I didn’t know what to expect during our visit to the Youth Diagnostic & Development Center (YDDC). I figured we were going to tour the facilities, probably do some kind of Q&A with the staff, but I knew nothing about what it would look like, who we would talk to, or what the experience would be.
Our beginning Q&A was full of general statistics about the facility, how the boys come to the center, and what occurs after they’d been incarcerated. Our speaker, the superintendent of the facility, asked which of us had grown up in Albuquerque and several of us raised our hands. He then said, “You probably know someone in here, or went to school with someone who came through here.” He told us of the different kinds of crimes that get kids sent there, what kinds of things these kids have gotten into, and how they are likely to come back.
The superintendent spoke without malice. He recited the statistics as I’m sure he has done several times before and when he talked about the kids, though he mentioned their criminal behaviors, he didn’t speak of them like criminals. He continued to call them “kids” and “boys” even though some of those with longer stays can end up incarcerated until they are 21. He talked about the care they take to ensure the boys get an education, health services, and access to religious services as needed. In many ways he just seemed like a high school principal, only he was far more relaxed about acknowledging what his kids do.
Even after hearing all the statistics of the kids’ crimes and violent behavior, and even after getting a short talk about what to do if a fight breaks out or something else goes wrong, I was still eager to look around. At that point it just seemed like the kinds of things you’d hear or see in a prison documentary. Shouting through bars, threats being thrown at you as you passed, a fight or two breaking out, the usual Beyond Scared Straight stuff.For a moment it just seemed like I was stepping into a movie. It wasn’t until we actually stepped out of our auditorium that the illusion shattered.
Right after we existed our room, we walked past a cafeteria were some of the boys were receiving their lunch. There were two groups dressed in two different colors, facing away from each other. One of our guides said the colors indicated the different units the boys were in, and that they have to face away from each other to deter fights from opposing gangs. A member of our group asked if any of the kids have gang affiliations and the guide said, “oh yeah, about 90% of these kids either are in a gang or know someone who is.” I glanced back into the cafeteria, some of the boys had raised their heads to watch us through the window. I met the gaze of one who had his hands in his lap. He looked at me with a quiet curiosity and for a moment I thought of how his hair falls the same way my brother’s does when he grows it out too long. I turned away, shivering, and blamed the early fall windchill.
We walked about the facility, learning about education programs ,health initiatives, and just going further in depth about what the superintendent had told us about earlier. In many ways our guides spoke like brochure blurbs: “here we offer many options for the boys to receive their high school diploma or GED. We offer many recreational activities such as basketball, swimming, football, dance…” Their speeches always seemed to end with a footnote that reminded us we were in a detention center: “Swimming is a really great activity for them to get out all their energy so they don’t pick fights later. We have to schedule classes very carefully to keep different units from interacting.”
We visited a “cottage,” a sort of dormitory that housed one of the smaller units. As we walked into the small building, we passed the unit as they were outside picking weeds, playing basketball, and just enjoying the weather. Our guides greeted them, called a few by name, but as I walked by I wondered if I should speak. I raised a hand to wave but grew concerned that such a gesture would not be allowed, and quickly buried it in my hair. I attempted to make eye contact, but felt so ashamed to be invading their space that I darted my eyes away. It was then that I noticed the unit was lined with beautiful rose bushes of many different colors. My hand went instinctively to my back pocket, where I usually keep my phone, as I have a habit of stopping to photograph flowers if I find them striking. I then remembered my phone had to be abandoned in my car, so I simply stared at the roses as I walked past. I wanted to remember their every detail, though I was too ashamed to look at the faces of those that tended to them.
I didn’t pay attention as much to the talk our guide gave us as we walked around the cottage. I heard some of what they were saying, but only really caught on to a few words:self harm. While one guide was talking about having to watch the boys when they shower or shave to prevent them from hurting themselves, I saw the other guide go through a box of disposable razors. She seemed to be counting them, but as she lifted more into her hand she frowned. She put them in the box and counted again and again her face seemed confused by the numbers. I wondered if some had gone missing and I felt a growing concern. I realized it wasn’t because I was scared that one of these boys with criminal records was armed, but because some of them had self harming tendencies,and now they had a tool. I reached up and gripped my left shoulder, happy that I couldn’t feel the scars beneath my sweater. I turned away to read some of the information posted on the walls, unsure of what to do with my concerned feelings.
We left the cottage and passed the unit again, and again I made myself busy looking at the roses. We walked passed them and I could hear them whispering about us and I felt ashamed and guilty for not even having the common courtesy to greet them.
We then made our way into “Ivy,” a larger cottage for new arrivals or those awaiting sentencing. Our guide warned us that they had sent one of the boys to a maximum security facility, and he had come back after getting beaten by his fellows. Our guide said the boy was inside and not to ask him what had happened and to be on our guard in case one of the other boys begins to act up. I again began to think back towards prison shows and imaged a rowdy group of boys behind bars, but when we entered we found a quiet group of teenagers sitting around tables playing cards.
They called out to us, shouting “hello!” and “what’s up!” and some of us raised our hands in greetings and muttered a quiet “hi.” Our guides told us we were free to poke around, look in the rooms, and see what was going on. We stood still, unsure of how to proceed with the boys seated not 10 feet away. Our professors and a few of the braver students took the first steps and the rest of us shuffled along.
There was no distance anymore. We couldn’t hide behind numbers and statistics when the boys were right in front of us. We stood before them, walked past them, talked about them but not with them. We peeked into their lives and their personal spaces, all while being afraid to look them in the eye. It felt like walking through a human zoo, with the inhabitants vying for our attention, whispering about us as we passed, and one laughed as we walked around their rooms, saying “they won’t even look at us!”
I wanted to talk to them, to sit with them, and acknowledge them, but what would I say? What could I say? I had come for the sake of education, to learn more as to incite change, but the human faces behind the bars confused me. If I introduced myself, how would that be perceived? I feared if I talked with them, I’d been seen as a scientist while they are laboratory rats. I was observing them, examining their cages, and the sensation of doing so while they watched me, pointed out how I wouldn’t speak to them or meet their gaze, was uncomfortable. I cringed as we walked by them, not because they were criminals, but because they were boys. They reminded me of boys I went to high school with and I hadn’t expected them to be so familiar. In her essay “The Face is A Passport” Gemma Goodale-Sussen writes “the culture of punishment… treats the crime not as an act committed but as a manifestation of who that person is.” She writes how we as a society flatten the crime, the criminal, and their face and we are constantly searching for some way to “tie a person inextricably to their crime.”
Even though I had read this essay and had thought myself better than to associate a face with a crime, I went in expecting there to be some kind of way to keep a distance. I expected them to have some kind of “criminal” look, even though I had learned there really is no “criminal” look. But then I came face to face with them and was just constantly reminded that they just seemed so normal. I couldn’t distance myself from them like I had expected I would be able to, and the more I thought about my sort of need to do so for the sake of comfort, the more guilty I felt. I was trying to dehumanize these kids for my own selfish desires, so I could justify my wandering around their new home. What was worse was I seemed to just be straddling the line the entire time. On one hand I was observing them as the “other” but on the other I could see them before me as just familiar. I wanted to cross the line, to break away from observing and begin interacting. I knew they were kids, I could see them as high school boys, but there was still that distance that made it difficult to really push past any barriers. I wanted to join their card games, ask them about their drawings, and just see them as people, but it seemed so impossible when you’re on a tour of their lives.
We drove away from the center after a brief concluding Q&A where we received more statistics and more facts. As we left, I took notice of the fences and the walls that I’d noticed before but never really considered. I had passed those fences a hundred times, as I used to go to a behavioral therapy center just down the street. I had seen the fences and the walls and I had known that behind them laid a detention center, but they looked so much different after seeing the faces of the boys inside. When I drove by the center 3 years ago on the way to therapy, did I pass some of the boys who’s eyes I avoided today? Were there some that were there back then that have been released? Were there some that had returned?
I drove away hoping that the uneasiness I had felt would be left behind me, but it followed me back to campus and then later as I sat in my own home. I took a moment to reflect on my soft chairs, my warm bed, my cats who greeted me when I walked in the door, all within an apartment I got to claim as home. But mostly, I reflected on my freedom. My freedom to come and go as I please, to move about the rooms without supervision, and to eat and drink and watch tv at my leisure. I could shower in privacy and didn’t have to fear being attacked should if I should let my guard down. Most of all, I thought about how some of those kids have known the prison system for more years than I’ve known my little brother. 9 years ago I greeted a baby into this world, while some greeted prison gates.
I’m still unsure of how to feel after my encounter. I want to go back, do everything over again so I can talk with them, teach them creative writing, and learn more along the way. I want to learn and teach and experience and help. I don’t want to observe anymore. I want to act.