of them.” I was a skater when I was 13/14 but they don’t have space in this town for those kids.

—J., age 18



"I was on the run for a month..." by richard ross

I’ve been here 245 days. I caught a gang case—robbery. I was 12 when I first came here. They have me as a member of the Heartless Felons. Mom works at the clinic. My dad doesn’t have a job. My mom and dad live together. I have four brothers and two sisters. I’m the oldest. My dad went on trial when I was nine. I tried to find a way to get it going on my own. He went down for six years on drug charges. I have been here eight times. I hope they send me home on house arrest. Sometimes when you are on house arrest it is a set up because the box don’t work—then the police come and get you. I was on the run for a month—then I turned myself in. I just want to be free. They used to have programs for kids when I was younger but they stopped. I was smoking for a while, but I didn’t do it for ten months. They gave me RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) charges as a gang member. They had me for assault, vandalism, menacing, participating in a criminal gang, engaging in corrupt activity, and two conspiracy counts. I fought somebody. Then they dropped all the charges except the menacing, vandalism, and attempt to participate in a criminal gang. I have a private lawyer. My parents hired him. It’s all a lot of gang stuff….so the RICO. But I ain’t in no gang. I’m in 10th grade. IEA. In school. Not in special ed. They charged me as an adult. This is county. The kid I was charged with ain’t going to snitch so they dropped the assault. They gave me a plea deal. The most time they can give me is 18 months. I do adult at Mansfield. I got into trouble too many times.

— E.V., age 17

— E.V., age 17

Kids go through intake in about 20-25 minutes. There is a 24 hour nurse on staff. There are Part time doctors. They kids get a TB shot, have to do a urine sample for drugs and SDIs. They get it at least once a year, not more frequently if they are pulled in more often. They have an option of being tested for HIV. Usually we can tell about drug use with jittery eyes. The kids are fingerprinted only in special circumstances, and by court order.

— E.V., age 17

"No one could see that I was suffocating." by richard ross

I’ve been coming here since I was 11. I am in for a DV with my mom. I thought when I first came here that jails were like I saw on TV. But this place they are not here to hurt us but to help us. It’s really cool. I first came here when I took some of my brother’s coke and he got mad and told my mom. She was tired from work so she burned me with cigarettes and hit me with an extension cord. I was seven years old. I can’t talk about it without getting angry. I haven’t seen her is eight years. She’s married now and fixing to get her RN. She was 16 when I was born, 14 when my brother was born. I didn’t know anything about protective services. My dad dropped out of the family completely. He was on crack cocaine.

People have to realize we are not bad kids just because we come from bad homes.

I was six years old when I was molested by my auntie’s boyfriend. He put his finger in my vagina and my cousin’s at the same time. I was so young I didn’t even know what the word vagina was. He told my cousin that we couldn’t tell anybody or he wouldn’t give us candy. It was both the candy and something wrong that we didn’t tell anybody for a while. It was my cousin’s stepdad. When we told my auntie she wanted to tell the police but he said he would kill her if she did. We saw him with a gun and knew he would kill her. We went with my mom and she asked if everything went well and we told her that C touched us. Later after he served five years, they took him in and expected everything to be normal. But I am still angry. I have been here five weeks now. They sent me here from Shelby County Tennessee—Memphis. Whenever I am out I guess my life is always in jeopardy. The only thing I know how to do is sell my body. I was arrested in December in a Tennessee hotel. I was with a friend who was 21 and helping me. They took me to Tennessee detention. There you sleep all day. The only time out you get from it is to wash dishes. The staff talks about things they shouldn’t been talking about with kids.



I had to be willing to come to Tuscaloosa or else they would not be sending me here. My dad tried to help me but he was on crack. My grandmother can’t help. Her life is messy. No one could see that I was suffocating. I don’t have a pimp. I am doing it on my own. It’s a rough world. I was having sex with police officers in Birmingham. I want to get out of here, get an apartment and get a singing career.The staff here, they are a blessing to me. They basically raised me. Last time I was in school I was 14. A lot of people know me as being a bad person…but it’s because I have so much anger. I know that’s no excuse. I want to go to Shelton State Community College. They are all okay here. They know that they are here to help kids not hurt them. You don’t have to punish kids to in order to help them. The other kids here…sometimes we bump heads here but at the end of the day we look out for each other.

My dad tried to help me but he was on crack.

My grandmother can’t help. Her life is messy.

When kids have the attitude “I will never make it in life because of what happened to me,” they will never make it. I hope I can go to WELL House. They teach you survival skills. Not a lock down. It is an adult facility. People have to realize we are not bad kids just because we come from bad homes. We have made a bad decision somewhere along the way.I had one abortion when I was younger. My friend’s mom had to sign off on it. I was 16 and my baby daddy was in and out of prison. I started prostitution because I needed some place to stay to simply lay down my head. If I was still on probation I might still come back here…but I am an adult now.

-B.W., Age 18

**Interviews with youth are recorded to the best of our ability. All personal histories and anecdotes are self-reported by the children. To protect confidentiality of the youth, identities have been obscured, initials have been changed, and identifying details have been removed. Interviews have not been edited for content.

[Guest Post] End Solitary Confinement of Youth in Adult Jails and Prisons by richard ross

Governors have an historic opportunity through the Prison Rape Elimination Act to do just that:cfyj_prea_teal-01

From Campaign For Youth Justice's Liz Ryan: This year, governors will need to certify that their states are in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a law that Congress unanimously approved in 2003, designed to end sexual violence behind bars. To implement PREA, the U.S. Department of Justice issued regulations, including provisions restricting the placement of youth in adult jails and prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice regulations state: “as a matter of policy, the Department supports strong limitations on the confinement of adults with juveniles.” The regulations further ban the housing of youth in the general adult population, prohibit contact between youth and adults in common areas, ensure youth are constantly supervised by staff; and limit the use of isolation.

Simply separating youth from adults in adult jails and prisons isn’t enough to protect youth. When officials separate youth from adults in adult facilities under the guise of protection, they are addressing one problem and creating another. In order to keep youth separated from adults, youth are often placed in their cells for excessive periods of isolation—isolation that equates to solitary confinement. The report, “Growing Up Locked Down” released by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, along with Ted Koppel’s March 22, 2013 program about youth in solitary confinement in adult jails and prisons showed the harm this practice causes, including depression, exacerbating already existing mental health issues, and putting youth at risk of suicide. It is crucial that governors implement best practices being set under the PREA to fully protect youth in the justice system—by removing youth from adult jails and prisons and by accessing federal support to undertake new reforms.


Take Action Now: 

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Liz Ryan brings more than two decades of experience to the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), an organization she founded that is dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating children in the adult criminal justice system.