You probably never thought about what happens to teenagers after they get in trouble but before they go to jail: some end up in residential treatment facilities, kind of like a jail with therapy. I used to work at a residential for boys on a unit that treated boys with trauma histories and adhd. Boys would spend up to a year living there: going to school, spending downtime in the dorm units and participating in group therapy. Though the school was a place for them to heal get help with their issues, the truth was it was often a rough place to be, from bad facilities and roaches to violence between students and sometimes with staff. The facility was called “staff secure”, which meant that if anything popped off, staff handled it: breaking up fights, restraining out of control students and chasing runaways. We didn’t use drugs, pepper spray or handcuffs–just bodies.
Boys on my unit came in with a whole host of issues and behaviors. It was not unusual on any given day to find yourself in a restraint, struggling with coworkers to subdue a student acting out–smashing things, fighting and the like. Restraints were intense, sometimes indistinguishable from a wrestling match, other times more like a group hug for a kid out of control.
I remember one kid in particular, Jacks. He was a little guy, barely four feet tall with pants that were too long and would drag on the floor behind him like octopus tentacles. His parents were on drugs and would often physically and emotionally abuse poor Jacks. He learned early to turn this violence around on others, getting into fights and lashing out at staff. Despite his small stature, he was out of control most of the time, a little Tasmanian devil with a mean left hook. Few days went by that didn’t involve a restraint with Jacks.
One day, predictably, lying on the floor holding onto Jacks’ ankles to keep him from kicking my coworker Cy in the back, we listened to a vile stream of cussing Jacks directed at us. He was telling me about myself, my mamma and my whole life. The closer we listened a story started to emerge–and one that didn’t include anything going on in that room. While we held him on that floor he kicked and spat, screamed at his mother, at his father at a world that left his little body to beat on. We let go and sat back only to see him continue to twist as if still in the fight. It dawned on me that he wasn’t fighting us, it was us that stood between him and his demons. He loved the restraints because it was the closest he had to some protection, a hug. He was so haunted by his past that he fought those of us trying to offer him a future.
Are we not also like this? Like Jacks, haunted by our past, unable to make peace with what has happened, lashing out violently against what is yet to come? Like me, trying to hold on, trying to love my brother back to reality even as he kicks and spits at me. Like a system, locking away hurt young boys rather than help then, warehousing them until they become a number jails can earn from?
That afternoon on the floor, Jacks writhed in pain for a while. Only slowly he realized that we didn’t hold him, he held himself. He laid there, tear streaked face, taking deep breaths looking across the floor at me not touching him, not holding him, not the one hurting him. I hadn’t caused this problem but I was still there, still bearing witness for him.
I’d like to tell you everything got better, but that’s never the case. Jacks got better. He began to fight the demons in his mind instead of fighting me and Cy. Responsibility was the only way through, owning his issues and dealing with them instead of bubbling with hurt and hate. The system got more broke, turning teen placements into cash cows, feeding the prison pipeline with a steady drip of little Jacks.
I don’t work in juvenile justice anymore–I couldn’t find enough justice to justify the treatment of teens tied to profit. Afterward, I worked with youth in youth organizing, and now I teach young people who will go do work like that. But still, I feel too often like I I did on that floor, holding onto to my brothers’ ankles trying to love him back to life. It is a feeling of both helplessness and hope. This work is hard and sweaty and I’m sick of the hatred and I want to let go of the haters and I can’t heal anyone but myself anyways but I’m stuck, still believing that we can get better, that we can do and be better. But I’m still here. I’m still here. I’m learning to hold on tighter. I’m learning to let go better.