prison

"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

SENTENCED TO LIFE

"This is slavery." by richard ross

I went to Juvie when I was 12-13 for 11 months. Since then, I’ve been incarcerated for 43 years. I was incarcerated on my 16th Birthday. I was given Life and 20. I was convicted of a Rape and Abduction when I was 15 years old. Since 1971 I have been on the street for a total of 11 months. (on the outside)  

My last visitor was in 1989. I was from a good family. No abuse. I never wanted for anything.

FORTY THREE YEARS that I have never seen my family.

Parole-- The parole board interviews me by phone.

They said I had a history of violence and I was a risk to the community and they had new evidence. It has been 43 years and I have been convicted. What new evidence could exist and what could that mean? I’m not coming back to that community so how am I a risk to that community?

I have a parole release date but it means nothing.

They ask what programs I have taken. They say I need programs to be released. They offer no programs. How does this make sense?

This is Florida. Florida is a slave state. This is slavery

Just give me the death penalty.

I am never getting out of prison.

I am going to die here in prison.

Columbia Correctional Institution

Date of Receipt: May 1996

SENTENCED TO LIFE

"Then he raped me. My mom didn’t believe me. " by richard ross

I’m dual. No one visits. I was in placement. Then I was in a facility up north for two weeks. I’ve been here five days. There is A/C in the day room but not in the cells. I live far from here with my grandfather, mom, tío, and younger sister. Me and my mom got into a physical altercation over me smoking some weed. She roughed me up so I went AWOL and stayed with my friend just around the block. My mom reported me missing. Then I went to school after being truant for three days with a busted lip, black eye, and a broken nose. When they saw how beat up I was, they took me and my little sister away and put us in a foster home—this lady with two kids—a son and a granddaughter. My dad was incarcerated for 14 years. I was having attitude with my foster mom so DCFS put me living with my dad when he got out of prison. I was living with him and my half sister for four months. Then he raped me. My mom didn’t believe me. He wasn’t held behind bars—he was just walking around. Then when they found out, they re-incarcerated him for coke and being a pedophile—for having sex with a 13 year old. This was my biological dad. No one believed me and I ran away to the valley and had to find a police station by myself to report him. I was in junior high. I went to a foster home. My little sister was able to go back home to my mom, but I have an order that I have to be separated from my mom for six months. I had attitude so my foster mom gave my social worker seven days notice to evict me and move me.

They found me a place at a different facility. I was there two months and I AWOLed. I was supposed to do six months there, but part of their program is family counseling and I was too far away from my grandfather to meet with my mom as part of counseling. My social worker knew I was on the run and she called my mom. My mom knew I was trying to get home and when I got home she snitched me out. I was standing on a corner in my city at about 10 PM and a police officer asked what I was doing out after curfew. They took me to DCFS headquarters and had me stay there overnight because they didn’t have a place for me. Then they found me a group home on a Thursday and I was supposed to stay there for a month. I got in a fight with another girl and accidentally socked a security guard. They put me in a place that used to be a school for girls. They gave me another chance there. I was there for nine months and then AWOLed—for a guy. Yeah, it’s always a guy. I thought he was the one.

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I was on drugs a lot: doing weed, PCP, Angel Dust, Meth, Uppers, Downers. There are no NA or AA meetings here. In order to help me they told me I had to admit my addiction to myself and I wasn’t willing to do that. At that point my mom didn’t want me. I was living in an abandoned house for three weeks. I would go in and out of this boarded up house through a ‘doggie door.’ Or I would sleep in a van.

My mom moved out of the house so I have been living with my grandfather. I’m here as a runaway. My first case is closed. My grandpa always gave me what I wanted and what I needed but not my mom and certainly not my dad. I’m in 10th grade but I have junior credits. I’m smart when I’m sober. I’m catching up on schoolwork a lot. I have two kids. The first I have from my dad when I was 14. The first thing he did when he got out of prison was to rape me and get me pregnant. I didn’t show until I was eight months. The baby was tiny, so I didn’t know I was pregnant. I had irregular period all the time anyway. I was still doing a lot of drugs, heroine and coke and crystal meth. The baby was born three pounds eight ounces.

When I came here a month ago I was only 50 pounds. I’m 4’8”. My second baby was with my boyfriend. He’s 18. I was off drugs and by then I was only an alcoholic. I don’t believe in setting goals, but I would like to stay sober. I’ll get off probation as soon as possible. I want to build a relationship with my mother. My boyfriend has two other kids, both are from another girlfriend. I asked my mom for help, but she said I ‘should learn the hard way.’ My mom was abused by my uncle when she was a kid and she was bullied back in her high school days. I think she is 53 now. I’m 16.

I get interviewed on Friday. I may go to a new placement.

—B.E., age 16

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"I've never really had a father." by richard ross

I was born in Hawaii, moved to Indiana, but now I'm here under a two year program. I was being held in another state for a while—that was more like a prison. There are good people working at this place. My father is in prison. I've never really had a father. My whole family is in Indiana. I was living with my older brother, until he left. I spent some time in a hotel alone, I just wanted to play sports.

—J., age 17

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Let facilities take root in our neighborhoods by richard ross

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

 ……………………….

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blanchard is a writer and teacher.

"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

"We were too scarred." by richard ross

I live with my mom in Brownsville. That Flexin’ dancing is called Getting Light. They do it on the A train and C train a lot. I have 3 brothers and 3 sisters. I live with my stepdad. My dad is locked up. He has always been locked up and not really in my life much. I like my stepdad. He is very respectful. He spoils me. I went into foster care the first time when I was seven. My baby brother died and they said early that my stepdad murdered him. They took him to prison. They took all the kids away. I ended up with two sisters, living right up the block. We stayed there four or five years. They would threaten me and best me up. One of them (other kids in the foster home) stabbed me in the back. We didn’t report them. We were too scarred. I tried but they told me if we did, they would lie. I AWOLed a lot. My mother doesn’t give me any freedom. She’s knocked me unconscious. My sisters and brothers were beat by my mom all the time. She was charged with neglect. I’m not sure if she is getting any mental health services. She’s a great liar. She even accused me of murdering my baby brother. I ask myself why she brought me into the world. She has nine kids all together now. Some days she loves me, other days she hates me. She can give a fake smile that can convince anyone that the lie she is telling is the truth. She abuses us all the time. She beat us with a belt buckle. Then she goes out clubbing. She was in foster care once. Now ACS pays for it all. But still, I would rather be home. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I just go out and run away from my home. How can you earn trust if you are not given any standard to shoot for? I’m not allowed to go out at all instead of being given a curfew and see if I come home on time.

My mother doesn’t give me any freedom. She’s knocked me unconscious.

O., age 15

O., age 15

We don’t get any family counseling. But I think we will get some soon. She has an order of protection against me so I can’t go home. I was fighting with my older sister and I smacked her with a lamp. It was kind of serious. I was locked up and in jail over on Atlantic Mall jail. Then ACS picked me up. I was at the Children’s Center for two weeks. Now I have been here five months. I’m already stressing out. I got into one fight. Sometimes you have to show people who you are. Sometimes you have to forget about everything else that happened to you. I have gotten MAC awards in different classes I get 80 or 90s. I’m in 10th grade. I was held back in 5th grade. I had ADHD meds when I was younger. I’m on bi-polar meds now. Feel like I don’t need them all the time. I am not extreme bi-polar. I made a big mistake throwing the lamp . . . that’s why I am here. And all the other stuff too.

— O., Age 16.

Children of the Abyss by richard ross

By Jason Sexton

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They're giving me another chance." by richard ross

I was with three kids and they did an armed robbery. This was my third offense. They’re giving me another chance. I’m moving across town. My mind is set on one thing and one thing only: to achieve my goals. I don’t know how they got a gun and how it got into the robbery. But you can get a little gun here for $50 or $75. Revolvers go for cheap $30, $40 with ammo. A 9-millimeter will be $100. A 40 caliber is $40 and up. You get a gun you call a connect. A connect is someone who knows people. My homeboy got a revolver for cheap so you can sell it for cheap. I’ve been growing up since 11 or 12 knowing the streets but not running the streets. That means I was running with older kids. I’ve been smoking marijuana since I was 13. I’d like to go to the TCT, Tuscaloosa Center Technical. That’s after and between normal school.

My mind is set on one thing and one thing only: to achieve my goals.

M

M

My mom’s a phlebotomist. She works at the VA and at MDs offices. My mom, my brother, and I live with my grandma who owns three houses. My brother just got out of Mount Meigs. It’s baby prison. It’s for 16 to 21. Under 16 you go to Vaca. Detention is county. Prison is state. My dad was drinking a lot. I think he’s working but I’m not sure. No there’s never been any domestic violence in my house. When I have to go to drug classes there’s a bus that picks me up or my mom drives me. I’m really a nice kid. They dropped the charges from robbery 1 to robbery 3 because I was telling the other kids not to do it. So you saw me in the courtroom. I won my trial. It wasn’t really a trial. It was the DA, my PO, and my lawyer having to agree on something. They give me a little bit of string or rope and see if I’m going to hang myself. But I really believe they want me to succeed. If I don’t I go to baby prison.

- M., Age 15

**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.

"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.

K.F

K.F

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.

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.

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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.