Gayle Saks-Rodriguez has been a guest writer for  “Kids in the System” a number of times. She writes  about the incarcerated women and men of all ages that she teaches. In this piece which originally appeared on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange Gayle tells the story of a young woman who from a very early age had to face the kind of challenges that leave a life wrecked and almost irreparable, a life that ended up in the criminal justice system.  Gayle’s piece is indeed a moving demonstration of why  we must give much more support to young women caught in the system. You can read more of Gayles writings on her blog “My Life in the Middle Ages” .

Girls in the Juvenile Justice System Need Our Support

I just returned from the Adult and Juvenile Female Offenders Conference in Portland, Maine, where Piper Kerman, author of the memoir “Orange Is the New Black,” — the inspiration for the wildly successful Netflix series of the same name — gave the keynote address to the 400 or so attendees all with some connection to the offender population.

In her book and as a consultant to the writers of the show, Kerman’s fellow inmates are shown in vivid back stories that humanize them all. She has stayed in touch with some and lost track of others. She attributes all of the success stories to a strong support system on the “outside,” post-release.

For the past three years, I have been volunteering at a New England county jail leading a mandatory goal-setting workshop for newly incarcerated women. They cycle through in two-week batches. My best guess is that I have taught at least 1,500 women in those three years. Generally their crimes range from drug and sex trafficking to assault and battery to a smattering of white-collar crimes. They are of all races, ages, socio-economic backgrounds and most are repeat offenders.

I enter my classroom from the top of a set of stairs where I can look down at the women waiting for me in their rows of plastic chairs. Last week, I could never have braced myself for seeing “C,” who I have known since she was 10, sitting with the other inmates. Never.  Ever.

I froze (truly, I did) and watched as she ran to the back of the room and fell to her knees in body wracking sobs. I took a deep breath as I walked down the stairs, and instead of taking my place in front of the group, hurried back where I crouched down, watching her shield her eyes as she said over and over again, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

The other women were curious as to what was happening and I think they caught on that the two of us were deeply connected in some way. I got her up off her knees and hugged her tightly breaking every single jail boundary rule imaginable. I didn’t care. How could I have cared?

I had been out of touch with her for several years, losing track after her first baby, born when” C” was just 15. I first met her when I worked as a fundraiser for the largest child welfare agency in New England. The administrative offices were steps away from the residential group home where she lived. I was able to have lunch with the residents and she took to me in a way that she didn’t with other staff. Hers is a common story — no known father, drug-addicted mother — shunted into the system at 10. She was a hardened kid, often needing to be restrained and kept from bolting out the doors of the residence and adjacent school.

She moved along the trajectory of the system, aging out of one residential program and moving onto the next. I was part of her team of decision makers having been designated as her “educational surrogate,” monitoring her grades and progress while she was pregnant and attending a public high school while still living in a residential program. I was part of her life and she was part of mine.

She was 17 the last time I saw her. My husband and I went to visit her at the apartment she shared with her baby’s father and his mother. There was a huge and splintered hole in front of the toilet, easily big enough to fall through, porn, bongs and empty booze bottles all over the place. The mother was lying in bed, chain smoking, barking orders through a drunken haze. Someone in the system, someone who had to have made more than one home visit, had made the decision that it was acceptable, that it was OK, for “C” to be living in this environment.

Back in the classroom, after soothing her and telling her that it was OK, everything was going to be OK, she sat through my class, participating and smiling, looking again like the teenager I remember her as (she’s now 22). I found out after class that she had another baby and was awaiting sentencing for stabbing her most recent boyfriend in apparent self-defense. According to her case manager this is only the latest in a string of violent crimes. She and I are not allowed to sit down and catch up, not allowed to exchange pictures of our children, while she is there and I am still a volunteer.

Sadly, unlike the success stories that Piper Kerman cited in her keynote address, I don’t think that there is a strong support system waiting to boost up “C”—and so many other young women like her — when she’s released. It takes many people to wrap their arms around a girl so full of shame and anger to prove that there are other options, ways to avoid abusive boyfriends and repeat pregnancies, and even more likely, a life of crime.



    • David Chura says:

      Thanks for the reblog. The more people who learn about the needs of at-risk girls the better.

      • Yes, we agree! We are a reentry program for Virginia women on probation. More needs to be done earlier.

      • David Chura says:

        Thank you for the work that you are doing. I agree about earlier intervention. Every community must step up for children at risk so that there are fewer and fewer girls like “C” that Gayle writes about.

      • Jueseppi B. says:

        The entire justice system from arrest to conviction and especially incarceration, needs fixing immediately. Thats not even mentioning preventive work for youth, mentally ill and those below the poverty line where crime might be a way of survival.

      • David Chura says:

        Unfortunately the US is in the gripes of the prison industrial complex. No matter how many studies come out citing racism, over crowding, the lack of early intervention, of mental health services in and out of the system–nothing changes, or changes much too slowly. Money talks and with an indifferent public (who perceives that the criminal justice system has nothing to do with them or their kids) things will continue.

  1. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez says:

    More needs to be done sooner. Families need support and mentoring.

    • David Chura says:

      You’re so right. As Gayle’s piece shows if there had been people and services all along in “C”‘s life smoe of the tragic results of her life might not have happened.

  2. I agree with David Chura. The surrounding culture won’t be compassionate or generous until they are taught to be. And these tragic victims of so many things, would benefit in a more generous education system as well — in which all-day ‘kindergarten’ began by age 3, in small classes. And as long as we can’t even discuss such issues with our neighbours, without hostility, it will never happen. What a sad, self-fulling prophecy… 😦

    • David Chura says:

      It really does all come back to how we treat our country’s children, doesn’t it. We, as a nation, go on and on about protecting children but when it comes down to it it seems to be only certain children we want to protect, too often white, moneyed, the “right” kind of family. If it were otherwise food programs, health care and Head Start would not have their funds slashed in the name of “austerity.” (Whose “austerity?”)

      • Right on. And here in Canada, that modern brand of “conservatism” is alive and well in the Harper gov’t – with a classical ‘slash and burn’ approach. In Ontario the provincial Liberals have just introduced ‘all day kindergarten’ but have to tread carefully with the ‘user pays’ dominant attitudes. Any progressive moves need all our support, in every way we can give it. As they used to say, “Keep the faith!” 🙂

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