‘Free Us, Pod A’
Exploring the Gray Areas of Juvenile Justice
By Laura Calhoun, Washington and Lee University
On my first day of work at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) in Cleveland, Ohio, I toured the facility with my supervisor. We had almost finished the tour when we saw a resident walking down the hall, accompanied by security, on his way back from court. As he passed us and we said hello, he stopped. He looked at my supervisor, said, “I want to go home with my mom,” and punched her in the arm. He grabbed her clipboard, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it. The security guard called an alert, and we walked away while the youth was “de-escalated” and punished.
My supervisor promised me it was the first time that any youth had hit her in the twelve years since she started at the detention center, and the punch didn’t leave a bruise. Later, we found out that this particular young man had been diagnosed with severe autism, which was not considered when deciding his punishment. A complex, gray-area situation was reduced to black and white.
That’s the thing about the juvenile justice system and the kids wrapped up in it — it’s complicated.
The CCJDC houses around 136 youth per day. The Justice Center, which houses the detention center, says its mission is “to administer justice, rehabilitate juveniles, support and strengthen families, and promote public safety.” A stay there is considered a “sanction,” not a “sentence,” since the youth are awaiting the conclusion of their court cases, and the average stay is more than 70 days. The most common charges include domestic violence, felony burglary, and felony robbery. The majority of youth housed there are black, though African-Americans only comprise around thirty percent of the population of Cuyahoga County.
For the youth housed at the detention center, life on the outside is complicated — full of gray areas. Many of the youth I spoke to had experienced severe trauma in their childhood. They told me about the instability of their home lives and the violence in their home communities. Residents told me that they found the validation and support they lacked at home in places and people with a negative influence, which ended up getting them in trouble. Instability, uncertainty, or poverty at home can impair decision making and leave children stuck in difficult situations — situations that the system, in my experience, unfairly separates from gray into black and white.
The juvenile justice system is not designed to look into a child’s complicated home life or past trauma to see why they may have committed a crime. Justice is priority one, and even though “rehabilitation” is a goal of the juvenile justice system, a detention center alone cannot solve all of its residents’ problems. No matter how many therapy sessions or goal-setting classes youth attend while incarcerated, their stay at the detention center is relatively short. And, when/if they are sent home, they return to the environment that led them to incarceration in the first place, lacking “free” therapy sessions and dedicated volunteers and structure.
One of my greatest challenges at the detention center was reminding myself that I could not fix all of the youths’ problems, either. I lack the qualifications of a mental health therapist or social worker. It hurt me to recognize that, no matter how much I talked about college applications or stress management or making positive social connections, my eight weeks and their 70 days in a detention center cannot undo lifetimes of trauma. I struggled to determine how to serve the youth in a way that was meaningful beyond the walls of incarceration. After much thought, art seemed like the answer. Art is a stress reliever and a creative outlet that can be utilized anywhere, without expensive supplies or classes. It is also a means for the youth to critically analyze the world and their place in it.
I completed a poster activity with several groups of youth focused on “community.” One group of older males couldn’t think of anything to draw, so I prompted them to share words related to “community.” After five minutes of silence, one resident finally responded with “violence.” I paused and asked him to elaborate. What causes violence? What can be done to combat it? And what does an ideal, safe, supportive community look like? I had completed this activity with two other groups before this session. Their posters included phrases like “stop the drugs” and “recycle,” and depicted a street of dilapidated buildings half in the rain and half in the sun. This group, even after our discussion, decided to include “Free us Pod A” in large, red letters.
I was confused at first. Here was an opportunity to share their thoughts with both those literally judging their cases and others judging their character, and they chose to write “Free us Pod A.” Yet, to the group of young men making this poster, this was critical. This was the key element of an ideal community — freedom. It made me further consider the complexities of life on the outside for the youth in the detention center. I listened to kids younger than me share stories about violence, homelessness, and hunger on the outside. Despite the difficult situations that the youth expected to face upon release, they still looked forward to going home and being free.
In many of the art projects we did, the youth drew gang symbols. When I asked why, the youth didn’t have an answer. When I tried to redirect their art by asking them to draw their favorite activity, their papers stayed blank. From my perspective, the youth were so caught up in impressing each other and being involved in some version of a community that they often lost themselves among groups that pressured them to think and act a specific way. Their own interests and goals and plans were set aside for the purpose of fitting in. And, when I asked the youth what it meant to fit in, their answers were black and white — you either did, or you didn’t, and fitting into a group was one of the most important things in life, no matter what had to be done in the process. Difficult lives filled with instability and a lack of community pushed the youth to find alternative means of acceptance.
Because they were so focused on being part of a group, the youth there often lost sight of the value of their individuality. Along the way, art provided an opportunity to recover their own voices and realize the importance of their different perspectives. Art gave them pride in themselves. In an environment where the residents are often silenced, it is vital for the youth to feel both empowered to speak and actually heard:
We aren’t what the news says about us.
You want to know what it feels like to be locked up? Lock yourself in a bathroom for two days and only come out when you need to eat.
We’re hardworking. We’re all nice people.
We need a chance to show ourselves.
These youth, just like any other kids, deserve a chance to show themselves. It’s hard for me to comprehend that you can take two children with the same personality and character traits and put them in different homes, zip codes, and income brackets and one will end up incarcerated while the other will end up in college. Life is full of gray areas. No matter how much reform is made to the juvenile justice system, problems at home are something the justice system alone cannot fix — it takes hard work and dedication from an entire community.
We are all more than the sum of our bad decisions, and justice is not always black and white.
Laura Calhoun is a strategic communication major at Washington and Lee University, class of 2020. She was one of 130 students selected for the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty’s 2018 Internship Program. Each summer, SHECP interns are placed with nonprofit and government agencies that work on the front lines of poverty and serve as co-educators to students. The views and opinions expressed in this reflection are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty.