First Impressions: A Look Inside “Baby Jail”

edit 12   By Jesse Turner

They live behind a 20-foot fence and locked doors. They must ask permission to go to the bathroom, use nail clippers, and even get up from their chairs. They get transported in handcuffs. And yet all of them are legally classified as youth.

I am completing an internship at the Hillcrest Juvenile Correctional Facility on a unit with 14 males, ages 14 to 18. It is labeled the “Special Needs Unit,” which includes a wide array of developmental, emotional, and learning disabilities. Some are sex offenders. Some are gang members. One has taken two lives.

On my first day, before I met any of the youth, my supervisor warned me that this unit was notoriously bad with interns. She said they would say crude, sexist, disturbing things to me. She even made a point of showing me one teenager’s mugshot and warned me that he had gotten obsessed with female staff members before. I was terrified.

Soon after these sinister warnings, the youth got back from class and had free time on the unit. I sat back, observed, and waited for my first terrible encounter. But that never happened. Most of them ignored me, but those who spoke to me asked my name, introduced themselves, and shook my hand. They were perfectly polite. A few of them invited me to play cards with them. On my first shift, I played blackjack for four hours, getting to know the youth and asking them questions about their lives.

They each have had seemingly insurmountable difficulties, whether with their families, their communities, or their own mental health. They have been in and out of treatment and detention centers. Many have been homeless and runaways. A lot of the youth have no dependable guardian in their life, having been abandoned or abused by their parents. It makes a lot of sense that some of them have responded with crime and violence. They are some of the most resilient people I have ever met.

I understand that the staff’s warnings were for my own safety, but none of the youth have lived up to these terrifying impressions, for which I am shocked and grateful.

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