Change Yourself and Change the World

All of us during our lives as children, adolescents and eventually adults need some encouragement. As the individuals we are, we tend to learn differently, have different perspectives and take risks on different levels. For those like myself, words of encouragement were really needed in my life to fulfill my true potential in the activities that I engaged in.

Always being in juvenile hall and camps as a kid I did receive a lot of encouragement to break out of my shell and try to think differently. It took a long time for me to grow, but I hope for you it comes quick.

Knowing that many of you in detention centers may possibly hear or read these words gives me the feeling of talking to myself when I was a kid. Many thoughts enter my mind: What would I tell myself? What have I learned since? What has impacted me? Was it worth it?

Regardless what your ethnicity is, I was you in juvenile hall, I was you in camp, I was you possibly going to the California Youth Authority, and I was you charged as an adult.

Now here I am in prison for a crime committed as a juvenile, 16 years and still on a level four [prison] yard with more to go, but I’ve turned my negative into a positive and if you allow me a few moments of your time [I’ll] share a very serendipitous moment of my life.

Growing up I was always reserved and was never the attention seeker or class clown, but like all of us I did crave attention and acceptance. Unfortunately because of this I missed out on a lot of activities, fun and possible friendships I could have made. Eventually the activities that my friends and I engaged in helped me break out of my shell because of their encouragement to go for what I wanted. Their reasoning was that since in my mind I already felt that the answer would be no or that I would fail, then how much more could it hurt if I actually tried and got a no or failed? But what if I did not fail or get a no?

Applying this approach to my studies, situations or attempts of success only helped me gain self-esteem and confidence, especially when I received a yes or I achieved my task. Never sell yourself short. I never did again.

Many would think that being 17 years old and given a sentence of 69 years to life for attempted murder that I would hate life, be angry, depressed and completely heartless. Well, in the beginning, I was all of those things. I was never getting out; unless I made it go, I was going to die in prison. My mother would pass away while I was in here, maybe my sisters as well.

Until I began my journey of discovering myself, of growing up and coping with my situation. I did this by playing sports, exercising and reading books. I found ways to get out of here and find interests in something.

While I was doing this, my family was out in the community working, going to school, living their lives and my three sisters were getting older; so was my mother. Couple more years pass by and letters aren’t really coming in anymore, I’m getting fed up with being in prison and my sisters are in junior high messing up. Here is when my journey really came into bloom.

Unfortunately, I robbed myself of being a big brother to my sisters, I robbed myself of being there to support them and I deprived them of a positive role model. I was fortunate enough to be eligible to enroll in college courses offered at New Folsom Prison. That is level four 180 design [the highest security level in California], so just being offered something to do was a blessing. There was so much going on at that time, it was hard to focus on anything, let alone something positive.

When I started my first college course, counseling, I liked it. It was nothing like junior high or high school, I really cared about what I felt, what the information meant to me and that my opinion not only mattered, but was essential.

Around this time, my sisters began to do bad in school: Their grades were not so good, not doing homework, don’t want to go, stressed; you know, all the growing pains we all have. New friends, new school, new adventure and an entire new outlook of life. I was a teen before the whole world changes when we discover relationships, parties, drugs, alcohol and everything else that comes with.

When I would speak with my mother I would share all that I had learned and how so much that she taught me was now completely realized. I would constantly share my discoveries with my sisters, life lessons only now seen. I began to really feel bad for all the pain I had caused my mother after finally seeing the bigger picture of life. Just like when I realized there is more to life than school; well, there is more to life than gang banging, drugs, money and girls.

I would have great conversations with my mother and other adults about current events, life and the impact of crime against myself and my family, and the victims. I became another adult nagging at my sisters, writing them every time I had an “aha” moment that I attached to a life experience. I did the best I could through communication and example and it paid off.

Many of my friends were proud of me for taking initiative to better myself. My girl was proud, my cousins, ex-girlfriends and friends. My words and thoughts expressed not only were accepted completely by my sisters, but were put in use. My sisters picked up their grades, they love school and are interested in college; some of my childhood friends went back to school to earn their GEDs, and some went on to learn new skills for a better job. One friend of mine became a teacher!

The sole motivation was “Now if he is in prison and doing this, then I should too.” Many people saw me in a different light. I saw myself differently. Many came to me for help on how to start their own higher education journey. This accomplishment of earning my AA degree changed my life and those around me.

As I speak to you, I am speaking to my 13-, 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-old self. I was you. I was immature, the hood was my world, my friends were my world. I grew up in Sylmar Juvenile Hall, Central Juvenile Hall, camps McNair, Gonzalez, Munz and Mendenhall in Los Angeles County.

Sadly, I would only last 30 days out before I went back in. I missed out on life, experiences and most importantly my family.

No matter how young or old you are, you can always find and learn new life lessons. Let my mistakes be yours, learn from my mistakes and improve your life. Start with one small goal, like I will read a book and do a book report on it, I will learn algebra and do my best at it or I will do 50 push-ups straight.

Then go to your next goal. Never be afraid to fail, because if you do fail it’s still a win. It’s still a win because you have learned something about yourself so the next time around, you got some experience.

You never know whom you will inspire, whose lives you can enrich by one action. Imagine accomplishing a goal for yourself and in turn you caused five others to accomplish something they never would have done. Be positive, change yourself, change the world.

Michael Arreygue is serving a sentence of 69 years to life in Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, California, for attempted murder.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at

Juvenile Hall is Often No Place for Kids

DURHAM, N.C. -- The local detention center where my juvenile clients are held while their cases are pending is called the “Youth Home.” The irony of the label is never lost on me, as the contrast between the name and the reality could hardly be starker.

The rundown building is surrounded by barbed wire. Inside, kids sleep in narrow locked cells, no different from what you’d find in an adult jail. They are subjected to strip searches and attend an hour or two of “school” in a crowded room filled with a random selection of books.

Juveniles are detained here for a variety of reasons. Some have been deemed dangerous to the community as a result of past or current criminal charges. Others are runaways or throwaways whose parents say they have no other options. A good number are drug addicted or mentally ill children who are awaiting placement in treatment centers. Many are caught up in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, without family to support their release.

In speaking with kids over the years about their detention experiences, I mostly am told how boring it is and how lonely and sad they become. Some talk about having to learn to fight – or at least act like they could win a fight – in order to get by. And these are the good days.

Yet, in the scheme of things, conditions here are relatively benign.

Across the United States, juvenile detention facilities have come under increasing scrutiny. In Polk County, Fla., where youth are held in a wing of the county jail, allegations of mistreatment include the use of pepper spray and other chemical agents by guards. The Southern Poverty Law Center has initiated a class action lawsuit against Polk, with a trial set for May. At other facilities, there are reports of overcrowding, inadequate medical care and sexual predators.

According to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), more than 30,000 young people are confined in short-term detention facilities annually. Of the approximately 730 facilities, county, city, or municipal employees staff the vast majority. In 2008, 42 percent reported using mechanical restraints (i.e., handcuffs, leg cuffs, waist bands, leather straps, restraining chairs, strait jackets, or other mechanical devices) in the previous month, and 45 percent locked youth alone in some type of seclusion. While the overall population of juveniles in custody is declining each year, the numbers and the conditions of confinement are sobering.

Repeated studies have demonstrated that locking up young people has little impact on recidivism rates and that ultimately it is harmful to the individual as well as the community. Research has shown that neither the type of offense nor the length of the sentence is an accurate predictor of whether a juvenile will reoffend. In fact, there is no significant difference between the rearrest rate for offenders who served probation versus those who were committed.

So, what is the alternative? Suspend the practice of reflexively placing young offenders in detention settings for both the short and long-term, whether for punitive or treatment-related purposes. In most cases, use community-based services, wraparound therapy for families, and outpatient treatment instead of removing adolescents from their homes and families. For those young people with no other options, turn our juvenile detention facilities and "training schools" into centers of rehabilitation that offer psychological treatment, vocational training and quality education.

We don't have to look far to find examples that work. Consider the Regional Youth Center in Waverly, Mo., or the New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Washington, D.C. These facilities have colorful dormitories and counselors who give hugs instead of concrete cellblocks and armed guards. They provide daily group therapy and a full day of academics instead of boot camps and solitary confinement. And they cost less to operate than traditional models, ultimately saving taxpayer dollars.

Just imagine if the Durham Youth Home were transformed. The razor wire would be removed, the cell walls taken down, and at-risk children and teens would be provided with support, services and education in a positive, affirming environment. Now that would be a place worthy of its name.

Professor Birckhead’s commentary is also posted at the Huffington Post

Juvenile Hall Smaller in Texas

Despite the cliché, not everything is bigger in Texas. A year after the state merged juvenile and criminal justices under one big agency and commanded it to divert youthful offenders away from big state lockups to neighborhood programs, a pair of advocates are pleased. But both have tips for states considering the same setup.

The old system literally and figuratively put a lot of kids in the desert, said Benet Magnuson, a juvenile justice policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an Austin-based prison reform group.

“State facilities were less rehabilitative because the kids were isolated, it was hard to retain quality staff and they were ultimately unsafe for a lot of kids,” he explained.

Texas has transitioned over the last few years from sending juveniles to state lockups to trying to keep them in their home communities or counties for treatment.  In 2009, the legislature created a grant system that most of Texas’ 165 county probation departments are using. In 2011, the state created the new Texas Juvenile Justice Department and told it to emphasize home-based and community-based programs.

They have in mind things like Tom Green County’s family restoration programs. The central Texas county found that a significant minority of the youth referred to police lacked robust support at home: absent parents, incarcerated family, a history with child protective services.

So with a state grant, Tom Green County is now sending counselors and mentors into children’s homes, to help them with emotional, substance abuse or other struggles. For the family, parenting coaches are available.

Of 400 youth sent to county law enforcement in 2011, some served time in the county’s secure facility, but only one was forwarded to state custody, according to a new study by TCJC.  Statewide, TCJC credits the county-based programs with diverting some 3,000 youth away from Texas custody in fiscal year 2012 at a cost of $19.8 million.

Texas juvenile lockups cost about $360 per child per day, according to state figures.  But since the changes, the juvenile prison population has dropped from nearly 5,000 to just over 2,000. And in 2011, the state closed three secure facilities and merged others. State law caps county program costs at $140 per youth per day.

“It’s saving money at the front end and shifting the savings to the counties to more effectively treat kids at home,” explained Jeanette Moll,  juvenile justice policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation a free-enterprise think tank.

Checks on the counties make sure kids get effective treatment, she said. For the system to work, counties must use programs proved by evidence, there must be enough funding for the counties and there must be a way for the state to claw back money that’s headed toward faulty programs.

With 165 local probation departments, that’s 165 different systems, and 165 different ways a child could be treated, depending on where he or she is referred to the police.

The variation is a virtue, Moll argues. Border counties can focus on their specific problems of human trafficking and drug abuse, for example. Rural counties can skip gang programs that urban counties prefer.

But funding is strained, according to the TCJC study. In their survey of local probation chiefs, three-quarters said they lacked funds to follow best practices.

Magnuson said any state considering a shift to the county model needs to have mechanisms in place around oversight, guidance, technical support and monitoring. That’s “to make sure there is some consistency in care from county to county. And to make sure the counties are functioning at the level the high-level functioning counties are at,” he explained.

Indeed, next year, TCJC will try to convince lawmakers to increase the budget and powers of the juvenile Justice Independent Ombudsman, and require all counties to open their facilities for official inspection.

What the study found on the ground in the counties was generally good, said Magnuson, but the checkups must continue. “I think it’s a question to keep asking, to keep an eye on. The worst thing that could happen is that we move kids to the county and then forget about them,” he said.

Photo from Philanthropedia