Youth Testimony

We feel it’s important that those most directly affected by the practice of trying youth as adults have a voice in our reform efforts. Juveniles tried as adults have had the closest contact with the system, so they are in the best position to describe what it is truly like and outline recommendations for reform. No one can speak to the harsh realities of the issue the way they can. Below, you’ll find testimonials delivered before policy-makers from incarcerated individuals who have been through the adult system as children.

Jermaine Hailes
Shannon Jones
Wilbert Avila
Will Rivera
Drew Williams
Rachel Carrión
Michael Kemp
Jabreria Handy

Jermaine Hailes [return to top]

Good Morning and thank you Mr. Chairman for allowing me to come  before you today and give my testimony on behalf of the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), my community and Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop.

I’d like to start off by saying I am 19 years old and I have been through the trenches of the judicial system. Since then I have turned my life around – but I didn’t do it alone. The help and support from my family, friends and has made it to turn my life around  not  solely  by myself  but  with help which is what our young men caught in the system need help from their District responsible  for  overseeing  and  making  sure  that we  are  getting  the most  appropriate programing, training skills and rehabilitation that this City has to offer and a few program’s that I can say is succeeding at a rapid pace are CFYJ and Free  Minds.

I’d like to take a moment to inform you, if you’re not already aware, what it is that Free Minds does. Free  Minds  is  a non-profit  organization that has  been in existence  since  2002 that deals specifically with youth that are  charged as adults  under the  Title  16 law.   I am a walking testament  of the  unbearable  conditions  that our young men at the  age  of  16 have  to undergo because of the law that allows  children to be placed in an adult facility where they have  no rehabilitative  programming.

As you  may know, the  juveniles at the DC Jail are  some  of the  most underprivileged  and  education and  programming  deprived  In the  system  and  on Top of  that  being  in that type  of environment and experiencing  the  harshness  of that facility no 16 should  have  to go through that. There’s a  big  difference  between DYRS  and  DOC. DOC is  Department  of  Corrections  which means  if they have  to correct  16 year old  juveniles  that means  that our  city is  doing  something  wrong. Their goal isn’t to rehabilitate it's solely to incarcerate and that’s what’s wrong. That people seem to be blind to this when it’s right in front of their eyes.

Currently I work as a  reentry coach and most of the  young  men  get sentenced to however many years  are  released most likely after the age  of 18 or  21  or  older.  By the time they are released, they may have been to as many as three different facilities around the country.  I know this because I have been in that position.

The District does not understand the impact that leaves on our lives.  You lose connection with your loved ones. That’s not rehabilitation, that’s isolation. Youth are put in a place far away and forget about them until they feel like letting them go. When they are released into society, they shun you because you have a felony conviction on your head – which hinders myself and many others from moving forward socially and professionally, and seems to encourage us to return to the kinds of situations that landed them in prison in the first place.

In conclusion, this is why we need to keep the DYRS reform moving forward. We cannot use the past tactics because they are clearly not working. I feel as though Title 16 is not an alternative to rehabilitation. The community and the city need to be more actively involved with DYRS to make sure the youth of our city get the help and support they need.


Shannon Jones [return to top]

My name is Shannon Jones, I’m eighteen years old. I’m pleased to have the opportunity today to share my story with you. On January 7, 2007, my life changed for the better because that was the day that I was committed to the Community Intensive Supervision Program (CISP) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although I will speak from my own experience, I am also here to represent the experiences of the other youth whose lives have been positively impacted through their participation in CISP.

I want to start by describing the program that has changed my life. CISP was started in 1990 and is run by the Juvenile Section of the Family Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. It serves as both an alternative to institutionalization and an aftercare program for those youth who have been subject to institutional placements. CISP offers programming, including drug screening, in five neighborhood centers during the afternoon and evening, seven days a week. CISP also electronically monitors the youth at night. CISP’s staff are traditional probation department personnel and paraprofessional “Community Monitors” who live in the same neighborhoods where we live.

The CISP Program is designed to reach male juvenile offenders (ages 10-18) from the targeted neighborhoods who are on probation, continue to recidivate and would be institutionalized but for the existence of this alternative. In other words, young men like me. Property offenders make up for the majority of youth placed into the CISP Program but other youth are also eligible.  Since the CISP Program is neighborhood based, a youth must live in one of the designated neighborhoods to be placed in CISP.  One of the most important parts of the CISP program is that we remain in our own communities, continue to attend our own schools, and are introduced to positive community resources. All the kids who participate in CISP are required to complete community service, which is important because it makes us feel like a positive part of the community.

Today I want to talk about how CISP changed my life. I was committed to CISP in January and I spent six months participating in the program. When I entered CISP, I had a D-average in school and I was at risk of ending up in a juvenile correctional facility. Although I thought about college, it didn’t always seem within reach. Being a part of CISP helped me to bring up my grades high enough that I graduated with honors and I plan to attend the community college of Allegheny county next spring. In the meantime, I’m working with children at a job I got through my volunteer work with CISP.

When I was in CISP, I continued to go to my school everyday. I had to submit regular progress reports from my teachers to CISP, and knowing that my counselors at CISP were going to see my grades pushed me to work harder and do better in class. I would be picked up right after school everyday and taken to a CISP site. There I had the opportunity to participate in a range of programs, like Maleness to Manhood, Victim Awareness, Thinking Errors, Self-Assessment, and the Drug and Alcohol program. One of the programs that had the most impact on me was the Drug and Alcohol program. I remember that they took us to meet with recovered addicts, and hearing their stories made me think about how my drug use affected not only me and my future but also the people around me. I’m clean now, I no longer use illegal substances, and I plan to stay that way because I’ve seen what can happen to addicts and I know that I’ve got a better future ahead of me.

On the last Thursday of every month, CISP also invited our family and friends in to meet with our counselors. This was important because CISP treated the people in our life like they were a part of our rehabilitation, and this means that I have support outside of the program as well as in the program.

CISP not only gave me the opportunity to improve myself, it also made me take a more active role in my community. We spent every weekend doing community service by cleaning up our neighborhoods and local churches. In the six months that I was a part of CISP, I contributed 100 hours of community service. Even today when I walk past the areas that I helped clean, I feel a responsibility to keep those areas clean. My neighborhood feels like a community now, not just the place where I live. I think that this was possible because CISP keeps young people in their neighborhoods instead of sending them somewhere else. Every time I leave my home, I can be reminded of the work I did to improve my community.

CISP also provides jobs for young people through the Workbridge program. Those youth who have restitution to pay can use the money that they earn from these jobs to pay that restitution. I started at the parental stress center as a volunteer, but this became a real job after I graduated from high school. Part of what I like about my job is that I am serving as a mentor to other young people. I like knowing that I’m helping young people just the way the CISP staff helped me.

One of the things that I am always going to remember about CISP is the constant support I got from the staff. Every time I came to the CISP center, I could count on the staff encouraging me to better myself. They didn’t put me down or make me feel bad about myself, instead they always pushed me to be a better person and I wanted to be a better person to make them proud. I knew that as long as I was trying to improve, they would support me.

I want to take this time today to encourage you to support other programs like CISP. I’m not the only young person CISP has helped, and I think that similar programs will help other youth as well. I’ve come a long way in six months and I have a bright future ahead of me. Maybe I would have gotten here without CISP, but I also know that being a part of CISP helped me become a positive force in my community. You have the ability to help other young people like me become more productive members of our communities, and I hope that you take this opportunity to help start and fund other programs like CISP.

I want to thank you for taking the time to listen to me today.

William Avila [return to top]

My name is Wilbert Avila. I am twenty years of age and working as an intern for the Campaign for Youth Justice. I am here to tell all of you my experiences being a juvenile at the age of sixteen in the DC Jail Department of Corrections Juvenile block, known as the “Quack”. They consider it the “Quack” because the DC Jail jumpsuit is orange like a duck and since you’re in a cell feeling dehumanized you start to Quack like a duck. My struggle was hard, my life scarred, and my mindset crippled.

Originally I thought I would only be in jail for a few weeks while I waited to go to court, but the weeks became months and I realized I was going no where because I was different from juveniles and adults.  Since I was a juvenile charged as an adult I could not go to any group home for juveniles and because I was sixteen and I could not go to a house for adults.  So, I was stuck in the DC Jail.  I was viewed as a high danger to the community even though this was my first time in the criminal justice system. 

When I went to my cell for the first time, the sound of a door made of bars opening was the first thing I heard. In my cell the toilet was dirty with fruit flies all over and red stains on the floor. I later found out that the red stains are from the juice that we are given during meals. I never had seen living standards like these before and now they were mine. “Was I made for this lifestyle,” was what I asked myself. That question was never answered. My friends my age, youth my age were sent to Oak Hill, a juvenile facility and I was mixed with adults because I was considered an adult. Do not show emotions like fear and power was what I thought when looking in the eyes of a 30 year old man, whose weight was about tripled my size. How am I going to defend myself? This man, like every man around me, could easily do damage to my small body. When all of us were being wrapped with chains from head to toe I could see and feel frustration and disappointment. Being surrounded with men triple my age I could only expect the worst. The stories about going to adult prison and facts about survival of the fittest was my reality now. I would be transformed into a rough creature.  There was no where to run and no where to hide and deep down inside I knew I was walking into hell.

Days were long and boring; the adequate way to passing the day was to sleep, look at each other, or watch television. There was a small hallway with cells we sat on the cold floor to watch television. About seven months later we received a few chairs. Violence would be the only way to handle conflict between inmates. Fights occurred often inside the cell while the correctional officer was distracted. The fight would stop and no staff would know unless the person was badly beaten. If that was to happen, which did mostly every fight, by someone getting jumped or one on one fights they would be sent to the medical staff. You could not talk about the fights because you would be considered a snitch and was vulnerable to ending up in a bed in the infirmity. So we all kept our mouths closed. If you did not fight you would most likely be treated like a pet. You could beat and control but it would never defend itself.

The DC Jail virtually no programs to fill our time. I participated in the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop. I found it beneficial, because it helped me express my reality of the inside and outside through words.   We had a prep GED class. Why? Don’t ask me.  We still are in the age to get a high school diploma. Also, why go if we can’t even take the GED at DC Jail? Were they thinking this youth group has nothing else to expect except a GED? Talk about low self esteem to be considered an ignorant person in society just because you are behind bars. Everyone was taught at the same level no matter their math or reading abilities, there was no challenge or stimulation. Like most kids on the block I stopped going even if it meant spending more time in my cell.

The mental health program was a time to go into a small overcrowded room and express our emotions. Useless was the definition I gave it. Our counselor would want us to talk about how we felt being in this predicament, in a state prison. It was hard for a young person, like me, to discuss emotions while being surround by other juveniles. He would lose any hope that someone would talk so he would just put a DVD in and called it counseling. If I was to request individual sessions it took about a month for someone to come but usually nobody came. Thus, all my anger and frustration would be kept inside, left to boil until I woke up on the wrong side of the bunk. That happened a lot because my mind was not growing but paused and for my fellow youth inmates their mind would be paused for years to come as they where being shipped out to the federal penitentiary with years on their shoulders. They would be sent far like Memphis, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin leaving behind family and friends. It would be them against the world because that’s the way I felt.

In outside recreation the equipment we had was old and used up. We would ask for new equipment but the better equipment would go to the adults. So what we would end up with was another void spot to walk around in DC Jail.  The programs were supposed to pass time, but what they really did was make me lose hope.

Being in the juvenile wing at the jail didn’t really mean anything because we saw adult inmates all the time during the day.  A typical day for us would include 3 hours outside the cell in the morning. However, I was working on the detail so I got a little extra time out. This meant I would be out to pass the food and clean. All the juveniles would be put in their cells and I would be the one to go up stairs get the food trays from adults, come back to our wing and pass it out. Then an adult prisoner would come to our wing to give me our juices. That process and interaction would take place at all meal times. Those 30 minutes to an hour I valued because it was less time I had to be in the cage.  After the food was eaten I would collect the trays one by one and give the trays to an adult who would then take it back to the entrance of the block. Working detail I also helped with the cleaning.  When I was cleaning, sometimes our cleaning supplies would run out so I would be sent to the adult wing to get supplies like the floor liquid, an extra mop, and etc. Adults on laundry detail would also come to our wing to collect our dirty clothes.

All of this, my experience, is why I think we need more programs for youth. Juveniles today feel isolated. No programs existed for me.  I sat in a cell for about a year. The sad part is that most juveniles are sitting in jail awaiting court while they could still be going to school and doing something beneficial. Instead of learning how to survive in an adult prison, there could be other places a child could be. I ask you, is that what you want future adults to learn: How to survive in a jungle of violence?

Rachel Carrión [return to top]

Testimony before the House Committee on Education and Labor

Healthy Families and Communities Subcommittee

Hearing on “Meeting the Challenges Faced by Girls in the Juvenile Justice System”

March 11, 2010

Good afternoon.  My name is Rachel Carrión and I am here today to talk about my experience with New York’s juvenile justice system.  Thank you for this chance to tell my story.

My experience with the system started when I was 15 years old. I was arrested for the first time when I got into a fight with another girl and was charged with assault. When I was arrested, I was having a rough time in my life - my mother had just passed away and I was very depressed.  In order to deal with my depression and loss, I began smoking marijuana to ease the pain I was feeling.

After my arrest, I was first sent to an alternative-to-detention (ATD) program run by Probation.  In this program, I had to report every day to a center, which I did.  However, I could not stop using drugs and the drug screenings the center did every week kept coming back positive.  I needed help addressing my addiction, but instead of providing treatment, the ATD program sent me back to Family Court for violating the conditions of my release. The judge remanded me to a secure juvenile detention center in New York City where I was detained for six months while my court case proceeded. Eventually I was adjudicated a juvenile delinquent and sentenced to 12 months in a placement center in upstate New York, where I was supposed to get help in dealing with my substance abuse issues.

When I first arrived at the center, I was greeted not by treatment opportunities, but by a culture of violence among my peers and staff members.  During my stay, I - like many other young girls in the juvenile justice system - had some horrible experiences, which have left me scarred for life.  I saw fights between girls in the facilities, including girls in the facility jumping other girls and fistfights.  Some of the fights were so bad that staff had to take girls to the Intensive Care Unit at the local hospital.  Staff did nothing to prevent these fights or to help girls feel safe.  Staff also regularly used excessive force to keep control in the center. Once, when I wanted to go outside, a staff person grabbed me by the hair and yanked me to the ground for trying to leave without permission.

Other staff would become too friendly with the girls and would even bring in cigarettes, drugs, and other contraband to give or sell to girl in the facility. Some male staff members took advantage of girls as well.  After a few months on campus, a male staff member on campus who was in his 30s initiated a sexual relationship with me in exchange for bringing me drugs.  In order to meet up, the staff member would arrange for me to leave the campus and pick me up in his car down the road from the facility.  He would then transport me off campus to a local hotel. These activities were never documented and or questioned and although the staff member who I had the relationship with was eventually fired, it was only because he screened positive for drugs - not because he was sexually exploiting me.

Because of these experiences in the center, I continued to have a lot of behavioral problems that affected my rehabilitation.  Although my family cared a great deal about me, the distance from my home in New York City and the upstate placement center kept them from visiting me, or being meaningfully involved in my reintegration plan. My addiction had never been treated and on my return home, my behavior began to spiral out of control.  I started using heavier drugs and then began soliciting my body to support my growing drug habit.  It got so bad that I left home and lived on the street, being sexually exploited by adult men in exchange for money or drugs. Eventually I became pregnant with my daughter and I was arrested for prostitution.

Two days after giving birth to my daughter, with my family's help and support, I began my road to recovery by entering two private residential treatment programs: Teen Challenge and Odyssey House.  Teen Challenge is a faith-based residential treatment program in Long Island that finally helped me to address my substance abuse issues. It was in Teen Challenge that I found my faith in God and the courage to start over in life. After beginning my treatment at Teen Challenge, I went to Odyssey House in the Bronx where I completed my treatment, obtained my GED, and received training to become a peer educator and a Home Health Aide.  Being in a program close to my family let them visit me frequently, and they were very involved in my treatment. My brother and his wife took custody of my daughter and the Family Court allowed weekly supervised visits with my child with the goal of returning full custody to me if I completed my treatment. In this therapeutic community, I attended constant meetings and support groups, spoke to counselors and to my peers, and received positive feedback.  This feedback helped me to learn to retrain my thinking so I know that I struggle with something that may never go away, but that can be maintained as long as I have support and am honest about how I'm feeling and continue to strive to complete my goals I have set for my self.

My experiences at the juvenile justice facility in and the treatment centers could not be more different.  Not only did the juvenile justice system not address my underlying substance abuse issue and take me away from my family support system, but the experiences I had at the center actually made things much worse.  It was when I came back to my community - close to my family and friends - that I had the support to make a positive change for myself.

By the grace of God, my hard work, and my family’s dedication, I am now back on the right track. After completing the program, I got my daughter back and I am now raising her with the help and support of my brother and his wife. I am interested in pursuing a career as a substance abuse counselor to help those who struggle with addiction, and have been accepted as a student at Bronx Community College, where I hope to begin classes in the fall. I am actively involved in the Promised Land Church in the South Bronx where I encourage and support other young women who have been through similar experiences. I also joined Community Connections for Youth, a grassroots non-profit organization that promotes and develops community-based alternatives to incarceration for youth. I serve as a member of the organization’s Board of Directors, speaking out on issues faced by youth in the juvenile justice system and making sure the organization’s programs meet the needs of the youth it serves.

This Committee is responsible for working on the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). Unfortunately, the current JJDPA law does not have anything that protects youth in juvenile justice facilities from the conditions that I faced. I recommend that the Committee include language in the JJDPA to make facilities safer for youth. I have attached recommendations on this issue from national juvenile justice organizations to my testimony.


In closing, I would like to encourage the Committee to make sure that no other girl has to go through what I did to get the treatment and help that they need.  Thank you again for having me here today.


Michael Kemp [return to top]

Mike on the Struggle

"People's District"
October 18, 2011

I grew up in so many different neighborhoods in D.C., but the truth is that I don’t have any fond memories of being a kid here. I remember my first experience with violence. I was seven or eight and playing outside of my house. There was this dude, running up the street with a gun, and he was shooting at this car in the middle of the street. This dude went running through my yard, right past me, while he was getting shot at.

We have so much potential, but growing up in the hood, the streets will get you. “Everybody grabbed up their little kids on the block, but I was the last kid out there. I just froze. I was stuck, and didn’t know what to do. My aunt ran out and grabbed me and then asked me, ‘Why did you freeze up?’ I was seven, how was I supposed to know what to do around guns?

Most of my memories are like that. I didn’t know my biological mother as a kid. My father’s sister raised me as my mother. My father came into my life when I was nine; however, he passed away when I was just ten years old. My aunt raised me to be a good man, but you know they say that a woman can’t raise a man. She tried her best and embedded a lot of good morals and principles in me, especially how to treat women right and how to defend myself. She never shielded me from things.

I started looking to the older dudes in the neighborhood whose lives looked intriguing. They all had nice clothes and fly women, and I started to gravitate towards them. Everybody wants to be with the in crowd, no matter where you live. While my aunt and grandmother always made sure that I had clothes and a roof over my head, I wanted more. I saw these guys, and wanted what they had. My wants lead me to the street, and wanting that guidance from an older male. I went out searching in all the wrong places. Some people were genuine, and some weren’t. A lot of those guys lost their youth, and they wanted to relive their youth through me.

I eventually started getting into trouble with the law. Which also lead to me going to prison more times than anyone would ever want to. While in prison, I came in contact with this organization - Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. Their organization really helped me become more diverse and more open minded. I started to do a lot of reading; also, I became very intrigued by poetry. At first, I really didn’t know what Free Minds was about, but I did know that it was an opportunity to escape being on that stressful cell block all day. Every Friday, I would get up early to prepare to go to the book club because it was a way to free my mind. Free Minds Book Club gave me a positive outlet to express myself and has opened several doors for opportunity and success.

Mike on the StruggleNow that I’m out, I’m working to stay on the right track. Everybody you meet coming home from prison can talk a good game. I know this because I’ve done it, but now, I believe it takes more than just talking a good game, you also have to be able to bring forth action. Now I live by this saying, ‘A great example is better than good advice’. I am now in the process of making a documentary about my life to show kids and people in general that you can change your life even though you’ve made mistakes. It is easy for people who’ve never been in trouble to say, ‘You can turn your life around’, but I think it’s more powerful for someone who’s been through the struggle of the streets and made it out to tell the youth that there are alternatives besides the streets.

I don’t feel like there are enough people in this city who are trying to give opportunities to young people on the streets. If most of us don’t even know the beauty of this city, or our own possibilities, there is no hope. But, I am ‘Down For Da Struggle’. I live and die by that quote. For me, it is a struggle to get kids to not make the mistakes that I did, and that’s a struggle I’m down for.

Many of my friends weren’t as blessed as I am. We have so much potential, but growing up in the hood, the streets will get you. Two of my closest friends left their kids without fathers. One of my closest friends came home from prison, and two months later, he was killed. The month right after that, my other closest friend got twelve years. I’m the godfather to their kids. Now, you have two kids left out on those streets without fathers. That’s why the cycle continues and that’s why I need to be ‘Down For Da Struggle.



Jabreria Handy [return to top]

Community Law In Action
Before the Attorney General’s Defending Childhood Task Force
Youth Advocate
November 29, 2011

Good afternoon. My name is Jabreira Handy and I was exposed to violence as a youth incarcerated as an adult. At the age of 16, I was charged as an adult in the adult criminal justice system. It is because of my exposure to the adult system that I’m here to urge this task force not to expose any more young people to violence in the justice system, particularly in adult jails or prisons. It’s also fitting because this hearing comes as here, in the city of Baltimore, we are debating whether to build another adult jail for youth charged as adults, which disturbs me.

Words can't explain what I went through in the adult system. Tears hardly express the pain and discomfort of being judged as a criminal. At the age of sixteen, I got into an argument with my grandma. As she was disciplining me, I attempted to get her off me. I left the house and later on that day she died of a heart attack because of the argument. I was charged with her death. I was charged as an adult and spent eleven months in Baltimore City Detention Center. I was forced to shower with a woman twice my age and shamelessly exposed to a squat and cough in front of everyone while menstruating. I was neglected and did not receive the psychological and healthcare help I needed throughout my stay. I was treated as if I had been judged guilty of committing the crime or as they would say “as an adult.”

For example, to get to school we had to walk through a tunnel that went through the adult men’s prison. One day the facility went on lock down. We were told to turn our backs and close our eyes. But, in jail you learn to never turn your back or close your eyes. That day, we saw a man get stabbed to death.

I began to become institutionalized and it became a normal routine to wake up at six in the morning or randomly get searched. They eventually gave me a choice to plead guilty to a lesser charge in order to go home. Even though I had committed no crime, I would have done anything to go home at that point. As a result of my plea, I got waived down as a juvenile with the charge of manslaughter spending four and a half months at Waxter’s Children’s Center and then sent to a placement in Pennsylvania for six and a half months. The bottom line is if I would have been charged as a juvenile, I would have received the services I needed in order to maintain and keep focused on future goals and would not have experienced the violence of the adult system.

I urge the task force not to wait to share these findings with the Attorney General in a report to be issued in December, 2012, but to ensure the Attorney General is aware of these issues and to urge the Attorney General to take immediate actions such as banning the placement of children in adult jails and prisons in the final Prison Rape Elimination Act regulations. Additionally, I urge the task force to recommend that the nation’s governors and state lawmakers end the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth in the adult criminal justice system to reduce recidivism and children’s exposure to violence.