As I was leaving juvenile hall after my first time there, I remember one of the guards saying to me with all the confidence in the world: “Trust me, I’ll see you again soon.”
He was right. I was sent to San Francisco’s juvenile hall, called the Youth Guidance Center, four times for sentences lasting anywhere from two weeks to two months. I was living without my parents at the time, so I did things to make money to survive. Instead of rehabilitating me, juvenile hall only made me feel less in control of my life.
It’s a system that shouldn’t exist, and it’s time to abolish it. Juvenile hall is a relic of the past: kids, mostly young people of color, ripped from their families and communities and put behind bars because the government can’t figure out what else to do with us. San Francisco alone is spending $300,000 every year for each young person locked up at juvenile hall, and for what? My experience in juvenile hall, and from working with others who spent time there, has taught me how wasteful it is to spend so much on incarcerating kids. It’s money that could be spent on programs and other efforts that actually help young people find a place and a voice in the world, instead of ruining their lives.
Abolishing juvenile detention is not just idealistic talk; it could really happen. Last month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to pass legislation that would shut down juvenile hall for good and put the savings into youth programs that actually work. San Francisco now has a chance to do better by young people — and to set an example for the rest of the country.
Research has shown that incarcerating young people doesn’t work — in fact, time in “juvie” is the single largest predictor of future incarceration.
Spending time in juvenile hall makes you feel hopeless. On some days, I was locked in my cell for up to 24 hours for getting in trouble with staff, for things like wanting to brush my teeth. On these days, I could only come out of my cell for 30 minutes at night. I couldn’t talk to anyone during meals. I was put in shackles to go to my cell or to see my probation officer — basically, anytime they moved me from one unit to the next, even within the facility. Once, I received an extra hour in my cell as penalty for being in possession of a peanut butter cup.
Not many people talk about what it’s like to be a young woman inside those walls. All day, every day, you feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, exposed. We’re separated from the men, yet kept in confinement. You’re trying to hold on to anything you deem as “normal” but aren’t even given proper clothes to cover up. They cycled the same underwear among all the girls. They told us they didn’t have money for deodorant, so we went without it.
This is your life now. Get used to it, I remember thinking.
After my longest sentence in juvenile hall — two months, after which I knew I didn’t ever want to go back — I was introduced to the life-changing programs of the Young Women’s Freedom Center. It’s run for and by formerly incarcerated girls and women, like me, to empower those impacted by the juvenile justice system to create positive change in our community.
I found people there who would check on me after I got out and keep me on track. I found my voice and purpose and reclaimed my independence to take my life on a different path. This is one of many alternative programs in my city that work with incarcerated youth to help us turn our lives around. Now, as an organizer with the center, I get to help other young people so they don’t end where I was: looking out a blurry cell window day after day, feeling trapped and broken.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Young people need community care, not cages. Juvenile hall did not help me at all. Instead, let’s use the money for opportunities that give young people a decent shot at a better future.
Leticia Silot, 18, is an organizer with the Young Women’s Freedom Center. She lives in San Francisco.