Birthdays Behind Bars: Inside the Juvenile Justice
Copyright 2021 by Stephanie Wilder
a career of teaching students in prep schools, I longed for a career
change. Chance took me to the Juvenile Justice System and I got a job
in a juvie facility for teenaged juvenile delinquents. It was indeed
a career change, and it was an opportunity for me to step out of my
world of privilege and I learned much more than my students did.
alarm clock beside my bed blasts me out of another bad dream. It’s
still dark at 5:30 AM, but it’s time to get moving.
Bleary-eyed, I pull corduroy pants and a cotton turtleneck over my
slight frame, bolt a mug of strong coffee waiting for me in the pot
set on a timer in the kitchen, and rush out to work at the setting of
all my nightmares. I drive along deserted country roads through woods
and past dairy farms, the outlines of cows barely visible in the
dark. Closer to town I approach the twelve foot chain link fence
crowned with razor wire surrounding the facility where I work.
gates squeal open in response to my gate pass, and I drive up the
driveway towards the cinder block building housing the school in this
juvenile correctional facility operated by the State Department of
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention where I have taught
English for eight years. Boys ages thirteen to eighteen housed here
are considered the “most serious, violent, and chronic
offenders” in the state. Boys have been ordered here by judges
across North Carolina. It is their last stop as juveniles. Their
crimes include breaking and entering, drug dealing, assault, and even
murder. Some are sex-offenders.
sun is just beginning to rise in the east, and I shiver in
anticipation of what the day might hold. A sense of chaos and
impending violence hangs in the cold air. I unlock and lock behind me
a series of doors to enter the school. My clogs clatter on the
terrazzo hallway floor as I go into the library where I wait for the
arrival of the twenty boys in my homeroom. The air is stale and
smells of mildew.
morning, guys!” I announce as they file in under the watchful
eyes of the guards.
few mutter a dispirited, “Good morning,”
though is wide awake. “Ms. Wilder!” he laughs, pointing
his finger in my direction. “What in the world you wearing?”
look down at myself, puzzled. “What do you mean? Did I forget
at yourself! You wearing too many colors. Blue shirt, red pants, and
your socks don’t even match! Why you white people wear so many
colors? If you like yellow, you wear yellow hat, shirt, pants and
socks. You don’t mix it up like that!”
burst into laughter, and the other boys join in. “Hey!” I
say, “Don’t judge all white people by my example.”
I suddenly realize that he is right and I am wearing one brown sock
and one orange one.
my clothing choices is a favorite activity for the boys who remind me
constantly that I have neither style nor street smarts. They are all
about style even in their shabby uniforms which they press under
their mattresses nightly and the jaunty angle at which they wear
their fluorescent orange “toboggans”. And they are very
street smart, able to analyze a scene at a glance, watching for
danger. Their long antennae feel out the school as they enter and
they can detect anything that isn’t quite right. If I come to
school with a headache, they ask me what’s wrong as they walk
down the hall towards my classroom.
asks to tell me something important and approaches with his head down
and his shoulders slouched. “It’s my birthday tomorrow,
he whispers. “This the second year in a row I been locked up on
my birthday. And Christmas! And I’m turning sixteen.” His
voice is flat.
have a birthday party for you then!” I suggest.
That’s for little kids.” He returns to his seat next to
Malcolm at the table where the Crips sit during homeroom, breakfast,
and lunch, crosses his arms, and drops his chin to his chest.
our turn to get breakfast and they line up to fill their trays at the
serving bar set up in the school lobby. Everything is cold by the
time they can eat it.
library is dingy and mildewed. Lights in the high ceiling are burned
out, and despite being asked to replace them, maintenance hasn’t
gotten around to changing them or doing much else. The entire
building is filthy and falling apart around us, and we teachers are
supposed to keep it clean. I keep my own classroom clean and
colorful, but common areas are neglected. The gym is so dirty that
dust bunnies the size of actual rabbits drift across the floor. The
mold is so bad that boys without a history of asthma suffer serious
HVAC needs to be replaced so some rooms are always cold while others
uncomfortably hot. The air coming through the ducts spews mold
spores, and everyone is plagued with headaches and sore throats. The
library is hot. Back when we had a librarian, the books were neatly
arranged on the shelves that hug the walls, and you could find a
novel by Walter Dean Myers filed under the M’s. Now after
countless searches for contraband by guards and the careless browsing
of students, books and old National Geographic Magazines spill onto
the floor and are heaped on every surface. Well-worn copies of Harry
Potter are scrambled with volumes of the World Book defaced by gang
graffiti. Balled up paper litters the floor and the remains of
spilled grits and spaghetti sauce are ground into the burnt orange
square room is at the center of the school building, surrounded by
reinforced safety glass windows, so anyone walking by might monitor
activity inside the library. Mischief is rampant here, regardless.
When the lights are turned out so students can watch a video, it’s
impossible to discern what’s going on. A few years ago the
source of an outbreak of sexually transmitted disease was traced to
portrait of a former staff member, beaten to death by students hangs
on the wall. Facing it is an unfinished mural of Harry Potter,
painted by a student who died of an overdose after he left us.
boys sit at tables in self-selected groups that reflect race and gang
affiliation. Crips on one side, Bloods on the other, both largely
African-American. Hispanics in the center are affiliated with MS-13.
In the corner white boys, a minority here, whisper about being white
supremacists. The thing they share, though, is that they come out of
poverty and have led unimaginably difficult lives. Father Boyle
(2005) of Homeboy Industries has said, “Gang members are youth
for whom everything has gone wrong. What separates them from other
youth is their misery.”
boys come to Juvie already in a gang, but others join while they are
here. Recruits are beaten into a gang, a process that somehow takes
place in the off-limits privacy of the bin room in the dorm. To be a
Blood, for example, a boy is beaten by five gang members for five
minutes, and he cannot utter a sound during the brutal beating. It’s
critical to have brothers at your back to avoid being jumped and
punished daily. Guards seem not to notice either the initiations or
the sneaky punches.
is a way of life here, though, as boys crave the adrenaline rush that
breaks up the boredom. Otherwise, days proceed in dreary regularity.
Students are paraded from the cottages in straight, silent lines to
the school building before seven AM. They wear state-issued uniforms:
tattered collared shirts and polyester khaki pants hanging below
their backsides. They are issued vinyl tennis shoes with velcro
straps. Shoe laces and belts could be used to strangle someone or to
commit suicide by hanging. Each boy has only one set of clothes that
are laundered nightly by third shift staff. Navy blue canvas coats
are too flimsy for the winter cold of this climate. Bright orange
knit “toboggan” caps stand out in the gray light, making
it easier for staff to perform frequent head counts and watch for
bell rings at the end of homeroom, and boys line up to dump the
contents of their trays into the trash, toss them in a crooked pile,
dripping grits onto the floor, and move in single file to their
in my English classes are at mixed grade levels and abilities but
they are assigned grade level by their age. We are expected to teach
them appropriate materials for each grade level, and they are tested
just like their counterparts at home at semester’s end. Many
dropped out of school in second grade, however, and yet no
authorities sought them out to bring them back, so most of them can
barely read regardless of their supposed grade level. I cannot blame
them for not wanting to take the end of year tests. They have almost
no chance to succeed and are reminded once again that they are
failures. Against their objections that “This is BS baby
stuff!! This ain’t high school work! I start every class with a
quick word-attack lesson, emphasizing phonics.
have a repertoire of avoidance techniques to keep from participating
in class. “This ain’t real school!” they protest.
“You can’t make me do nothing!”
are right. We can’t force them to learn anything, so my goal
has been to make lessons as interesting and compelling as possible so
they choose to participate. They do best with activities that involve
physical activity. They are happy to do art projects that give them a
way to express reading comprehension without words, and they enjoy
acting out scenes from the literature. I read short stories and
entire novels aloud and pause to ask their thoughts on content. Their
vocabularies are weak, so I check to make sure they understand what I
have read. In one of their favorite books, Tobias Wolff’s This
Toby’s stepfather stops off at a “tavern”. I ask if
they know that word. One student guesses, “A church?”
has been in my class for several months and reads at a second grade
level. He is embarrassed by this failure and tries to avoid reading
to save face. At the beginning of the period I write the word
“Fidget” on the board.
can read this word?” I ask.
volunteers, “Fight,” he declares confidently. Like most
of the students, he uses a few letters to guess at a word, not
knowing how to break it into syllables. Obviously, their
comprehension suffers as a result.
give students short passages to read and questions to answer, to
build vocabulary and confidence, and find that a reward of a piece of
candy for correct answers fuels enthusiasm. Reginald works hard on
these passages and wants me to check his answers after each question.
When the answers are correct, his smile lights up his face. When he
is not correct, he gets frustrated and throws his golf pencil to the
floor and refuses to finish his work. Short golf pencils are another
state safety decision, and I have been asked not to allow use of
markers or paint brushes which could be made into weapons, but I tell
myself these tools are necessary. I was forbidden to allow the boys
to use pipe cleaners to play with to control their excess energy, but
was forced to stop. They could be fashioned into a garrote to
strangle someone, I am told.
students are not used to listening to someone read to them, and they
are not used to being asked their opinions of the text, and I have
patiently worked to develop these skills. I read stories, plays, and
whole books aloud, pausing for their input. “Why did the
character do this? What might he do next? What would you have done?”
though they have trouble decoding, they can think and add their
thoughts to a discussion. In this way we have studied The
their favorite. They identify with Macbeth’s ruthless behavior
and his greed. “If you were Macbeth, would you be willing to
kill Duncan to become king?” I ask.
know it!” says Anthony. “I’m hard like that.”
asks if we can read more Shakespeare, “Or anything else that
has killing in it.”
I answer. Killing is not hard to find in literature. I read Flannery
O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to find”. They
discuss the misfit’s actions at the end of the story and the
meaning of his words.
hang out in the lobby and wait to be summoned by a whistle we hang on
lanyards around our necks, but occasionally stop by my classroom to
warn me to keep the students quieter. They write me up if they see
students out of their seats painting a mural or acting out a scene.
They caution me that it is in my best interests to keep students
still, “Or else they might sneak up behind you and hit you over
of us teachers started working here with dreams of making a
difference, but we are worn down by reluctant students with negative
attitudes, punitive rules that impede learning, and no time off. We
work twelve straight months with only a few short days off and long
for a refreshing break. It’s no wonder that teachers fall into
the trap of handing out worksheets that students ignore or even
showing a video instead of planning activities that will get
students’ attention. The students prefer to sit in their seats
pretending to complete a worksheet to using their brains to figure
things out. It takes effort to overcome years of bad experiences in
school and their inertia, and they don’t have the capacity to
plan for a future they might not have.
day Quantavious angrily turns on me, brown eyes flashing. “You
no kind of teacher! Why you asking us all these questions. In real
school teachers just give you work sheets and they leave you alone.
This ain’t no real school and you know it.”
resist the temptation to defend myself and my pedagogy. I don’t
say,”You stopped going to school in second grade! What do you
know about a real school?” I take a deep breath realizing that
pushing buttons is a finely honed skill these kids have developed,
and I switch gears to another activity I have prepared. Often the
boys lash out at teachers after they have had bad news from home, a
disappointing meeting with a social worker, or something has happened
in the cottage. We try not to take things personally.
morning classes the homeroom gathers again in the library for lunch.
As we wait to be called to the serving line, I lean against empty
bookshelves sticky with old gravy from trays stacked there days
earlier and this morning’s grits. We watch carefully for signs
that a fight is brewing, which could lead quickly to a riot with boys
pouring out of other homerooms to jump in. After they have been
served we are vigilant to make sure food is not “shared”,
a sure sign that a weaker boy is being strong-armed.
the lunch is fried fish, so Crips dump their food into the trash at
the end of the line. Even though they are as hungry as any other
teenagers, they refuse to eat fish because of gang lore alleging that
“King David, the father of the Crips, choked on a fish bone.”
Other boys claim they don’t like fish, and won’t eat it
either. Mostly, though, the boys eat anything they are served: lots
of bread, instant potatoes, canned food and meat that is hard to
look back at Reginald sitting without a tray, his arms crossed. He
still looks dejected. He is not participating in the typical
lunchtime chit-chat at his table, rehashing past crimes and
exaggerating the toughness of their part in the episodes.
hear Malcolm telling the story of holding up a grocery store near his
neighborhood, “So me and my boys we go in this store ratchets
pulled out and pointed at the Chinese guy behind the counter. He
shitting his pants, but we tell him to shut up and give up everything
in the register. He crying now, but we tough…”
are all repeat offenders. Some know the others from the different
programs for Juvenile Justice they have been in together, and they
form a sad club of kids who are growing up in institutions. The
recidivism rate is high and it’s not unusual for a boy to come
back here three or more times. Often boys are released from juvie
when they age out at sixteen and are taken directly to adult prisons.
the school day which ends at 2:15, students change classes only
twice. The department’s number mission is “safety and
security,” so the amount of time students move in the halls is
limited. Because there are only four ninety minute blocks, students
are limited in the number of subjects they can take. If they decide
to return to their community schools when they are released, they
will have fallen behind their classmates. The authorities have chosen
control over making sure students keep up with their education.
Office has also eliminated vocational classes with hands-on
experiences with welding, carpentry, and auto mechanics that could
lead to meaningful jobs after release. They replaced these with
tedious on-line classes in plumbing, aeronautics, and police work,
choices not popular with this population, and in a format that would
the boys look forward to time in the computer lab where they are
supposed to work on on-line remediation programs in math and reading
and the vocational programs, but of course they do neither. They have
figured out how to find porn and anything else they want on the
internet while we have our heads turned. I rush around the room
policing their screens, but they are faster than I am. They can sense
I am looking and click back to the required screens.
day Reginald calls me over to look at his neighborhood on Google
Earth. I instruct him to get back to his math work, but as I turn
away I hear him tell his friend that he was looking at a house he had
broken into before. He says, “As soon as I get back to the
crib, I’ll roll up in there again and steal more guns from
most of the boys, he comes from a housing project in one of the
larger cities in the state. He lives with his mother and
half-brother, and is largely unsupervised at home. He was suspended
in first grade for bringing a loaded gun to school. He assaulted his
teacher for telling him to stay in his seat, and he stopped going to
school in second grade. He started running errands for the gang in
his neighborhood, and when he was twelve he was beaten into the
is loyal to his “set” in the gang, but also looks up to
his mother. and will fight anyone who utters a bad word about her.
She sells drugs in his neighborhood and has been in and out of
prison. His father is in jail too, but he doesn’t remember the
last time he saw him.
tells me that his dream car is a four-door Chevy Caprice. I am
surprised that he doesn’t want a sports or luxury car. He
explains, though, “If you are in the car with your boys and the
police roll up on you, it’s easy to jump out of the Caprice
and run away.”
learned this from my mama,” he tells me. I’m surprised
and to be sure I understand, I ask if his mother runs away from the
police. “Yes!” he brags. “She’s the fastest
runner in our family!”
sometimes forget that while they have done regrettable things, these
boys are still kids who have not had the opportunity to enjoy
childhood. They have been in the streets at the age when my own
children were still getting tucked in at night with a bedtime story.
they leave us, the boys return to the same neighborhood and the same
families where they got into trouble. In juvie, they might acquire a
few skills, but they are still not prepared to reinvent themselves
when released. The draw of the gangs and the neighborhoods pulls them
back even if they want to change.
boy who has just returned from a weekend home visit to Greensboro to
feel out if he is ready to go home tells me, “Your son locked
I ask, confused.
he announces, waiting for my response.
was sent here three times before he went home with a GED and the
intention to change his ways. He enrolled in community college and
had a job at Wendy’s. I really loved that kid and was confident
that he would stay out of trouble. “Oh no! What did he do?”
and E.” he answers flatly. Breaking and entering.
hope you are lying to me!” I say, holding out hope that he is
just pushing buttons.
lying! He just missed that rush you get when you break the law.”
locked up doesn’t scare or deter them. Conversely, an Arkansas
study found that “the experience of incarceration is the most
significant factor in increasing the odds of recidivism.”
school at 2:15 with the rest of the afternoon and the long evening in
front of them, the boys line up to be taken back to the cottage where
there is almost nothing to do. There is an hour of recreation,
mostly video games and puzzles, and one hour free time in the gym
shooting baskets. A few of the boys borrow books to read, but all of
them have learned how to sit in a room doing nothing for hours on
end. They are not asked to do any chores. They have nothing to keep
them occupied. They just sit. Sometimes the staff will put on a
video, and sometimes they fight, but the hours pass slowly until they
are locked into their tiny cells for the night. Sometimes they are
left in the cells all day and night if there has been a big fight or
too few staff have come to work.
cells are cinder block rectangles barely big enough to contain their
cots with a small barred window. Boys are issued only one thin
blanket, not much protection against the cold. In the summer, the
rooms are stifling. The gray walls need scrubbing. Each room is
locked with a cumbersome lock, and in case of fire, it would be
difficult for the staff to unlock each door to get kids to safety.
night after Reginald and I talk about his birthday, I go home and
bake a big chocolate cake with chocolate icing. I spread M&Ms,
his favorite candy on top. My co-teacher, Edna, gets a gallon of
cookies and cream ice cream to go with the cake. It’s against
the rules to bring food for the boys, but we shake off the risk.
next day when the boys bring their lunch trays back to the library, I
go to my workroom where there is a refrigerator and retrieve the cake
and ice cream. The boys start buzzing the minute I walk back into the
you got there Ms. Wilder? You got something for us?”
place six candles on the cake and light them. The boys gaze silently,
afraid that if they breathe the mirage will disappear. I say, “Today
we are celebrating Reginald’s birthday. He’s sixteen
today! I want everyone to join me in singing Happy Birthday.”
sing like a frog, but as I croak, “Happy birthday to you! Happy
birthday to you,” everyone in the room joins the singing.
Crips, Bloods, MS-13, White Power guys, everyone including staff
joins in the singing and claps like crazy at the end. Reginald sits
motionless at his table. His eyes are brimming with tears and he
brushes them away surreptitiously. I serve him first, a hunk of cake
heaped with ice cream. He pats the back of my hand.
he whispers. “This the first birthday party I ever had.”
My heart breaks.
boys laugh and talk as they devour the treat. They are suddenly the
little kids they never had the chance to be.
school on Fridays a small group of teachers meets at a local brewery
for TGIF. We share our successes and failures of the week and take
the edge off our stress with a beer. Mike a science teacher has had
news of Joey, a small nervous boy who was moved to another training
school not long before. He has recently been jumped by some bigger
boys and beaten badly. We think about Joey and take big gulps of our
a special ed teacher, tells us why we didn’t see Freddie, a
psychotic boy who has spent time in every mental health facility in
the state, in school today. “Freddie lost it in first period
for no apparent reason. He swept all the books off my bookshelves
onto the floor. He grabbed some blunt-nosed scissors and threatened
to kill me with them. Staff ran in and got him into cuffs and led him
back to the cottage. He swore back over his shoulder that he would
kill me when he does come back to school.”
have several boys like Freddie who have been in many mental health
locked-down facilities, but have been passed along when doctors have
had enough and don’t think they will be able to help them. We
are not set up to deal with such serious mental health problems, but
the state has run out of options. He had a similar episode in my
class one day, throwing everything he could grab. The rest of the
boys told me to stand back and wrestled him to the ground before the
staff even responded to my whistle.
a math teacher with a head for statistics, recites some for us: “The
Justice Policy Institute estimated that in 2009 it cost an average of
$241 each day to keep one child incarcerated. That’s $88,000
per year per youth. The institute also estimates that in the US there
are about 90,000 youth in juvenile justice facilities on any given
costs less to send a boy to prep school!” I chime in.
that’s not all that taxpayers spend!” Mary adds. “Because
they are not likely to change their ways, they will cost the taxpayer
much more with their future crimes and incarceration. If only we
could do more to pull them out of this Pampers to prison pipeline!”
fear for Reginald and the other boys I have come to love during my
time here. I foresee them in and out of juvenile facilities until
they land in the adult system. One of my former students in an adult
prison in the Eastern part of the state wrote me, “You should
come down here to visit me. A bunch of your boys are locked up with
me here! You can visit all of us.”
Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund (2009) estimates
“without appropriate intervention, current trends will result
in one out of every three black boys and one in six Hispanic boys
being incarcerated in their lifetimes.”
programs we have in place keep kids off the streets, but do little to
change their lives. It’s unethical to contain kids in
facilities where they are taught nothing. Boys slouch in their chairs
and are conditioned to do nothing even when presented with something
entertaining like a drumming circle or a poetry slam. What possible
lives can they expect in the future when they are institutionalized
to watch their lives pass slowly before their own eyes? Even a fast
food job demands engagement.
my fellow teachers and I part, Mary cautions us, “Try not to
think about the boys this weekend.”
yet, I dream about my students almost every night. They are on rafts
in a flooded river, rushing towards the rapids, and they call to me
to save them. I try to get to them but I can’t manage the
roiling water and exhausted, get swept back to shore. They look at me
pitifully as the rafts are caught up in the dangerous rapids.
yell, “Be safe! I love you!” but my words are drowned out
by the roar of the water.
protect the privacy of the inmates, the author has changed the names
and identifying information.
taught English for 30 plus years, eight of them in juvie. Because I am
incapable of following rules, I was unpopular with the
administrations of both types of schools. My time in juvie came to an
abrupt end when a blog I had been writing “on the down low”
about juvenile justice was discovered by the governor and I was
suspended for insubordination. Now I run a gallery in a tourist town
and am having fun, butting heads with no one.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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