Who, exactly, are the young people behind the bars? Two teen writers from Represent, a national magazine by and for youth in foster care, vividly and candidly describe the circumstances behind their incarceration in two stories from the latest issue. Najet Miah, who is in her second year of an eight-year term in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, writes about a typical day in prison in “One Day (of 2,920) in Prison,” while the author of “Crimes and Punishments” explains which punishments inspired him to straighten up after he was incarcerated three times.
Crimes and Punishments
What worked and didn’t work to set me straight
My first juvenile charge was grand larceny, when I was 14. I was arrested again at 15, and again at 16. Each time I had a different type of punishment. Some of the programs I was sentenced to helped me grow from an impulsive, angry juvenile to an adult who can delay gratification. Some did not.
Standing on the subway platform when I was 14, I saw a younger boy with a white Play Station portable. My mother had died three years earlier; my father and I didn’t get along. Christmas was two weeks away, and I was not getting any presents. My head felt light; my chest suddenly filled with anger and envy. As the A train arrived, I made my way toward the young man, and snatched his game system. For a split second, I felt good.
Then a badge flashed. An undercover detective had seen the whole thing and arrested me. Remorse and guilt and fear seeped into my mind.
When I reached the precinct my arresting officer said, “You’re only 14, so you have to call a parent.” As I dialed my home number, I felt angry and disappointed in myself. The only thing I remember my father saying was, “I hope you learned your lesson.”
He came down to see me, and talked to the detectives. They told him, and he told me, that I was considered a juvenile delinquent, (under 16, first offense) rather than an adolescent (16 –18). That meant I’d go to family court, not criminal court, and the detectives said the judge would probably let me go.
My father went home, and I spent the night in the precinct’s holding area. It was a small, cold office full of chairs with metal rails next to their arms. The guard cuffed me to my chair’s rail, making it impossible to lie down. After four hours, I asked, “C.O., can I get my jacket? Yo, it’s freezing in here.”
He came into the confinement area looking very mad. “Keep talking and I’m going to get my tase gun.”
I shouted, “Forget you punk, where’s my arresting officer?”
I sat there chained to the chair until morning. The cold did not alleviate the room’s smell of feet and corn chips. Spending one night in the precinct made me want to avoid future incarceration.
However, in the morning, my arresting officer asked me “Do you like McDonald’s?”
I answered hungrily, “YES!”
She said she’d bring me food from there. At age 14, I thought, “If I can get free McDonald’s, I think I’m going to like being here.” The McDonald’s, along with hearing that I was going to go home, made me forget the miserable night I had just spent in the precinct. My advice to policymakers is not to give young detainees exactly what they want—consider taking away the McDonald’s.
After lunch, my arresting officer escorted me to see the judge; she drove me to the courthouse in a police car, handcuffed. The family court judge spoke directly to me. He said, “I am glad to see your father here with you. You are a smart young man. I do not see the need to penalize you fully. I am going to send you to a program known for aiding kids who are doing well in school.”
Off the Streets
The judge sent me to an outpatient program named Community Collaboration Advantage (CCA) that keeps juveniles off the streets. I would go straight there after school every day, and then had to be home at 7 p.m. to make a call to a hotline. The hotline remembers your voice and your home phone number, so you could not call from a cell phone or other number. Although the program left me with no after-school leisure time, I had fun there.
Both boys and girls attended, including two of my good friends. We played board and video games and they gave us snacks and dinner every night before we went home.
Group discussions were every Friday. About 12 kids sat in a circle, and we each went around and spoke about how our day went, how we felt now, and how we hoped our day would end. The first time I participated, I spoke with aggression and force. I wanted new people to feel my presence.
The group leader said, “Hello. How was your day?”
I said, “Alright. I had a fight today.”
The group looked at me as if I did not belong there. A kid said sarcastically, “You must want to be back in jail, Mike Tyson.” At that moment, I felt that the group did not accept or encourage me. If I were to run a program for young teens, I would make a rule that everyone must respect what everyone else says, because sarcasm just makes people mad and shuts them out.
CCA offered therapy and social workers. Looking back, I would say it does offer youth a place to relax and enjoy their time off the streets. However, at that time, I was not ready to take advantage of the program. I was still angry, and focused on wanting more money.
Why I Stole
My childhood revolved around disappointment. Disappointed that my mother was dead, and that anytime I asked my father for anything the answer was, “I don’t have it”—not even a subway card. It seemed like whatever I needed I could not have. I stole because I wanted things, but also because I was angry.
I also fought, because fighting lets out the anger inside me. Once I get mad, whether the situation is huge or small, it adds on to all the other anger I have been holding in. I black out and react in a barbaric manner. Sometimes I wanted people to know I am the wrong person to play with. Once I punched someone, I felt better.
What might have calmed that anger in a program is a caring worker who treated me like a son and not just another student. I liked to feel special, and I lost that feeling after my mother passed. I didn’t connect to any of the workers at CCA. Later, I would find a caring worker in a different program.
Everything was cool at CCA for about six weeks, but then I began to get into school trouble. I began to cut school and I often missed my hotlin e phone curfew because I did not want to sit in a house all night with my father. My father is spiteful and would do things like turn on the lights when I was trying to sleep.
My case went back to family court. My court date was in December. I was only 15, still juvenile, not yet adolescent. My lawyer looked ashamed of me. Every question I asked him, he answered with, “Why didn’t you comply with CCA policies?” I looked him straight in the eyes, and I could not give him my honest answer, which was “I hated following rules.” Therefore, I stayed silent.
The judge looked at me with disappointment. He said, “Due to your failure to comply with the mandated program I hereby sentence you to 12 months at the RTC Graham Windham.” I had never spent more than a month away from home, and I felt mixed emotions. I was relieved to be away from all the arguing and bickering. However, I was sad to be away from my younger brother. He looks to me as a role model and I did not want him to see me away for so long. I also did not want to follow orders in an institution.
Graham turned out to be a beautiful campus up in the woods and I actually liked their program. Everyone on campus attended the high school down the hill. After school, we had GGI, group guided interactions, which usually lasted about an hour. GGI sessions were like the group discussions at CCA, except that there were stricter rules, like “one mic,” confidentiality, and respect. Those were the things I wished the CCA group discussions had had.
I also loved the work programs. Every Wednesday afternoon students did four hours of work for the school, which usually paid $40. My job was sanitation; my group of 11 kids helped clean the park areas and all around the campus. Juvenile detention programs should give participants opportunities to work for small amounts of money.
After work came supper, chores, and showers, then night snacks and bedtime. The combination of school, exposure to a work life, and mingling with females gave me a sense of maturity. It helped me envision the future I wanted, which is graduating college with a business degree and starting my own family.
The majority of my school opportunities came through Ms. Fox, the school’s guidance counselor. Ms. Fox got me into Advanced Placement courses and to college fairs. All her nurturing and pushing made her a mother figure, which I cherished. Because I felt like she truly cared about me, her lectures inspired me to rise above the mischief and bad influences.
Graham discharged me in December back to my father’s house. Since I was about to graduate, they allowed me to return to the school as a day student. I took the train to school two hours each way, five days a week.
It felt good to finally be home. I was glad for freedom and to not live by a program anymore. I could go to the park whenever I wanted and I did not have to follow a curfew.
But my father and I still had our difficulties. If he came home from work in a bad mood, he took his anger out on me. Back in the chaotic home with my father and younger brother, I had no quiet, peaceful place to relax. I often found myself right back in the streets just to escape my father’s yelling and complaining.
A week after Graham discharged me I was angry because I wanted to go out on a date with a girlfriend and I could not afford it. My father made me feel worse by saying, “You always looking to me for money; go get a job.”
I stormed out of the house and walked the streets. It began to rain and I had no umbrella, and I got angrier. The life lessons about focusing on school and staying away from negative energy flew out the window. I started to feel sorry for myself, and angry with my father for not providing a better life for me. I began to focus on all the bad things I was going through and the things I wanted instead of the delayed gratification I was starting to learn.
Then I stole something and again got arrested.
At this point, I was 16 years old, an adolescent, not a juvenile, in the eyes of the court. Since I was a repeat offender, the judge sent me to Riker’s Island jail, for adults, soon after my arrest.
While in jail, I was flooded with feelings of regret and anger. I had been heading for high school graduation and filling out college applications, and now here I was in jail studying for a GED test. My remorse plus the knowledge that I was wasting my potential made me think differently. I began to study and practice for the state tests to graduate high school. I was released after four months and was able to graduate.
At Graham, I had tasted success, and that made me want to keep chasing it. I recommend that, along with paying jobs, juvenile detention programs keep kids focused on school.
Graham does a great job communicating that success comes from finishing school. And, through all my detentions, stable support from someone helped me stay positive and focused on my future. What makes the difference in people’s lives could simply be that someone cares about them. The most important thing a program can have is workers who are committed to their work. People like Ms. Fox really care for their students and that is a strong inspiration. Many of the students Ms. Fox has helped have stories similar to mine.
I stuck with the goal of graduating college; and now I’m in my second year. The punishments that offered me responsibility helped show me that only living in an ethical and legal manner would ensure a comfortable life.
One Day (of 2,920) in Prison
Written by Najet Miah
Editor’s note: Represent writer Najet Miah, 18, is in her second year of an eight-year term in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. This is her account of a day inside.
My morning begins at 3 a.m. I’m up this early to pray, and my body has adjusted to awakening naturally. I recite my prayer in Arabic and prostrate myself (lie face down). I feel closest to God in prostration—connected and humble. Everyone else is asleep. I go back to bed reassured that I will make it through these eight years in prison. I’ve embraced Islam in here, and it has moved me toward wanting humility and peace rather than violence and status.
I was arrested in August 2011 and convicted in May 2012 of attempted murder, gang assault, assault, and possession of a weapon. I was 16 when I was arrested. I’m in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women, about an hour north of my home in Queens.
At 6 a.m. the lights turn on, awakening the 76 women in my dorm, or unit. (There are four dorms in the facility, housing a total of 800 prisoners.) I sleep on the top bunk of a small room that I share with a roommate. We scurry to one of the five functioning showers because nobody wants to wait on a line. The unit’s showers and bathrooms always smell like cigarettes and urine; I usually hold my breath.
I slip on a long-sleeved, plain-colored shirt from home. It matches my hijab (Muslim head-covering) for the day. I hop into a state-issued pair of green pants and button-up shirt, which is labeled Small, but hangs loosely on my petite, 5-foot frame. Unfortunately, these oversized costumes are necessary to go to our programs or jobs. We can wear our own clothes to leisure activities like the gym or yard, which we can do any time between 1 and 8 p.m. We can also wear our own clothes when someone visits.
Visits happen in a large room with 50 tables about four feet away from each other, but everyone is usually so engaged that they are not bothered by how close other groups are. There are many children, including newborns. It’s sad because the little kids don’t understand what’s going on and why they can’t leave with their mommy when the visit is over. But during the visits, people seem happy. Kids run around, and couples show affection: They can kiss and hug as long as their hands remain visible. A photographer will take pictures of you with your family.
A Home in the Mosque
There are no visitors for me on this particular day. I eat some fruit, then kill time by reading or studying until 8 a.m. movement line is called. I read spiritual and self-help books, and the Quran.
Movement line is how inmates move to our jobs and programs and only lasts three minutes. If we don’t make it before the doors secure, we risk a ticket, which costs us the little freedom we have.
At 8 a.m., I make my way to the mosque, my favorite place in the prison. I’m the Muslim clerk, and I stay in the mosque alone, studying, cleaning, praying, and creating lessons for the class. I have four or five devoted students, and I make homework for them. I teach Arabic, which I learned from my mother, because all Muslims have to pray in Arabic.
This is a relaxing time for me; I find solace being alone and contributing to the Muslim community. Not to mention the mosque has a soft carpet and a variety of Islamic movies to watch.
11:05 a.m. is count time. That signals all inmates to return to their beds in their units to be counted, to make sure no one is missing. (No one ever is.) I lie in bed and study or pray until the count is cleared and the silence is broken. After my afternoon prayer, the second of five, my mind wanders to my family, who visit me every other weekend.
With that thought, I run to the phone booth to call my mom. The phones look like payphones, but don’t take quarters; our families receive the bill. My mom and I chat and my last words are ma-salama-bye (“Go with peace” in Arabic). My parents are Muslim, and they are beyond happy that I chose Islam by myself in here.
I wait at the door for 1 p.m. movement. We walk outside to get to all our programs. This facility looks like a large, beautiful gated community with many trees, geese, and flowers. I power-walk to the mosque, taking as many deep breaths as possible: Fresh air is a precious commodity.
The yard is open in the afternoon and evenings. It looks like a big city park with a softball field in it. There are about 10 benches where women gamble and smoke.
I usually study in the mosque and help my chaplain until 4, when I go back to cook. It’s almost time for chow, which occurs three times a day in the mess hall (dining area) where all 800 prisoners can eat if they want. Unfortunately, the mess hall doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be eating cockroach-free food off clean trays, so I don’t eat there very often. We have a stove on the unit where we can cook food from home. We store that food in picnic coolers, sold at the commissary. Ice is distributed twice a day.
The stove is in the noisy, large rec area where 75% of the women sit and play cards at the tables. After eating salads that I’ve prepared on the unit all day, I’m ready for a meal. I interact with some of my peers while I cook, but I mostly keep to myself. Most friendships in here aren’t genuine. It’s common to befriend someone to gain food, status, or sexual favors.
To repel these situations, I don’t look at people and I act like I don’t know they are there. I do what I do and rarely talk to anyone. Most people don’t even bother talking to me because of this attitude. It’s a gift, this shield I can put up.
I do have a small circle of friends: Yoneli, whom I study with; Ana and Maria, who only speak Spanish so I translate for them; and Penny, who is trying to better her life for her children. They all have a real desire to change and move forward. They only talk to me about productivity and refrain from cursing, gossip, and idle chatter. I appreciate them respecting me enough to keep that away from me. It lets me know that I can be a good example even though I’m the youngest girl in this prison.
When my friends aren’t around I listen to the conversations around me as I cook. “When I go home, I’ll keep on stripping because I love fast money!” “I don’t regret my crime because she shouldn’t have provoked me.” “I need to find a rich man when I get out.” “Yeah, my baby father used to hit me too: That’s why he’s dead now.”
Shocking as these stories are, I’m also grateful to learn about other people’s experiences. I’m lucky that I haven’t been the victim of the things these women have. I’m learning to judge less because the women here come from backgrounds and circumstances I’ve never known.
I joined a gang in my early teens, and I have been violent myself, but I come from a stable home and was a good student in school. Now I’m trying hard to lay the groundwork for a productive life when I get out. I want to be a doctor.
It’s 5:30, count time again ’til 6:30. I eat dinner, and depending on what day of the week it is, I spend 6:30 to 9 p.m. studying for or attending my college classes, or tutoring others. I’m taking two classes this fall, taught by teachers who travel from Marymount Manhattan College. All classes are in the evening. There are computers for typing up our papers, but that’s the only time I touch a computer. I write all my mail by hand.
After schoolwork, I say my prayers for the night and go to bed, just to start all over at 3 a.m. That’s my day in prison. I’m trying to make the best life I can here, but I miss my family, and I miss having choices.