The eyes that haunt me

My recent visit to a juvenile facility left me with heartache. As a former defense attorney and juvenile reform consultant, I’ve been to my share of locked facilities, but this visit for some reason unnerved me. It was more than the dismal physical space I’ve observed so many times. I’ve certainly seen the typical correctional complex complete with razor-wire fences, a myriad of locks and bolts, and barren cells. I’ve seen the expensive over-equipped surveillance control rooms with hundreds of cameras that offer multiple views of the facility at various angles.

What struck me in a different way during this visit wasn’t the sterile building and rooms, it was the eyes of the youth that I encountered. Despondent, unfocused, almost lost eyes. Eyes that had clearly experienced trauma and despair, and now seemed to just go through the motions.

Teenagers are supposed to be spirited, inquisitive, engaging — even irreverent. They are not supposed to be robotic. When I’ve visited institutions in the past, the young people I met seemed at least interested in who and why “the strangers” were there. Most seemed to welcome a new face to at least break the monotony of their daily, weekly, and monthly routine. But on this tour, line after line of youth barely looked up or even seemed to notice the visitors among them. I saw a kind of disconnect that transcended sadness. It was almost like they had given up; having submitted to the cold regimen of their circumstances.

I didn’t get the sense that the caretakers were unnecessarily harsh, but rather that they were detached. From what I could see, the correctional officers were professional and courteous — perfunctory, but not engaged. Even during the eating times, most preferred to watch the youth eat, rather than sit down and eat with them. Less than 20 minutes was allotted for meals with no talking, just eating. I wondered to myself, how I might feel if someone I loved had made a mistake that caused them to be in such a place. Month after month (and year after year) of walking in line, being told when and where to sit, when and where to eat, being talked at, rather than talked to?

No matter what they did wrong, these kids deserve a second chance at life and a bright future. But how can such an atmosphere serve a rehabilitative purpose? What is meant to be “corrective” in reality is nothing more than a well-manned warehouse. There is a reason that a separate juvenile system was created. It was the result of the recognition that kids being young in both mind and experience can be reformed. At some point we as a society understood that the impulsiveness that could drive an adolescent to commit a criminal offense was something that development and the right amount of support and attention could easily overcome.

But somewhere we’ve gone off course and reverted to subjecting our youth to the same harsh prison environments that we send adults. What’s worse is that 75% of the kids that are sent away have done nothing violent, but are still placed behind bars. And these places are harmful. They not only strip our kids of their dignity and desire to achieve — they crush their very spirit. They say that the “eyes are the windows to the soul” — I suppose that’s why the eyes I saw are haunting me.

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

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

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