I recently visited a group of boys in the Youthful Offender Program (YOP). They’re all under 18 years old but they’ve been incarcerated in Texas’ adult prison system at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Ellis Unit in Huntsville. We enjoyed Domino’s pizza (the chicken and mushroom is the big hit) and asked each other ice-breaker questions. It was a positive experience talking with the kids. Still, it was difficult to deal with – these boys were wearing the same white uniform worn by adults in the Texas prison system.
I did my best to share my testimony with these youth. I told them what it was like to enter the justice system at 18, getting caught up in the whole prison gang lifestyle and everything that comes with it. I shared the hurt and pain I caused my family and my community, but especially my mother. I told them that fulfilling my mother’s dream of going to Disneyland, and seeing the joy in her face as I placed the Minnie Mouse ears on her head, was a defining moment for me after leaving prison. That’s when I realized that everything I had gone through was worth it to be able to give that to my mother. This seemed to resonate with the guys, as several came up to me afterwards and shared how they enjoyed my story and were able to relate to it.
As I left the Ellis Unit, I couldn’t help but think about what kind of experiences these youth had gone through before getting to the prison system. Were they asked the questions that I wished someone would’ve asked me at their age, about the reasons for their behaviors? Were services offered in their school or community that could’ve helped them avoid the school-to-prison pipeline? Who failed these kids so badly that they ended up in an adult prison? What more could have been done?
Of course, these questions can and must be answered, and we must begin addressing these problems and providing solutions. I plan to do everything I can to raise awareness about the incarceration of children at the Ellis Unit, at the Travis County State Jail here in Austin, and at the Hilltop Unit, which houses girls and women in Gatesville. These kids have been failed before, but I know as well as anyone that if the most appropriate interventions are provided to them, they can be truly successful upon their release from adult prison. My colleagues and I will also continue to advocate for programs and services focused on preventing kids from going into prison, so they can stay with their families and in their communities.