black girls black youth juvenile justice system prison industrial complex
No One Special: A Black Girl’s Experience in a Youth Detention Center1/07/2016
by Trelani Michelle When I was 13, I was arrested and sentenced to 90 days in a youth detention ce...
by Trelani Michelle
When I was 13, I was arrested and sentenced to 90 days in a youth detention center (otherwise known as a YDC).
When I first arrived “up the road,” I hesitated when my turn came to undress, squat, and cough because I was menstruating and there was a male guard in the room. He wasn’t looking, but he was still there. Finally, a woman guard told me, “Come on, girl, I ain’t got all day.” That was the day I realized I was no one special, and it took about a decade to regain the little self-respect I had before that incident.
While detained, I surprisingly enjoyed going to the dentist. I had braces, so saying a band popped would get me an appointment onsite within two days. I valued my time in the dentist’s chair because he separated my character from my circumstances, and talked with me versus at me. In everyday life, it isn’t typical for black girls to be supported or esteemed, but this is especially true within the juvenile justice system.
One day, I asked him, “You think girls who come here get the help they need?”
I explained how a lot of the girls had real problems back at home and I wondered how being sent there was helping them. I kept it vague, fearing details would summon too many questions—including names. It took a while for him to answer, but he finally came around and suggested that I just worry about myself because some people will never learn—they’re set on their excuses.
I couldn’t look at him the same after that. I even started judging him for falling for my put-on. As a “delinquent,” you get used to being pigeonholed, but I was pretty good at climbing out of boxes. When I first met the dentist, for example, I changed his mind about me by simply asking which colleges he graduated from and sharing that I planned to go to Georgia Tech to be a computer software engineer. I didn’t really want to; it just sounded impressive.
He didn’t know that a few days prior to my visit with him, I was on lockdown for fighting. Again. I had a pretty bad temper, and it had played a big role in my being sent to the YDC. When two girls showed up at my doorstep strapped with belts, I didn’t call the police. I went outside and stabbed one of them. That’s how the prosecutor explained why my case didn’t qualify as self-defense.
I don’t remember what the fight was about that landed me in a 24-hour lockdown, but I recall the girl I fought with screaming and kicking at her door all night. The next day, a guard called herself punishing us by making us watch her eat McDonald’s. That was another level of lowness, and I’d seen correctional officers behave in some pretty jacked up ways, like taking their bad day out on us or being too aggressive when they had to get physical with us.
All guards weren’t trifling though. We weren’t allowed to call them outside of their formal titles, but if we had been, there were a few of them I know we would’ve referred to as Auntie and Maw-Maw. Even when they were upset or disappointed, it was still obvious that they cared. Some guards even read my stories, which I began writing as a way to pass time.
I changed a few proper nouns to disguise my life as fiction. The popularity of my writing began when one friend read and liked a story. Then, the other girls began reading my work, and then eventually guards too. It was like journaling out loud. Confessing. The need to be heard and understood was one of our common denominators, as some of the girls started writing their own stories. Others would ask me to write for them in exchange for snacks and cornrows.
While munching on potato chips and getting my hair parted and plaited into works of art, I realized how much we had in common. For some time, I felt that I was better than the other girls. I figured having specific goals, big dreams, and having been to Disney World a few times situated me a little higher up. I assumed being black and female, which most of us were—and maybe having a crush on Usher—was all we had in common.
If I had to guess, I’d say at least 80% of the young women detained in my YDC were black. This may seem like a high percentage, but it’s the norm. Today, girls are the fastest growing group in YDCs. Black girls are twenty percent more likely to be detained than white girls and three times more likely to be referred to court. White girls might get into the same kind of trouble that we do, but they’re treated much differently.
Because storytelling so awesomely makes you dig deeper, I realized more with each story how similar we all were in terms of our vulnerability. Most of us had been sexually assaulted, and just as many were runaways. In fact, many of the girls were serving time in the detention center for running away from home. Some had been raped by family members, a few were physically abused at home, and others would rather shack up with a pimp than be in an overcrowded house with no food or lights. I too had a habit of running away to get what I was missing at home and to relieve some of the pressure of expectations.
That was another common thread: We were all muted in some capacity. Always expected to think or behave a certain way, but never accepted for who we were. Once I realized that, my eyes opened to just how flawed the system really is. I would cringe when the counselor would act like joining extracurricular activities at school would solve our problems, or that sharing how we felt with our guardians would lessen our emotional burden.
No one was taking the time to resolve or respond to the root causes of our issues. Even in the facility, our only resources for support were the counselor, who was as overworked and underpaid as a court-appointed attorney, and a chaplain, an old white man whose only shared experience with us was probably speaking English.
Alice Walker once wrote that the most important question in the world asks why the child is crying. If my 90 days taught me nothing else, I learned why black girls cry. I also learned that wiping those tears ain’t exactly a priority for the justice system, which is structured to pull girls in, rather than to use available “off-ramps” to divert them to more appropriate interventions.
Too often, these off-ramps aren’t even available. Because the system isn’t equipped to provide the help needed, putting girls away is seen as the “answer” as a means of protecting them. It’s a temporary solution with long-term consequences of added emotional trauma. In most cases, being detained in a juvenile facility once clears from your criminal history after you turn 18. Any more than that and you’re stuck with a record… and the limited opportunities that go along with it.
Eight years after my release, I was hired as a communications operator for the city I lived in, serving as a liaison between the police and the public. Whenever an officer radioed in that he had a runaway or a girl who was put out of her home, my job was to call group homes to see who had room. If none, then I had to call a YDC. Many times, I felt like I was calling for the younger version of myself, letting them know that a 13-year-old black female was en route.
This isn’t just my story or their story. And it isn’t just happening in my city, but in all cities across the country.
Remember Shakara, the 16-year-old from Spring Valley High who refused to put her phone away or leave class, and was then violently attacked by the school resource officer? Even after the video circulated, the officer was fired, and the fact that she’s in foster care was released, she still faces up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Remember 16-year-old Kaylan Ward, who was found dismembered on the side of I-10 in New Orleans? In so many words, her mom expressed that she was a troublemaker too. Could juvenile detention have saved her life? It makes me wonder how many background stories go untold and unhealed. How many incidents weren’t filmed, or how many were filmed but didn’t go viral?
Instead of solely pointing the finger, community accountability is an important factor in how we protect and bring up our girls. Speaking up for their justice in our prayers, polls, and protests is an option. Creating safe spaces for them to be heard is another, and so is supporting the platforms that already exist to serve this purpose.
If our young black girls are not free, then you aren’t either. Auntie Audre taught us that.
Photo: From the photo essay, "Life Inside a Juvenile Detention Center for Girls" by Mike Fritz / PBS News Hour
Trelani Michelle was the little girl beneath the covers with a flashlight and a journal. Now, she embraces the power of personal writing as a rich resource for understanding and expressing herself in the world. Visit her website at SoFundamental.com.