By Nicholas Williams, 17, Daniel Murphy HS
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Nicholas asks: "What can we expect these teens to do with life sentences, sit in their cells and rot?"

When I arrived at Central Juvenile Hall, I was expecting guards, watch towers, basically the setting of the Shawshank Redemption. I was told to wait in a small lobby room, which separated the prison from the outside world. While waiting, I saw a few inmates getting on a bus. They wore handcuffs and carried brown paper bags behind their backs. I wondered what these kids did. I looked at each one, trying to guess his crime. "Maybe he robbed a store, maybe he killed somebody, maybe he was selling drugs." Some people might ask, why would I want to write a story about juveniles in prison? Why would anyone want to read what these criminals have to say? Who cares? It’s easy to judge juvenile criminals as bad kids, but not so easy when you’re looking into the eyes of a teenager who is going to spend life in jail.

I know there are victims of violent crimes whose voices go unheard. But recognize that some people who commit crimes have many reasons behind their actions. It’s a cycle. This is what happens to kids who didn’t have direction or anybody who cared, who had to learn about life the hard way. They were brought up this way so that’s how they’re going to treat others. Sometimes, it’s okay to give a voice to the "villains." They have been victims too.

Inside Juvenile Hall, Javier Stauring, the Catholic chaplain, was there to guide me through the facility and be present during the interviews. We sat down on a bench in the middle of the yard. He told me that high-risk offenders wore orange jumpsuits, and those wearing gray and yellow suits were minor offenders or those who violated their probation. The four teens I was going to interview were all high-risk offenders. Out of 550 inmates in Juvenile Hall, 180 were being tried in adult court, Javier said. He explained that I couldn’t ask any questions about their crimes, use their full names or take pictures of their faces because they were minors and their cases were pending.

Illustration by Shengul Bajrami, 16, University HS

While we sat talking, a few teens walked by with a guard, their heads facing the ground and their hands behind their backs. I watched them walk. Then one of them turned to look at me, and I turned my head to avoid eye contact. I felt that he didn’t want to be looked at. I wouldn’t want someone who was free looking at me walking around in prison. I felt uncomfortable that day, like I didn’t have any clue what these kids had been through. Did I feel sorry for them? Not right away. I was surprised by the innocence of their faces, like they didn’t belong there. I was really shocked when I saw a boy who looked like he was about 10 walking in a line with other kids, wearing handcuffs. I also felt glad that my life didn’t take the same road as these kids’ lives had.

Then I met the four teens and I found out just how bad their situations were. Even though I had prepared a list of questions, I didn’t know what to expect. Would they cry? Would they be angry? Though none of the four had an emotional outburst, some questions during the interview caused them to pause and try to hold in their emotions while thinking about painful memories.

When I first met the two girls, Mayra and Elizabeth, I was expecting two huge girls, bigger than me, with short hair and tattoos. But two petite, feminine and pretty girls walked in … What? What could they have done, and to be wearing orange suits at that? Yet both were smiling and saying hello to me.

And when I met the two guys, they seemed calm and laid back. Though they were the same age as me, they seemed older in their ways. They had experienced a lot and you could see it in the way they carried themselves. Elizabeth was more to herself, the day-dreaming type; Mayra was tougher, more independent; Mark was heavy in size, but you could see the sensitivity in his eyes; and David was thoughtful, no doubt.

All four had drifted into a negative lifestyle at a young age. It seemed as if it was impossible for them to overcome their problems. The two girls said they had been sexually and physically abused. Both said that leaving home at a young age was the only thing they could do to save themselves from future torment. The two guys, however, had wanted that wild lifestyle. Both confessed to having been ignorant and making bad choices. What I learned from talking with them is that there are some things we have no control over—our families, where we live and who we know. It was simple for me to see that all four kids had no control over their lives. All they knew was what made them feel better at the moment.

There are a lot of negative aspects about prison, but some positive things can come out of being locked up. David even said, "I’m glad I’m in prison, or else I’d still be out there [getting into trouble]."

Prison, for many out of control teens, is stopping them in their tracks so they don’t go further with a criminal and violent life. Prison allows these teens to stop and think. David told me that his time in prison has allowed him to figure out that he’s a "really cool person."

Teens should get a chance to change

Even though they may take responsibility now for their actions and want to change their lives, they still have to serve their time. That’s the way our system is. I know they have a debt to pay to society, but why doesn’t our system allow young people to redeem themselves? I don’t think our judiciary system deals well with people once they are in the system. Okay, they’re in prison, now what? Mayra is only 17, what can we expect her to do with a life sentence, sit in her cell and rot? I don’t think the system expects or encourages kids to change their lives around. But I can’t complain too much because prison is keeping criminals off the streets and away from my family and me.

Talking to these kids, I realized they had many problems growing up. Some had no friends at all, and many have dysfunctional families. This doesn’t excuse the crimes they committed, but it helps explain why.

After one day at a prison, I see that in prison, it’s just you and time. Too much time for the kids I met that day. That time in prison is time they wish they had to spend with their friends and family. Time they wish they had to go on a date, to play sports, to go to school, to watch television, to lay down on their own beds, to walk free, to laugh and have a good time again. It’s time spent feeling regret for their past actions. No matter how much they regret the past, they will have to finish growing up in adult prison.

‘I was a chronic runaway’
Elizabeth, 18, awaiting sentencing

What’s a typical day like?

Six o’clock in the morning we get up. We keep our clothes outside the room. We have to get up and grab our clothes. We have about 4 or 5 minutes to get ready. Breakfast is at 7 o’clock. That’s usually disgusting. Then we go to school for a couple hours, go to lunch, go to school again, come back, eat dinner, we get one hour of recreation, take our showers.

What was it like when you got arrested?
Really? I was high. So all kinds of things were going through my mind. Just like shock. I couldn’t even cry. I just sat down quiet.

Was being a troublemaker exciting?
It was for me, back then, just my lifestyle.

Were you into school?

Mayra and Elizabeth watched a Christmas concert in the yard the day I visited.
This photo was manipulated to obscure the identities of the youth and guards at the request of the probation department.

When I was around fifth grade. My mom put me in a placement because I was running away. I kept running away. I was a chronic runaway. They’d put me somewhere and I’d run away from it.
    I had, uh, problems at home (softly) … and um, out of sheer boredom I guess. Mostly neglect. Well, I’d been molested for years. Finally I told my grandmother about it. That it was my stepfather. She called the cops and I ran away and right before he was supposed to go to court he shot himself in the head. My sister had a brain tumor and my mom was always busy at the hospital. We had to move into this tiny duplex and I was by myself all day. I was 11 or 12. It’s really boring in Texas. That’s where I’m from—Austin, Texas.
One day I’d just go out to have fun and I wouldn’t go home the next day. It kept on escalating. I’d spend a day in jail and keep on going. My mom had a boyfriend, and he used to physically abuse my sister. I tried to intervene one day and he grabbed me by my neck. I started talking s—- outside the house, just yelling at him and he came out with a knife. So I really had to run. This lady called the cops and what did they do? They arrested me. They arrested me on a runaway charge. Nothing happened to him.
    My mom made me seem like this bad kid. I just wanna go and have some fun. My mom didn’t have very much money, and if you don’t have clothes, you’re an outcast [at school]. I had good grades, all A’s and stuff like that, but I just couldn’t take being in school so I dropped out.

How do you feel compared to the average teen?
I feel like a totally different species. I feel older actually, ‘cuz I’ve seen so much. They don’t even know, they’re in school, they have their proms, and they’re going to college. And I just can’t relate. I feel I can’t even hang out with them, they’re too different.

Did your parents try to discipline you?
My mom’s form of discipline was just to get rid of me. It makes me mad today. She paid my brother to kick my a— for leaving, you know, paid him. He didn’t want to but he did it for the money. It just made me more mad and I ran away again.

What do you think your parents could have done that would have helped?
If my mom had set me aside and talked to me, asked me what is it you want, why are you running away. That would have helped me.

What do you say to people who think Juvenile Hall is easy, watching TV all day or something?
We rarely ever get to listen to the radio at all. TV, we get only one hour a day. We don’t get the news so we don’t know what’s going on in the world. TV and radio, that’s nice to have but you wouldn’t want to sit there and watch TV all day, that’s not a luxury. [Juvenile Hall is] really dirty to me. The girls, I wasn’t scared of them, because I’d been living on the street all over so I wasn’t scared of anything, especially not some little girls.

How does it feel to lose your freedom?
It hurts more than any kind of punch, slap, anything that was ever done to me. Having my freedom taken away is the worst thing that ever happened to me. It’s not the fact I’m in jail that I’m scared. For a while I didn’t know when I was gonna get out. It felt like the whole world was going on without me, and I was stuck. I have a little sister born after I started running away and I don’t even know her. My family came out twice this year. You have special visits, half an hour. For the past year, I’ve seen someone I know from the outside for one hour, that’s it. It’s pretty hard being out here all by yourself. I can see what they’re doing to us. How kids are sent to jail when they just need a slap on the head or something. I used to really really hate the cops. Hate ’em, hate ’em. I still don’t approve of what they’re doing but I understand. I used to hate other people’s lifestyle. Now I know it’s different people and I don’t hate them anymore. I can associate with different people. I’m a lot more open-minded, don’t hate so quickly, don’t judge so quickly.

Elizabeth is awaiting her sentence in Central Juvenile Hall.

‘Can I get a second chance in life?’

Mark, 17, serving 13-year sentence

Have you been in here before?
Two times before. [When I was arrested] I was just trying to figure out what was going on. I was like ‘Man, this is a bad dream.’ I was just waiting to wake up. Ain’t waked up yet.

Was your life exciting before you came in here?
Exciting like I was always watching my back? Or the parties? Robbing and stealing. It was like an adventure, yeah. But it was an adventure going nowhere.

What’s a typical day here like?
Wake up, wash up. Same thing, different day. That’s how it is.

What were you doing when you were free?
I was playing football. I’m mad missing out my teenage days. I regret what I did, and it’s like ‘Damn.’ If I live in the past, that’s where I’m gonna stay, in the past. Damn, it’d be fun [if I was free]. It’s the new millennium. I haven’t even been on a date, know what I’m saying. I ain’t gonna see none of that. Don’t grow up too fast, ‘cuz you’re gonna be mad if you do.

Did your parents try to discipline you?
I’m stubborn, I know I’m stubborn. My parents they did try to discipline me but I was too wild. It was like I couldn’t be tamed at the time.

Do you have any talents?
I like to rap. I can write. (He writes plays with theater group called Usual Suspects.) Writing is one of my skills. Give me a beat and I can freestyle for you right now.

How does your family deal with you being locked up?
I know they don’t like me being in here but I been in here before. When I hit 13 that was when I really stepped up the criminal ladder. It was the adrenaline rush and all that and I didn’t think about my family. I try to let them know it’s gonna be alright. It affects my family a lot. Even when I had a bad day I still smile. I just try to make them feel good when they’re here.

How does it feel not to control your fate?
Dang, somebody else got control my life. I should be believing in God more. I should but I really started to lose faith. No … well, I didn’t lose it, I just didn’t know where to put my faith. If I walk into court one day and the judge had a bad weekend, his wife trippin’ on him or something, he could take it out on me. I expect the unexpected when I go in the courtroom. My fate is sealed already but my fate isn’t in the court’s hand, it’s in my hand. Fate really has to do with what you feel inside than what people make of you. If God wants me to be in jail, it must be I got some kind of gift that God wants me to spit to other cats in here.

What do you think about Prop. 21?
Why should I walk around with a label on me because I made a mistake when I was young? Can I get a second chance in life? When you go to the pen, you don’t do nothing. All you do is time, get contraband, learn to hate somebody. I want to be a positive person, somebody that helps somebody, somebody who helps the community.
    Prop. 21, it’s like a spear in this whole community’s heart. My little brother was sitting in a car, somebody was shot, and my brother got to do adult time for that. They taking our rights away. You putting little kids in adult facilities, that’s forcing them to grow up already. This little kid, he did this crime right here, but they don’t see this as his first time doing it. [Little kids out there won’t be deterred by longer sentences]… the homie got 25 years to life, they look up to that. I don’t know why but they do. "He gonna ride it out, he’s a rider."
    Society’s a fool if they don’t see that. Little kid, he has so much to prove. Them older hounds—"I ain’t got nothing, I got life. Let me go and send this kid up the river too." That little kid, he’s believing the hype. "You want me to shank him, okay, I’m gonna do that, go in the hole, go to Pelican Bay, don’t see my momma." Little kid, he should be put in a program. When you send them to the pen all you making is a better criminal.

Mark is serving 13 years in L.A. County Men’s Jail.

‘I carry my own weight’

David, 18, awaiting sentencing

Was your life exciting before you came in here?

I was living in the fast lane and I didn’t have no time to think. Since I been off drugs I noticed I’m a real good person. I just regret those "exciting days."
    I think of me now as a man. I had to grow up early. It’s sad I did that to myself but I did. But I can’t look at the past. As far as me getting locked up, I’m happy. If I didn’t get locked up I would have kept going, I would have lost all my years.

Did your parents try to discipline you?

My mom tried so many ways to control me. I couldn’t let a woman take control. I felt too grown. I felt, I’m a man. I was too stubborn, hardheaded.

How are you preparing for adult prison?

You can’t really predict it at all. I think prison is not a rehabilitation and it’s just there for us to kill each other or to get that mentality that we’re nothing. I can live through it. I gotta take it and roll with it.

Did your environment contribute to you being in here?

I carry my own weight. My surroundings had a lot to do with it. [But] it was me, my decision. Made the wrong one. I just need the opportunity to make the right one.

What’s your maximum sentence?

25 years to life. If I lose my case, it’s life without parole.

Is it hard to wait for the results?

I’m like, get this over with. It’s like stripping you slowly. People rather die than go through this slow pain. Go ahead and give that to me. They think this is a game that can be played with. This is our life.

How does it feel not to control your fate?

David and Mark play chess in the library of one of the boys' units.

I don’t think nobody controls my fate. God controls my fate. If I get a long time, it’s ‘cuz I got to learn something. And if I go home it means I’m ready. God has control. And I’m very happy he has control.

What would you be doing if you weren’t locked up?

With the state of mind I have now, I’d be occupying myself with a trade and I’d be going to school to be an actor. And keep myself busy, occupied. The last time I was out my mind was stuck on drugs, money and other things. I don’t want that to sneak up on me. I got high expectations of myself.

How are you preparing for adult prison?

Instead of you getting ready for them, how about them getting ready for you? Be confident in yourself. Be something different. You gotta be a man of your own path.
    I got something to say. It’s still itching in my brain. It bothers me when people say it’s easy in here. I go through a lot of pain. I sit and think about the things I done, and I sit there and cry. For people who say this is easy, they don’t know how much pain we go through. I heard people down the hall from where I sleep saying they rather die than go through this. Some people are stronger than others.

David is awaiting his sentence in Central Juvenile Hall.

‘At night when nobody sees you, you cry’

Mayra, 17, serving life sentence

Were you ever into school?
I dropped out of school when I was 13, seventh grade. Because my family didn’t have enough money and the rest of the girls, I used to see them every day with different kinds of clothes. I used to be with the same clothes almost every day you know. It used to hurt me seeing them have everything. So that’s when I dropped out.

Did your parents try to discipline you?
I had a lot of discipline, ‘cuz my dad is coming from Mexico. You know the whips for the horses, he would hit us with those. With anything he could find he hit us with until my back would be bloody. When I was in Mexico, he hang me from a tree and hang me there for one hour ‘cuz I think I stole a candy. He was abusive to my mother. My dad used to leave black eyes on her, and when the cops came and she would cover it with her hair. That’s one thing, it didn’t work. ‘Cuz that makes you angrier. After he used to hit me or whip me, he would tell me don’t cry, why you crying, I’m gonna hit you harder, I ain’t hitting you hard. I had to hold it in, I couldn’t cry because he’d hit me more. So I had to hold my tears in and it built up you know.

What do you think your parents could have done that would have helped?

I would have liked for my mother when my dad was hitting me to tell him something. My dad hitting me and she wouldn’t do nothing. I would like for my mom to stick up for me. If I did something wrong instead of hitting me, it would be better if they would have told me that’s wrong.

What was it like when you first came to Juvenile Hall?

The first time when I got arrested my friend told me, they’re gonna ask you where you’re from, they’re gonna rape you. So get in there and put a front and start walking like you’re crazy. So I was walking like this (she swaggers with her arms raised to her chest). When I first came all the girls started laughing at me and one said, what are you doing? I said I don’t know, I’m scared. And she said, it shows.

How does it feel to lose your freedom?

It hurts. It hurts being here ‘cuz every time they see their mother on Sunday, they see them cry and that’s what breaks your heart in here. You miss your family. You don’t want people to see you cry so at night when nobody sees you, you cry.

What do you need to help you get through this?

I need my mother. I need when I go to sleep to have her next to me and tell me everything’s gonna be okay. I need my son. I was pregnant here and I had him here. He’s six months old. His name is James.

How are you preparing for adult prison?

I’m kind of scared. Just the thought of being with all those old people. I’m not prepared. I’m just scared. Rapes, guards, getting raped by women. I’m not ready, I’m scared. If I do go over there, I have a good friend. But I’m still not ready, I don’t think I’ll ever be ready. But if I have to go, I have to go.

Mayra is now serving a life sentence at a women’s state prison.