"I'm not allowed out." by richard ross

I'm in a segregation cell. I've been here for one and a half months, out of a 6-month sentence. I came to visit my grandma here in town in the summer but I got in trouble. My parents live in different states. I've been in detention in other states three times now. I'm here for credit card theft, but I'm in segregation because they said I threatened intimidation against the staff. My mattress stays in the hall during the day, I can only bring it in at night. Staff might say I'm out for at least one hour a day, sometimes two hours. But I'm not allowed out. Only to use the bathroom.

—J., age 16



"I've been coming here since I was ten or eleven." by richard ross

I'm being held in detention. I've been coming here since I was ten or eleven. I was expelled from school in the 6th grade. There are problems at home. My younger brother is on probation. My mom works for the cable company. I live with my mother, grandmother, and aunt—she's 15.

I don't talk to my father, he left when I was six. He tried to visit me once but I said I didn't wanna see him.

—J., age 13



"Any time they hear my name they lock me up." by richard ross

I’ve been in the timeout room for two days. I’ve been in detention four times. The first time I was 13. I’ve been in isolation eight times. The longest time was two weeks. Any conflict or altercation they lock me up. Doesn’t matter who’s to blame they lock me up. They won’t let me tell my side of the story. When I was 13 I got caught with a gun and some marijuana at the movies. I bought the gun for $60. I just want a gun so I can handle a situation myself. I got the $60 by hustling, just selling marijuana.

—D., age 16



"I always stuck with school. I always had good grades." by richard ross

I’ve been here two months now. The first time I was here was on a burglary charge. I was 14. Two other times I was here for cutting off my house arrest bracelet. Old charges that popped up and they sent me back downstairs from the courtroom down to detention. My P.O. (probation officer) is having a placement meeting for me. My dad, mother, and grandmother visit. Sometimes my sister visits. She is 17. My dad and mom don’t live together. My mom lost custody a couple of years ago. I was about nine years old. My mom and dad have both been involved with me. I was never in a foster home. My grandmother has been raising me for more than six years. I’m in regular high school classes, but we have about 12-13 kids in each class. We do a lot of work on computers there.

N.K., age 17

N.K., age 17

I always stuck with school. I always had good grades. No one ever checked on my homework. No one.

I have always been falling into a bad crowd. Only a few of my family members share the same behavior—my uncle and my god brother. They’re not in any gangs—they just like to be out on the streets. What does “on the streets” mean? Having fun, getting money— the easy way of doing what they enjoy doing. They hustle and look for easy money. It is hard and very, very tempting, but best to stay away from it. My mom is at home with my sister. She straightened up her life after she got out of jail. She completed probation. She drinks here and there but she doesn’t smoke anymore so I’m proud of her for that. A drink here and there or a smoke here and there is normal. It’s not like kids don’t know what they are doing is wrong. They are just not thinking of the consequences. When we do things like “hitting licks”—robbing someone or breaking into a house—it’s a way to make money. People use that phrase everywhere. “Me and my friend just hit a lick on a house down the street for $500.”

I always stuck with school. I always had good grades. No one ever checked on my homework. No one. My grandmother is responsible for me.

—N.K., age 17

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.

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.

"In my country people play like that." by richard ross

This is my first time I detention. I’ve been here 5 months because my attorney said I need to see a special doctor. I’m from Norwalk. I live with my mom, who’s a babysitter, stepdad, who’s a mechanic, and three step brothers. I don't know my real dad. I’m in eighth grade. No there’s no gang affiliation. I’m here because of an incident. I came to the US. from Nicaragua. I did something that I didn't know it was illegal. I didn't know the rules and laws. In my country people play like that. I think the attorney told me to see a doctor to see if I know the difference between good and bad. CA_Central_12_15_13-9

I did something that I didn't know it was illegal.

My mom is fighting for her papers. I came to the US. on a U5 visa. It allows somebody in the family to visit a family member when he’s been hurt. I visited my brother because he was raped by my uncle. He was five. I think my uncle was in jail, but he’s out now. My mom doesn't like him. I was living with my aunt and uncle here and I came with my grandma by airplane. They tried to send me back to Nicaragua, but they may put me with a program or placement here. I didn't know what I did was wrong.

-I.N., Age 13


**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.

[Family-in-Justice] Tarsha Jackson Part 1 by richard ross



Part 1:


Tarsha Jackson had her first encounter with the juvenile justice system when her son Marquieth was just 10 years old. In his special education classroom in Harris County, Texas Marquieth received a ticket for classroom disruption. It was his first day of school and marked the beginning of what would be a decade-long struggle with the juvenile justice system. By age 16, Marquieth had spent a total of five years in juvenile prisons.


School was a struggle for Marquieth. In his special education classroom, his teachers were not sensitive to Marquieth’s needs and they dealt with behavioral disruptions poorly. Tarsha recalls that few issues were handled internally, with teachers frequently bringing the police in. When he was 10, Marquieth was charged with assault for accidentally kicking a teacher while being restrained. He was placed on 6 months’ probation. After several school conduct violations and two probation violations Marquieth was referred to detention with no expected release date. During his confinement, Tarsha was not allowed to see or speak to her son for 30 days. It was horrifying. Tarsha paid a local advocate $50 dollars to check on Marquieth’s case; he was released from detention 1 week after the advocates’ inquiry.


At age 11, Marquieth received his third violation for allegedly breaking a window at a neighborhood pool. Knowing that what he had “done” did not warrant his being locked up, Tarsha launched a fierce campaign to keep her son out of prison. She recruited her son’s doctors to write letters about his condition, she created a plan of treatment, and brought her family in to advocate. Before her son’s court date, unbeknownst to Tarsha, the court attorney and the probation officer went before a visiting judge with no knowledge of the case. Afterwards, they called Tarsha to inform her that Marquieth had been sentenced to nine months in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.


The experience of the Jackson family is a tragic example of the school-to-prison pipeline in Texas. To provide some background, in 1995 school discipline laws in Texas were overhauled with the intent of reducing potential violence on campuses. Zero tolerance policies were adopted statewide, which allowed administrators to use suspension, referral to alternative education programs, and law enforcement at their own discretion—which has in many cases resulted in a criminalization of normal student misbehavior. According to the NAACP from their site, “Rather than employ traditional disciplinary measures, such as counseling or detention, when students misbehave, schools are becoming increasingly dependent on suspensions, expulsions, and law enforcement to punish students.” Disproportionally affected by these zero-tolerance policies are students of color and those with developmental disabilities.


Things were bad as soon as Marquieth was committed to the Texas Youths Commission. According to Tarsha, her son, who had been medicated since he was three, was immediately taken off his medications and put in an isolation cell. Also according to Tarsha, a scuffle with the guards, who were armed with shields, resulted in a ½ inch chin laceration and impacted wisdom teeth for Marquieth (see hospital records below). Tarsha says that while he was in TYC, her son received virtually no mental health treatment. For the next 3 1/2 years he bounced around between institutions in the Texas Youth Commission.



Tune in for part 2 tomorrow morning. (and consider subscribing to the blog HERE to receive posts in your email inbox)



For Tarsha and other parents out there fighting against a system employing punitive practices and unjust punishment, share this article with friends and family and encourage them to share to their circles. Spreading awareness is the first step in taking action. Then, visit our Take Action page to find out what else you can do.






If you are a family with a child in the system and you are seeking advice or assistance, please get in contact with Justice For Families, They can be reached via email at zachary AT justice4families DOT org or via phone at (510) 268 6941. Justice For Families is a national alliance of local organizations that can provide emotional and logistical support for court hearings, advocacy support to enable families to obtain the best services for their loved ones, and engage families in policy campaigns to change systemic failures in the juvenile justice system. Another excellent resource is the Campaign for Youth Justice's Family Resource Center, which offers guidance, valuable information, and opportunities for advocacy.


If you are a family that would like to share your story with us, please email us at: info AT