Kids Are In Youth Prisons

Two incarcerated youth| photo: National Geographic

We’re using the mnemonic, l-o-c-k-e-d u-p, to show some of the main characteristics of a youth prison in a series of articles, Locked Up: What is a Youth Prison? One of those characteristics is that kids are locked up in youth prisons. Yes, you heard that right. Kids are in youth prisons (that are large, old, outdated & obsolete, and mirror adult prisons).

Who are the kids?

They are kids with hopes and dreams for the future. They are kids just like other kids. They want to be writers, artists, filmmakers, poets, inventors, doctors, teachers, advocates, and organizers. They want to be agents of change and so much more…

What do they think about their experiences in youth prisons?

“I’d rather die than be locked up. It’s hard. I think probably for me starting so young on it it ain’t right. It ain’t for me. It ain’t for nobody.” 
Allen from Cleveland, Ohio

Prison Kids | credit: Fusion

“I spent my whole childhood in there… I definitely felt sad about missing a lot of school, games, being able to create memories for my mom, my family.” 
— Savanna from Columbus, Ohio

“All I have to say is that the system is not for no man or no woman, or no girl or no boy. I just don’t see it as being for no one. It’s just horrible. Once you get in there, it’s hard to get out.” 
— Deon from Jefferson Parish

Allen, Savanna and Deon are young people who have all experienced incarceration and are featured in Portraits of America’s Incarcerated Youth and are featured in the film Prison Kids. Narrated by actress Gabourey Sidibe and introduced by Russell Simmons, the film highlights the experience of youth incarcerated in youth prisons in the juvenile justice system. The film has been nominated for an Emmy award.

Light Brigade Signage at Performing Statistics Action | photo: Mark Stranquist

“I have a voice that needs to be heard like everybody else does.”

“I need more support to become what I want to be.”

“We fear being forgotten, being gone for too long.”

These are the perspectives from youth who are currently incarcerated in Virginia. They are writers, thinkers and photographers who are participating in Performing Statistics, a collaborative project designed to elevate youths’ voices through advocacy, art programs and leadership opportunities. The initiative is a project of Art180, in Richmond, Virginia and was developed with its partners at the Legal Aid Justice Center. Performing Statistics provides ways for youth who are incarcerated to express their perspectives and emotions through artistic expression and to share these with the community as well state and local policymakers.

To hear their voices, call (804) 234–3698 and press an extension number between 1 and 11. Performing Statistics has also created a newspaper showcasing photography, writing and art from youth.

“Detention was horrible. The food was horrible. Being in there, you’re like an animal caged in all day. You just get everything taken away. The only thing that kept me going was when Artistic Noise came in. That was the only thing I looked forward to doing.” 
— Youth Artist

This youth artist and filmmaker who experienced incarceration is participating in Artistic Noise, a program founded by Francine Sherman and Lauren Adelman in 2001.

Two young women are frisked by prison staff | photo: The Dallas Morning News

“ I felt like I was so alone and that I was never going to get out… 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 would just lay there and cry and wish I had died in my sleep.”
— Amy Stephens-Vang

“When I was in CYA, I was in isolation from 6AM to 10PM. They put me in a “cold room” with just my boxers on — there was no mattress, no sheets… Sometimes the staff members would go inside when I was asleep and they would beat me before putting me in the cold room.”
Jose Vidrio

These are the perspectives of youth featured as part of the Juvenile-in-Justice, a project of photographer Richard Ross who has spent the last few years documenting the experience of youth in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.

What do the kids want instead of youth prisons?

“Virginia’s juvenile prisons are failing all of us. The young people coming out of these prisons are worse off for the time they spent there. Their families are stressed and broken by the separation from their children and the financial burden of having to pay child support to the state for their incarcerated child.” 
— Da’Quon Beaver

Caleb and Da’Quon at Youth First gathering in October, 2015

The youth highlighted in this article and many others who’ve experienced incarceration are calling for investments in youth in their communities, rather than youth prisons. One young person, Da’Quon Beaver, is organizing in his community to advance an alternative vision of justice that does not rely on youth prisons. Da’Quon is one of the leaders in the RISE for Youth campaign in Virginia to close youth prisons and invest in alternatives to incarceration.

In a recent opinion piece penned by Da’Quon, Virginia Needs A Real Alternative to Youth Prisons, he applauds Virginia’s lawmakers for investing in community-based alternatives such as Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. and cautions that “providing money in the budget for construction of a new prison is a step in the wrong direction. It wastes an opportunity to change the lives of young people and their families and to make neighborhoods safer. Virginia should give the new community-based programs a chance before spending that money.”

What does this mean?

Tens of thousands of young people are spending days, weeks, months, and years behind bars. These are our kids. Kids with hopes and dreams, talents and ambitions. What these kids are telling us about youth prisons through their words, their writings and their art, is powerful. Prison is no place for these or any kids. We cannot let their voices, perspectives, and recommendations for change go unheard.

Look out for E next …