Birthdays Behind Bars: Inside the Juvenile Justice System

Stephanie Wilder

Winner of the  2021 Biographical Story Contest

© Copyright 2021 by Stephanie Wilder


Photo by Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash
                                            Photo by Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash
After 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Good morning, guys!” I announce as they file in under the watchful eyes of the guards.

A few mutter a dispirited, “Good morning,”

Malcolm, though is wide awake. “Ms. Wilder!” he laughs, pointing his finger in my direction. “What in the world you wearing?”

I look down at myself, puzzled. “What do you mean? Did I forget something?”

Look 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!”

I 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.

Analyzing 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.

Reginald 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.

Let’s have a birthday party for you then!” I suggest.

Nah. 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.

It’s 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.

The 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 attacks.

The 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 industrial carpeting.

This 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 this room.

A 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.

The 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.”

Many 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.

Violence 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 run-aways.

The 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 classes.

Students 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.

Students 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!”

They 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 Boy’s Life, Toby’s stepfather stops off at a “tavern”. I ask if they know that word. One student guesses, “A church?”

Reginald 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.

Who can read this word?” I ask.

Dustin 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.

I 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.

These 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?”

Even though they have trouble decoding, they can think and add their thoughts to a discussion. In this way we have studied The Odyssey, The Iliad, Canterbury Tales, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth. Macbeth is 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.

You know it!” says Anthony. “I’m hard like that.”

Deshawn asks if we can read more Shakespeare, “Or anything else that has killing in it.”

Yes,” 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.

Guards 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 the head.”

All 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.

One 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.”

I 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.

After 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.

Today 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 identify.

I 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.

I 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…”

They 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.

During 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.

Central 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 discourage anyone.

Nevertheless, 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.

One 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 this guy.”

Like 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 Crips.

He 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.

Reginald 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.”

I 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!”

I 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.

When 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.

A 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 up again!”

Who?” I ask, confused.

Rayshawn!” he announces, waiting for my response.

Rayshawn 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?” I’m crushed.

B and E.” he answers flatly. Breaking and entering.

I hope you are lying to me!” I say, holding out hope that he is just pushing buttons.

Not lying! He just missed that rush you get when you break the law.”

Being 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.”

After 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.

Their 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.

The 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.

The 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 room.

What you got there Ms. Wilder? You got something for us?”

I 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.”

I 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.

Thanks,” he whispers. “This the first birthday party I ever had.” My heart breaks.

The boys laugh and talk as they devour the treat. They are suddenly the little kids they never had the chance to be.

After 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 beers.

Mary, 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.”

We 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.

Frank, 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 day.”

It costs less to send a boy to prep school!” I chime in.

And 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!”

I 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.”

Marian 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.”

The 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.

As my fellow teachers and I part, Mary cautions us, “Try not to think about the boys this weekend.”

And 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.

I yell, “Be safe! I love you!” but my words are drowned out by the roar of the water.

To protect the privacy of the inmates, the author has changed the names and identifying information.

I 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.                                                                                        

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