Turning our lives around Part 2

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When a teacher at a detention facility contacted us about working with his students, we thought it was a good opportunity to hear the perspective of teens in the juvenile justice system. These boys say that the facility where they’re serving their time isn’t just about punishment, it’s also helping rehabilitate them. Their facility is more strict than house arrest but not as strict as the juvenile camps. We are running these stories anonymously to protect the writers’ identities.

Doing the right thing is more important than fitting in

By T.S., a 16-year-old male

Illustration by Izuriel Marquez, 16, Chavez Learning Acadmies, (San Fernando)

My family came to the L.A. area about 10 months ago from Tennessee. We moved to Compton because we had family there and it was what we could afford. I didn’t feel comfortable being the only white guy and there were bullet holes in the fence around our apartment complex.

Adjusting to a new school was hard, especially with all the gangs and drugs. I made the wrong friends. They used weed, ecstasy and cocaine, and they stole cars. I wanted to fit in with them so I had to steal a car. I got caught.

It’s been better than I thought here. The staff cares about the kids. After I was here for a few weeks, I called my mom and she told me that my aunt, who has AIDS, had stopped taking her meds. If she stops taking them, she’ll die. I felt helpless being here. I walked to my locker, sat down and then kept steaming on it. It was a mixture of anger and worry and I exploded. I cussed really loudly and I kept dropping f-bombs.

The staff came up to me and I said, “Please don’t get near me, I’m mad right now.” They said, “OK, tell me what’s wrong.”

We went to the office and I told them what my mom said about my aunt. They said that my aunt might have stopped for one day but would probably get back on her meds. They said that even if the worst did happen, that I couldn’t let that affect me here. “You want to get out and be able to help her,” they said. Advice like “it’ll get better” doesn’t help me. The staff here gives advice that makes sense. 

I had cussed a few days before that and I got standards, when you have to copy a long paragraph a set number of times. So I was expecting the worst this time. I thought they might call my probation officer. I thought I might have to go back to juvenile hall or to a camp. But they didn’t raise their voices. They were nice. After I left the office, I realized they were right. I can’t mess with my progress here because then I can’t help my aunt at all. 

We have a strict routine here. My day starts with staff coming into the dorms and turning on the lights and waking us up at 6:45 a.m. You have to get up or you get punished. Then we get breakfast and do chores, like clean the bathrooms or clean the dining areas. After chores we walk in two straight lines to our classes. 

After school we go to a group meeting and work with therapists. We role-play different scenarios that would usually make us mad, but the staff watches us to see how well we can use the skills we’ve been taught. 

One of my scenarios was about a time I lost my pencil and I was yelling. I had moved a few things in my locker and when I calmed down, I found it under a piece of paper. I felt stupid.

In role-playing they would hide a pencil under papers and then I’d re-enact how I yelled. Then I acted in a way that I should have—looking for it without yelling. I realized I should have done it this way to begin with. It was kind of embarrassing, but the embarrassment helps me not do it again.

I’ve also learned that if you get a punishment you don’t think you deserve, instead of arguing and getting punished more, just say, “OK, I’ll do it.” It teaches us how to handle things that we can’t control. 

In therapy we’re also learning to think about pros and cons. If a friend asks you to smoke weed, you think of the pros and cons. The pros are feeling good for a little while and fitting in. But the cons are that you could get arrested and end up back in juvenile hall. I would never make the mistake of trying to fit in again. My old mindset was that I needed to fit in, but now I’m going to fight that. It’s going to be my hardest challenge but I’m confident that I can do this when I get out of here.

I feel a lot of responsibility not to let the staff down. The staff makes me feel like they care about me. I wouldn’t want to take what they gave me and not repay them. 

The way I acted before makes me mad now. My mom worked 12-hour shifts to support us and then I’d make her watch my brother while I was out. First thing I’m doing when I get out is telling her she can sleep as much as she wants. I’m glad I’m getting help now rather than when I’m older. If I didn’t get the help now, I probably would end up in prison.

My family means more to me than drugs

By E.A., an 18-year-old male

I was on drugs and I was really heavy into meth. I flipped out one day and beat someone down. It makes my stomach clench up, the thought of what I did. 

They sent me to jail. When I went to court and my public defender read me my charges and showed me pictures of my victim, I realized it wasn’t a game; everything I was doing was real life. I took the deal I was offered of two years probation because I was sure that I had given up my old lifestyle. I went back to my continuation school but I was around drugs. Within a month I was smoking meth every day. 

Two months later, I violated my probation by failing a drug test. I went back to court. The judge wanted to give me nine months in a juvenile camp but my mom started crying. She told the judge, “My son has a drug problem.” Seeing her cry, I was ready to give it up for good. The judge sent me here for six months. I’m thankful for that because I had another chance to get my life together.

I grew up in Northeast L.A. with poverty, gangs and killings. I was 13 when I first smoked weed, 14 when I tried alcohol, 15 when I tried coke and ecstasy. I was 16 when I hit meth. That’s what started my drug addiction. I would go to school to meet up with my friends and get drugs and that’s it. I couldn’t feel anything when I was on meth. I’d sock the walls and cuss at my aunt, uncle and mom if they told me to stop hanging out with that crowd. I’d tell them, “Nah, I don’t want to do that. I’m going to go get high.” After a while my aunt gave up on me. She always told me, “I love you and we’re praying for you, but we can’t do anything more for you.” 

When I first got here, I wanted to run away and be with my family. But after I met the staff and a couple kids told me it’s not really that bad, I started to look at it differently. I realized I needed to get clean and make myself a better person. 

The day I met my social worker I opened up to her about everything. I told her that when I was growing up, me and my friend were harassed by a gang because we lived in their enemy’s turf. They thought we were associated with their enemy, but we weren’t. 

One day my friend asked me to come along to the beach with his sisters. For some reason I said no. A couple hours later I heard on the TV that my friend had crashed his car. His sisters were killed instantly. He also died. I found out they were being chased by the gang. When I thought about it I wanted to hurt somebody. The meth covered the sadness and fueled my rage. My social worker told me, “You don’t have control over everything. You’re powerless over certain situations and you have to learn to accept them.” This was a relief to me because that’s what it was all about, I felt powerless over him dying. Being here I’ve been able to grieve in a proper way. It was scary to let all those emotions come out. Eventually I learned how to deal with it in a healthy way. 

The counselors and my social worker showed me coping skills. I figured out that I have a lot of energy and if I don’t get that out in healthy ways then I revert to using drugs. I like baseball so they told me to do sports. Another coping skill is talking about your cravings. When I leave, my big supporters are going to be a Narcotics Anonymous support group, my church and my family. Now that I’m off meth I can see the pain that my family went through. I think about my family and that makes me more determined to stay sober. They trust me now because of everything I’ve been doing these past five months.

I don’t have my old friends using drugs around me so I’m more focused on my education. When I got here my English teacher told me, “I know you have a lot of potential.” It made me more motivated. Before I was “fool” and “naw dog.” He’s helped me improve my vocabulary and grammar. They’re giving me a chance to graduate with a diploma even though I was behind on credits. 

I never thought I could graduate and go to college. Now I’m planning on going to community college and then getting my degree in sociology and going into the Marines. I have a chance to set myself up for a successful life, something I thought I’d never have. 

I know I’m not a bad kid. I didn’t fully think about the consequences of my decisions. But now I’ve learned from my mistakes and I’m growing into a man. I’ve been sober since I’ve been here and I’m going to continue to stay sober for my life. I don’t plan on going back to my old lifestyle. My family and my future are way more important. 

Counseling and support taught me that there are things far more important than drugs

By M.S., a 17-year-old male

I used to be afraid of drugs as a kid. We learned in school that drugs would kill you if you took them one time. It worked when I was younger. But I started using drugs in August 2009 at a birthday party. Some friends brought Ecstasy. Two people there were doing it and they were acting really happy and loving. That seemed like fun so I tried half a pill. I didn’t think it would do much but I ended up telling everyone I loved them and hugging everyone.

I woke up the next day and wanted to feel the high again. Within a couple weeks I was using Ecstasy every day. I wanted to feel like people liked me and escape my problems with my family.

My teachers knew I was on drugs because of obvious changes in my behavior. My grades went from a 2.8 to a 0.4. I once wrote “caterpillar” for an answer on a math test and never did my work.

I stole money from my parents and friends to buy drugs. There were times I’d want to stop, like when I had a test, but I couldn’t. When you can’t stop using, you’re addicted. But at the time I told myself, “I’m not a dope-shooting heroin addict, I’m just a recreational drug user.”

I’d always find some reason to take drugs, like a party or I got a D on a test and I wanted to feel better. I got to the point that I would take 20 pills a day, but I couldn’t create that same high feeling again. I always told myself it was fun, but I was using by myself and that’s not fun.

The first time I got arrested for drugs, I got expelled from school and put on probation. After I got arrested a second time I got sent here.

I thought the staff here would say clichés like “drugs are bad” and “you’re better than that.” I thought it would go in one ear and out the other and that I wouldn’t learn a thing. I didn’t want to. I loved drugs. I couldn’t see myself off drugs.

But once I was taken away from drugs and I unfogged my mind, I saw that my family was torn apart because of me. My mom cried when we had family therapy. Before I was arrested my family would say, “Why do you do this to your mother? You’re making her sad. Why do you go out all the time?” But I never listened before. Seeing her cry and the problems I had caused made me more serious about getting sober.

About six weeks after I got here I earned the privilege of going home for a weekend. I hadn’t used since I’d arrived so I thought I was cured. I wanted to see if my stash was still there and it was. So I brought them back here and just took them. Once I had the drugs again they were just too tempting. I got caught when I got drug tested. I was glad because it let me know that I can’t get away with breaking the rules. I got so upset about my relapse. And I was worried about how my family would react.

What’s helped me not relapse again is that we have drug counseling and I go to relapse prevention class once a week. It’s for people here who have relapsed, like I did. At relapse class we talk about cravings we’ve been having. They ask if we’re sincere about getting off drugs? And then usually toward the end of most of our meetings, we watch parts of the show Intervention, which is about drug addicts. It’s really a good class. I go to Narcotics Anonymous once a week too. People there are staying off drugs as well and I find support in that.

Another thing I like about this placement is that we get information on colleges and types of careers and jobs. I work in the job/career resource center and in the library. I thought we’d sit around all day.

I like that it’s a religious place, too. We go to church on Saturday and pray multiple times a day. When I started using drugs, I was an atheist. Now I’ve learned that religion isn’t that bad. It’s helped me see that God’s guiding me and I don’t feel as alone all the time. My family’s very religious and I grew up with that but I never followed it until now.

Even though I would like to be home with my family, I know that I need more drug treatment before I’m ready to leave. And when I’m back home I’m not going to hang out with any of the people I hung out with before, except my few friends who didn’t use drugs. When I was using I didn’t want to hang out with them because they would tell me not to. But I’m glad I maintained those relationships.

When I was using it was always in the back of my mind that I could die. Knowing that I haven’t died and I could have died countless times gives me a purpose in life. I want to be a psychologist. I feel like my purpose now is to help kids like me.