Compassion for Incarcerated Young Women
A recollection of my time spent with convicted young women
We all know teens can get a bad rep. Even more so when they are from marginalized groups, or low socio-economic backgrounds, let alone in prison. They get labels like delinquents, trouble makers, unstable, and no-hopers. Here is my experience with young women in prison through a compassionate lens.
My First Time in Prison
I was really nervous when I did my induction day. I went into prison to participate in a weekly activity-based program with incarcerated young women. I got strict advice from the trainer: “Be quick when you open and close the doors.” The trainer shared a few other scary stories about prisoners attacking staff and the like. I remember forcing a smile and screaming internally:
“WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING?”
Back then I was a relatively timid and shy person. I was still a newbie and had little experience. Most of the young women I met in prison were loud and seemed confident. Some were quiet and calm. It wasn’t as bad as the trainer, but it was a hard space to navigate at first. Honestly, I mostly had to sit there and be an observer for the first few times I went in. It was their space and they were very comfortable in it. I was just outsider, unsure of myself in the space.
Young people with complex trauma often have their guard up. They interrogate you, ask strange questions and and test you out because don’t trust new people. They are loud and rowdy because they don’t give a fuck. They know you’re probably just temporary, just like everyone else in their lives. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust people either if I had experienced even half of the things they had gone through. I could feel that the loudest young women were the ones who had their guard up the most.
I formed some connections with a few of the girls, they were just like every other teenager. Perhaps a bit more resilient and street smart. Funny and tough, but sensitive deep down. They liked putting on make-up the program brought in for them, reading magazines (no phones in prison!), and watching TV shows. Hanging out with them and just doing simple activities like colouring in or playing boardgames was nice. We had fun.
“Wearing make-up makes me feel like a girl and not a prisoner.”
I never really thought about their crimes, I just saw them as normal people. Some shared their story, some didn’t. I understand that workers can struggle with certain crimes that young people have committed. It’s challenging because we all have a moral compass and know what is right and wrong. As a worker, you have to put your judgement aside and view them as the human beings that they are.
Our job is to help these young people and see the good in them, because nobody else in society really does.
I remember a young woman shared information with me about the crime she committed. She was loud and sassy, like most of the other girls. I listened to her story and inside I felt sad for everyone involved. My moral compass was grappling with what she shared, my heart felt heavy, but I said to her, “When you get out, I really hope that out that you have the best life.” She knew I meant it. She just looked at me with a soft, almost sad expression on her face. She nodded gently and said, “Thank you.” When I came back a week later, she was gone.
A Compassionate Lens
As I stated earlier, when working with this cohort of young women, you have to put judgements aside and see them as human beings. That’s what they are. Just like you and me. They are just as deserving as everyone else of love and care, being treated with respect and dignity, and offered support when they need help. They deserve an education and better opportunities in life.
People are quick to point fingers and judge without considering one’s upbringing. Some might say, “They have a choice to get out if they really want to!” Sure, everyone has a choice. But trying to break out of a cycle of drugs, crime, and poverty can be very difficult when that’s all they have known their whole life.
If their closest support, including family and friends, are also engaging in those things, most young people can struggle to get themselves out. So is it really surprising that they stay stuck in these cycles? For a lot of people who have committed crimes — of all ages, groups, and genders — prison is actually a safe place. There is routine, food, shelter. Sometimes people have been known to re-offend just to get back into prison so that they are safe from the outside world.
Every time a worker let me out of the gates, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. In those moments I understood just how lucky I was. I was the one who got to leave, while the girls all stayed in that place. I got to go and sleep in my own bed at night, and continue on with my life the next day. Get into my car and go to breakfast with my friends, visit my mom, go to the grocery store, do whatever. I was free.
You can’t even begin to imagine what some of these marginalized groups of young women go through. Think of some of the worst things that happen to people, I bet some of them have experienced it in one way or another. Count your blessings if you are reading this from your computer or phone right now from the comfort of your bed or couch. Feel thankful for having friends, family, and/or a partner that loves you. Appreciate the fact that you can walk out of your house and do whatever you like.
A Different Perspective
I am not condoning any crimes. I am simply offering the perspective from the lens of a wellbeing worker — perhaps a more compassionate lens than what society views these young women with. This is a complex topic, and there are many intricate factors that are involved. Pointing fingers and blaming this cohort isn’t the answer; it goes far, far deeper than that. At the end of the day, these young people are human beings just like you and I.