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In prison, you have a lot of time. Most people spend their time trying to escape reality. As for me, my mind visits the past while also being a visionary for the future. One location remains foremost in my mind, and that’s “Juvenile Hell.”

People often mention the school-to-prison pipeline, the cycle of kids moving from classroom to courtroom. Often omitted from that conversation are juvenile detention centers or juvenile halls. Like myself, many people in prison have stood before a judge as a kid. The result was often some kind of incarceration whether placement, juvenile hall, camp, or youth authority.

Reflecting on past events, I’ve identified numerous traumas. They often leave me in misery mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But the greatest trauma I’ve experienced happened in juvenile hall.

My trauma began with 24 hours in Juvenile Hell. Imagine how a 13-year-old child feels locked inside a concrete box. The walls are a murky, gloomy beige. My young soul felt weary and lost. These walls have suffered vile treatment as well. Did they ask for the tattoos of gang graffiti inscribed on their surface? How about the phlegm, sperm, and urine that repulsively decorate them?

I imagined claustrophobia felt like four walls closing in on me. Like that image in my mind, those walls attacked me constantly.

“Let me out. I can’t breathe,” I begged them.

Those cries were met with mockery. “You still talking? You still breathing?”

I was defeated by them, sitting quietly in a sullen state, gasping for air, swallowing tears, pleading for my life; just a 13-year-old kid having a panic attack. There was no one to console me, no drug to calm me, no mother to hold me, and no God to save me.

At night, there was no sleep. As if a horrific day in Juvenile Hell wasn’t enough, the sleepless nights were worse. You could hear children screaming down the hallways, begging to use the restroom. Can you imagine a child waking up at 2 o’clock in the morning, young bladder overflowing with urine, legs shaking, holding their private parts, and hoping a staff member is awakened by the echoing sound of their voice?

“Head call, Head call… Please, I gotta pee…”

If a kid was fortunate, a staff member would walk slowly down the hallway, keys shaking, and unlock the door. By then, everybody was awake and took the opportunity to use the restroom. Sometimes a kid had to go really urgently and would run. The staff would yell, “No running down the hall.”

This madness happened every night.

Some kids were not so fortunate and either rolled up a towel or urinated on the wall. This was especially cruel for the child sleeping on the floor. There was only one bed per cell so while one kid had a bed, the other slept on a mattress on the floor.

Another thing that kept me awake at night was food insecurity. No food was allowed in the cell and if you woke up in the middle of the night hungry, there was no food. You learned to adapt to the stomach rumbling. Kids were forced to depend on the three allotted meals. This is especially troubling because dinner was served at approximately 5:00 pm and we had to make it until breakfast was served at 7:00 am. When we did eat, the meals were rancid, unappealing to the eyes, unidentifiable to the mind, and inedible to the stomach.

Although my first trip to Juvenile Hell was only for three days because it was meant to be a “scared straight” experience, it was traumatic. I fell into a pit of destruction and despair.

That was my first visit, but certainly not the last. I became well acquainted with incarceration, spending the next four years in and out of the juvenile judicial system. Between juvenile halls and camp I spent two years and eight months inside. I spent time at Los Padrinos, Central, Sylmar, Camp Smith, Camp McNair, Camp Scobee, Camp Jarvis, Camp Kilpatrick, and Camp Holton. My eyes have seen more facilities than schools and I spent more years in facilities than high school.

I often ask myself, “Where was the help?”

Sadly, I answer my own question. “There was no help. Nobody cared about you, Brandon. Your life didn’t matter.”

In juvenile hall, you feel hopeless. It’s a mental prison and a place no child is fit to endure. Prison is captivity of the mind, and after my first experience locked up, I was released back into society with shackles on my brain and chains on my heart.

The cruelty of child incarceration left me the burden of self-hate. I was never taught to love myself. In my mind, I believed I deserved this treatment. My heart suffered misery knowing that one day I would spend the rest of my life in prison.

As a child of poverty, I understood that being poor made you a second-class citizen. It gives you a sense of inferiority. All my life, I’ve been told to be myself but the people who said those words never considered the fact that it’s hard to be yourself when the world says you’re not good enough. That was my reality: a young, poor, Black boy trying to be a man. Although I was horrified by the entrapment of a cell, my biggest fear was being poor, which left me entrapped by the vicious cycle of school to prison.

A locked up child has no hope. The juvenile judicial system steals their hope, kills their dreams, and destroys their future.

In my opinion, the system is flawed because it’s more about revenge and less about rehabilitation. It is cumbersome on cruelty and barren in regards to the compassion required for a change in behavior.

Mass incarceration has impacted the youth in more ways than losing their freedom. It has compromised their ability to understand the hurt they have caused or the hurt they feel. The world protests police brutality and killings. Yet, there is a different kind of killing happening every day across America. Every child locked up is dying emotionally from a system that institutionalizes children. What does it mean to be institutionalized other than to be disconnected from society and accept being in jail?

At-risk youth are often neglected by people who assume bad kids are a lost cause. I would caution anyone with that sentiment in their heart to retrain their brain and refrain from that way of thinking. Just because a kid is on the wrong path doesn’t mean it’s too late to get on the right one.

It could, however, be too late if they find themselves in prison. For most, the penitentiary is the place where they grow up, become old men, and die. Regardless of your transformation in prison, you’re forever remembered for the worst decision you made as a kid.

If we want to prevent another generation from going through the same cycle, we must never give up on the youth. When a human commits a crime, the system portrays that person as an animal unfit for society. They are treated like an animal, regardless of age. Juvenile Hell is the epitome of that. Some people would say the residents of juvenile hall are treated worse than animals and any human with a pulse would agree the conditions there are inhumane.

Trying to make sense of my experience was a constant struggle within my soul. For so long I’ve wished to verbalize the horror, but I found my mouth muzzled by pride. I’m expected to be strong, and remain silent.

Sometimes I wonder if dogs in the pound feel optimistic about their future. Wouldn’t our children have the same bleak, despondent and despairing outlook on their future while being locked up? When a child deals with loneliness, anxiety and depression they’re left with one conclusion: they are unloved or unlovable.

That trauma affects every child in the juvenile system. It remains with them forever because traumatic experiences from the past often resurface in the present.

Not every child in juvenile hall will one day be sent to prison, but everyone I’ve met in prison was sent to juvenile hall as a child. There is an urgent need for reform within the system, especially the juvenile justice system. My hope and expectation are that people will have conversations about their childhood and the countless bad choices they made. That they will think about how they were able to change their lives, and be able to show grace to at-risk youth, because they can change too.

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.

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Brandon J. Baker

Brandon J. Baker is a writer incarcerated in California. He is pursuing writing and public speaking as a way to make amends.