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Voices

The Voices of Youth Justice Reform

Angella Bellota Sunday, 27 October 2013 Posted in 2013, Across the Country, Voices

In the last ten years, we have seen growing momentum in youth justice reform. Foundations, policymakers, child advocacy organizations, the legal community, and researchers have worked to educate the public and improve the juvenile justice system, but also the adult criminal justice system, where too many of our youth end up because of draconian state laws.

As critical as all of these allies are to the movement, the heart of the fight lives in our communities. There are too many examples of families who lose their children to the adult system who go it alone, to demand fairness and accountability from local and state leadership. And too many formerly incarcerated young people who return to their communities with adult records and find an antagonistic environment that is set up for them to fail instead of being directed to opportunities for a new start. Yet in the face of opposition, it is those most affected who take on the fight for justice, refuse to treat children as throwaways, and are courageous enough to put a face to the issue and to be messengers for reform.

OP-ED: Everyday Assaults of Young Offenders in Adult Prisons

Thursday, 08 August 2013 Posted in 2013, Voices



From the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange
By David Chura

The panel, sponsored by Boston College, was titled “Youth in Prison: The Reality of the System.” I was there to share my experiences as a teacher who worked with teenagers, some as young as fifteen, serving time in an adult county jail. I was scheduled to speak after T.J.Parsell who, when he was seventeen, served several years in an adult prison and was raped by inmates a number of times. He survived that horrific time and now as an adult shares his experiences to advocate for changes in the way the criminal justice system treats minors.

As T.J. recounted the sexual assaults he lived through I kept wondering what I could add. His experiences were so shocking, so deplorable that I wondered what more could be said.

However, as I listened, I realized there was a lot I could add. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, inmates under eighteen make up only one percent of the prison population yet are victims in 21 percent of prison rapes. Although those statistics are high, not all young offenders are subjected to the sexual abuse that T.J. went through and that many other kids continue to endure. Yet all teenagers in adult prison live with an endless series of violations on a daily basis, violations that I could only think to describe as “everyday rapes.” I saw that my contribution to the panel was to be a witness to those everyday degradations, assaults and violations that I learned about over the ten years that I taught in prison.

There was the everyday rape of random body searches—on the block, coming back from court, before seeing family on a visit. As Marcus, a seventeen-year-old who never shied away from speaking his mind, put it, “Being searched by police makes you feel dirty. They make you strip down, bend over, and…you know. They call it cavity search. I call it rape.”

My students lived with the everyday violation of never having any privacy when they showered, used the toilet, “went to New York” (one of their many jailhouse slang phrases for masturbating). All teenagers, whoever and wherever they are, work hard to hide their vulnerabilities especially when it comes to their bodies. In prison those vulnerabilities are even more pronounced and covered up by tough guy bravado because these boys know that their bodies—along with so much more—are no longer their own. As they put it, they were “state’s property.”

There was the everyday abuse of having their cells sacked by the emergency response team (ERT) on one of their random searches. I understood the need for such surprise searches. Even my students did, although they were loath to admit it. But none of us understood why a team of men in SWAT uniforms had to scream at you, throw you out of your bed, flip your mattress onto the floor, toss around the few clothes you had, then dump in a trash barrel family photos, letters — even school books that you never saw again — only to be threatened as the ERT left your cell, “We’ll get you next time.”

And “next time” might mean the everyday assault of being thrown into solitary confinement because you finally couldn't hold in your rage anymore at such arbitrary, senseless humiliation and started to mouth off the way only angry, hurt teenage boys can. There, in total isolation, was the endless everyday rape of losing contact with humanity until you lost contact with your own humanity and found yourself participating in your own everyday rape—not showering or brushing your teeth for weeks; sleeping twelve, fifteen hours a day; and when you were awake, screaming, shouting, howling just to let the world—and yourself—know that you’re still there (sort of), doing anything to fight off that final everyday rape of extinction, of disappearing.

Even if a kid can hold it all in, follow the rules, keep his head down, there was the everyday indignity of eating food that poisoned a growing body; of living in an overcrowded, noisy and smelly block, with the constant threat of violence, intimidation and extortion; of being forced to pay extortionist prices for food sold in the prison commissary; of not getting decent health care, or any health care at all, because the gold standard was to save the county money.

The “reality of the system” is a brutal one. The Federal government has finally acknowledged that young offenders must be protected from prison sexual violence. The “Youthful Inmate Standard” regulations established by the Prison Rape Elimination Act require all prisons, jails, lock ups, and detention facilities to provide “sight and sound separation between youth and adults while restricting the use of solitary confinement and isolation practices.”

But these regulations are only a first step in solving how young people are treated in the criminal justice system. If we really want to protect them from the full assault of prison culture—the everyday rapes that have devastating effects long into adulthood—then we must get these children out of the penal system altogether, a system that was never intended to handle young offenders, and place them in environments that are designed to rebuild and to create new lives.


This article was originally published by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a non-profit online news source for people who care about youth and the law.

CFYJ Summer Institute Series Continues with “Write Night” Hosted by Free Minds Book Club

Friday, 26 July 2013 Posted in 2013, Voices


By: Haylea Workman

In the continuance of the Summer Institute Brown Bag Luncheon, the Campaign for Youth Justice Fellows attended Write Night on July 23rd, hosted by Free Minds Book Club. Write Night is a monthly meeting where members from the community gather to give feedback on poetry submitted by incarcerated youth. The feedback allows incarcerated youth to feel inspired and cared about by the community.

Fellows read poetry submissions and wrote feedback to each author and then previously incarcerated youth spoke up to explain to those in attendance the importance of connecting with youth through their writing. Many of the incarcerated youth are isolated for 23 hours a day, so they look forward to hearing from the community and working on their poetry. Write night is important because it allows youth to feel connected to the world outside of prison.

Write Night is hosted monthly at the Church of Pilgrim from 6-8pm. The Church of Pilgrim is located at 2201 P street NW. To learn more about upcoming Write Nights send a message to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or contact Tara Libert at (202) 758-0829.

 

CFYJ's Jessica Sandoval Confirmed for DC's Children and Youth Investment Trust Board Leadership

Wednesday, 17 July 2013 Posted in 2013, Voices

By Haylea Workman

 
Jessica Sandoval,CFYJ Vice President and Deputy Director





On Monday, July 8th, Jessica Sandoval, Vice President and Deputy Director of the Campaign for Youth Justice testified before the DC Council as one of three candidates nominated for an appointment on the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation’s (CYITC) Board. The CYITC works to expand and improve services and opportunities for children and youth in the District of Columbia by leveraging both public and private dollars. Their vision is for each child and every youth in DC to have the opportunity to make positive choices that let them develop and grow into healthy productive adults.  

On July 10th, all three candidates were confirmed through a DC Council member vote. As a newly appointed board member of the Trust, Jessica will bring her national and state level expertise on youth justice issues. Both her expertise and experience in positions with the Denver District Attorney’s Juvenile Diversion Program, the Gang Rescue and Support Project, and the State Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice under Governor Roy Romer, will provide the board with a fresh perspective on the improvement of services to youth and children in the District. Jessica’s involvement with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, National Crime Prevention Council, and the National League of Cities, will be beneficial to the Trust as it continues to improve its relationships with both local and federal entities.

At CFYJ Jessica leads the organization’s state campaign strategy and provides technical assistance to states engaged in youth justice reform efforts.

CFYJ wishes Jessica well on her new appointment.

CFYJ Kicks off 2013 Summer Institute Series

Monday, 15 July 2013 Posted in 2013, Voices


By Eric Welch

Annually the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) spearheads its Summer Institute Brown Bag Lunch Series, in which juvenile justice interns in Washington can gather to learn about different aspects of the juvenile justice field.

Last week was the first Summer Institute Brown Bag Luncheon at the new CFYJ office, which was a huge success.   The Campaign had two very knowledgeable experts, Alexandra Staropoli.  Associate Director for Government & Field Relations at Coalition for Juvenile Justice, and Kaitlin Banner, Staff Attorney of the Advancement Project to end the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

Over 25 motivated local interns were in attendance and sat around the table with open ears processing the information that was being shared about these organizations and what they do. The presentation was about the National Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Coalition, Gangs, and School Safety Working Group. The Gangs Working Group’s main topic was about the Youth Promise Act;, a bill that ensures that there are funds for gang intervention and youth violence issues. School Safety’s primary focus was on the School-to-prison pipeline; a national trend that forces youth out of school and into the criminal justice system.

The Next Summer Institute event will be with Free Minds Book Club on Write Night on Tuesday July 23rd from 6:oo-8:00pm. Please RSVP here if interested in attending, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Happy Birthday to the Campaign for Youth Justice!

Monday, 01 July 2013 Posted in 2013, Voices

 
CFYJ's new office space.

Today, the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) turns 8! We would like to thank all of the individuals and organizations who have contributed their time, energy and dedication to supporting the campaign's mission to the end the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth in the adult criminal justice system. Thanks especially to the Campaign's staff, board, advisory council, spokespersons, donors, funders, fellows, volunteers, supporters and allies throughout the country who have championed juvenile justice reforms to improve the outcomes for youth and their families!

As we celebrate the Campaign's birthday, CFYJ has just relocated to a new office space! We are so thrilled to be in our new home. Come visit us at: 1220 L Street, Suite 605, Washington, DC, 20005.

On this 8th birthday, we are celebrating our collective work to advance the rights and status of young people prosecuted in adult criminal court.  Together with our allies, we will continue to campaign for youth justice, because the consequences aren't minor.



Voices of Youth: A discussion on Resilience, Homelessness, and Hope

Thursday, 27 June 2013 Posted in 2013, Voices

By Brighton Haslett
 
 
13 formerly homeless youth, ages 19 and 20, gathered in downtown Washington on the morning of June 17th to discuss their experiences with homelessness and their successes in the face of adversity at “Voices of Youth: A Discussion on Resilience, Homelessness, and Hope,” presented by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) in conjunction with the Congressional Homelessness Caucus. The discussion opened with introductions, and a question: How did you become homeless? The answers ranged from destructive fire to drug addicted parents, but each story shared a common thread: “it’s not our fault.” Among the difficulties these teens have overcome, and some that they are still struggling with, are siblings left behind, working multiple jobs, taking care of family members, and striving for excellence in the classroom. Impressively, all 13 are currently enrolled in college. Their majors include Civil Engineering, Pre-Med, Business Administration, Biology, Mathematics, English, Psychology, Anthropology, and Social Work. Succeeding in school was not easy, and several of the teens mentioned specific instances when their homelessness and family life interfered with their success. 19 year-old Tia mentioned needing parent’s signature on a report card, or an offer for 10 points extra credit for a parent’s signature on some other document. For her, this was not possible. More troubling, to receive free and reduced price lunches, a student needs a parent’s signature.
 
A lack of parental support was not the only hurdle the teens encountered in high school; many have struggled without money for most of their lives, and still do today. Raven, 20, recalls that in high school, financial aid was not available. While the students are scholarship recipients, this money does not cover all of their expenses, and those who live in dorms still struggle to afford housing during Christmas and summer breaks. In college many of the teens pay their own rent and work full time. Several express that this is overwhelming, and that working often interferes with school work, but must take priority for the teens to maintain housing. Heather pointed out “full time working and full time college is almost impossible.” Because of the struggle to make ends meet, homelessness is not a thing of the past.
 
Despite feeling let down by parents, teachers, and the system itself, the teens want to be successful, and want teens like themselves to receive encouragement. When asked what they wanted people to understand about homelessness, overwhelmingly the response was empathy and encouragement.
 
NAEHCY, among other organizations, works to educate homeless youth. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act is a federal law that ensures education for homeless youth. Through education and the assistance of these and similar organizations, we can reduce the number of homeless youth entering the juvenile justice system and work toward long term successes of the kind that these 13 formerly homeless youth have achieved.

CFYJ Summer Fellow Happy Hour

Monday, 24 June 2013 Posted in 2013, Voices

 
 

By Thaddaeus Gregory

Last week, the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) fellows hosted a networking happy hour at Busboys and Poets on 5th & K. The event was a great success, attracting over forty fellows and interns around the Washington, D.C. area from such organizations as the Peace Alliance, the Vera Institute of Justice, the Public Defender Service, and many more. Interns and fellows hailed from all different parts of the United States, reaching from California, to Minnesota, to New York, to Florida, and embodied a rich and diverse collection of ideas regarding juvenile justice. The networking happy hour, which also featured delicious food and beverages, allowed a venue for the various interns and fellows to meet others that share a passion for juvenile justice, and receive information about upcoming events hosted by CFYJ,  including the New Beginnings trip and the Summer Institute opportunities.

CFYJ will host several other event opportunities throughout the summer. These include the aforementioned New Beginnings trip on June 25th, in which CFYJ will travel to Laurel, MD to tour the new youth correctional facility, and also the weekly Summer Institute opportunities in which CFYJ will host a brown bag luncheon featuring key players in the juvenile justice field.


Meet CFYJ’s 2013 Summer Fellows

Monday, 24 June 2013 Posted in 2013, Voices

 

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Meet CFYJ's Summer Fellows, pictured left to right: Haylea Workman,
Brighton Haslett, Thaddaeus Gregory, Eric Welch, and Vanessa Willemssen.
 

The Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) is pleased to introduce our 2013 Summer Fellows.

Haylea Workman- Appalachian State University

Haylea is currently a student at Appalachian State University (ASU).  Originally from Connelly Springs , NC, she currently has her A.A. in Arts and Political Science. In Spring 2014, she will graduate from ASU with her B.A. in American Politics and Criminology with a minor in Criminal Justice. She has a passion for changing the criminal justice system, specifically working for prison reform. Her career goal is to work with advocacy groups to make a difference in the prison system.

Haylea enjoys the small town life, trailing through the woods, four-wheeling, and skeet shooting.


Brighton Haslett-  University of North Carolina Law School

Brighton grew up in Raleigh, NC, and attended North Carolina State University, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology in 2011. She began law school at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in 2012. Her interests include criminal and constitutional law, and she recently joined UNC’s Holderness Moot Court as a member of the International Team.

Brighton loves to bake and travel, and she is excited to spend the summer reading for pleasure, a past time long forgotten by many law students.


Thaddaeus Gregory- Carleton College

Thaddaeus was born and raised in Seattle, WA. From a young age, he has had legal aspirations. He is currently a rising junior at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, where he is a member of the baseball team. He studies sociology and anthropology in hopes of going to law school, and plans to go into politics after pursuing a legal career.


Thaddaeus is a pitcher on the Carleton baseball team and also enjoys playing several instruments including; clarinet, saxophone, piano, ukulele, and drums in his free time. Reading is also a passion of Thaddaeus’, and some of his favorite books include: The Art of Fielding, Zeitoun, and A Heartbreaking Work of Incredible Genius. He is very passionate about law and is currently studying for the LSAT.


Eric Welch- Tallahassee Community College
Eric Welch was born and raised in Richmond, CA, a small town in the Bay Area between Oakland and San Francisco.

Eric spent time in a juvenile facility called Byron’s Boys Ranch, where he was able to become rehabilitated, focused, and more responsible. When Eric was released, he realized the vulnerabilities that awaited him in his neighborhood, but when Eric’s best friend,  Sean, was killed, he turned back to the streets.  However, when he turned 22, he began to make better decisions for himself. He got involved with a program called the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), which gave him an opportunity to change his life, and he has never looked back.

Eric was recently accepted to Tallahassee Community College (TCC) for Fall 2013. Eric will spend a semester at TCC, and then he will transfer to Florida A&M University to continue pursuing a career in the juvenile justice field.

Vanessa Willemssen- George Mason University

After taking various undergraduate courses related to community corrections at George Mason University, Vanessa discovered her passion in matters of youth justice and shifting the system towards a more rehabilitative approach. She comes to CFYJ hoping to become an active participant in mobilizing forces to push youth justice forward. She first started working with youth as a high school junior varsity softball coach at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, VA, understanding first-hand the developmental differences between adolescents and adults. She has volunteered as a mentor for at-risk teenagers in the Washington, D.C. area and currently serves as a part-time online journalist for Solitary Watch, an organization aimed at bringing awareness to matters of solitary confinement in prisons.

Graduating this year with a B.S. in Criminology, Law and Society, she strives to one day have a career in the field of social work with a preferred interest in counseling for previously incarcerated youth.

 
 

In Remembrance of Kirk Gunderson: Remembering My Son this Mother’s Day

Sunday, 12 May 2013 Posted in 2013, Voices

 

 
 
By Vicky Gunderson, Onalaska WI
 
Mother, Vicky Gunderson shares her story of how it feels to spend Mother’s Day without her son and discusses the importance of family engagement and parental involvement for youth in the criminal system.
 
This should be one of the most joyful times of the year for me, however it is a difficult time on and around Mother’s Day.  My name is Vicky Gunderson, and I am a mother who has spent the last seven Mother’s Days without one of my children, my son, Kirk. 
 
Kirk's arrival on the 9th of June, 1988 at 5:03 p.m. was one of the greatest miracles. From the day I found out I was pregnant until the moment we saw his beautiful face, the sense of joy is hard to describe in words. There are no words that can begin to explain the unconditional love you feel at that moment when your baby is laid into your arms. He enriched our family’s life in a way that only you who have raised a child can understand. I would never have imagined that with all the love in my heart and what we felt were the best parenting skills my husband and I knew, that we would find ourselves visiting our son in the county jail, where he was incarcerated nine days after his 17th birthday. And even then, we could not have imagined that just a few months later, we would be notified through family members that our son had taken his life by hanging. Only hours before hearing that he was doing well through the Christmas holiday, and that he was excited that a "deal" was going to take place versus a trial, we were told he was dead.

My lack of words to describe unconditional love; also pertains to the lack of words to describe the unbearable pain. The suicide note that he left was written in wet toilet paper rolled into letters and numbers, "I'm sorry, 143 Fam", meaning I am sorry, I love you family.
 
What I remember is a boy who loved to laugh. A boy whom we had watched play with a passion; hockey, baseball, and football. Even after a series of concussions, and short-term memory loss, a family decision was to end contact sports, leaving his love of hockey. He continued to assist in coaching younger players on the baseball field, and being a referee for the hockey association. What I am unable to share is the timeframe whereby Kirk was introduced to prescription drugs and alcohol as a way of managing his depression; a pain that we will never understand completely. A pain as a Mom I could not take away with a hug, or talking with him. I will remember forever the evening he injured his Dad and his younger brother while under the influence of drugs. Then evening he snapped, leaving me in the intensive care unit, and Kirk in the county jail, at the age of 17.
 
While my husband and other son have recovered physically, none of us will ever recover emotionally from the aftermath of that incident. Despite his age, size and psychological state, Kirk was automatically incarcerated as an adult with adult inmates. While there, we did everything we could for him, but the jail made it almost impossible for us to support him in the way that a 17-year-old in such a dangerous situation needs his family. My son did everything he could to assuage me of the torture he knew I would put myself through after his death. Kirk had started writing a journal while incarcerated. He wrote about times in his life when we talked about accountability, that he would never take his life because of the many people it would affect. As a Mom, you begin the questions, "If I had... If I would have known... If I could have been there”… and so many many “IF” questions that will never have an answer. 
 
However, as a Mom there is a deeper sense within ourselves , with regard to our children, and I do know what the system could have done differently, and should be doing differently after the death of my son. My son never should have been incarcerated with adults, and he never should have been left alone in isolation, especially when he requested to not be left alone. There should be a means to bring a family together to work on rehabilitation and accountability, without the delays, and without the lengthy periods of time that Kirk was incarcerated. Kirk never asked for much while incarcerated, his primary ask was he wanted a hug from his family. That was not too much to ask. 
 
As his Mom, I pray that I will not live one day without Kirk’s joyous smile and sparkling blue eyes in my heart, hoping that the vision I hold so dear does not disappear with time. I also hope that we can change our system so that no mother has to suffer the pain that I feel on a daily basis.
 
Every mom deserves the chance to see their child grow up and blossom into an adult.  This is why, on this Mother’s Day, I am asking stakeholders and systems to understand the importance of family engagement and parent involvement in adolescent development and rehabilitation.  I know my son would be alive today if these practices had been in place when my son was arrested, and I would be celebrating this Mother’s Day with that hug that he and I valued so much.
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