Not long ago, I learned that the term “state-raised” is new to lawmakers in Washington state. It stunned me. Not only is foster care the dominant context of so many incarcerated people’s earlier lives, it also isn’t a new word. Foster youth have used the term “state-raised” to describe themselves long before I was sent to prison 36 years ago — when I was a foster youth myself.
The juvy sits atop a broad swathe of sloping lawn, which is probably why the facility was called Hillcrest when it opened in 1948. A year later, however, when a 72-year-old judge who was better known for fishing than for judging died in office, county officials renamed the site after him. Aside from a few historic vagaries, though, this juvy isn’t any different than other juvenile detention centers: it’s used to administer incarceration. The process is different though depending on whether you have a family or you are a ward of the state like I was.
If you have a family, then you likely did more than run away, steal from a store, or get into a fight at school. These are offenses for which the cops, store owners, and school officials generally will just hand you over to your family. Chances are, you fucked up worse than that and earned the trip to where you now stand handcuffed in front of the counter in the juvy’s booking office. But you don’t have to worry.
For nearly anything you could have done, the judge will release you to the “recognizance” of your family. You’ll get to wait for your court date at home. Even if you are eventually sentenced to a stint in lockup, I imagine incarceration will work in the way it was intended — you’ll be ashamed of your arrest and incarceration, frightened by the experience, and when you’re released into the waiting embrace of your family, you’ll feel obliged to do better.
In the absence of a family, you can be taken to the juvy for any number of reasons: running away from state placements that are unlivable; shoplifting or committing other petty crime while trying to survive on the streets; or for getting into a fight or causing other trouble at a school that probably didn’t want you in the first place.
When you are brought handcuffed to that front counter, you are home. In other words, you won’t be released on “recognizance” in order to await a court date. And incarceration won’t be a deterrent because you’re not ashamed of your arrest. You have no one who would be ashamed about you, and whatever you did was in the interest of survival anyway.
Incarceration, to you, feels inevitable. After a few trips to juvy, you have the intake questions the staff will ask memorized. And the staff know your answers before you give them.
When you finish answering the last question, a couple staff members wearing latex gloves usher you down a windowless corridor and into a bare holding cell. They press into the constricted space with you, they remove the handcuffs and order you to “strip.”
At this point, if you have a family and no prior experience of incarceration, you balk. You freeze, incapable of carrying out the staff’s order. Staff will exercise patience at first, but they will be unyielding.
If you’re a ward of the state, you know that the staff won’t be as patient with you. You’re also unburdened by whatever moral obstacle parents impart. When the staff orders you to strip, you cram your discomfort down inside yourself, you back up as close to the rear of the cell as possible, and you take off your clothes.
The staff orders you through the obligatory “squat and cough” contortions of the strip search which forces them to pay attention to your balls and butt. This is where you hold an advantage over anyone privileged with a family.
The demeaning nature of the search is nothing compared to the ways you’ve already been demeaned by the state before you arrived there. The cognitive and emotional calluses you had to develop lets you get through the process without wavering or allowing any expression, other than disdain, to show on your face.
One of the staff steps out of the cell. He returns and hands you underwear that has been worn by innumerable others, a two-piece uniform without pockets, and a worn pair of plastic slippers. As you put on the institutional clothing, you note that the namesake of the juvy (the long-dead judge) is stamped on every item. The staff give you a bedroll and towel. You drape the towel around your neck and follow them out of the cell.
You continue down the corridor. The inability to extricate yourself from this place or circumstance, along with the movement deeper into the facility, evokes within you an escalating sense of being swallowed. Your mind conjures the image of a beast down whose gullet you are passing. A hulking steel gate slides open as you approach and the staff steer you through it into the belly of the beast.
The only hall they won’t take you to is the one furthest to the right because that’s where they keep the girls. You rarely see them, except for a potential glimpse in the probation department, or sometimes when you’re en route to and from court.
If you’re a ward of the state, nearly every girl you know has been locked up because state girls ain’t got it any better than you. In fact, they often have it worse. When your caseworker moves you to a bad state placement, ain’t no one can make you stay. You run when you see that it’s unlivable or just whenever you see fit.
But girls don’t always have that choice. When you’re on the streets, boys don’t have to worry about as many things as they do.
Even though the beast swallows fewer girls than boys, that’s of little solace to you because it swallows the girls you’re closest to. It swallowed my sister when she was nine years old.
The staff orders you into a cell that is exactly four-and-a-half steps to the rear of the cell and four-and-a-half steps back to the door. There is no pillow.
If you have a family, you do your best to make the bunk like your bed at home. You unroll the bedroll and knot the corners of a sheet around the plastic-covered foam pad, then lay the pad flat on the steel plate. You spread the two undersized blankets out and tuck their edges beneath the pad so the blankets are pulled tight. When a staff member appears, you ask about a pillow because you can’t fathom a circumstance in which one would intentionally not be issued.
If you’re a state kid, however, you don’t ask for a pillow because you don’t want to provide anyone with the opportunity to laugh at you, or give them the satisfaction of telling you “no.” You’re used to fending for yourself, so you don’t need the bunk, let alone a pillow. Outside the beast, you know neither a regular home nor bed. You could as easily sleep on the floor as the bunk — it’s all the same to you.
You fold one of the blankets into a tight bundle and wrap it in the sheet for a makeshift pillow. The other blanket goes wherever you need it. This bedding arrangement will be the same when you get to prison, however long from now that is. All that will change is that you’ll learn to cover the plastic pad with the sheet by then, so your skin doesn’t stick to the plastic when you sleep.
You drape the towel over the side of the sink because there’s nowhere in the cell to hang it. As much misery as they inflict, the staff don’t want you to hang yourself. Maybe they think it would reflect badly on them, or perhaps it’s their way of safeguarding the beast.
You turn to the cell door. The door opens outward, so you can’t barricade yourself in if the staff decides to “goon” you. The side of the door facing into the hall is unmarred. But the side facing the cell hosts a melee of names and sentiments scratched into it from top to bottom.
If you have a family, you may not know any of the names on the door. And despite the inherent impulsivity of your young mind, you don’t feel the slightest compulsion to add yours to the mayhem. You know your name doesn’t belong there.
If you’re a ward of the state, you know more than one of the names on the door. And you scratch your name somewhere in the middle because that’s where it belongs.
You look through the pane in the cell door at the face of the boy across the hall. If it’s your first time locked up, you’re likely young enough that you have to roll up your mattress and stand on it to see out the door. That’s what I did.
The staff will punish you if you yell, so you learn to sign. The boy in the cell across the hall teaches you gestures as well as the hand formulations of the alphabet. When staff come for the boy across the hall and take him away, it’s your job to teach the next boy they put in the cell. Signing is prohibited, of course. But staff can’t stop what they don’t see.
This sign language becomes second nature to you. If you’re a state kid, you sometimes use it in the boys’ homes you’re sent to between stints inside the beast. Like the strip search procedure, you never forget how to do it.
At meal times, staff hands you a plastic tray through a hatch in the door. There isn’t enough food on the tray, so you eat everything. If you’re a state kid, you lick the tray.
The last tray of the day comes in the late afternoon. In the interminable stretch of time before the next tray comes at 7 a.m., your stomach collapses in on itself and locks into a fist. If you’re a ward of the state, you know this empty feeling well though it doesn’t make it easier.
At no time inside the beast do you contemplate the effect the experience has on you.
You can’t because you’re in the midst of it. You’re focused on trying to make it out the other side. If you have a family and community, you may never think deeply about this experience. You don’t have to because your family and community has you when you get out. If you’re a ward of the state, you will relive the experience over and over and over again when you get to prison. I promise you.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.