"It was never easy being a kid and going straight to prison..." by richard ross

"My age is 41. I was charged in 1990. I was fifteen years old when I got charged with murder. I did not have anything around me, any support system, anything to look up to. It is very easy to get into things and not know the consequences to things. At fifteen I did not know the consequences of a murder.

I grew up in Florida city. My mother was a single mother. She was a drug addict (god bless her soul). She had been to prison already something like three times. My grandparents tried to raise me and do things for me that my parents could not do for me. They had already raised their kids, so they were of older age.

I lost so much. I lost my mom. I have never seen my father in my life. I don’t even know what he looks like. Everybody has a story to tell. I lost everything. I lost everybody that I have ever had in my life, except my grandparents. They are 87 years old and they still stick with me. That’s who I have in my life. That’s my support system.

I am way better now than when I came in. I had to grow up in here because of all the violence that takes place in here. It was never easy being a kid and going straight to prison, having never been inside of juvenile facility. I felt like I was sent here to die. I was so young. I didn’t know anything about this other side of life..."

Dade Correctional Institution. Dade, Florida

Date of Receipt: November 1991


Graham v. Florida by richard ross

By Richard Ross “I miss you like a prison mom.”

Mary Graham has missed her son for the past thirteen years. Since he was sixteen, Terrence has been incarcerated. He was sentenced to die in prison. Terrence grew up with two crack-addicted parents. School was a series of sixteen different institutions as evictions created dislocation and disruption. Classes were special ed for Terrence and his three brothers. School represented food and nutrition. Without the breakfasts and lunches, one brother, Tavaris would get a bag of Doritos and parse it out as a meal to the four boys.

Mary remembers the fridge being adequate. “We grew up country. My Mama used to say if you had bread and potatoes in the house you could always make a meal. It was hard. My kids might have some bread and jelly, but they never went to bed hungry.” Terrence remembers other parts of that narrative. “There would be spoiled milk or government cheese in the refrigerator.”

“We were poor. I would cook one plate of food and put it in front of Diante. He would eat his fill and move the plate to Terrence. Terrence would eat and then move it to Michael, and then to Tavaris. After all the boys ate from the same plate…if there was anything left over I would eat. It was hard. We weren’t the Brady Bunch.”

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Mary has met God.



It happened on day on December 14th. She had smoked crack incessantly in the six years prior. On the 14th, she prayed and stopped completely.

The six years of parties and a house full of addicts stopped. Prayer had replaced the emptiness and silence of the apartment. Mary apologized to her four boys, the youngest of which still kicked in her womb at the time, and she began her life again. “Mom has been sick for a long time,” she would tell them. But the lives of her boys were already in tatters. All had been incarcerated. Sixteen schools, sometimes no food, crack cocaine parties with an endless parade of strangers for more than six years.

This narrative is an American story. Not the Norman Rockwell, but the alternative, yet no less true. Mary grew up with her grandmother in rural Jacksonville. There were sixteen children served by pigs, chickens and goats. The family went well beyond the sixteen children and two adults—there were cousins and aunts—and the house kept on being built out to shelter them all. Mary and her sister slept in the bed with her grandmother. “Lots of people. Lots of kids. It was hard but we made it. Drugs were not in fashion back then.”

“Then we moved into central Jacksonville and my parents separated. My mother got a job at Milligan’s and tried to take care of the four of us. She was making $2.35/hour. It was hard. It got too hard for my mom so she let my dad take us. When I was 15 I started to party. I was new to the game but I enjoyed the life of the city. I met Harry when I was 20. He was a Vietnam vet 11 years older than me.”

Three children later, they were in a whirlwind of crack and abuse—“we were kicked out of the house and we weren’t let in. We stayed in the street while the party went on.”

Section 8 evictions, drugs, violence—where was Family Services? Mary explains, “there are two kinds of addicts…I was an ‘in-control’ addict. When they would come because of complaints, I would be able to put on a controlled face. They would come, because Michael was out of control a lot. He was what you call ADD. He would do things like try to set an apartment building on fire. They came to look at my apartment and I would always have it neat. I kept a neat house.”


Bryan Gowdy doesn’t like the reference to Atticus Finch, although he is tall, lanky, soft-spoken, and works out of a modest two story building in Jacksonville. “I was working a lot of appellate corporate law and I thought this would be an interesting, individual case. I certainly didn’t expect to be arguing in front of the Supreme Court.”


"There was a surprise ruling by the Florida Supreme Court last week. They overturned sentences of life with the possibility of parole that had been doled out, citing that they were counter to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Graham v. Florida. The majority argument was that because a defunct Florida parole system had not granted parole to a single person sentenced to life in prison, the state could not continue to sentence juveniles to life with the possibility of parole. In fact, as the state evaluates parole, the fact that the inmate was a juvenile at the time of a crime counts against them.

This is counter to Supreme Court decisions that have determined the adolescent brain to be still developing, giving children the unique possibility of reform and rehabilitation. The practice of the parole system in Florida is so counter to this information, that the Supreme Court here has ruled life with parole effectively is still a death sentence for a child in Florida.”

“Effectively I am a small business with my partner. I have a family to support so I can’t take all the cases I would like to take. But I am going to take a new case that relates to this. Too much is a stake for these kids.”

“When Terrence was first sentenced, the authorities had somehow painted the family as being nuclear, well cared for with nurtured, loved children. The judge was influenced by the discordant actions of a teen who would turn his back on this perfect home. When the case was returned from the Supreme Court for resentencing, the judge looked at a more detailed, revealing and demining picture of Terrence’s environment and the mitigating factors contributing to his delinquency. It was the polar opposite of what was presented in the original sentencing. Realistically when you argue for them you have to prepare as if each case is a death penalty case…effectively they are. When there are determinate sentences that are 50, 60, 70 years and the parole system is so hostile, they are death sentences.”

Meanwhile in Starke, Florida, Terrence is in the Main Unit West. He helps clean and cook for the Close Managed section that houses the behavioral problems and the sixty-six inmates of death row. Soft-spoken, Terrence explains ‘When I came into the system and looked at my EOS (End of Sentence) date it said ’99-99-9999.’ That meant I was never getting out. Now I look at it and I figure I served 13 years now and have a 25 year sentence. I have some time earned for behavior so I have about eight years left. I get out sometime around 2025. It’s a real date.’”



Joseph Ligon by richard ross

By Richard Ross

“I may be released before you get here…”

These are the optimistic words of Joseph Ligon.

Joe was incarcerated when he was 15 after a one-day trial for a murder he denies committing. He is in Pennsylvania—one of the three major states (Michigan and Louisiana) that required a subsequent Supreme Court ruling to allow juveniles committed to life imprisonment to have reconsideration. Joe went in when Eisenhower was in his first term, the Korean War was in full swing and the Dodgers (Brooklyn) were playing the Yankees in the World Series.

The images you see are of Ligon during his incarceration. These three states do now allow any photographs of these people with varying excuses that range from victim’s rights to Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Barbara Walters. Regardless of the excuse‚ the result is to keep these people faceless and without voice.

These wordless images should speak volumes about the inhumanity of the juvenile justice system even though they are punctuated by an image of a quiet, humble almost 80-year-old prisoner.

"I never got a chance to go to regular school." by richard ross

I’m getting my 72 hearing. That’s means I’m supposed to be heard within 3 days. I came in yesterday. I’ve been here three times before. First time I was 14. I live with my mom, stepdad, five brothers and three sisters. I stay with my dad sometimes. I’ve been suspended from school because I didn’t do my work on time. I was suspended twice and then they put me in here. I’m hoping I get 28 days in boot camp and then can go home. I was in a SPAN program, the county alternative school. It’s a place to get your GED. I never got a chance to go to regular school. I stayed in alternative schools most of my life.

I was originally charged with DV (domestic violence). I was with my sister who is 14 in her friend’s mother’s car. I was in the front seat and my sister wanted to get into the front seat, so she called the police because she knew I was on probation for my school suspension.

—L., age 15



"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.


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

Tribal Justice by richard ross

By Richard Ross

I offer condolences this Thanksgiving—sending a note to the chief judge of the Yurok tribe.  The Yuroks are the largest tribe in California. 6500 people whose traditional lands are along the Klamath River. Many of the Yurok have no running water nor electricity. Roadside deer are not road kill, rather they are “harvest.” These are people who have survived by being invisible and hiding from the devastation of whites, but it may not serve them well moving forward.

I visited the week prior, meeting families in a half dozen homes. There was a common thread… rather a common frayed thread. While there was a certain guilelessness about the households—when I would enter a house, no one objected, welcomed, or even really noticed. People and animals walked in and out at will. If you were in the house, you were supposed to be there, among the multiple generations who shared space. Rooms were often chaotic with grocery bags, popcorn, and clothes stacked in corners. Pots on the stove, dishes in the sink, and garbage overflowing.



In my conversation with Judge Abby Abinanti, with as much deference as I could summon and a true sense of curiosity, I asked about this common scene.

“First my people were massacred, then we were enslaved—it was an indentured servant program—but it was slavery, then our children were taken away to mission schools. The links of some families were broken at many instances and at many levels. This is not something you can go in and repair in a blunt manner. It takes time. These links were broken as each person was removed from a chain and it will only be repaired one person at a time. We are a strong people, united by culture, dance, singing. We can do it, but it will take time. We are not filthy. We are a River people. We bathed regularly. It was the Whites that were filthy, who came and did not have bathing as a common practice. They came and took the fish, the logging and gold. The only way we could survive was to fade into the land. This is a difficult time for us but we will survive. These links were broken as each person was removed from a chain and it will only be repaired one person at a time...We can do it, but it will take time."—Judge Abinanti

Driving across the Yurok nation from Eureka to Crescent City and beyond to the north, the 101 becomes a two lane tunnel encapsulated by the towering redwoods and punctuated with roadside elk. This is a different country. Counter point to the natural beauty are the marks of poverty, with ramshackle housing competing with newer structures built by the Tribe. Financially, the Yurok depend upon governmental support and grant writing. Tribal court officers explain that Native Americans have the highest degree of truancy of any demographic in California. “If you can’t get kids into their seats in class, you can’t teach them.” The one school on the western end of the reservation, Margaret Keating School, is limited to kids in K-6. Older students are bussed to Crescent City. In keeping with tribal custom, there is a dance circle and a sweat lodge on campus.”

The industry on the reservation is the reservation itself. There is little outside employment beyond working for the Tribe. The Tribe repairs and builds new housing and maintains a small casino next to the Holiday Inn Express in Klamath. It’s right across the street from the Klamath Country Club, which is a dark bar, pool table and grill, which closes at 7:30 every night. Smoking is allowed, a true anomaly. Meth and alcohol use are pervasive.  They become part of a life that has kids and adults embroiled in the legal system. California is one of 9 states that is subject to a federal law which transfers enforcement of certain federal laws to state law enforcement agencies. In many cases, this means the involvement of the state in handling enforcement and adjudication, where tribal law can often resolve cases alone. In the context of juvenile justice, rather than implementing tribal/restorative justice—which the Yurok prefer for their youth—the kids are brought into detention in a county facility, where they are disproportionately represented among the youth there. According to the judge, “We believe in having everyone in the room, and trying to come to a solution. I know every one of the families of this Tribe, and each person is important, they are not numbers they are relatives. The idea of justice by strangers is foreign to us. It is hurtful. We want Yurok justice that helps the child, the family, the community.



"We believe in having everyone in the room, and trying to come to a solution. I know every one of the families of this Tribe, and each person is important, they are not numbers they are relatives."—Judge Abinanti"

In correspondence with Judge Abinanti, she graciously responded to my query with the words “May we all go forward together in respect and peace… to live in community, responsible for each and all.” A wonderful thought for the day, season and a way of life.

"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

"You gotta stay humble." by richard ross

I’m here in isolation. It’s a lock unit. Isolation Behavior something… rehabilitation unit… I don’t know. I been here 2 months, a month and a half. You get an hour out a day, but say you got seven residents, you might get out the end of the day for a little bit, sometimes I play checkers during that time. I been in isolation for a month and a half. I used to be in my groups, but I started WILD’N’ OUT.

I used to take too many trays, like three breakfast trays, four lunch trays and three dinner trays. I didn’t care. I took them because I was hungry. I was OK with the consequences so I took them and ate them. You gotta behave to get out of here. I was supposed to leave today. I’m waiting for a superintendent to sign for my release. I’m here or in Open Pop, either way I’m still locked up. I was 11 or 12 when I was locked up.

U.X., age 16

U.X., age 16

I was supposed to leave today. I’m waiting for a superintendent to sign for my release.

I be here in my room thinking I’m just a juvenile. There are people in jail that are 15, 20, 17 years. I was writing to my Dads cellmate. He told me 80% of the kids here are going to be in prison, in DOC. You can lead a horse to the pond, but you gotta wanna change. You gotta stay humble. I know I’m small, but my pride gets in the way sometimes. I gotta watch what I say. It only takes one minute to take somebody’s life.

— U.X., age 16

"It is a battlefield out there sometimes for kids." by richard ross

I am out of prison for 48 days now. Was doing 20 split 5. That means I did five and as long as I didn’t get into trouble it will stay at 5. If you get into trouble it is another 15. I was in county. That’s where they hold 16 and up. If you are involved in major crimes they certify you as young at 16. I did juvenile so many times the juvenile court eventually got tired of me. I was 13 when I was first charged. I was well taken care of by my grandma. She is 72 or 73. My mom was incapable. She was an alcoholic and my dad...I barely knew him. DHR gave custody to my grandma. I think it was a kin adoption. My brothers and sisters were split up and went to different families. Seven of us went to grandma. We were all on financial aid. I made some poor decisions as a kid. I wanted to be a grown man. I blame myself. From 13-17 I was just in and out of here.

Just because someone says “No” doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying.

The next person can say “Yes.”

I have had the flu for a few days but I wanted to come here and meet you and tell you today I came through the front door. I was failing back then but going through all this, everyone gets a sign. Some people don’t pay attention. I got my GED and learned how to weld here. Now I work at Burger King. They know I have a felony but you can’t lie about it. I applied for a lot of jobs and they all turned me down, but somebody gave e a chance. It’s hard striving for success. Just because someone says “No” doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying. The next person can say “Yes.” The Reverend has helped me get into Shelton State. Now I am staying with my sister. It’s me, her and her daughter. Prison was way more hard than here. Detention has a hands-off policy about kids here. Prison you get physically beat up. You have to learn to be a man in a hurry. You never know what can happen to you. People will pick fights. Here you get slapped on the wrists. Prison is hardcore. Only the strong survive there. I was at Draper, B.F. County, I moved around so I could get certificates and try and get some education. I am working on getting my welding certificate now. But I have to go through so many people. I can’t leave the state of Alabama.If I get tools maybe I can do something.



I met the Reverend when I was in here as a kid and he stayed with me. Religion is important to me. It is part of my life. I think everybody should get a second chance. Even someone who was charged with two 1st degree robberies and a shooting. It is a battlefield out there sometimes for kids. Now I have been working at Burger King 21 days. It’s a different environment. My sister works at a nursing home. She gets $16/hour I think. I get minimum wage. Our apartment costs $320/month. Who do I trust? My sister, my pastor and Miss X. These are people who have been around me most of my life. Mostly I didn’t have to do what I did, but I was with the wrong crowd. The others I was with are repeat offenders so I don’t spend any time with them. Some are back on the inside.

- K.F., Age 23

**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.

"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.

"I hope I can go home. . ." by richard ross

Central_CA_4.20.14-17 I was in GH. They thought I was 14. I was in a month. I was released and then violated. The teacher told me that if I ever came back to school they would get the students to beat me up. Teacher said I was cursing and intimidating in school. I have to be in court in three days. I hope I go home to make my life. I’ve been here two times. I was here from March to April 3rd. Then back on the 25th. The teacher said I was talking smack to her. I had to wake up at 5:30AM to get the bus to school. I’m in ninth grade. I just kick it with my homies. I don’t bang. I got the three dots tatted when I was about 11.

I’m going to take care of my baby.

I took classes on how to change my baby’s diapers.

I have a tat on my back with my daughter’s name. My girlfriend is 13. I took classes on how to change my baby’s diapers. I called my baby mama yesterday and I know the baby was born, but I don’t know when. We get phone calls Thursday. We don’t have to pay for them, but we only get like four minutes. Her mom is taking care of the baby. I’m going to take care of my baby. I have a friend that sells sodas and juices. I know how to make pupusas. No, I don’t know how to make the masa, but I can make like the tortilla flat and then put the stuff in the middle. I am half Mexican and half Salvador. At home there is my mom, my sister (she is 21) and her baby - my nephew - and my mom’s boyfriend. My dad? RIP. He died when I was young. I was six or seven when he died. He packed his stuff and never came back. My mom said they killed him, but they never said who. He used to kick it with his homies once in a while, but he never was affiliated. I hope I can go home on when I talk to the judge.

- B.S., 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.

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.”

"When you lead this life . . ." by richard ross

I’ve been here five months. I live in North Hollywood. This is my seventh time here. I was born in Koreatown. I was living with my dad and four brothers. My mom is not in the picture. My dad was in jail until I was 12. My grandma raised me from two to 12. There was no grandpa. My dad was around for about a year when he got out of prison, but he violated and went back. Now he’s been out for about a year again, and I’m living with him. He works at a hospital cleaning equipment. Three of my brothers live with me. I have four brothers: 17, 18, 19, and 20. They all have different moms. And they’re all in Clanton—it’s a Valley gang. I’m gang affiliated. I got jumped in for 13 seconds. Sometimes you have to go on different missions. No, I didn't get humped in, I’m a virgin. If you get humped in, you stay a hoodrat and get used over and over by the homies.

It’s embarrassing. It’s really not me in here, it’s all the mistakes I’ve done in here.

I should be in 11th grade, but I dropped out in 8th grade. I don’t go to school. I’ve been to lots of placements, camps. The longest I was home since I was 12 was nine months. I have no history of abuse. I just go AWOL a lot to hang out with my homies. Now I’ve been living with my brother’s baby mama. She’s 17 now. She was 15 when she had her baby. That brother is in jail. He’s the 18 year old. He’s out of state, doing a homicide. If I win my fitness, I’ll get a job. It’s embarrassing. It’s really not me in here, it’s all the mistakes I’ve done in here. It’s gonna be hard for me to change, but I’m really working on it.


When you lead this life and you’re on the outs, you just count your days, because that’s where it leads you.

My family is the gang, really. My uncles, my aunts, even my grandmother who’s 52 is in a gang. My cousins are the peewees; they do all the work. My dad, he’s a duke. He’s 32. He sells drugs everywhere in LA. I was selling as well. My family’s uncontrollable. My five uncles—three are in jail for murder, two for attempted murder. My aunts are in for 211—deadly weapons. I’ve got one brother fighting murder, another brother in and out of juvie, they’re all dope related, they’re all in the gang . . . my family is the gang. When you lead this life and you’re on the outs, you just count your days, because that’s where it leads you.

-L.V., age 16


**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.

"My life is all over the place . . ." by richard ross

This is my second time here. The first time I was here I was 16. But that's the normal life in a bad neighborhood. I been to foster homes, group homes, shelters, placements, everything that probation and DCFS has had, I’ve been through it. I was six years old when my mom and dad divorced. I have two half brothers and a sister. I was living with my dad, he used to be a commercial scuba diver. But I don't surf or anything. I don't need anything to do with water.

 It’s when I go home that things go to hell.


I been to placements like a six bed facility in the Valley, I was there 7 months. I succeeded out there and completed their highest levels. It’s when I go home that things go to hell. I stayed with my mom for four months, then she messed up and I took off for a good 2 or 3 weeks. I would do crack . . . I guess I’m addicted. My dad used to do crack and alcohol. My life is all over the place. I deal a lot with mental health services for anger management, lots of group therapy. I went to a foster home when I was 14. I was into meth, but I’m gonna stop. I’m gonna stay sober. I have a son that was born three weeks ago with my ex-girlfriend. She screwed up. Meth is self-medicating for me. But I’m trying to do restitution. Maybe they’ll put me in a drug program. You can be with probation until you’re 25, but I plan on being there for my son . . . unlike my mother and father who weren’t there for me.

-D.G., Age 17


**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.

"I didn’t want to run all my life . . ." by richard ross

I turned myself in on a warrant. I didn’t want to run all my life. The first placement I was 17-years-old. My mom said she couldn't parent me the way she works. She’s an RN at the hospital. She takes care of my two brothers and my three-year-old son. My godmother helps out too. I was 15 when I had him. She’s just taking care of him while I’m here.

I don’t blame nobody but myself for being here.


AWOL is leave without permission. I’d go anywhere because I wanted to. Everywhere I would go I would go by myself. But sometimes I would take the baby. I would just walk out the door and sleep at my friend’s house. I think I just wanted to be grown. I wasn't going back to school. I just came back in here on Wednesday. I think my mom’s supposed to come visit me today. I tried to rush my own age. Maybe it’s cause my dad is deceased. He had a cardiac arrest when I was 15. I don’t blame nobody but myself for being here.

-L.Y., 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.

"This wasn’t my first choice, this life." by richard ross

This is my first time here. I’ve been here six weeks. Actually this isn’t my first time here. I was here when my mom was pregnant with me. So maybe I was here 16 years ago. I went to foster care, and then I got back in touch with her some months before I got locked up. I lived with my uncle, my mom’s brother, who fostered me and then adopted me until I was 15. I was there most of the time, but then I got kicked out because I argued a lot. I would go live with other people . . . friends. Then I lived with my boyfriend and his mom. I got kicked out and needed somewhere to go. My boyfriend works at a warehouse.

Everything was ok until I was about 13. Every adult I was with said I don't care about you no more.


I was going to school in 12th grade recently. I would go back to school. I do an online school, it’s easy. I could either do it from home or at the teen center at 88th and Vermont. I was born with a lot of drugs in my system. Sometimes I process things slower. I smoke weed but that's about it. I tried meth and coke but it wasn’t for me. Everything was ok until I was about 13. Every adult I was with said I don't care about you no more. I buried both my parents. It’s time for me to take care of myself. When you’re on your own you’re on your own. When my uncle was in a good mood it was ok, but when he was mad he threw me out of the house in a tank top and shorts with no shoes. I had to call my brother who was in the house to throw me down my shoes. It was winter and I went to my friend’s house. He was doing drugs so I just started doing it with him.

You do what you gotta do to survive. It sucks.

This wasn’t my first choice, this life. I would do things like babysitting, but selling weed is a lot easier. I use the money for clothes and food. I would stay mostly with friends. It's a rough life, as some would say. If you had the same life, people would understand. But if they haven’t had this life, people, they can’t believe it. But for someone who’s been through the same, it’s no big deal. You do what you gotta do to survive. It sucks. It's a world of no Christmas presents and no birthday presents. One night I got chased by somebody with a gun. No shit you could lose your life doing this. But being depressed doesn't hurt anybody but you, so you might as well have a smile on your face.

-L.T., age 17


**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.

Solitary Confinement: A Mother's Perspective by richard ross

 [Guest post by Grace Bauer, Co-Director of Justice 4 Families]




In what feels like another lifetime…


It was summer and we decided to take the kids and my mom fishing.  My son wanted to bring his new bike with the training wheels.  As soon as his dad took it out of the truck, he was off.  Happy to have a big place to ride, he had a smile from ear to ear. 



A little while passed and he asked his dad to take the training wheels off.   Once the wheels were off, his dad held on to the back to steady the bike and he began pedaling.  It didn’t take long for him to tell his dad that he could do it and dad should let go.  I held my breath and his dad held on for a minute longer, despite his protests.  Dad was running behind him and then he stopped.  He was right!  He could do it!  Off he went, pedaling like mad, red hair blowing in the wind, yelling the whole time, “I’m doing it!  I’m riding my big boy bike!”        




[aside title="Sign the ACLU Petition to end juvenile solitary confinement"] ACLU Action: A Mother's Plea: Stop Solitary Confinement of Children[/aside]Solitary confinement, or isolation, is widely used around the country in jails, prisons and detention centers for adults as well as young people.  Until very recently, few people, beyond attorneys, families and advocates, gave it much thought.  Isolation, like so many corrections practices, happens behind the walls of silence, long ingrained into facility culture and practice.  In our punishment-oriented society, we tend to think those behind bars deserve whatever they get.  This kind of thinking is fueled by a distorted sense of fear created by media and political rhetoric so much so that falling crime rates and research showing the failure of such practices barely register in society’s consciousness.


When a young person enters into secure detention, they typically become isolated from their families and communities.  Exorbitant phone costs, limited visitation procedures and times and placement in facilities long distances from home all add to that sense of isolation.  Often, facilities will have a standard 2-6 week “intake” period where the child is not allowed any visitors and very limited communication by phone.  Given that the majority of children involved in juvenile justice systems come from families who live below the poverty line, many families do not have transportation to reach far away facilities or the extra money to cover the cost of calls that experts describe as “gross profiteering.” These are common practices in detention that fail to take into account the research that demonstrate the critical importance, of maintaining family and community connections, to the successful reentry of young people and to prevent recidivism.


My son is 25 years old.  He has spent the majority of the last 15 years in detention centers, youth prisons, county jails and state prisons.  His sisters have grown up, his niece was born and will celebrate her sixth birthday, our home was lost in a hurricane, a new home was built, his sister started college (and will graduate) and his uncle died, all while he was confined.  He earned his high school diploma but has few job skills, little job experience, no home, no family of his own, few friends and few prospects on the horizon.  We have missed him and his presence in our lives and he has missed life, period.


He will return to society, at some point, along with roughly 800,000 others released each year; 95% of all sentenced inmates.  The “tough on crime” rhetoric may make folks feel better but the reality of mass incarceration impacts everyone in society through lost revenues, increased health cost, lower wages, unemployment, expensive corrections and judicial budgets-- the list goes on and on.  As facilities cut back on the very things that lead to successful reentry, we can expect that young people, returning to society, will return less prepared, more disadvantaged and more deeply scarred.


All of the above and then we add on the deep psychological damage of solitary confinement.  During this video, you can see how isolation looks during a 24- hour period.  You are able to watch the entire day pass in mere minutes.  From the outside looking in, especially in this condensed version, you might believe that isolation isn’t that bad.  In fact, for those of us living in a high tech, ever-connected world, 24 hours of being disconnected might seem like a welcome relief from the endless text messages, calls, voice mails, email and social media alerts!  Before you volunteer yourself, lets think about this from the inside looking out.

When my son was 13 and placed in a notorious juvenile prison, he spent nearly a year in protective custody, AKA solitary confinement.  In those early days we had no information on the damaging effects of solitary and actually felt relief that he felt safe from the rampant violence in the facility.  He was released from state secure care in 2002; four years would pass before we learned the truth about his time in isolation.  It should have been evident that something traumatic and life changing had happened and we certainly saw the signs of something but we didn’t know what.  In 2006, a young man confined with him at the youth prison called to tell us about the day my son was raped by another young person, in solitary, who had been placed in the cell by guards.  Those guards then took bets on which “kid would win”.  My son lost the fight that day. Throughout his years of incarceration, he has experienced solitary confinement in every facility, often for extended periods of time.



Crisis/isolation rooms at the recently built Kapolei Court Complex & Secure Detention, Kapolei, Hawaii. (Richard Ross / Juvenile In Justice)

[aside title="Sign the ACLU Petition to end juvenile solitary confinement"] ACLU Action: A Mother's Plea: Stop Solitary Confinement of Children[/aside]

I clearly remember the call from my son.  “Mom, this can’t be legal.  This is so wrong!  I can’t believe they are doing this to this man.” This from a young man that never complains about his own stark living conditions, poor treatment, the brutality that is inflicted on him or that he witnesses almost daily or the arbitrary enforcement of rules.  His concern during that call was for another man being held in solitary.  This man, who was a little older than my son, was quite obviously mentally ill.  My son was afraid for this man’s life.  He told me about the man’s behavior over the last few days, including banging his head on the bars and floor hard enough to knock himself out and needing stitches to close wounds, screaming for hours until he was too hoarse to scream anymore, crying uncontrollably for hours, threatening to kill himself and talking to people who weren’t there during hallucinations.  My son, the “criminal”, called me to see if I could find help for this man because he was very concerned that the man was going to hurt himself or take his own life and he felt like the facility staff were ignoring how serious this situation actually was.


From January 25th through May 8th of this year, my son was confined in isolation, though the prison called it “protective custody.”  He was confined for 110 days with the exception of being allowed to take a shower on Monday and Thursdays and use the phone at midnight or later.  Several of his showers and calls were denied for unknown reasons.  The average call lasted 6 minutes. That means that over a 110-day period my son showered approximately 30 times and was able to speak with us for about 3 hours.  In this particular case, my son was confined for his own safety after being stabbed three times during the robbery of his cell.  As his mother, I am grateful that he was kept safe and at the same time, terribly troubled by this prolonged period of isolation and its impact on his mental health.



[feature href=”” buttontext=Go!”] Ready to take action against juvenile isolation? [/feature]


I have witnessed the long-term impact of my son’s time in isolation and prison.  Some nights when I try to sleep, visions of the assaults play in my mind, like a movie that you can’t turn off.  I have sat across from him, trying to maintain my own composure, while mentally cataloging and assessing the bruises and wounds on his body.  I have waited for calls or visits where I can know, at least for a short time, that he is safe and alive.  I listen to him talk about how useless he is and how he has no worth.  I held back tears (at least, in his presence) the day he said, “I’ll never be anything but a criminal.” In the car, on the way home, I cried like a child, as I thought of all the good in him and the future I had once dreamed of for him.  The level of violence and inhumanity that he endures sickens me.  Sometimes, when I can’t hold it off any longer or we experience a new trauma, I cry hard and long for all that he has lost, all we have lost and how far we still have to go.


Day in and day out, we look for ways to keep him up-to-date on the world and engaged in learning.  I marvel at his continued compassion and concern for strangers in such circumstances. His belief that, someday, he will finish serving his time and somehow overcome the numerous and complex barriers he faces inspires me. If he can still feel hopeful, I’ll be damned if I will be the one to take that from him.


Once, he was an honor roll student that was well liked by his teachers and peers.  After a few short months in juvenile detention he became fearful and anxious.  I could not touch him to wake him up. He would strike out blindly in his waking moments out of fear of being assaulted. He cried out in his sleep and suffered from nightmares.  He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and deep depression.  The physical abuse has left him with physical scars but it is the emotional damage, caused by the extreme isolation and exposure to horrific violence at such a young age, that concerns me the most.


My son’s original crime was stealing a stereo out of a truck and breaking the window out of the truck.  He was sentenced to five years for that crime.  We were fortunate to find an attorney to represent him and get him out after a year.  Unfortunately, the damage done in that year was enough to alter his life in ways I could not have imagined. He was grieving for his beloved grandmother and acted out, as adolescents often do in those tumultuous years. The vicious assaults on his body, severe neglect and emotional and verbal abuse he suffered would be considered criminal if I or anyone else, other than the system, had inflicted them upon him.  Yet the state and its employees were allowed to do this kind of harm to him and to thousands of others and there has never been any accountability for those crimes.


Behind the razor wire fences of America’s prisons, there is seldom fair redress of grievances, little accountability to the safety and wellbeing of those housed within those facilities, scant programming, meager education services, woefully inadequate healthcare, widespread racial disparities and the pervasive and systemic abuse of power by those in authority. Study after study, report after report, all confirm the negative impact of isolation and the abject failure of mass incarceration.  The cost benefit analysis, illustrated in volumes of data and research, demonstrate the exorbitant cost we pay to have less public safety, generate more crime and do unnecessary and possibly irreparable damage to those behind bars.


Prisons were supposedly built to lock up those who might harm others and deter crime.  Somewhere along the way we lost sight of those goals.  Today, prison walls have become an impenetrable shroud that shields and perpetuates crimes against humanity.  Those walls allow the rest of us to ignore the root causes of crime and save us from having to look at the mass destruction of human lives that our appetite for retribution and punishment have caused.





Grace Bauer is the Co-Director of Justices For Families, a respected leader and a trusted confidant for families seeking justice across the country, and the mother of three children from Sulphur, Louisiana.


[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."

[Family-in-Justice] Marquetta Harrison and her son Corey by richard ross

Last month we received an email from Marquetta Harrison, from Kansas City, Missouri, wanting to tell her story. In July of 2010, her son Corey Webb, then age 16, was charged with aggravated assault against a public servant—a crime for which he was sentenced to 50 years. In emails with Marquetta, it is clear that her story reveals a state and a system that holds punishment by incarceration in the highest order.    To give you an idea of the criminal system in Texas, here are some statistics accumulated by Robert Perkinson, a Soros Justice Fellowship recipient and author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire:  

-       Minimum number of Texas residents under criminal justice supervision: 740,905

-       Total prison population (both violent and non) of the U.K., the most incarcerated country in Europe: 82,241

-       Estimated percent chance in 1996 that a black man born in Texas will go to prison: 29%

-       Approximate percentage of Texas’s overall population that is non-white: 40

-       Approximate percentage of Texas’s prison population that is non-white: 70

-       Rate at which blacks are incarcerated compared to whites in Texas: 7 to 1

-       Rank of Texas in number of juveniles incarcerated in adult prisons: 1

-       Rank of Texas in executing juveniles and mentally retarded inmates before recent Supreme Court prohibitions: 1

-       Number of times the Supreme Court rebuked Texas’s highest court for defiantly ignoring its rulings in 2004: 3


Marquetta feels that Corey was poorly represented, detained for two years awaiting trial with little to no assistance from his court appointed attorney. Ultimately, she feels like her son gave up, and pleaded guilty. Corey’s mom writes, “I would love to wake from this nightmare, because it's unreal.”


Here are the basics of the story: According to Marquetta, when she got home from work she and Corey’s grandmother discovered that Corey had run away. Recently, his girlfriend had moved with her family to Tyler, Texas and Corey had run away to be with her. Guessing correctly that he would be headed to Tyler, 550 miles away, Marquetta called the Tyler police. Concerned and angry, she reported him as a runaway and to requested that the police detain Corey at the bus stop. When he arrived, they arrested him on runaway charges. After being alerted that her son was in custody, Marquetta was told that he would be held in detention there until local Kansas City Authorities could extradite him back home. Corey was taken to the Smith County Juvenile Attention Center in Tyler, Texas. Once inside, authorities stated that he pulled a gun from his backpack and allegedly shot at Juvenile probation officer Walker. Marquetta remembers receiving a phone call at 4AM the following day from a police officer telling her that her son “just shot up the detention center.” She recalls, “I sat straight up, and my heart went into my stomach. I just knew his next statement was that my child was dead.  He then stated that [Corey] turned the gun on himself, and threatened to kill himself, and kept asking [the officers] to shoot him… I then asked, ‘How did he get a gun?’ The officer stated, ‘Out of his property.’ I said, ‘Excuse me? How did this happen? Where did he get a gun?’  He stated that the arresting officer never searched his property and turned his back to get something out of the closet. That’s when Corey pulled the weapon out of the bag.” According to Marquetta, the security tapes she was later shown were full of gaps where the incident had occurred.


Marquetta remembers the first time she was able to see Corey after he had been arrested:


Visitations were non-contact, and when I saw my child that I have only known 16 years, still with the look of innocence with an undisclosed amount of pain beyond his eyes, his arms filled with around fifteen staples where he had lacerations. I broke down in tears. I have worked in places like this, and reality came crashing down on me all at once.  I never thought I would see my son in the bright orange jumpsuit. I spoke with my son, and he was so ignorant to the system. He stated, “When will they let me go home? Can't you get me out of here? I didn't do what they said, and I know you will help me!" We stared back at him with a poker face, and his father and I told him, “Yes, of course, we are going to help you,” but at the time deep down inside we couldn’t even reassure ourselves… He was like a small kid waiting for us to rescue him. The pain I was feeling in my heart of helplessness.  It was a pain like I had never felt before. I have never been unable to hold my son, comfort my child, and discipline him on my own terms. I had just come to reality that all my power had just been giving to Smith County. I started to feel the guilt that I just handed my power over to them, and they had betrayed me.


  When Walker, the probation officer who was allegedly shot at, was interviewed later he stated that he would like to have seen Corey get life in prison. There is a sad truth to be learned from his statement—some of those involved closely in the system, which see the same kids come in and out every month, feel that locking someone up for half a century is an effective and optimal reaction to his or her crime. Marquetta writes, “You could see this was not about punishment but about making an example out of him.”


Months after the incident Marquetta is still constantly questioning, where did he get the gun? Why didn’t they search his bag? What would make Corey do this? What was he thinking?  To say that it is difficult for Marquetta to revisit the night of the incident is a vast understatement, a combination of emotions well up in Marquetta when she thinks about it. The guilt of getting the police involved in the first place, the fury at a system so impossible to navigate, and the incomprehension of his ultimate sentence. Throughout Marquetta’s recount of the incident and the months of legal dealings afterward there is an ongoing pattern of inconsistency ranging from trial dates being changed quickly without her notice to constantly changing visitation rules. Being 500 miles away did not make it any easier.


She writes, “I did my part as a parent, reported my son gone without my permission… My son did his part; he acted out as the irrational runaway adolescent hormonal teenager… The job was to apprehend the kid and diffuse the situation. It wasn’t diffused, and then it took a turn for the worse.”  Corey was a child and made a bad decision, for which 50 years of his life are now owed.


Before July 2010, life in the Harrison home was different. Corey lived at home with his mom, grandmother, and two sisters. Marquetta describes Corey as “artistic, reserved and smart.” He enjoyed drawing, fooling around with his younger sister and playing video games. Corey was an honor roll student up to his Freshman year of high school, at which point he started to become distant and occasionally get in trouble. Shortly thereafter, his uncle and father were in a car accident, killing his uncle and severely injuring his father. Corey and his uncle were very close. After the accident, Corey became very distant and quiet. Marquetta remembers catching him crying to himself at times. She felt that the car accident “laid heavy on his heart” and that he had never fully recovered from the emotional trauma of it. He began to get in trouble at school and wouldn’t listen to Marquetta. She found out he had a girlfriend dealing with similar behavioral issues who wanted to have a baby by Corey. Marquetta didn’t want her son to be a father at age 16.

    Corey is serving out his sentence at the Allan B. Polunsky unit, a prison in Polk County Texas that also houses the Texas death row population. When we asked Marquetta what it is like to visit your child in prison she told us that it was very hard to step on Texas soil, let alone the prison itself. “To leave your child in a place that is known for rape, murder, and to house child molesters, and is over 500 miles away. It is devastating,” she states. When she visits, it isn’t like she is talking to the 16-year-old she knew before he was locked up. She says that Corey sounds her age, old beyond his years, and tries to soothe his mother and helps her find peace of mind. At home, her family “is walking around breathing, but we’re not living.” Corey’s father spends every day confined to his room, researching how to save his son. Marquetta feels like she has lost a part of her soul, an arm, a part of her brain and feels completely numb most of the day. She writes, “It’s so hard to go on daily and look at my two other children living life, and one being snatched away like a thief in the night. It’s very hard to deal with it, especially when you know you are working with a system that is very biased. Yeah, he made a big mistake, but not a 50-years-of-his-life mistake.” When Marquetta left for work that morning, Corey was helping his little sister unlock a new code for Super Mario Brothers, now when she talks to him he is “waiting for his next tray to eat, and watching that he doesn’t end up another raped victim in jail.”

  -------------------------------------   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.