The Curse of Custody: Enduring Incarceration

Print More

Karma arrives abruptly when locked in a court school classroom. Not the usual lock-in. No way out. Twenty students. Twenty pencils. Twenty hearts with rage. No available intervention for a scuffle.

The keys would not work. Even though it only took the probation staff seven minutes to correct the jam in the lock, danger lurked.

To establish safety, I let the students know what I expected and what I knew they could do. They recognized the chance to stage street deeds. I invited them to envision someone they deeply respected, and to imagine that person, possibly a parent or grandparent, clergy or mentor, sitting beside them, praising their choice to practice character and civility. I reminded each student that he could step up as an ally, a leader and as an ambassador of respect. 

When the door was opened, we applauded in appreciation to staff for freeing us, and for the exemplary behavior of every student. The absence of gang signs, street talk or assaultive posture prevailed. Not one word or one gesture of conflict. No desks flying. No mad-dogging. No peer attack. No pencils converted to weapons. No spitting for spite. Street soldiers becoming young men of honor.

Premier teacher management must occur. Teachers must routinely, vigorously and resolutely practice a student-centered program, founded on the pledge of compassion, respect and honorable rules. This practice provides first-rate learning and optimal conditions for safe classrooms. In an unexpected, perilous circumstance, all are at high risk.

Custody can be brutal but kids felt prized when they were with Sherman Bell, a California probation supervisor. An honored hero and steward to incarcerated youth, he embraced compassion and had the highest expectations for those in his tutelage. His boys rose gallantly to those standards, wanting to please and succeed.

Kids would line up at the unit picnic table where Sherman sat.  They would take their poetry or other writing to him. Watching the kids with Sherman was profound. Each kid rose to his best self, listening, sharing, taking in all the love and grace. Sherman always looked at each kid directly, eye to eye. Giving respect, love, guidance. He wanted each one to turn things around and knew they could if supported.

They wept when they learned of his death and vowed to live honorably in his memory. Sherman honored each child with his respect and resolute vision for their futures. He envisioned and created scenes of salvation and fueled change for thousands of kids in custody during his decades of service.

Students cheer as a favorite staff member arrives, and gather with eager hearts to hear the wise words and inspired guidance of someone who deeply cares, effecting a burst of self-discovery and positive behavior. The dawn of goals, dreams and renewal are seeded in these compulsory connections. A routine day transforms to promise and prospect as a child experiences the rarity of recognition and esteem.

Conversely, staff that scream at close range, charge at kids to intimidate, berate youth and ignore bullying scar and diminish. Days can be filled with insults and indifference. Searches, restraint for search refusals, undue force, delaying distribution of essential hygiene products for young women humiliate and disorient. Delay in dispensing inhalers, ignoring requests for medical assistance, disregarding a “Do not spray” order endanger children.

Disapproval, harsh conversation and grim prognoses dampen the spirit of youth who are starved for guidance, hope, encouragement and tolerance. Hungry for an authentic childhood, kids in custody yearn for the nurturing and recognition that allow development and inaugurate positive adulthoods. Verbal violence must be silenced and inhumane practices halted.

The dark of night brings an array of pain. Longing for family, a stabbing sadness if loved ones are in harm’s way and the scathing scourge of cell walls summon musings of woe. A shared cell can be mercy or danger. Often children with mental health issues are in single cells, fostering isolation and elevated fears. Solitary cells ignite instability and a trip to the edge of sanity. A deck of cards as companionship cannot erase the demons kindled in long hours of segregation.

Bedtime signals the silence of sleeping children or a disruption from a distressed child. Such an uproar can be long-lasting, keeping others awake and provoking staff. Yelling, door-banging and recurrent mental health meltdowns bring an unwelcome symphony of misery. Suicide watch, sometimes mandating an officer at the cell door on a “Constant,” can ease the lonely and frightful hours of such a dark, anguished cloud. The threat of suicide hovers amid the daily routines of custody. The fragility of youth decrees an exacting and empathic vigilance from all adults in the facility. Death calls to suspend the suffering of custody.

Mental illness is rampant among incarcerated children. The complexity of housing unstable children in a punitive setting must hasten reform. Many youth belong in treatment programs, not in jail. The answer to meltdowns often includes pepper spray, solitary, restraint and harsh handling. Custody intensifies the explosions and recovery becomes a distant possibility. The wrath of eruptions is deafening and forbidding, and becomes unforgettable to witnesses. Children in need of engaging intervention struggle in the curse of such inhumanity. The oath of Hippocrates is a fitting prescript for a juvenile setting, “First do no harm.”

Staff and teachers are rarely practiced in managing extreme mental illness in children. A storm of chaos crashes into order, achievement and the solace of night. A thundering rage from reactive youth inflicts wounds on all in its turbulent path. The scene, dismal and savage, creates an uneasy climate in which to nurture rehabilitation. The ugly refrain of screams and cries boldly pierces hearts and spirits of all in range. The roaring sounds awaken resonant empathy and fierce advocacy from those with heart.

Commotion is common in the classroom. Even first-rate engagement cannot fully offset the turbulence that frequently rises in the midst of learning activities. The cycle of violence is ever-present. A verbal outburst, a peer attack or other threats signal the need for probation staff to intercede. Disorder is universal, impulse control is often absent and school lessons are frequently interrupted by staff intervention, with associated shouting, pepper spray and student angst.

Children with mental health issues cannot and do not receive the care they need in custody. It is far beyond the capacity of juvenile facilities to tend to these grave maladies. The scope of practice for teachers does not include resolving the crushing complexities of mental illness.     

Some of the most gifted educators in the field are found inside. The constraints of detention, maintaining safety and security, educating explosive learners and finding probation staff who care about the kids summon a forbearing heart, a steadfast spirit and a giant toolbox of educational strategies. Our students commonly come to us with high hopes, with substandard school histories and with bruised regard; our duty is to deliver.

In spite of crimes committed, in spite of combative posture, in spite of apathy and enormous learning difficulties, each child deserves our respect and our best practices. As educators and as in loco parentis, we must stand beside our youth with firm resolution and devotion. The children in our care, in our classrooms and in our quest for transforming lives have endured not only the damages of street life, but the extreme grief of custody.

The avalanche of lost childhoods steadily advances to adult confinement. Resilient spirits are requisite to enduring the ordeal of incarceration. Elevating and ennobling children from the rubble and ruins of untold pain to lives of purpose and promise is urgent. The curse of custody is excruciatingly endured.

Jane Guttman is a correctional educator, teacher librarian and author. Her portrayal of the grief and buried gifts of kids in custody is narrated in “Kids in Jail: A Portrait of Life Without Mercy.”