The Goodman Community Center’s skateboard program for Madison teens.
J: At the Dane County Juvenile Shelter I’ve been meeting with kids caught up in the juvenile justice system. Some are here for delinquency issues, but most are here for reasons beyond their control, such as those they may be experiencing at home.
B: The group dynamic and limited space inside Shelter sometimes made things chaotic. So many different conversations going on, and people trying to talk over one another, the environment was often noisy. These kids were animated, spunky, and full of life.
B: I learned that a lot of kids were in Shelter because of concerns about their safety and well being in their home environment. Shelter was a way to protect them.
One of the girls I spoke with talked a lot about her relationship with her mom. She told me the story of how her mom got pregnant with her at age 16. When she was born her dad moved away and started another family, and her mom returned to partying. Her grandparents were the ones who raised her until she was 12. For all those years growing up, she barely heard from her mom or had any relationship with her. But after 12 years, her mom decided that she was ready to be a part of her life again, and asked her to move to Madison to live with her. She explained how she resents her mom for being absent all those years, and how the tensions in their relationship seem to be reaching their peek now that she is a teenager:
“Yea, we’re friends, but when she tries to be a mom it’s like…I feel like I’ve earned the freedom I have, I don’t disrespect you, I don’t skip school, I have a job, I earn the freedom that I have now. She thought different…”
B: I discovered that the meaning of family is different for everyone. “Family” isn’t limited to relatives, it often includes gang members. But that doesn’t take away from its importance.
“Family, yeah, not friends, I ain’t got no friends, I ain’t trying to make no friends…”
“My brothers and sisters…they’ve learned how to be more cold-hearted. They used to be really warm-hearted just like me, but that doesn’t really take you nowhere. If you’re nice to people, it doesn’t really matter. My mom the one who taught me, she told me when I was a young kid, if you keep lettin’ people step on you, you’re goin’ to be stepped on for the rest of your life. You’re the one who’s supposed to be doin’ the stepping.”
J: Each week we had the kids do an activity that revolved around the theme of the night. Race made its way into the conversation most nights…often with a Bob Marley, Rastafarian influence.
“The main reason my family cares so much about race, would be because race is still a big problem. Considering how black people are more likely to get arrested, most of the prisons are full of black people, stuff like that. My mom didn’t want me to become one of those statistics.”
“Well, if you was white, you would not be here…[laughter] yeah, think about it. [She white, and she here!] Well, her dad wanted her to be here. She got sentenced here.”
J: Racial terms could be a form of endearment between friends, known as flaming, that increased social cohesion within Shelter.
“Flaming is basically when you talking about somebody…Dissin’ each other, you’re basically talking about somebody, but in a cool way, it doesn’t have to make sense. If I said your head looked like a nugget, doesn’t make sense to people who aren’t black, how does your head look like a nugget, but it makes you laugh [laughter]…sometimes my friends say I look like a “black a… this, or “black that,” and they were naming off everything that had to do with a person being black, but it wasn’t racist.”
J: When these comments occurred between strangers, there was a whole new meaning.
“So there was a time I was walking with my friends, a group of black people. And a car full of white people drove by and said ‘You Black Niggers!!!’ We yelled back ‘Fuck You Bitch.’ So then as we still walked they came back and said ‘We’re gonna lynch you Niggers.’ Then we said ‘Come do it Bitch we’ll beat your Fucking Ass.’ So then they pulled the car over and I had a pellet gun. So then I shot them…”
J: The kids told me that racial biases don’t get in the way during their time at Shelter, because the staff there care about getting their lives back on track.
“Life is one big road with lots of signs
So when you riding through the ruts
Don’t complicate your mind
Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy
Don’t bury your thoughts
Put your vision to reality
Wake Up and Live!”
Stories from a one-time visit to the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center could only be recorded with pencil and paper.
corey davis and anonymous dane county teens
A teen in the Juvenile Detention Center, who was there for his fourth time, told me, “I’m never coming back to this place.” He then went on to say, “Most of us will probably be back in here.” I asked him why he said this, when he had just said that he was never coming back. He replied, “Because I’m eighteen, so when I get out tomorrow and screw up again, I’ll be in prison.” Looking at my misunderstood expression, he said, “It’s just who we are,” and the others at the table agreed.
Others felt that even if they tried to change, they would stand out as criminals because of their race. A young woman told me:
“America is racist. Period. No matter how good you are, how much you doin’, you gonna’ get down played cause of your race. It’s like as if, I go into a store, the store clerk, they’re gonna’ follow me, but if a white girl go to a store, they’re not gonna’ follow her.”
Reflections of those working with teens in the juvenile justice system.
We have kids with all different expectations, different understanding of programming. Some kids, maybe they’ve kinda set up their mind, and they don’t care what you say or do. We have other kids who are very bold, you know, moldable, and they will take advice from you. We might be the first positive role model they had in their life. Or we might have some really hard up kids, who are like, they’re already sixteen, seventeen, they’re not changing their mind. This is who they are, this is what they’re doing. I always tell other people for my job, I’m like, I came in as a young college kid thinking I’m goin’ to change the world, I’m goin’ to help every kid who comes through this program. But it’s come to the point where I say, if I help one kid in their lifetime, I think I did a good job.
My picture is based on when I took some of you guys to the mall, and we decided to go into a store, and there’s two white chicks working there, and we walk in, 5 black kids and a white lady. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, two security guards show up. And one of you guys looked at me, and it’s “OK, time to go.” And then, as we were leaving, we kind of processed the situation, and actually one of you ran out of the store as soon as the security came, I didn’t know where you were, but anyway…what actually got to me most of all was that it seemed like you guys weren’t surprised by it. And I thought that was probably the worst part of it. Even more than it happened, that you guys didn’t think it was out of the ordinary.
Who is there for you when you’re in the system and need support?
anonymous artspeak participants
Teens in the system reflect on what it feels like to be incarcerated.
anonymous artspeak participants
I got a bloodshot eye here, cause I guess whenever I get angry my eyes get bloodshot. I kinda got some what like the red coming into my eye, cause I guess like when I get mad I kinda, like the anger I guess takes over a little part of me, I kinda lose myself to the anger, so, I guess that’s what I got.
I don’t know what I was feeling, I just painted stuff. I painted this target, this target aiming at the opps (man, that’s cold!). I put a “RIP Folks” for my guys, my homies, got killed. And I put a cross that’s broke apart, and “F Da Police.” Then, this red, this red orange color is hard, I don’t know, I don’t know what I was feelin’…a curse on the mic.
Dis is a kind of feel, how I was feelin’ when I got locked up, feelin’ shitty, it was a bad night for me, two felonies in one night. And all I was thinkin’ about at the time, cause I was under the influence, so while I was in there, sittin’ in the holding cell ‘til like four or five in the morning, I was thinking of smoking me a pound of Lao, and like it was rainin’ on me. And everything about to change and I’m gonna face some factors that I never faced before, and it’s going to be hard for me, you know what I’m saying…it’s kind of like a projection of what I was feelin’ and thinking at the time, being what I wanted to do.
I didn’t really do that much…there’s just some red, and it say “Free Da Guys.” Cause when I was locked up, I wasn’t really paying attention to myself, I mean I was in there and stuff, I wanted to get out and stuff…but I was always in there, like, not even talkin’ about free myself but talkin’ about free all my guys.
I don’t know what I drew, I just drew it.
I guess this is like, they got like a spaceship jail
This is like a robot spaceship but it’s a jail
Then it’s like you look out the window, you see the stars and the moon
And then the sun is a mass of linkadinkin guys, a nuclear furnace
This is a box to freedom
And if you open a box, I guess there’ll be a passage out
Then this the Jewish star, and just like a circle, just a circle
That’s about it
Justice-involved teens created avatars to represent themselves and protect their identities. Here are their stories about why they selected their avatars, along with the commentary of their peers.
anonymous artspeak participants
I don’t know what the pyramid really mean, I was just bored, but I got my initials. My name, my name to me is like (let’s see the picture!)…man!… I drew my name, my initials, and some lines. The lines to me means like never ending, so lines can go on and on (eternal?)…yeah. And my name is like the only thing that you really got in this world, is your name, so that’s why I put that there. And I got my favorite colors, orange and red (that was a good thing).
This is the world, because this little orbit thing, right here, it’s me, going around in the world, all around. Me, goin’ around the countries, and all other states, travelin’… because I feel that one day, I’m goin’ to be the one to hold the world in my hand. I feel that I’m going to be in control, that I’m going to, you know, lead things. That’s my biggest dream, really, travelin’ around the world.