Opinion

How Incarceration and Placements Affect Youths’ Mental Health

Girl in jeans leaning on brick wall with arms crossed.There’s been a lot of news about women abused by men in power lately, and I’ve been thinking about the girls I was locked up with. A majority of them were young girls just looking for an escape from a life under pressure, only to find something that led them to more hurt and then incarceration. If you ever really look at the big picture, most kids who are locked up have gone through some serious upheaval and trauma that led them to that place. They are hurting, just as I was, seeking an escape from some of the more hurtful aspects of life, the things that are difficult to confront, like parents who are addicts, or abusers in other ways.

In the case of the girls from the halls, often a man used them to get what he wanted, dragging them along and convincing them that what was being done to them was based in love. This took away their innocence and robbed them of experiences every child deserves to have. We were forced to become women even before knowing what “being a woman” meant. I was in a life where my mom was using meth and being the teenager at 36 years old, which essentially forced me to act as the adult at 15 years old, maybe even earlier.

As a result, the experiences I shared with those girls made them more than just my friends or people I shared a dayroom with; they became my family. We survived the war zone that was incarceration, where all we really had was each other. We all saw each other as we really are: made entirely out of love, honesty and compassion. We helped each other in good times and in bad. I learned how to care for another human being on a far deeper level than I believe I would have, had I not been sent to the halls.

Perhaps these girls have also been on my mind so much lately because I still feel a bit locked up. Even two years out, I still feeling like I’m not doing what I really want, like I’m still running a program rather than living a life.

I feel like other people are still running my life and I have no choice in what I do. There are staff in placement programs who are just there for the money and who don’t care about the kids or what’s happening to them. When a program for system-involved youth is run like that — based on how much money a certain kid brings in due to their issues — it leads to complete failure in rehabilitating them. To name just one example, when I was in placement I saw more kids getting sent back to the halls than kids being rehabilitated and sent back home to their families. When the place is meant to “lift you up” but in truth it only brings you down, it means there needs to be more of an understanding as to just why the kids are in that space in the first place and why they are hurting the way they hurt.

What’s also true is that kids who spend time behind bars need to be taught how to navigate through the world once they get out. For me, personally, after a while being locked up began to feel like “home,” and even today sometimes I think it’d be easier to go back to what had become so familiar and nurturing to me while inside. But would that mean I’d be going backwards, or just trying to feel normal again, or would it mean that I’d be running away from real life? This is what I need to think over before deciding what happens next in my life.

When I transitioned out of the halls to a placement, it was legit the scariest thing I’ve ever felt. I really couldn’t even figure out how much money I should give the cashier for snacks I was buying! Everything felt foreign to me.

There needs to be a way to teach kids what everyday life is after spending time away from it. There needs to be a crash course on what these kids should expect coming out. The “normal day” routine I’d learned, then grown into and then relied on for peace and safety in those crazy, scary times, had been taken from me, and I was thrown back onto the streets, not knowing what to expect.

I even felt like there was a big sign on my back with my criminal charge written across it, so that everyone could see what I’d been accused of and what had just happened. I didn’t even feel normal around members of my own family. I was torn; half of me devising a plan to get sent back, and the other half remembering my girls. The ones I left behind, who held me up when I was facing going to adult court and state prison, and who lovingly wished me well in my new life as I got my second chance. A lot of them still haven’t gotten their second chance yet. But in honor of them, and all we shared together, I’ve decided that I’m not going to waste mine.

Taylor, 18, is working on her resume. When not at the InsideOUT Writers office in Los Angeles, she’s been doing some work as a production assistant.

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