Lorraine Fast, along with her husband Joel, directed a creative arts program and ministry at the Marietta Regional Youth Detention Center for seven years. Most recently the couple took the program, called Art from the Heart, to the Paulding Regional YDC. Lorraine has also been a staff member at the Marietta facility.
Why did you decide to do this kind of program in a juvenile detention center setting?
I wanted to give the youth an opportunity to relax and let their hair down. Art is so therapeutic. It is one way I can use my talent to help them express their deepest thoughts and feelings without reservation and without having to compete with anyone. What comes out of them as art expression is their own personal unique style and the safest way to express their deepest personal feelings. I always tell them that no matter what their art work looks like it is their own personal style and talent. I remind them that we have Michael Angelos and Van Goghs…perfection and abstract; and people who appreciate each style.
You also were a staff member at the YDC in Marietta. What was your position?
I was a J.C.O., Juvenile Correctional Officer (a fancy title for a detention guard). It gave me the opportunity to minister to the kids and get paid for it. It was also a great path to networking that eventually led to many opportunities we have had to minister to the youth.
How would you describe the offenders you have worked with over the years?
In a word they are “children.” No matter what they have done, how serious the crime they have committed (or how often they have been locked up for skipping school or running away from home), they are still just children. Emotionally, they are just like other kids that you would find in a school atmosphere or any other controlled facility. They all try to act cool, want to be liked, are concerned about how they look, talk about the latest fads and music, would give their right arm for a chance to use a cell phone or check their Facebook page; and, no matter how tough they act, they all cry for their Moms in the middle of the night.
Did anything surprise you when you began this work?
I was surprised and appalled at how many kids are abused and or neglected in so many ways by the people that are supposed to love them. It hurt me to find out that many of these kids feel more secure, more cared for, more comfortable, more protected, more at home in detention than they do out of detention (or in their own homes.) You would be surprised at how many of them begged not to be released. Some of them even commit a crime just so that they can be locked up…especially in the winter, during summer vacation from school, and when the girls become pregnant and have no one to turn to. What kind of a world do we live in where some kids are more at home locked up than they are anywhere else?
What are some of the issues in juvenile justice that concern you the most?
The fact that there is such a “get tough” attitude in the system instead of a “let’s help these kids” attitude. Juvenile Justice is often the “Bully” instead of the “Big Brother,” “Big Sister” they need to be. These are kids, not hardened criminals….they only become hard because of the lack of “soft caring people” to give them guidance instead of the “get tough” attitude. We lock up more kids in this country than any other country in the world…and we put kids in adult prisons with psychopathic criminals. I know that when a kid commits a serious crime they have to be locked up…but, why can’t anyone get it, that they are still kids? Maybe if we start treating our children like a blessing instead of an inconvenience we might have a chance to secure a future.
At this rate I don’t see much hope for some 22,000 kids who are locked up at any given time--most of whom (76%) are locked up for skipping school and running away from home. What is lacking in our schools and our homes that is causing our youth to run from them at the risk of being locked up? And why would so many of them rather be locked up than to be in school or at home? And when are we going to wake up to the fact that most people prefer to ignore this problem? I guess you can see that I’m ticked!
If you could improve the system in one way, what would you do?
I would make sure that the youth who are in detention, including those who have committed serious crimes, are treated with compassion and dignity. I would like to see each of them receive care more as a victim than as a victimizer. I would make sure that their issues are addressed and a system of rehabilitation is set in order instead of a system of punishment. You can’t punish a child into being what you want them to be. There should be a system of correction, not punishment.
Correction should be something that teaches us to do better…not something that makes us want to go out and get even. I would like to see a system in place that is concerned with the youth being prepared to re-enter society with the right kinds of skills necessary to succeed in life…and I would probably start by firing some of the people who work in youth detention centers who seem to get a high bossing around kids who are a “captive audience.” It is a serious responsibility to do everything possible to re-route a shipwrecked kid; and only people who take that responsibility seriously should be given the task of working with them in a place where there is no escape for these kids.
How would you describe the administrators and staff at the YDCs?
Most of the administrators I have worked with are good and decent people who really care for the kids. There are always a few who should be working at McDonalds flipping burgers instead of working with kids. But, for the most part they are for the kids. Unfortunately, they don’t always know what the mice are doing when the “cat” isn’t looking. And they don’t usually have much control over policy at the top. It’s often the political regime that doesn’t seem to have a clue about how to treat a kid like a human being instead of a commodity.
Can you share a great success story from one of your former students?
I met a girl in detention when she was 14. She is now 22. She has had a hard life, fending for herself. Her mother is not there for her, her sister is a hopeless drug addict, and she has had to be more of the head of household than anyone else. I have been her mentor for all of these years. She recently started her own ministry that she calls The Neighborhood Big Sister. She collects donations of school supplies, food, clothing, and other goods that she gives to the kids in her area. She does after-school activities with them and helps them with their problems. A few weeks ago she took in her sister’s three kids. She’ll probably end up raising them, but she doesn’t complain because she loves those kids. She wants to give them a better life than she has had. She is about the most remarkable young woman I have ever had the privilege to mentor. The other night she texted me and said, “I love you like you birthed me.” God help me to be worthy of such an honor.
Lauretta Hannon is a bestselling author and writing teacher. Her memoir, The Cracker Queen—A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life has been named one of the Top Twenty-Five Books All Georgians Should Read (Georgia Center for the Book). Southern Living describes her as “the funniest woman in Georgia.” Earlier this year she taught creative writing to offenders at the Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center.