Locked Up In America: Christel’s Story

June 8, 2015
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Christel Tribble, in juvenile detention.

Christel Tribble says she wants to be on American Idol, or maybe even become a detective someday. But in her home of Beecher Terrace — a housing project in Louisville, Ky., where around one in six people cycle in and out of prison every year — the odds seem stacked against her.

Tribble’s father has been in jail. So have all her uncles and several cousins. In 2013, at the age of 15, Christel Tribble was locked up too.

At the time, Tribble had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD. When she stopped showing up to school, she was summoned to court. When she violated the rules of her probation, she became one of the more than 1,000 children jailed in Kentucky every year for minor offenses like truancy.

“In these communities, where incarceration has become so normal, the system operates practically from cradle to grave,” Michelle Alexander, associate professor of law at Ohio State University, told FRONTLINE. “When you’re born, your parent has likely already spent time behind bars. You’re likely to attend schools that have zero-tolerance policies, where police officers patrol the halls, where disputes with teachers are treated as criminal infractions, where a schoolyard fight results in your first arrest. It sends this message that whether you follow the rules or you don’t, you’re going to jail.”

But now, Kentucky and other states across the nation are rethinking how they punish children like Tribble for minor offenses. In Prison State, airing on many PBS stations tomorrow night, FRONTLINE takes an intimate look at Tribble and others caught up in the cycle of mass incarceration in America and Kentucky’s efforts to reverse the trend.

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