When I was sixteen, I spent thirty days in Central Juvenile Hall, a 22-acre juvenile detention facility that houses both female and male inmates in Los Angeles, California.
It was 1996, the year that would see Bill Clinton’s reelection, Michael Jackson’s announcement of the pregnancy of his first child, mad cow disease in Britain, the introduction of Ebay, and the gathering of over 200,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial to march for children’s welfare at the “Stand for Children” rally.
Colored contact lenses were popular, especially among Asians. I was booked early one morning in April with one purple and one green contact in my eyes.
That morning: a routine monthly court date as stipulated by the terms of my probation; sitting bleary-eyed on a bench with my mother.
What I didn’t know, all those mornings spent in court before I was handcuffed and led to the back hallways unseen by the public, was that inside the core of the building were cells, elevators, and detention chambers where shackled prisoners were led by guards.
Shielded from the public, prisoners are unseen and unheard. Their—although here and throughout this text I resist using a different pronoun: Our—invisibility is what allows for the perpetuation of not only violence and abuse but systematic and legalized action against incarcerated people.
Through juvenile courts and the adult criminal justice system, the United States incarcerates more of its youth than any other country in the world.
Juvenile, as defined by law, is a person below the age of 18. In other words, a child. At Central, there was an eight-year-old boy in detention for setting a house on fire.
I had been arrested six months prior to that court date in April for the possession of stolen property and placed on a year’s probation.
Behind the legalese is a story.
Let’s go to Tijuana, Colleen suggested, pulling a stolen gas card out of her back pocket. That weekend, we took the keys of her adoptive parents’ old car, and backed out of the gravel driveway.
Neither of us had a driver’s license. We hadn’t reached the legal driving age.
Cutting through the inland basin, Colleen and I made our way through Southern California’s various microclimates, the overcast morning quickly yielding to the smog-filtered sun on the I-5.
At a gas station, we filled the tank of the Chevrolet and loaded up on candy, air fresheners, energy drinks, and sunglasses.
We never made it to Tijuana. In San Diego, after smoking a six-foot bong, for which we had to stand atop a kitchen table to reach while another person lit the bowl from below, Colleen and I headed back to Los Angeles. We were in tears, paranoid, certain that we would crash or drive off the road.
Prisoners are not allowed to have a story. Their lives are expunged with a swift backhand: Criminals are, in the legitimizing structure of the carceral system, already guilty.
A few girls in jail wore orange jumpsuits, indicating a serious or violent offense. I heard that one girl had been pushing her baby in a swing at the park when the baby fell and died.
For girls can also be mothers.
Girls outnumber boys in rates of detention and arrest for status offenses, behavior that is only considered illegal when a person is less than 18 years of age, such as truancy, curfew violations, and running away.
A study on trauma in the juvenile justice system reveals that unaddressed trauma attributes to the criminalization of girls. If trauma is not resolved, it leads to high rates of drug and alcohol use, involvement in violent activity, and development of mental health problems. For many adolescent females, there is a strong link between experiences of neglect and abuse, a lack of appropriate treatment, and behaviors that lead to arrest.
If trauma is not resolved… How does one resolve trauma at the age of eight, thirteen, sixteen?
A week later, we were arrested when the cops came and Colleen confessed to stealing the gas card.
I was named. Naively, I confessed to eating the candy, wearing the sunglasses, and consuming the energy drinks bought with the stolen gas card.
It didn’t seem so bad at the time. In many ways, it was as if the arrest hadn’t happened at all. An hour at the police station, fingerprinting, a succession of light-bulb flashes.
On the outs, which was what we called the world on the other side of the jail walls, my preferred uniform consisted of: purple and green contact lenses, twenty-hole Docs, fishnet stockings, a pierced tongue, half-shaved head, slip dress, and silver dog collar encrusted with blue rhinestones. I thought of myself as a Chinese Courtney Love.
For violating my probation, for staying out past curfew and skipping class, I was sentenced to thirty days in detention by the judge.
The criminalization of this behavior had transmuted my life, where staying out past six p.m. and not going to class were considered crimes punishable by imprisonment.
I had been planning on going back to sleep after court. I was exhausted in that way only a teenager can be, when no amount of food or sleep is enough for a body.
With two other girls, I was shackled, a chain connecting our three bodies; six hands cuffed at the waists.