My young parents didn’t have the skill sets to properly raise me, which at a young age caused me to search for acceptance in other places. I began running away at the age of 13 and quickly got heavily involved in drug use.
Nearly two years later I was a victim of sex trafficking. My trafficker was arrested and later sent to prison for the remainder of his life and I was sent to jail, where I received no healing and was sent back home nine months later. I once again found myself on the streets, and for the second time became a victim of sex trafficking not even a year later. This time, I decided to stand up against my trafficker. I didn’t go to the police because I didn’t want to relive the traumatic process of the court system.
On Aug. 31, 2011 I was arrested and jailed for six serious felonies against the man who brutally raped and trafficked me. Not even a month after sitting in the Juvenile Detention Center at age 16, I was charged as an adult and placed in the adult jail. The day I was sent to adult jail would change my life forever. Because I was under 18, I had to be separated from all adult prisoners by sight and sound to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Based on my developmental age, I should have been placed in a dorm with juveniles where we were treated differently and received proper services. In reality, I was placed in a mental health dorm even though I didn’t have a mental health diagnosis because there was no space in the jail to place me anywhere else. I was on lockdown 23 hours a day and was deprived of regular programming including access to education, recreation and mental health services that I didn’t qualify for.
I was in a dorm with legally insane people. They yelled and screamed at night about things that made no sense to me. I heard inmates banging, kicking and slamming heads on doors and walls, people throwing their feces out the flap of their blue metal door and much, much more. I saw people pepper-sprayed, tased, hog-tied and strapped down to a black restraint chair because they were being “too loud” or banging on the doors for “too long.”
As a child you can imagine the effect this had on me. Stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day forced me to relive the many traumatic experiences I had experienced years prior to my incarceration. Some days I blamed myself for the trauma, abuse and neglect. I convinced myself I deserved to be separated from the world because I only caused harm. On other days, I felt ostracized. All I wanted was to feel like I was a part of the human race — not like some caged animal. I felt alone, like no one cared and sometimes even asked myself, why am I even living?
It was almost impossible for me to process the feelings of being alone in a cell for 23 hours a day with no positive human contact. After being in a mental health dorm for some time, I saw quite a few people try to commit suicide so that question of why am I living turned into an action and I attempted suicide on a few different occasions. I remember one incident of me rolling off of the top bunk several times, trying to land on my head, hoping I would just die.
After attempting suicide didn’t work, I mentally tried to escape from confinement; I eventually started using a variety of mechanisms to dissociate from my experience. I felt like I was going mad. I started to play games with the walls in my room. I would count the bricks over and over again. I would play Tetris with the bricks, rearranging them in my mind. I even convinced myself that every time I went to sleep and woke up, a brick from the wall would be missing and the cell got smaller and smaller.
I was really lonely. I started arguments with myself and pretended like I was two different people arguing. I played out scenes from movies that I saw in the past. I remember one instance where I banged my head on the wall several times until I started bleeding, just to use the blood to enact a scene from a movie. The games of dissociation only lasted so long and eventually I began struggling to cope with confinement and I faced a losing battle with myself.
Soon, I fell into a deep, deep depression and had my first anxiety attack followed by uncontrollable rage. To cope with the depression, anxiety and rage I began daydreaming and sleeping. If I wasn’t sleeping, I was in bed trying to sleep. Get up, eat and back to sleep. This cycle of suicide attempts, dissociation, mind games, depression, anxiety, rage and sleeping my life away continued until I turned 18 and was moved in an adult dorm.
I can’t speak for all young people that have spent time or are currently spending time in confinement in an adult jail. I can only speak from my personal experiences. Duval County jail’s mission is “To operate facilities for secure, humane, corrective, and productive detention of those awaiting trial as well as those already sentenced.” But where was the productiveness in my incarceration? Where was the correction? Where is accountability for the jails to make sure arrested youth have the right space and services to avoid deeper damage?
Prior to ever ending up in the justice system, I had already experienced severe trauma. Being placed in confinement made the trauma experiences more exacerbated. The justice system is supposed to rehabilitate individuals but you can only do this if you understand what the people entering the system need.
Because of the lack of adequate mental health services and no one ever taking the time to ask me what happened to me, suffering was worse than it may otherwise have been. I was forced to relive the trauma over and over again, and eventually I detached myself from the trauma, further delaying my healing.
It wasn’t until four years later that I began receiving services. Not because the jail allowed me to, not because anyone recommended that I receive help, but because I was tired of living in misery, pain and suffering. I was tired of being bound to my past mistakes. I think of all the other children like me who are still stuck in solitary confinement and wonder if they will make it out as lucky as I did. I wonder if they get out, will they just go back because of all the damage that has been done to them.
Statistics suggest a higher recidivism rate for juveniles in the adult system, and especially for the juveniles stuck in solitary confinement. Our children deserve better. It is by luck that I’m able to write this. We need to eliminate luck from the equation. I am no longer bound, but other children are and will continue to be as long as we keep looking the other way.
Alyssa Beck is a survivor advocate who helps develop laws and practices that will support survivors of sex trafficking and youth involved in the justice justice system. Connected to the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, she is also a member of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Youth Advisory Council.
This post originally appeared on JDAIconnect.org.
This column has been updated.
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.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]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.”[/module]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.”
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]And...the everyday assault of being thrown into solitary confinement because you finally couldn’t hold in your rage anymore at such arbitrary, senseless humiliation.[/module]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.
There is one place where things are different though: prison. Somehow, at least to many people, rapes that take place in that context are somehow different. They are seen as a natural consequence of being in prison, and thus somehow less serious than rapes that happen in other places. Some people even believe the victims deserve to be raped.
Despite the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003 and its bipartisan support, public interest and political will to bring about change have remained fairly low. Prison rape is just not an issue that invites much concern. Not to say that nothing has changed, but a lot more needs to be done.
T.J. Parsell has an idea about how that might happen. Parsell, himself a victim of multiple rapes and exploitation at age 17, has taken his critically acclaimed book, Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison, and begun the task of creating a feature length motion picture out of the story.
The short film he shot during his first year in the NYU Graduate Film School can be seen here. The horror of being thrown into a world that no one should have to live in, especially a 17-year-old, is contrasted with the mundane reality of how easily such young people are cast aside to fend for themselves.
Now in his third year at the school Parcell is working to craft a movie that tells the fuller story, not only of exploitation and violence, but of survival as well. The longer film he hopes to create has the potential to reach a much larger audience, and to put a human face on a story that remains all too common.
Parcell is by all measures a successful man. He has had a thriving business career. He has worked at the highest levels of policy development, participating in negotiations with state agencies to craft survey tools in support of PREA. He has used his own story to awaken people around the country to the realities that prisoners, including juveniles, face on a daily basis. Now he has turned his talents to film making.
Parcell told me that some of his film had been shot in the very prison where he had been raped, and I was curious about how it was for him to return there after so many years. He told me he had operated the levers that controlled the cell doors, standing in the control booth, hearing and feeling the shudder that runs up and down the cell block when the doors open and close.
What was it like? I asked. “John, it was empowering,” he told me. Here, in the spot where he had been subjected to so much suffering and powerlessness, he was in charge. Accompanied by a film crew, and with his camera, he was pointing a “giant lens” into the darkness, a darkness he has worked to reveal for many years.
I hope his plan works, and that his vision is realized in this movie.
Check out his page on kickstarter to learn more about Parcell’s life and work, and most importantly to contribute to his project. This is not a movie Hollywood would typically make, but it is a story we need to see, hear and feel.
OJJDP Webinar examines difficulties in providing adequate services to detained LGBT populations
“Why are we focused on LGBTQI youth all of a sudden?” said Mykel Selph, director of the Office of Girls & Gender at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) in Illinois.
The DePaul University adjunct professor answered her own inquiry by bringing up findings from a 2010 report that estimates that approximately 15 percent of incarcerated youth self-identify as LGBT and/or gender nonconforming. According to Selph, that means that as many as 40 juveniles in Cook County’s JTDC right now are part of a detained population she believes are often “largely invisible” in the eyes of most policymakers.
Selph was one of three speakers presenting information at Tuesday’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Webinar, titled Understanding the Importance of Implementing an Effective Justice System Response for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Intersex (LGBTQI) Youth in Custody. The presentation, hosted by the National Training & Technical Assistance Center, is the third Webinar in the “Understanding and Overcoming the Challenges Faced by LGBTQI Youth” series. Earlier installments in the series have examined topics such as improving the treatment of LGBTQI youth in schools and communities and the role of family in promoting the well-being of at-risk juveniles.
The most-recent Webinar examined the needs of LGBT youth in custody, as well as the impact of new United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) regulations that call for specific protections for detained LGBTQI juveniles.
Selph said that LGBT youths were arrested for prostitution, running away from home or other placements and outstanding warrants at disproportionate rates compared to the general youth population. She also noted that they were at far greater risk for bullying, suicide, substance abuse and sexual transmitted infections (STIs). Additional issues, such as legal or educational concerns, she said, often compound LGBTQI identity.
“We can’t ignore it and we can’t put it aside,” Selph said. “We want to ensure the safety for all youth.”
Selph said emotional safety is often implied, but not necessarily focused on, when addressing LGBT youth in detention facilities. She said that addressing such emotional concerns, particularly for “closeted” youth, were “of the utmost importance, because we don’t know who they are.”
Four years ago, Selph said that her facility enacted a series of new policies and programs that directly addressed the needs of detained LGBT youth. “In 2008, the JTDC began a large reorganization effort under the leadership of transitional administrator Earl Dunlap,” she said.
These policy changes addressed staff shortages, improved and increased mental health and medical care services and introduced annual review processes, as well as developed leadership training programs for management staff and a six-week pre-service training program for incoming staffers. Additional relationships with community agencies were also created, she said, to help provide programming for both detained youth and juveniles on the verge of re-entry.
Selph said that heterosexism and homophobia are commonplace in juvenile detention centers. “One way to address it is through polices,” she said, suggesting that facilities adopt gender neutral clothing, ensure the privacy of detainees while showering and discuss the use of formal names and pronouns for residents.
She advised facility operators to “eliminate” assumptions about gender and sexuality among youth in custody. Selph said that expectations and consequences should be equal for LGBT youth and heterosexual youth alike, while specific programming should address the needs and concerns for LGBTQI populations. By doing so, she said the “trauma LGBTQI youth face in detention” may be lessened or even completely remedied.
Caleb Asbridge, Juvenile Services senior associate at the Moss Group, Inc., said that facility operators needed to take legal rights, facility culture, and policy and operational issues into account when assessing the needs of LGBTQI youth in custody. In addition to safety, security and medical protections, Asbridge advised facility managers to evaluate the “norms and informal procedures” of the facility, as well as note the “level of support for non-traditional sexual orientation and gender identity expression” among staffers.
He advised that facilities develop specific policies for LGBT youth regarding showering, searches and clothing and grooming. Asbridge said that LGBT identities can often complicate things like group management, recreational outlets and transportation in a detention facility. Additional cultural conflicts, he said, means that special precautions must be taken regarding things like intake screenings and information management for LGBT detainees.
LGBT identities, he said, have an especially important context regarding medical and mental health services. Many times, Asbridge said that facility managers mislabel transgender detainees as youth with gender identity disorder, and he notes that most facilities have no guidelines in place to address the needs of youth undergoing hormone therapy treatment. He suggests that facilities offer youth access to family education and outreach resources, as well as reunification and reintegration plans. It’s the facility’s duty, he said, to ensure that LGBT youth return to safe homes and have access to adequate post-release support services.
OJJDP Compliance Monitoring Coordinator Elissa Rumsey spoke about the recently enacted Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a piece of legislation passed in 2003 that wasn’t officially ruled effective by the USDOJ until earlier this week. PREA established four sets of standards applicable in all adult and juvenile detention facilities in the U.S., with specific requirements in place to address the needs of LGBTI youth.
The new guidelines, she said, create standardized definitions of terms like “gender nonconforming” and “intersex” and places greater restrictions on cross-gender searches and examinations.
“This standard requires that facilities shall not search or physically examine a transgender or intersex resident for the sole purpose of determining the resident’s genital status,” Rumsey said. Under the new guidelines, conversations with detainees, medical records, and if needed, medical examinations conducted in private by medical practitioners will be used to determine the proper identifications for residents.
Regarding staff training and education, Rumsey said the new guidelines will teach security personnel how to conduct cross-gender pat-downs and searches of transgender and intersex juveniles in a “professional and respectful manner, and in the least intrusive manner possible.” Additional employee training will be required for employees who may have contact with residents, including training in how to respond to signs of threatened and actual sexual abuse and how to distinguish between consensual sexual contact and sexual abuse between residents.
Rumsey said the guidelines also change how facilities screen for risk of sexual victimization and abusiveness and whether or not specific LGBTI residents should be isolated from the general population - a decision that she said should be approached using “extreme caution” by facility managers.
Staff must now be trained in obtaining information from residents about prior sexual abuse histories, she said. Rumsey advised that staffers take a number of factors into consideration -- including emotional and cognitive development and the resident’s own “perception of vulnerability” -- into consideration when self-identifying LGBTI juveniles are being processed.
Rusmsey said that the guidelines prohibit the placing of LGBTQI residents in particular housing, beds or units based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Even so, she noted that developing procedures for placement of transgender or intersex residents may prove difficult for staffers.
“In deciding whether to assign a transgender or intersex resident to a facility for male or female residents, and in making other housing and programming assignments,“ she said, “the agency shall consider on a case-by-case basis whether a placement would ensure the resident’s health and safety, and whether the placement would present management or security problems.”