The Juvenile (In)justice System
A Conversation with Evelyn Gonzalez, Victoria Mills, and Sheila Mitchell, moderated by Kolleen Duley, and with assistance from Kathy Leichter
Kolleen Duley: I thought we could start off with a moment for each of us to introduce ourselves. I’ll go first, just to get things moving. My name is Kolleen Duley. I am an assistant professor of gender and women's Studies at SUNY Plattsburgh. I am also an attorney, and I do pro bono work with incarcerated people in New York. I have been working with incarcerated people, their families, and other abolition feminists since I lived in Northern and Southern California, where I did my undergraduate and graduate work. There I worked primarily with people accused of crimes related to their experiences of interpersonal violence through the organization Free Battered Women, a former project of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Now that I’m in upstate New York, I work with a primarily male population—or people in men's prisons, I should say, because this includes many trans-identified folks. Soon I’ll start working again with women and transpeople who live in prisons labeled “female” in western New York. I have worked on civil rights issues surrounding people’s lack of access to health care, mental wellness, ability to maintain connections to family, guard brutality, disciplinary hearings, and racialized, gendered, and anti-trans/queer violence. I live on a little organic farm in the Adirondack mountains, and I have a little baby and another one on the way. So that's a little bit about me, now let me pass to Sheila.
Sheila Mitchell: Hi everyone. So just a little bit about me. I'm married, and my wife and I have been together for a little over seven years. I'm very excited about that. We have four girls, and then they have three grandchildren. I currently live in San José, California, after moving here in July of this year. I'm now serving as a chief executive officer of a nonprofit organization focused on foster care youth specifically around housing in support of care. Prior to that I worked in county systems: LA County, Santa Clara County, and Oakland County. I moved over to the nonprofit sector back in July, so it is really very rewarding in terms of the work that I'm currently doing. I went from managing large bureaucratic systems to now being able to manage and lead a small system where we can see the direct correlation to the work that we're doing. I’m just feeling proud of that.
I met Victoria in 2014. It was when I was in charge of the probation system in Santa Clara County, which is in San José. I’m just so very humble and grateful to know Victoria and the work that she's been doing for a lifetime—and how the work that she does impacts the juvenile justice field in such an important way. And she speaks so highly of you, Evelyn, and I know we have to get together since we're right down the street from one another. So I've known you for many, many years, but through Victoria, and not through you. So this work is something that I just live and breathe. I worked in the corporate sector for almost twenty years, and then retired to work for AT&T. And so I went from working in the corporate sector to county government to now a nonprofit, and I'm living my best life ever right now. And I will pass it to Evelyn.
Evelyn Gonzalez: Thank you, Sheila. That was so nice. Well, Victoria and I have known each other for such a long time already. We met when I was incarcerated at The Ranch here in Morgan Hill, California.1 So that was my experience: I was incarcerated there, including during my pregnancy. It was like my turning point when I had my son, so from there on I decided to just focus on my education. I went on to college at Santa Clara University where I’m trying to complete my bachelor's degree in political science.
While studying, I was also participating in any type of civic engagement or policy advocacy I could find, mainly to help at-risk youth and to better our juvenile justice system. So right now I am working for FLY (Fresh Lifelines for Youth) as a youth policy coach. My position is mostly about helping youth, empowering them to use their voice to enlighten the current system and also voice the obstacles and challenges they face, so we can have a more just system. I'm also a founding member of the Youth Advisory Program, which is a collaboration between probation and Fresh Lifelines for Youth. We help in training probation officers and have a seat on many important committees that oversee the juvenile justice system. So I have mainly used my personal experience and my passion about changing the system to make things more equal, and to offer more opportunities for at-risk youth. I'm delighted to be here today and I’ll pass it over to Victoria.
Victoria Mills: I’m a psychoanalyst in New York City, and Like Any Other Kid is my third film. It’s a film about love for me. At-risk youth have been my passion since I was 19 years old. So I've worked with kids forever. I started programs for at-risk youth when I worked in clinics, and when I made the film the kids were something that I cared deeply about. I was really fortunate in doing research to come across Mark Steward, the creator of Missouri Approach, who introduced me to Sheila, who introduced me to other people. So making films has put me in a place where I have experiences I couldn’t otherwise have had. Sitting in my office is one thing, and I love my work with my patients. But I really feel like you have to bring people to the street, and you have to let people know about people's lives and what they've been through, and the trauma. Filmmaking is a really important way to do that. And you get to meet amazing people—I think about the relationships and the friendships and how important relationships are, and my films really focus on that. So that's me.
Kolleen: The conversation, we thought I’d ask a question and put it out there for anybody to respond to. I first wanted you all to speak specifically about how you became advocates for youth in the juvenile justice system, though we sometimes say “injustice” instead of “justice” because it more accurately reflects what's going on there. And maybe you have a specific memory or a moment or a short anecdote that you can use to talk about the larger injustices that are reflected in the system or you find to be a powerful illustration of the way the system works not just to protect public safety but actually to disenfranchise people who are incarcerated, and, as we all know, disproportionately impacts primarily poor communities of color, as well as folks who have mental illnesses or other forms of disability, survivors of violence, and queer and trans youth or adults.
Evelyn: This question was really interesting, because you know this system impacted me a lot, but my experience has helped me advocate for juvenile justice. When I was incarcerated I was pregnant, and what I saw didn't sit right with me: going to my doctor appointments I was shackled completely, which I thought was very unsafe in walking and maybe even tripping. And then getting transported in the back of the van where it was really inhumane for me. I'm like, “Well, I don't know, the van might bump so hard it might cause some problems in my pregnancy.” I was also dealing with very hostile officers at the juvenile facilities, so in some way I felt bullied. They would use their power to do some injustices. For example, one of the officers didn't like me for some reason, and she would always put me in my room for every little disruption, or for something they didn't like. And for me it was like, I’m not even doing anything, and I felt like I'm not like the rest of these girls. They're very disrespectful. So for me that was a very hard experience, partly because the officers were supposed to be there to help.
I was at The Ranch for robberies, and a lot of the times when judges are sentencing, they're lacking contextual information about why we're there, why we're doing the things we are doing. And for me it was like I was trying to survive. I was trying to get the things I needed. I was dealing with an alcoholic drug-addicted father. I was fleeing home. And so that's what I had to resort to. And so then judges are seeing this negative person but they just don't understand. And then you don't have a voice in court. Do they let you explain these things? No. It was really frustrating that they didn’t understand where I was coming from. And so then, when I had the opportunity to go to school at Santa Clara University, I saw that the majority of kids there were white. Where I come from, you don't see a lot of people of color in these education systems. And so just from those experiences—going to a prestigious school, being incarcerated, and also seeing the ethnic disparities in both of the systems—it was something that hit me hard. And you know that I have a lot to say because not a lot of people have experienced both of these worlds. I've been incarcerated and in this professional educational system. And when I had the opportunity to advocate through Fresh Lifelines for Youth—the nonprofit invited me so I could share about this—I loved it. I fell in love with sharing my experiences, and for others to be able to hear me. Then I saw results: they were willing to work with us to create these councils and committees, so we can make changes. And so knowing that there's a possibility now of using your experience to advocate for these injustices got me more passionate about this work.
Kolleen: Thank you so much for sharing Evelyn. I know that that's not easy, especially with a bunch of strangers. So thank you. Anyone else want to contribute to that?
Sheila: Thank you, Evelyn. Very, very powerful story. I won't take you into the whole history because I have a long history, but I had worked for AT&T for many, many years, and did some really great, powerful work. When I took early retirement I was still living in Atlanta, Georgia, and it was the moment in time when a lot was happening in terms of Black kids. Black kids were missing, they were being murdered, just a whole lot of things. I didn't realize this, but right down the street from where I lived, there was a juvenile detention center. I didn’t know what it had to do with the next phase of my life, but I applied for a job with the Georgia Department of Juvenile justice, not knowing a single thing about what they did. But I created this great PowerPoint presentation because I did my research about how I was going to come in and change what was happening there. What I learned from joining the Department of Juvenile Justice is just the dysfunction in it, and at that time I was also coming out into my own being as a lesbian. So I was starting to do a lot of reading, and one of my idols was Audre Lorde who talks about the master's tools (1984). And so it was like something had to be different.
I had my first experience with a Black probation chief—there still aren't that many. She came and did a presentation on women and girls in the juvenile justice system. She was such a powerhouse, she had led many women's jails. How she talked and spoke convinced me that she was someone that I wanted to work more with. And then after the presentation she offered me a job in Oakland, California, as her deputy, from just that one meeting. It was just really interesting and led me into this work. And then she believed that we have to have functional systems where we work, and this work had to happen from the outside-in versus from the outside-out. And so that led me to really look from a community perspective and consider how to engage and how to involve the community in the decision making. Because, when you look at the data then—thirty years ago—about Black kids, it's the same today. Black kids are incarcerated more than white kids. It happened then. It's happening now. Everybody's working on it and has been working on it, but little has changed. I'm sorry to say it, but little has changed. I'm also working as the chief executive officer for a group called Unity Care and with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It's what I think to be some of my best work.
And you asked about one of the things that was a powerful experience for us. When I started working with Los Angeles County—the largest probation county in the world—in January 2017, it was a very dysfunctional system. Our board decided at that time they wanted to dismantle it. But they approached it with the advocate community rather than starting with the probation officers, and by doing it that way they were able to start with a fresh holistic look at transforming a system that was not achieving great outcomes. It feels very different. It is very different. You know, we have not historically funded nonprofits in this work very much. So I forged a relationship with the foundation community, and we funded them to be the liaison to fund nonprofits using pass-through county dollars. I think, though, there's some fine work happening in LA County in terms of practice, but the execution is not happening very well, so there is a disconnect. So that’s my experience in entering the system, and where I see the system now.
Kolleen: Thank you, Sheila. Victoria, did you want to contribute?
Victoria: I can pick up on all the different things that people have said. I worked with kids when I was a teenager. When I was in Oregon back in the 1970s, back then it was a mess, but in some way, at least in Oregon, they treated kids better. You know, they weren't shackling them. It was a different way of thinking about things. Then I came to New York. I worked at Brooklyn Family Court. I worked with the kids, so it's my interest in the kids, and the whole point of the film Like Any Other Kid was to show that these children are children, and they should not be in prison. And as we know, the majority of them are children of color, and so we really need to address the bigger system. I feel like this has been my life's goal: helping people develop self-esteem and feel good about themselves. I like to partner with people and communities to bring this goal to more people. Having a film allows people to see this, and you get to reach a wider audience. I want people to tell their stories, and that's what I do. All day, I listen to people's stories and have seen so many heartbreaking things—just heartbreaking. So I felt like it was really important to show people. For example, we screened the film in Montana—up in the mountains—and a big tall white cowboy came up to me after the film and said, “You know, this is the first time I understand institutional racism.” And I thought, “Okay. This shows I made an impact, which has been my goal.” That was a pretty encouraging moment for me.
Sheila: One other thing from what Victoria just hit upon, is that if you look at data, in Los Angeles in 2018 we did a study and found that about 95 percent of the kids in a juvenile justice system were once in our child welfare system. Think about that. They are abused and neglected kids, right? So that's child welfare. And then the youth become what people say they are. But when we look at it and do intensive work around this we learn that these kids have such a high degree of trauma that I don’t always know how they could make it. And then, institutionalized racism as Victoria brought up, only makes the trauma worse. So when I think about the film and how I came to know and meet Victoria, I think about how we were struggling a lot around what to do with our young people that were in our camps—and camps are residential programs for kids that have been incarcerated but are staying for a long period of time. And so Victoria and her work presented a different option. A lot of our kids would say “I’m just doing time.” And if you're just doing time, then after that time is up what happens next? The system hasn’t given them anything. So this is a moment in time to do something very different, to understand their voices and to see them in a different way. See not what they did, but who they are. And so I think doing this work with Victoria in our camps was just so powerful because we started to see kids in a very different light.
And also, I don't think any one of us would survive—could have survived—foster care. These kids have such big hearts, and they are really, really smart. But because of the trajectory of where they started and where they are now, we have to approach it from a trauma-informed lens and not this lens of rehabilitation. Or we talk about mental health, but if I say to some of my kids “I have a clinician who’s going to help you,” they’re like “I don't have mental health needs.” But what they all have is trauma. So I just wanted to honor that work that Victoria has done for such a very long time, and how it impacted the kids in Santa Clara County to this day. You know they are still using this trauma-informed approach, and that tells me about system reform: is what they did ten years ago still happening today? And in this case, it is.
Kolleen: Thank you, Sheila. That feels like a really good transition into one of our other questions. I think that we can all agree that the criminal justice system is perhaps better termed the criminal “injustice” system because of the fact that it not only disproportionately targets people who are already marginalized—particularly Black communities—but also that it’s actually not broken. It's actually acting in many of the ways that it's intended to do. With that said, I think we can also agree that at the very least it's not helping, but harming. So what have you seen that does work? What kind of reforms have you seen in practice, or what kind of practices, seem to work—maybe it's the Missouri Approach, which we learn about in Like Any Other Kid; maybe it's alternative sentencing; maybe it’s abolitionist; maybe it's education-oriented? And on the same token, what have you seen that doesn't work? I think taking ourselves from the starting point that the system isn't working, we need to start really identifying what is working and what also what hasn’t worked. So could you talk a little bit about what you've seen that's worked and not worked, and maybe why you think it worked or why you think it failed?
Victoria: I have really strong opinions about this. You have to deal with things on a community level, and you really have to meet the needs of the people in the community. As a society, we don't do that, and we're not interested in doing that. So I end up having more questions than answers. How do you give people education? How do you give people jobs? How do you do these things? So these programs, like what Evelyn does and what Sheila does, work on a community scale. But how do you do it on an even bigger scope? Because where you are born really determines a lot about what happens to you in your life. Even just in my experience filming in California, Louisiana, and New York, I observed that the kids in Louisiana do not have the same resources as the kids in California. It’s very clear that there is no consistency. I also think people don't understand that in the juvenile system, as in the adult criminal system, there isn't any continuity state by state. It's about the district you live in. It's the neighborhood you grew up in. And all of those things inform what happens to you. And if you have resources and money, and there are people who care about the community, then you have a fighting chance. But if you don't have that good luck, it’s more of a struggle. So I want to ask, what do we do on a bigger scale?
Sheila: I'm always struck by the term “system.” It's a group of interactive things that are coming together for a common purpose. We talk about the justice system not working, and one has to say, “What's the purpose of the system?” The purpose of the system was really about public safety. It really wasn't about rehabilitation and investing. And I don't even like to use the language “system” anymore because we have so many systems. And so when I think about incarceration, we want to reduce incarceration, right? We want to lower the number of kids in our system, and when we did that what we saw who was left was just Black and brown kids, because the numbers went down, but disproportionately. We also talk about rehabilitation, and what does that look like? When I talk with folks across the country, they say we're not investing in the people that really can help solve the issue, and that's our community. When our kids leave the juvenile justice system, where do they go? They go back into the community. So we’ve got to flip it around and invest in the community.
It’s been difficult for me because I’ve been part of the system. But I was never really a system advocate for probation. For whatever reason I was the advocate for the kids that are there. At the time, in-school services were managed by probation officers. They call them school probation offices. So, I think we should move this out of probation and into the community. But if we dismantle our juvenile halls, people worry that public safety is going to be horrendous. But if you think about it, during COVID the numbers of kids incarcerated went down immensely and crime didn't go up. In LA County the numbers went down in terms of those incarcerated by over 50 percent, and crime didn't go up. So there needs to be some research about that. What happened during that period? What were the young people doing? They were being supported in very different ways. And so what works is investment in the community to give options to the families. They're not bad families. They're families that just have not had the opportunities, as others have, so investing in families is also investing in young people.
In California, at Unity Care I came on board in July 2022 as a chief executive officer. My predecessor had been the CEO and founder for thirty years. That in itself was kind of hard, coming in those doors. But one of the things that we recognize is that we have to go upstream to dismantle the system. Let’s think about the number of kids that were in foster care that are in juvenile justice. But who's in foster care? And how did they get there? They got there from poverty. If I’m a mother that doesn't have the means, and a social worker visits my home, and they see that I don't have food in the refrigerator, or I don't have enough clothes for my kids, it's not because I’m neglectful. It's because of poverty. But we don't address the systemic issue of poverty and the impact that it has on the child welfare system, which leads to kids being in the juvenile justice system, which ends up with young people being in the adult prison system. So we have to address—and this is big—we have to address poverty. How do we even begin to broach that topic? But it's like those domino systems, about the pipelines. Racism is certainly up there. These are big things, and I don't think we give the time or attention needed to address the root cause and to do some root cause analysis. We focus on the thing of the day, so we reduce the number of kids in the system, but five years from now the numbers will swing the other way, because that's what happens with the pendulum. That’s why I feel it's necessary to invest in the community. And I think you mentioned defunding the police. You know, I don't know if I think it's right. Funding police right and changing what it is that they do—like more compassionate policing—seems right.
Victoria: The thing that I found out is that people want and need help. This is what Evelyn and I talk about a lot—about support. Look at her program, Fresh Lifelines for Youth, and the support it gives, the models it gives. People need support. As a country, we don't support each other, so how do we give each other support? Do you want to talk about FLY, Evelyn? It does an amazing job, don't you think?
Evelyn: Like Victoria mentioned earlier, a lot depends on the area where you live, and luckily I’m fortunate to be here in Silicon Valley, where they’re progressive, and open to listening and change. I want to be part of the decision making to make the system better, more rehabilitative. And the experts providing the information—it’s the youth themselves. So in our organization we have youth with this experience, and we are able to give them a seat. There are meetings and conferences that come up where they're discussing things they want to change in probation and juvenile hall at The Ranch. Juvenile hall, which is similar to a youth detention center, is a secure facility for young people, or juveniles. These offenders are usually awaiting court hearings or long-term disciplinary care programs for committing juvenile crimes, such as drug possession or robbery. Juveniles are typically held in a detention center to ensure they will appear at their appointed court date, as well as for public safety reasons. When we started giving a seat to the youth, I myself was able to also sit in and talk about the big challenges and what would be helpful. So they could use that information to make changes. I can also talk about some of the things that could go wrong if they might not make changes based on the information the youth share. I did see some youth who felt that they weren't being heard, so even if they give you a seat—and we’re providing all this feedback in hopes of enlightening the system—they can still put you to the side. So sometimes that was what we had going on.
For me, one of the good reforms that we achieved came from a lot of youth at the organization stating that their probation officers were not very supportive. And so, when we founded this Youth Advisory Council we made a partnership with probation officers, so they were willing to hear our concerns and our experiences, and they even invited us to come and participate in their training. This means they're hearing perspectives from youth, and then also have their own training. That made a difference. We saw that probation officers were being more supportive. We also conducted orientations for families. They get paperwork with all of these expectations about probation, and the parents don’t know how to support their children. And a lot of times there were language barriers, so I was able to communicate in Spanish in a kind of a more intimate approach so they felt supported. And so we started to see youth finishing their probation successfully.
Our organization is also extending its reach. We're expanding to Alameda, San Mateo, and Contra Costa counties to start reaching towards the state level and, hopefully, move national. We collaborate with other national organizations, so they can hear about this approach, such as what Victoria showed in her film Like Any Other Kid, and what has proven to be more successful. Another thing that has helped is the conference Beyond the Bench. We have judges, attorneys, and other stakeholders that assist. We’re able to give presentations and involve the youth, or sometimes even facilitate the conference ourselves, and that allows people in positions of power to be informed about other issues that they need to hear. We also educate them about the school-to-prison pipeline, which are things they don't usually focus on during their conferences.
Kolleen: Thank you. I really, really appreciate what everyone said. The part that I keep picking up on—that I keep hearing you all say—is that you know some of these solutions have less to do with what to do after people have committed or have been accused of committing a crime and more to do with prevention. What do we need to do structurally to change our society, so that so many people are not put in these inevitably difficult places in the first place? I hear that conversation a lot around prison abolition and the defund the police movement, as Sheila mentioned. One of the biggest myths around prison abolition and defund the police movements is that they are calling for shutting down all prisons or taking away all the money from the police. Really, it's not about that only. For now, it primarily is about building what Ruthie Gilmore calls “life affirming institutions.”2 It’s about investing in communities so that people have their needs met. This is sometimes thought of as too big a question, and people are saying that it involves too many things to deal with. So the questions I want to put out to you are, How can we debunk that myth? What do you think that defunding the police really means? And if it doesn't mean removing all the police officers or even not adding more—or dismantling all the police departments immediately (but eventually)—how can we have discussions around the fact that these reductions may seem drastic, but communities have had a lot of their resources systematically dismantled without much public conversation? Thus we're really asking that money be reinvested in the community, where it was taken from and should be in the first place, rather than directing resources into reforms that further entrench us in this carceral system. What is your take on this? Are these out-of-this-world ideas? Or have you seen examples of ways that we can reinvest in communities on the front end, or invest in what the carceral-abolitionist organization Critical Resistance calls “non-reformist reforms,”3 changes can we make that don't further expand the prison system but instead redirect those resources into communities?
Sheila: I think it's all about money. Michelle Alexander did some great work about the prison industrial complex (2010). And so it’s like, who's getting paid here? When you think about the power basis here, it's about money. So there are self-serving interests about upgrading prisons and operating juvenile halls. Something that touches on what Evelyn said: it created a big rift in LA County when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided to do away with juvenile probation. But probation is unionized, so the unions have a big voice. When the board set out this agenda to eliminate juvenile probation—and I was leading the Probation Department at the time—the juvenile side was like, “You’re not going to have a job there anymore.” What the county then did was look at who could actually work on this. Certainly, juvenile probation was involved, but they weren't leading that effort. You know it's back to Audre Lorde: “Who’s going to dismantle this?” (1984).
And it was the young people that had the voice and explained how the system needed to look. Starting with the young people, starting with family, starting with investment—that was the approach that they took. They created a lot of headache for those who run the system, but the people who run the system can't bring about the change to the system. So in LA they formed what’s now called the Department of Youth Development that has the power of investment, and they're funded. They took funds from the Probation Department and created the new Department of Youth Development, and I think it's got potential. But there's so much political pressure from unions and from staff because people see it as a personal affront that they didn't do good work, and, secondly, they are worried about their own personal job security. But it's the right thing, absolutely to do, and it now rests with the young people, and the families guiding what the system could look like. And they don't call it “the system.” They call it the Youth Development Department. It's a department that rests within the board that comes up with ideas, strategies—and they come up with some great ones.
But it was a major risk to replace probation with the Department of Youth Development. Staff had spent their whole life working in the probation system—they came in there for really good reasons—and all of a sudden people were saying, “The work that you're doing is causing more harm than good.” That's a bad way to start. Instead, we need to focus more on the impact of what we've learned: we learned what our clients need. We know what the community needs. We need to recognize that probation officers did the work that was needed at the time, but now it's different work that's needed. So I think we often start with what was bad, and when people say what was bad, there are people that are associated with that critique who automatically become defensive. But if you frame it that times have changed and what you’ve been doing no longer solves the problem, then the whole conversation shifts.
Let's consider the Defund the Police movement. The police are doing what they were initially told they needed to do. Now it's like they need to do something very different, and I think, like what Victoria was saying, we need to train them to do something different. We need to train probation officers. What they did five years ago, ten years, twenty years is not what's needed today. So I think it's like turning it upside down in a very different way.
Victoria: Right, and then you get to reframe it. We have to have a different paradigm in order to think about things. This is something that we talk about when we're teaching and in classrooms. And I think Sheila was right. You know people who have power don't want to give it up. But how can you get them to start to think about it in a different way? It's like coming at stuff from a different direction, something that works without having people be defensive. It was really interesting to see the transition at The Ranch, where the staff had been prison guards originally. And then it was like, “Okay, now we're going to do it differently, and we're going to teach you and train you,” and people are really open if you present it to them so it feels like they’re going to learn something and they start to feel good about it. It makes a really big difference, and I saw this in the work that was done in the Bronx at Sheltering Arms. I showed the staff excerpts from what I filmed at The Ranch, and they were excited and they said, “Well, we can do that, too.” So you have to have a different paradigm and you have to approach it in a different way, and you can't get into a power struggle because nobody's going to win.
Evelyn: This is one topic I haven't paid much attention to, but I did come across it in news articles a couple of times, and I think it was due to all the killings—unjust killings—and from police officers not being able to deal with it properly. And so what I heard was about defunding and allocating the funds to different resources, like providing help to people who are dealing with the problems in the juvenile system. For example, we had some people with mental health challenges or other problems, and they ended up getting killed. These youth need the support and mentoring. I think Sheila mentioned it's the right funding of the police, and it is true. If they received the right training, the right education, like Victoria said, then maybe we would see a difference in their approach. Programs that help at-risk youth or other adults with mental health problems should have funds going to them because that's where we actually have change going on. So for me, all these programs I experienced when I was a minor, that's what led me to change, to go after my career in education, and participate in policy advocacy. These programs gave me support. They gave me time. They also gave me an opportunity to participate in interviews. We were able to interview staff that were applying for the jobs. All these opportunities that I was able to participate in made me feel differently about myself. It made me see that I had the potential to also be a professional, also to have a job there, and to do the things that I wanted to do.
Let’s skip to the question about reform. If you can't reform the system itself, then let's work directly with the people that are getting impacted by it. And so we're doing the job that the systems cannot do, and a lot of youth have gone through FLY’s program. We have a lot of data showing that we reduced recidivism rates. We helped them graduate high school and obtain a job. And now we're receiving more funds, so we opened this other department that helps transitional-aged youth—I think it's youth ages 18 to 24—with career development. So for me, these programs are really, really effective, and if there is a need to do something about what's going on, then let's put some funds into these programs that are helping those people directly.
Kolleen: Thank you. That was awesome, Evelyn. I really appreciate you reminding us that this is not just about building a whole new world of nonprofits to attack what the police do. The problem is also recognizing how important it is that social justice movements be led by people who have been impacted by the incarceration system. Because that’s a totally different place to start from. I know that your experiences as a movement organizer and person who has been incarcerated are totally different than if it were coming from me, without having had that firsthand experience of living inside. It also makes me think about how reforms can be effective—and many are necessary to address suffering occurring inside right now. The question is how do we distinguish “reformist reforms” from “non-reformist” or abolitionist reforms? And it's actually not that hard to sit down and think about what's working and what's not, so we can start putting the resources that are already out there in a different pot, so to speak.
I know that we’re getting near the end of our time, so let me throw out one more question. The question is the one that brought us here, which is about pedagogy—the art, theory, and practice of teaching, and how we can use films like Like Any Other Kid in the classroom, especially the feminist classroom, which can be a more open space to bring these conversations to the table. Could you all talk about using Like Any Other Kid or other films in the classroom? What was effective, what worked? How could you connect with students and make them excited about creating social change or going back to work with their own communities, especially with kids who've experienced incarceration, or whose family members have experienced incarceration?
Victoria: Well, I guess I’ll start because I did a bunch of education with the film. But first let's talk about myths and the myths about these kids. One is that they’re super predators. Something that was really effective with college students and high school students—and even middle school students—is to ask them about their ideas of delinquents or “juvies.” And when they watch the film—when they get to know the kids who are incarcerated—they often forget about what crimes the youth committed. The students get invested in youth’s lives. They wonder, “Why did they get like this? And how did they get like this?” And a lot of college kids are really close to the age of a lot of these incarcerated kids. So I really found that starting this way was very effective.
I screened the film for a judge in Queens with his staff. He wanted to have his staff come and see the film, and we started to talk about the title, Like Any Other Kid, and why I chose it. One of the young men said, “You know, I was one of those kids, and I don’t know what would’ve happened if it hadn't been for my teacher who believed in me and helped me get through this. I'm in law school now.” He kind of came out and shared his whole experience with us. So I think, identification can be very helpful for students, when you put yourself in other people's shoes. We taught criminology classes with students who want to be cops and are starting to see themselves as cops. And so one of the things I really wanted to do was debunk the myth that these are horrible kids.
Sheila: Before jumping on the call for this conversation, I was like, ”I need to do some work.” So I started reading some of the materials you all shared, and I watched a video that showed an image of about twenty young kids in orange jumpsuits, and the tagline was about incarceration.4 I think what happens is that there are false depictions of what the system really is. The last time I looked, I didn’t see 10- and 12-year-olds in the system in orange jumpsuits. So I think we have to know who the young people are in our system.
Several years ago I had an opportunity to visit one of the classes at the UCLA School of Social Work, and they have little knowledge about what the system really is. Like many people who work in the juvenile justice system, they joined because they want to do good not harm. But what they didn't know is what does good look like, and I think that's the power of Like Any Other Kid because it gives new tools to change the system by just educating folks. For example, most of the incarcerated kids now are Black kids, brown kids; most are foster care kids; many came as neglected kids and were abused. They got into the system because something happened, and it's something that happens to white kids but most don’t land in the system. In my organization we have a new term called “credible messengers,” or people who have lived experience with incarceration, and I value that because I listen to them talk about what that was like for them. That's how we change the system.
And I just wanted to give a shout out to Evelyn and her organization, if I might: Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY). If anybody has figured out how to really work with young people, it's that organization. I remember when The James Ranch, where Victoria has spent so much time, had kids running away left and right, causing mayhem. They were escaping the system. My boss was saying that we needed to put up a bigger fence because it's about community safety. But instead we worked with FLY. They came to The Ranch and did some interviews with the young people. They asked, “Are you running away from something or are you running to something?” And what we learned is where they were running to their families. We learned that we did not have the families involved with them when they were in the system. This was a fundamental shift that we had to make, because immediately our reaction was a bigger fence, a taller fence, keeping them in—when they just missed their families while they were in the system. So I think it's about asking the right questions. And it really is like Evelyn described: it's the young people that are going to really help us resolve what we need to do next, and we need to give them the power and the tools and all the resources that they need to make those changes.
Victoria: I want to emphasize what Sheila was saying, and what Evelyn was saying: it's about meeting needs. If you met needs, then things would change quite a bit. I think sometimes we don't know what we need, but we can help people find what they need. And if you meet needs, you're not going to have the crimes. You're not going to have a lot of the chaos because your needs are being met.
Sheila: Yes, when I was talking to some of our kids in Juvenile Hall at The Ranch, I asked them, “What are you most afraid of?” And they were like, “Well, I got here because I was stealing some stuff, and I'm afraid that my family is going to suffer because I stole stuff so that they could eat, or so that they could live.” Their major fear was not what was going to happen to them while they were incarcerated, but what was going to happen to their family. So it's almost like having that human part of us understand what lands kids in the juvenile justice system. It really doesn’t have to do with the crime that they committed but it’s about asking “Why did they commit that crime?” It’s not true for all of them, but it is for the majority of them.
Victoria: Yes, it’s like Frias, a youth in Like Any Other Kid. He didn’t come back from his “out time” (OT) from The Ranch because he had to take care of his mother and siblings.5 And everybody at The Ranch understood that. It's like when you understand the person and what motivates them, then that makes a big difference in how you treat them. And so you have to listen to the people who are incarcerated. We have to listen to our youth.
Another example of building empathy relates to the check-ins the workers did at The Ranch. The idea is that the workers ask the youth about themselves. They might share a “favorite,” like “Who’s your favorite cartoon character?” or your favorite song, or car. We translated this activity into college classrooms so the students got to have an experience of what the kids at The Ranch did. It was really interesting to see how the group would coalesce, to see the group become a group, across people who didn't know one another, across different ages. It was a really nice way to start the class. Did you like check-ins, Evelyn?
Evelyn: Yeah. So I was just thinking about it because I don't have much experience in the teaching part. It’s kind of challenging because I wonder where to start when you want to talk about this subject. For me, like Victoria and Sheila, I think it’s important to focus on the reason why something happens. And like Sheila said, it’s mostly about poverty: what's going on at home, and the reasons why the youth are being incarcerated. It’s also interesting to know why these systems were created and that they contained some form of racism back then. So I think knowing that—how it evolved over time, how it targeted specific kids, like kids of color, Black teens. It was mainly to keep these youth locked away. I think just learning this and how there are some things that spark crime, spark gangs—I think, having all these points about communities, upbringing, history—it's important and relevant to for classroom learning about the system.
Kolleen: And to conclude, if you were in a classroom, or had just a couple of minutes with an Assembly person in some sort of public educational space, what are the two main points you'd want them to know? What would be the two things that you would say that they need to know in order to understand what's going on with youth incarceration today? What would those two things be?
Sheila: I think if I were talking to a legislator I would be saying to them, “You need to start to put forward legislation that doesn't criminalize foster care kids and their families for poverty, for the fact that they have no money. It doesn’t mean that social workers should be taking their children away from them.” In California we've worked many times to get poverty taken out of legislation—because that's why kids get taken away from their families. I think that's my one point.
Victoria: I think that's a big one, because I think it informs so much of everything else. And it's inherently racist. I mean it’s the United States; that's the ideology that we're built on, so certain people are going to be overrepresented in the carceral system. It's a hard question, but I think, you know, you have to deal with poverty and ask what are we going to do to make communities more healthy and functioning and make people in them happier.
Sheila: I think if we start to address that, we’ll address the epidemic, like things that are happening in terms of homelessness. You have more adults, more kids, more families, and there's just money being thrown at it left and right—billions of dollars. But if anybody visits San Francisco, you can't walk home without seeing homeless folks everywhere. They are in areas like the theater district where people pay $100 to see a show. There are theaters on one side of the street, and on the other side of the street there are people living in encampments. Many of the young adults that are homeless were in prisons or were in foster care, so this is the domino effect, right? And so stop putting all the money on the back end and go upstream.
Victoria: I'm voting for you for president.
Kolleen: Awesome. I want to give you the last word, Evelyn, given that you are the only one in the room who can truly speak from their experience. I know that you feel like you don't have much experience in the teaching part, but you've been a student. You've been a student both in college, and you've been a student in a carceral setting, so I guess I would just love to hear from you what helped you. What were the things that those mentors said that felt effective to you? And what do you think I should teach my students if I have five minutes to talk about youth and incarceration?
Evelyn: For me it was ensuring that I have a supportive network, and I mean having wrap-around services. It tackles every kind of service—financial, emotional—and all these things that will help me really get to my goal of graduating. When we don't have those basic needs fulfilled it's really difficult to focus. So I had my wrap-around services which helped me focus and work on my degree. I think knowing that I’m going to be able to go to college was also important as a Latina woman because we never spoke about college because my parents said we didn’t have the money. They didn’t know anything about the educational system, higher education. Then I came across Victoria, and she was like “Let’s go sign up.” It was just as easy as signing up. So we need to make sure and ensure that youth are going to be able to afford education. Not a lot of people know there's financial aid that will cover tuition costs. And there are more programs to cover your book costs. And these costs are one of the things that keep youth from applying. But knowing this, that it’s taken care of, then all you have to do is put yourself out there. So I think these are the two things: ensuring that youth would be able to cover the cost of education and also have wrap-around services that will help them focus ultimately on their education.
Kolleen: That was awesome. Thank you. And I think that's a really great note to end on. It's such a unique opportunity to get to have people from all different spectrums in a conversation—people who worked in policy and probation and social justice, who have been incarcerated, who have worked on films, and who have worked in public education. Thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this fruitful conversation.
Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press.
Davis, Angela, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners, and Beth Richie. 2022. Abolition. Feminism. Now. Chicago: Haymarket.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 110-13. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press.
“Black Visions Collective: We Need to Abolish the Police & End Militarized Occupations of Our Cites .” 2021. YouTube video, 15:24. Posted by Democracy Now! April 21.
The Conversation. Search results: Articles on Defund the Police. The Conversation.
“Historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Policing in U.S. Was Built on Racism & Should Be Put on Trial.” 2021. YouTube video, 16:32. Posted by Democracy Now! April 21.
National Conference of State Legislatures. 2022. Juvenile Justice Update newsletter, September 1.
Merrefield, Charles. 2021. “Defund the Police: What It Means and What the Research Says on Whether More Police Presence Reduces Crime.” Journalist’s Resource, June 29.
Tongue, Denzel. 2021. “Analysis: The Case for Defunding the Police.” California Health Report, June 18.
Washington, Patrick. 2022. “New Report Reveals That Black and Latinx Youth Are 50 Percent More Likely to Face Juvenile Incarceration Than Their White Peers.” Dallas Weekly, March 18.
1 “The Ranch” refers to the William F. James Ranch, a 96-bed coed juvenile incarceration facility in Morgan Hill, south of San José, California.
2 See Abolition. Feminism. Now. for a reference to Gillmore’s comment about prison abolition (Davis et al. 2022, 51).
3 See “Reformist Reforms vs. Abolitionist Steps to end IMPRISONMENT.”
4 See the “Resources Consulted” section at the bottom of the interview.
5 When the youth reach a certain level at The Ranch they are eligible for out time, or an “OT,” during which they’re able to leave the facility to spend a day or two with their families over a weekend. When Frias (one of the youth in the film) went home, he did not return. Because he was the primary financial support for his mother and younger siblings, he was most likely trying to make money to give to his family.