Images we create for youth should match the positive outcomes we seek

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. What then does that mean for images that are created for people without their consent? Especially those that cause shame: Handcuffs? Shackles? Orange jumpsuits? Cells? Razor-wire fences? Escorts with badges? Escorts with guns? Crowded facilities? Clothing stamped “inmate!”

Impressions of one’s environment, as well as how people are treated, leave imprints that translate to the reflection kids see in the mirror. Visions leave a residue which settle on the heart as well as the mind. If adults can help young people to see their beauty, their intelligence, their goodness and the strengths they have inside, they will see themselves as strong, capable and smart. If, however, they are ignored, constantly criticized, or allowed to think they are unworthy or simply aren’t worth anyone’s time, that will convey a different feeling, and one that can be hard to overcome.

Young people are shaped by their families, their communities as well as the “child-serving” systems they encounter. For most that system is school where if lucky their value is reinforced by adults who teach them that life is a canvass and then provide them with a paintbrush and vibrant colors to paint with. Less fortunate youth are forced into the legal system, whether through their own actions or that of a caretaker and that provides a different lens – one that is significantly gray.

On any given day there are nearly 70,000 young people who are incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities; 75% are there for minor or nonviolent actions (truancy, under-age drinking, minor school infractions). Most of the institutions are prison-like in construction; complete with razor wire, small cells, concrete and bars. Not the type of environment that fosters a positive self-image.

Images are powerful, and they are directly connected to youth achievement and well-being. Everyone a young person encounters has the power to either reinforce their value or tear them down. When we as a society respond to youth misbehavior with arrest, shackles, prison jumpsuits and a prison-like environment, can we really then expect that they will be empowered to change for the positive? And when those correctional settings include adults who are trained in coercive instead of rehabilitative tactics, the feeling of despair is compounded.

Young people (even those who have made mistakes) need to see their inner strengths so that they can envision a good life for themselves. One full of hope, promise, and even fun! Staff who work with these youth have more success when equipped with therapeutic tools and listening skills, instead of being trained to use restraints and intimidation.

The juvenile prison complex across this country needs a makeover – inside and out. Kids need school-type environments where they can be taught pro-social skills, not prisons where abuse is rampant and negativity is reinforced. Adults charged with working with vulnerable youth have a responsibility to not only “do no harm,” but to do what they can to be a positive influence. This requires that we create environments that instill hope and reinforce images of self-worth so that kids can see a picture of themselves that includes a brighter future.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq / email her at

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