Five things Friday roundup: things I’ve learned while working in kid prison

Durango Juvenile Detention Center in Phoenix, Ariz. The windows belong to individual cells occupied by children. — Josh Garber

A little over a year ago, I (Josh) started teaching at a high school in a juvenile detention center. We call it a detention center because people are too uncomfortable when you call it what it is: a prison for children. Working in such an environment affirmed many of my suspicions about the U.S. penal system: it doesn’t work. As folks who typically make this type of assertion are relegated to simply having a political viewpoint, I want to share five things I’ve learned as an Anabaptist working in a kid prison.

1. The prison system does not do what it claims to do

Every day I receive a student roster, and there’s always a section that lists “returnees.” Even though over a year I’ll have worked with over 800 kids, I’ve started to recognize some names, which is a sour feeling. Many correctional facilities would claim that they are in the business of “correcting” folks who commit crimes. High rates of recidivism (also known as the revolving door phenomenon) would argue that’s not the case. In an official report documenting recidivism rates in the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections between 2020 and 2022, 35.1% percent of the youth return to custody within 12 months of release and 47.5% within 36 months.

2. Fighting trauma with trauma

The teaching staff and I often discuss how the kids we work with don’t need punitive punishment. Rather, they need to be in a secure trauma-counseling facility. Nobody ends up behind bars because everything is going well in their lives. Violently broken families, drug addiction (both in the kids and their parents), poverty, mental illness and developmental disabilities — in any other circumstance, we would be embracing kids who have experienced these circumstances and finding ways to support the kids. However, if a kid’s trauma actually leads to poor decisions and harm to others, the detention center’s approach is to break them down in order to rid them of their bad behavior. But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

3. Prisons do not only break down kids

People don’t talk about the fact that even if you just work in a prison . . . you’re still spending every day in prison. The things I see and hear are heavy and, even though I’m able to move around the building more than the kids, the lack of sunlight and general sense of negativity impacts and pervades everything. The turnover rate for the detention staff has been staggering, and I’m pretty sure that’s in part because nobody should feel good doing what they’re expected to do to kids if they misbehave.

4. A surprising percentage of kids have special needs

At different points in my life, I’ve worked with special needs folks in varying capacities: I worked one-on-one with an autistic boy in a high school, coached Special Olympics for several years, and directed a day program for adults with developmental disabilities. However, I wasn’t expecting nearly half of the kids in detention to have Individual Education Programs, which are plans tailor-made to support children who qualify for special education services in Arizona. As someone who lives with ADHD and clinical depression, I suppose I’m a mental-health outlier, too. I’m grateful to my supportive family who scaffolded me when I needed it most because the kids who end up in detention aren’t as lucky.

5. There are good people everywhere

As dark a place as a kid jail is, I’ve learned to spot points of light everywhere – specifically, good folks who want to see positivity, transformation and new life in places filled with negativity, hopelessness and death. Even though the prison system is designed to squash such things, I believe God has a special interest in places where the marginalized are especially abused. As Arundhati Roy wrote in War Talk, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.”

A call to prayer and action:

God, let the light of compassion guide us to envision a world where young lives are not lost in the shadows of punitive systems but are instead embraced with understanding, support and transformative care. May our actions be a testament to the possibility of creating a more just and compassionate world. Let our voices rise together, echoing the possibility of a world where hope, redemption and new beginnings flourish. Amen.

Consider supporting organizations that work to reduce violence in prison. The Alternatives to Violence program, which was started in 1975 by Quakers, teaches interpersonal conflict resolution skills. AVP trains community members and inmates to be facilitators in prison settings and also offers separate trainings for prison guards and staff.

Alisha and Josh Garber

Alisha and Josh Garber are in a season of discernment. After over a decade of mission work in Europe, they Read More

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