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A Walk into a Juvenile Detention Center in North Carolina as an Assistant Juvenile Defender


"If you've never been inside, you should mentally prepare yourself," my boss said. "It can be very uncomfortable." I had been in a detention center many times before; I had visited with many clients over the years I have been defending children.

 

We walked into the lobby and were greeted by two female detention officers, each dressed in black. They had kind faces, but each had a pair of handcuffs clipped to their utility belts. The lobby was surrounded in mirrored glass like those of the police interrogation rooms in the movies. We could see ourselves but not beyond. A static voice over the intercom, a buzz, and a loud click. One of the officers opened the door and ushered us into the main hall. 

 

As we filed through the door, a glass room with computers and security videos anchored the center of the massive hallway, eyes in every corner of the facility. I knew it to be the central communications room, where they monitored the facility and operated the security features, including the heavy, locking doors. Every detention facility has a room like this. As does every jail. And every prison.

 

I took in the enormity of the building from the inside. The walls were cinder block, with a clean coat of paint. It reminded me of high school, but without the laughter and cheer of my friends. More like the version of high school I would have in a bad dream, lost and looking for where I'm supposed to be, but the hallways never end.

 

BANG. The door to the lobby shut behind us and startled me. I could hear the click of the lock engaging. A sound I have heard a thousand times, but this time I really noticed it. It sounded... isolating. The sound herded me to the next door. Buzz. Click. Door open. Shuffle. BANG. Click.

 

"This is our medical wing," the officer explained in a professional tone. "Our nurse's office is small but we tend to our kids' needs." Heads nod. "This is our isolation room with padded walls when a child is on suicide watch." The door had a window, but I refused to get close enough to see whether it was covered. I hoped it was, I didn't want the child seeing us touring through the facility like they were in some type of zoo. 

 

The officer's tone took on a note of seriousness. "A lot of times, children coming into our facility haven't received proper evaluations or diagnoses. Sometimes this is where they learn for the first time that they have claustrophobia." I watched the walls of the hallway shrink ever so slightly.

 

At the end of the hallway was a metal detector, where children and visitors are scanned for contraband. "The children who are brought in are also taken into the shower room in this hallway and strip searched. Then they are allowed to shower." I let the word "allowed" roll around in my head for a moment.

 

There was a young man in this wing who had asked to see us, to speak with us. I had fallen to the back of the group and I couldn't hear what he said, and I think I'm glad of that. I did hear that he had a birthday coming up. I heard one of my colleagues get a giggle out of him, and for that I was thankful. The second detention officer who was in the back of the group with us spoke in a soft voice, "he has a great attorney. He'll be out soon." I felt the tightness in my chest relax a little.

 

Buzz. Click. Door open. Shuffle. BANG. Click.

 

We were in the gymnasium of the facility. The library was inside of the gym. The lights were harsh and the sounds echoed off the walls. I suppose that's to be expected in a gymnasium. The first detention officer gave us some background on the facility and some of the programming available. She told us about some of the children that come in. She described the taser gloves the center had purchased, and described how they would allow detention staff to grab the arm of a child and the shock would knock the child to the ground so that they could be handcuffed.

 

Buzz. Click. Door open. Shuffle. BANG. Click.

 

"We're going to see a young man who is charged with accessory after the fact," the detention officer said. "You should know that no one has been charged with the actual crime. Law enforcement believes he knows something about the crime, and his matter is now in Superior Court. He has been with us for some time now, and he still does not have discovery. He would like to talk to you all."

 

Buzz. Click. Door open. Shuffle. BANG. Click.

 

We were in a pod. I hadn't been in a pod before. When I visit with my clients, they are brought out to a professional meeting room with tables and chairs tucked neatly in, so we can have privacy. At this facility, the library in the gym is one of those professional meeting spaces. The pod I was seeing had tables and chairs too. But they were metal and bolted to the ground. Immovable. The kind you see in the prison movies. 

 

The room had maybe 6 to 8 cell doors and I could see eyeballs peering out of most of them, staring at us, like we were animals in the zoo. Maybe we were.

 

The first detention officer introduced us to a young man standing at the end of the pod. He was wrapped in a dark green blanket. It did not look particularly soft. He spoke for 15 or 20 minutes, eloquently, artfully, and painfully telling us his story. Not his life story, and not the story of how he ended up in detention, but the story of his questions. He couldn't understand why a person, against whom the state has no evidence, could be held for months on end like this. He couldn't understand why he couldn't be home with his family to help take care of them. He couldn't understand why he couldn't be with his little sister, who looked up to him more than anyone else. Wrapped in a blanket, he told us about the circumstances he came from. "I'd rather do the time for something I didn't do than to let my folks try to pay $15,000 for a lawyer," he explained. It was clear he was losing faith in the last part of the system that was supposed to be fighting with him, fighting for him. "I have dreams for when I get out. I used to want to have my own line of clothing, but I think now what I really want to do is go to law school and help other people who are in my situation."

 

As he spoke, I could feel the tightness in my chest come back. A plastic housing cover on the wall behind me was covering something that was ticking steadily. I could hear the doors in the hallway banging shut with their heavy metal weight. "Sure, sometimes everyone is wrong, but we're human. We're all human," I heard him tell us. The door behind me had a sign posted next to it indicating the shower schedule. The metal table in front of me had a chess board pattern etched into the top. The metal stools were bolted to the ground. Immovable. The first detention officer was standing near me and leaned in to whisper to me, "Are there not any rules about how long the state has to turn over discovery?" I shook my head, "No, not really." My colleague leaned over, "They could make a speedy trial motion, but that doesn't work the way it sounds." The detention officer nodded. It was clear this child had been in this detention center for months, truly without any answers to his questions. "I really had nothing to do with this, and I don't want to plead to something I didn't do just to get out of here. I've been reading, I've been researching, and I've been learning. But I still don't understand."

 

The second detention officer addressed us. "We do our best to help with their questions and to give these children access to resources, but we aren't attorneys. When we call you, it's because these children have questions. Unanswered questions lead to heightened emotions. And heightened emotions are never a good thing in this environment." The cover behind me ticked. "When we call you, please answer if you can. Or call us back if you can't. Just knowing you're still paying attention to their case, even if there's nothing new, is helpful to these children."

 

Another colleague spoke to the young man. "You will be out soon, and when you are, you have a bright future ahead of you. You will be a great attorney - I already know." The young man smiled, and I felt my eyes sting.

 

Buzz. Click. Door open. Shuffle. BANG. Click.

 

We were in the detention center classroom. This room looked out of place in the detention center. It looked normal. There were educational posters on the walls, with some cute animal pictures and inspirational quotes in between. There were a few rows of traditional school chairs - the kind with the desk surface built into the arm of the chair. A teacher's desk at the front of the room, a white board, cabinets at the side of the classroom for supplies and storage. "The children do receive educational services in groups, but we have to be careful to keep them separated by pods. The gang affiliations can be a problem here and if we put the wrong kids together, it gets ugly." She pointed to the door on the other side of the room to indicate a different pod of children. "Bloods, Crips, local gangs, we have to be very careful."

 

Loud music started playing from the door to the other pod. I was close to that door and it made it very hard to hear what the officer was saying. It was distracting. "What is that sound?" I heard a colleague ask her. I tried hard to hear her answer. "The TV in that pod is turned on loud. It's the only way for them to hear it from inside their cells. We have been looking into individual speakers in their rooms, but those require batteries, and you can start a fire with a battery." What about the children that don't want to hear the TV, I thought to myself. Then I imagined the eyeballs peering out from the sliver of a window in those cells, trying to watch what's on TV. The sting in my eyes grew stronger. The noise from the TV grew louder.

 

Buzz. Click. Door open. Shuffle. BANG. Click.

 

We were ushered back through the pod we were in earlier. The young man was still in there, and a few colleagues took some time to give him words of encouragement. Today, I was not strong enough to join them in the fight. I felt my friend's arm around me and I appreciated his support.

 

Buzz. Click. Door open. Shuffle. BANG. Click.

 

Wait. 

 

Buzz. Click. Door open. Shuffle. BANG. Click.

 

Wait.

 

Buzz. Click. Door open. Shuffle. BANG. Click.

 

We were back in the lobby. I could see the daylight coming in through the front doors and I realized I needed fresh air. What did the children coming into this center feel? Children as young as eight or 10 years old, taken from their families, herded into a cinder block building, walked through a metal detector, told to take off their clothes and subjected to a strip search, told to take a shower in a completely foreign place, handed the uniform of the detention facility and told to put it on, buzz, click, door open, shuffle, bang, and click - locked into a cell, alone,  eyeballs staring at them, cold metal tables and chairs bolted to the ground, ticking coming from the walls, loud TV playing whether they like it or not, harsh white lights...

 

I am thankful for this experience. I am thankful for the reminder of why I do what I do - why WE as a defender community do what we do. And I am thankful for my colleagues and friends with whom I fight. We support each other as we do this work. I am thankful for the reminders of humanity I experienced.

 

And I am thankful to the young man for his words, his questions, his reminder.

 

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