Finally, I got to spend a day in Juvenile Hall as an adult. I’ve been trying to get inside for a year now, ever since I started working at the county library and realized that there is a library inside of the Juvenile Hall too. The library inside Juvie was made possible by a grant some library assistants wrote away for while going to school for their Library Science Degrees. It’s a beautiful square room, stacked on four sides with books—from urban literature to manga.
I wasn’t sure what to expect—if I’d feel weird being inside Juvenile Hall voluntarily, as one of “them,” but I was blown away by the cheeriness of the staff inside the building and the librarian who trained me on the procedures so I can substitute for her in the future.
Basically, the kids are separated into groups, and different groups come in at different times of the day to get books, and the librarian tells them about new books they might like and plays a game with them, like Taboo or a memory game. She doesn’t talk about their crimes. She and the guards know they’re not in there for no reason. Instead, she offers a respite during their time, if they choose to seek books during their stay.
The (did I mentioned beautiful?) librarian happened to need help with judging the poetry contest. For about an hour, I sat reading through the poems penned by kids on the inside. Most of the poems reflected a conflict of being “bad,” but wanting to feel and/or change. Some wrote about dead children or mothers. Others wrote about having to toughen up to survive, looking in the mirror and wondering why they can’t cry. It struck me for the upteenth time how powerful poetry is as a medium. The fact that so many of them turned in poems…
I asked the librarian if a lot of the kids she sees in there are creative. “Yes,” she said. I knew it. Not that creativity leads to a life of crime—but I wonder how many of those kids weren’t understood in their homes, in their neighborhoods, with their friends. You do a survey, and not many of those kids are going to come from happy homes. Even the ones who do, it’s usually just status someone’s looking at—whether the parents had money and good jobs, not whether they were at home for their children, spent time with them. But that’s my guess.
I remember when I was in Fresno, age 15. I was visiting my boyfriend’s mom, who lived near the train tracks in a tiny apartment with her third husband and two other kids from other men. My boyfriend was from her first marriage. We slept in his little sibling’s beds with train sheets, their toys all over the floor.
The boyfriend and I drank and wandered around Fresno. It was Christmas time and we had a bottle of citron Vodka someone had given to us, saying “Merry Christmas.” They had gotten it as a gift and they thought maybe we, the dirty urchins sitting on the curb, could use it better than them. I got shitfaced, started badmouthing a mustached police officer outside of Café Intermezzo. It surprised me when he immediately arrested me. I was used to San Francisco where you could badmouth all you wanted and they essentially left you alone or merely kicked you off the main strip. Here, they didn’t take nothing from no one.
He handcuffed me, put me in his car and drove me to juvenile hall. I was screwed. Drunk enough to babble nonsense, but not blacked out, I cried and told them I was in love and they couldn’t take me away from my boyfriend. I gave them a fake name: Katherine Bodinger.
They fingerprinted me, made me shower, took my belongings and clothes, handed me a pink uniform and put me in a blue brick room with a metal bench. I sat there for hours waiting, reading graffiti on the walls, wondering how previous inmates had gotten their hands on a pen.
I’m screwed, I thought as doors slammed behind me while we walked deeper and deeper into the institutional labyrinth of corridors and barricades inside the hall.
I got put in a solo room overnight, then was sent in with all the other girls for school, a pink unit with concrete walls and high ceilings. I was livid. I remember there being books I could read—the only thing that saved me. I saw a female counselor after a day and a half (may have been longer, I can’t recall) and she said, “We’re going to release you to foster care late today.” I almost cried with joy. I’d told them my parents died in a car crash.
I didn’t have a record, so they’d put me in under the fake name I’d given them. The staff checked me out, laughing at me, asking if I remembered my drunken soliloquy the night before. Of course I remember, I said, glaring.
I waited in the blue room again, not knowing if it was day or night, and the foster care worker, a middle-aged guy with brown hair, came to check me out. As he led me to his car, I was incredulous, wondering if this was some sick joke, if they were trying to trick me into revealing my true identity in order to ship me back to the Bay Area four and a half hours away. It had happened before, in Santa Cruz and in Ohio.
The Foster Care worker talked to me while we drove. He asked me what area of Fresno I was familiar with. I told him that I was only familiar with the Watchtower District downtown. I get a lot of youth, he said, who don’t really want to go into foster care, are just going to run away again. Unless you want to start over, there’s no point in me placing you. Do you really want to go be placed in a home? I looked at him and nodded, not sure what he was getting at. I just wanted one moment of unsupervised freedom so I could access a phone or a door I could run out through.
I’m going to stop at this convenience store, he said. We are very near the Watchtower District downtown. He looked at me for a second before pointedly getting out of the car and turning his back to me. He unlocked all of the doors. As soon as he left, I opened my door. I got out of the car, running as fast as I could towards the bright lights and bigger buildings of downtown.
As I approached, I saw a familiar face, one I’d figured I’d never see in the previous incarcerated hours. My boyfriend: His shaggy shoulder-length hair, silly goatee, lean sinewy body tucked into patched up leather. I almost knocked him over as he was talking to a friend. When he realized who I was, he put his arms around me and in a split second we started running towards apartment buildings where his friend lived.
Being in the juvy today reminded me briefly of that Fresno juvenile hall. It also reminded me of a pink walled juvenile hall they detained me at in Ohio for a number of weeks previous to Fresno.
I felt different though. Confident, because I am so far away from who I was 16 years ago…I can understand that girl, who I was, but I would never, don’t ever need to go back there.
Which is why I’ve always wanted to work with incarcerated or at-risk youth in some way, just a little bit, whether it’s through a poetry class or substituting in the library where I actually get paid for my efforts, or just writing music, books and poetry they can read or listen to and not feel so alone. Maybe if I do, they’ll know if they hold on, if they try, a better way will emerge. And they will look back and want to help the previous version of themselves, but they will never want to relive that misguided life—the one where they felt they had no friends, family or world that could care enough or understand who and what they were. Maybe they’ll realize that they’re not so different, nor so alone, after all.