Imprisoned as a Teen

“I hate seeing my mom come up here and have to visit me like this,” says Frank, a youth offender in Alameda County, CA. “I’ve got a younger brother and younger sister,” Frank adds. “I can’t tell them what’s right from wrong, and I’m already doing stuff that is bad.”

Watch this heart-rending video of a group of youth offenders as they discuss their embarrassment over being imprisoned as teens.

And join the discussion. Are youth prisons the answer to teen crime?

  • sharon mayo

    my heart hurts when seeing our childern in places like that i just continue to pray for them there has to be a better way we as a people need to help find it.

  • Brenda K. Williams

    Watching the young men share their feelings, as they relate to family and friends; I got the sense that they never thought much about what could really happen to them prior to their incarceration. There are so many “things” people talk about doing for our youth that might make a difference, but that over-worked cliche is simply fading away. Mothers (and most of us are true mothers) with no help to raise their sons are genuinely working themselves out of their lives. We find out too late that no amount of money or access to the American Dream can replace the love and time that our children must have to survive and succeed in this life. Yes, we all think we need it and we really want it, but what cost will be too much before we realize that we can never get enough! If we don’t stop and see that the value of our children outweighs this world, we will have no world for them to aspire to. They must understand and respect our values so that they will have some of their own in which to carry into the future! I tell the young men in my family to slow down, take in the history of your elders, the time of those wiser than they, and question everything that keeps them from seeing the absolute best this life has to offer!

  • James

    Before we release these young men from jail we need to require that they complete a GED.

  • Aaron Brown

    I’m glad that Mr. Smiley decided to do this program. I hope that it will help other young men to reflect about their choices and to stop themselves from doing things that will get them in trouble with the law. When I was 12 years old I skipped school in New York City and even stole from a Kmart. I ended up detained by the store security. I thought I was heading to juvenile hall, but my mother came to rescue me. I repeated the same behavior a second time. My mother failed to be strict with me after the first offense and she didn’t make sure that I went to school. I had too much freedom to ride the NYC subway. Eventually I learned my lesson with help from my aunt Debora who was always more firm than my mother. I think many adults must be brave and wise to intervene and direct the paths of children and adolescents because young people need that love, care and attention like another poster (Brenda K. Wiliams) mentioned.

  • Tammy

    I currently work in a juvenile facility with boys/girls ages 11 to 17. I am a social worker . I never had the desire to work with teens until I applied for this job. There are so many African American males who are detained because of lack of role models and inactive communities. My facility focuses on the CBT method (Cognitive Behavior Therapy), which focuses on helping the minor to navigate through his problems by thinking through the whole situation before making brash decisions. All children need guidance and discipline. You are not a bad parent because you tell your child “No”. You are a bad parent if you do not tell your child “No”. Teenagers have a hard time in society especially inner city. The gangs are a place of security and drugs,guns and money bring power. There need to be more “safe havens” for teenagers besides institutions. There need to be community centers in every community with other structured activites besides sports. There should be follow-up services within each community center to ensure that each child is going to school. Furthering education should be an inbedded option. People such as myself should stop saying what should happen and do something about it. The children at my facility have given some employees roles. My role happens to be a”mom”. I have had children come fo me for advice, cry on my shoulder, hug me , tell me that they love me and that they wish I were their mom. I tell them I may not be your biological mother but I am your mom for these 8 to 16 hours 5 or 6 days a week.. I have formed great repoires by listening, not judging and understanding. It all starts with a little love and compassion. I am making a difference everyday. I can’t save all of them but I know when I sleep at night, I’ve done all that I could do for someone’s child that day.

  • James H.

    People say the government flooded black neighborhoods with crack cocaine. I don’t know if this is true, but I do believe some really bad people are behind rap music. Even rock rarely encourages the kind of brutal, drug-related violence that rap does. When the heroes these kids look to growing up are not Bill Cosby or MLK, or even Aaron McGruder, America is drowning these kids.

    Tammy, I think by the fact that you said “not judging” indicates that you do judge to some extent. The economies of their neighborhoods run on drugs, there isn’t a way for these people to make money otherwise. They don’t have land to grow food, they don’t have good schools, they don’t have factories, they don’t have room, they don’t own houses. The fact is, without breaking the walls of the ghetto, you cannot end the problems inherent in it.

    It’s easy for a middle-class family to think it was the result of bad parenting, but most of you people in the social sciences haven’t a clue how economies work, and, as a result, you inadvertently cause punishment where punishment is not due. The fault of the inner city lies with the people who wall it shut, not with those walled inside.

  • angela reed

    I’m a PhD student with interest and research on the correlation between high school dropout and the rise of the prison population……I would love to participate on some level in this dialogue. Please e-mail and let me know how I can participate.

  • olivia

    Incarceration of minority youth is a crisis of epidemic proportions. We need to stop the madness and instead of sentences that lead to jail house doors and a waste of time we could require completion of high school, vocational or college training with service performed under supervised conditions. There is nothing wrong with good old fashioned hard work that is fulfilling. Jail should only for the hard core offenders not as a form of babysitting for kids that clearly need direction! The Gateways program for Incarcerated Youth provides a college education and I have seen the work first hand and the successful graduate on campus after release. Its a beautiful thing!

  • Jason

    Youth imprisonment is rarely the answer. Most times these environments continue to groom the criminal socio-behavior. I feel that minorities are overwhelmingly disadvantaged when it comes to the judicial system. The length of sentence shouldn’t be based upon if I had the money to hire an attorney or not, which is the reason why so many minorities are locked up now. Had they had an attorney they would be free. But one observation I noticed in this clip is that no one mentioned disappointing their father. If I may quote God in the garden of Eden, “Adam (man) where art thou?” Where has the man disappeared to in the black home?

  • free

    I am grandmother crying out for my grandson that has been incarcerated for a offends that should had a different aproach instead of incarceration. This youth has been through has been beated down threw life with 2 addicted parents one incarcerated all his youth and the other in and out of prison. This child is crying out for help and seem like no one cares. he need a male role model in his life and there were none to be found. I can go on and on about his situation. The very first thing the law wants to do is throw them in prison to start the patten so it can continue on through there adult hood that a know fact. If there is a lawyer that’s out there are a child advocate that is willing to give this child a chance please inform me through me email.

  • Chris Anderson

    Thanks for the humanizing documentary that truly puts a face on the struggles faced by our youth. Having taught in community colleges for more than 20 years, I watched many Black men struggle with the conflict between “doing well in school” and maintaining their “image” in the community among their peers. As “a white guy” I felt I was limited in the encouragement that I could give. I agree, more Black educators would have a tremendous difference in the success rate among aspiring graduates.

  • james williams

    It is so we watch beautiful thought provoking videos concerning the love and care of animals..and rightfully so..I don’t believe in cruelty. I often wonder why we as a society leave our most important human commodity alone to survive by their own devices, regardless of the environmental/ hereditary and and other negative flaws that rule their lives…through no fault of their own. Our young people are vitally important enough to be rescued and saved and possibly provided the means to survive and exist in this very difficult world in which we live in. We watch the video and are not aware of the tragedies our young people have experienced. How much do we know about them? How do we show we even care? Aren’t they good enough that we would use any means necessary for their survival. These young men and women are alive and breathing by the will of God…it must mean something to us. Yes we can save the animals from the cruelties of life….but I submit to you that our Sons and Daughter are more important. Its our responsibility because we have survived and are doing relatively well…..Look behind you and you’ll find a boy or a girl who has stumbled and are quietly seeking to be rescued…and loved! There eyes are calling us as well……We can do it….one person at a time…One person can change the world! “I have a dream..that one day.” ONE DAY – ONE CHILD AT A TIME!

  • Bronwyn

    This young man was a very dear student of mine in both first and third grades. I would love to contact him to be of some encouragement somehow. If there is any way I can help, please let me know right away. As with many of my students, I have thought about him and prayed for him for the last 10 years.

  • Beti

    There are many problems in schools and in our juvenile justice system. Right now, L.A. County (I think) has a huge litigation going on and a national team of juvenile justice “experts” who have been asked to train employees of the juvenile system, though I do not have details. I think the goal is to teach the employees and administrators the difference between a punitive system and a restorative justice system. But our schools and our society do not get it, so it is incumbent on us to spread the word everywhere — in our talk, our writing, our doctoral research, and everywhere we can. We need to inform ourselves by even visiting other prisons in other countries to be sure we understand what restorative justice is all about. Then, we need to use it, beginning with pre-schoolers, then elementary, then high school, and so on. If we cannot live it, our whole society will not get better. We all lose when we must imprison our children ! Shame on us, with all our military might and all our military contracts, guns, gun lobbies, and glorification of war, criminal justice, and so on. Why do kids want to major in CJ and work in prisons? There’s a good question for you! A friend told me, “Go to the parking lots at all the prisons and take a look at all the high end cars, and then you will see an answer to this question.” Way to go, America! So, do we still have a contract for the common good, and if so, do we teach it in the schools and do we model it in our everyday lives? Thank you all for reading all this. There is just so much work to do and educators can do a lot to wake people up !

  • Bishop Teixeira, OFSJC

    I worked for many years with Young men in Department of Youth Services trying to remind them that there is a long road in front of us that all of us need to walk thru until we achieve our goals which is happiness. Unfortunately, many of them did not until to hear about this road in front of us they decide to walk to the wrong path. As a consequence, I find myself today working with them again at the State jails and house of corrections. There is an urgent need of awakening in our communities, where the entire village, neighborhood should be responsible for the actions of our young men and women. Peace.

  • Rick Evans

    This program is an interesting start which needs two hours; one to frame the issue and a second which offers proven and proven to be scalable solutions. The program hit the nail on the head in recognizing how crucial early childhood literacy is to future academic success. Like some of the boys profiled in the program I did not like school most of the time. However I was an above grade level reader, had a library card and my 1950s South Bronx parents invested in a set of encyclopedias when I was 8.

    Avid reading mostly of science books gave me a reserve which allowed me to get back on track in high school after a rather mediocre two years in middle school. Lack of interest in reading is disproportionally a boy problem which is often addressed by literati types fretting over what kinds of FICTION boys will read despite boys greater interests in activities and how things work.

    Amateur astronomy, amateur photography and a desire to do basic car maintenance among other things fueled my reading habits. As pre-teens my buddies and I read and debated the newspaper starting with the sports page and working forward. Sadly, I’ve always looked at assigned reading of novels and other forms of fiction to be a chore that got in the way of reading I would rather be doing. I read about a dozen books per year but almost never read fiction. I only care that these young men and boys become good, avid readers. Everything else flows from that.

  • Luis South

    I have a community based approach that is proactive. We have to find ways to get to the youth in our community before negative life issues set in or before negative life issues prevent growth. I had to come out of working in the education system to find ways to save lives. Who will come forth to support my accountable successes?

  • Tamika Thompson

    Thank you for your comment and inquiry, Bronwyn. We will contact you by e-mail with the contact information.

    ~”Tavis Smiley” staff

  • Karen E. Dabney

    “Prison is college.” Getting an education means learning. What about and where makes all the difference.

  • JB

    I currently work at a male juvenile detention facility (about 98% African Americans). I am employed as the college counselor, and I have helped 15 young males enroll in college after serving 9-14 months of their juvenile years incarcerated. About 50% of the young men that are here have been diagnosed with a learning or emotional disability, and read between a 1-5 reading level (although the average age is 17). About 40% are in the inbetween stage (6-8 reading level and a good amount of high school credits). The rest are on reading level and are on schedule to graduate on time. We also get a few kids that come in with their diploma or GED. Some of them come from terrible familes, schools, and communities….some come from working-class familes….some come from single-parent homes….some have both parents……some have no parents and are in foster care.

    I say all this to say…..a juvenile jail is very unique. Some days are good, other days are not. All of them have committed crimes, but they aren’t terrible young people; misguided, mistreated, and misrepresented is more like it. As a young Black woman, it hurts me to my heart to see so many black males in this situation (and yes I know they committed crimes). We work hard to make sure our students reading levels increase, they are more credits, get diplomas or GED. But when they leave the jail, they go back to the broken homes, neighborhoods, schools….etc. Sigh!

    If any of you want to know more about what actually goes on juvenile detention facilities, please feel free to post here and I will be glad to answer.

  • Palau Seribu

    A suggestion – if you want to make a difference in the life of one child, try mentoring. There are lots of programs around, and the outcomes are great. It’s emotionally rewarding for the adult mentor and the kid. The kids tend to stay in school, not get pregnant or parent early, and avoid delinquent behavior/contact with the law. I work for one of these orgs, (after working in health care, affordable housing, education, etc.) and the positive outcomes really impress me. There are lots of kids with parents in jail, single parents, all sorts of disheartening situations. Commit to developing a relationship with a kid near you, and you may feel empowered by the difference you make by mentoring…

Last modified: September 13, 2011 at 2:27 am
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