Juvenile Court School: Home to Broken Childhoods and Buried Gifts

Print More

Screaming and banging. Shouting and crying. Cussing and fighting. Gang signs and threats.  Suicide watches and solitary. Broken hearts and smashed souls. Lost and betrayed childhoods.

The burden of these broken lives compel our commitment for reform. Many of the prescribed practices within a facility further the fractures that children bring to custody. Staff shouting, demeaning words, the absence of empathy and guidance delay and disallow the renewal and redemption that we seek for children. To attain restoration, there must be a culture that includes consistent compassion, guidance, respect and acknowledgement of adolescent neuroscience.

Reform is within reach. It begins with respectful dialogue; then with conversations about goals and dreams. Inviting kids to tell their stories with our regard and compassion reaps powerful gains in self-respect and esteem. We must remind our youth of their potential and capacity to succeed. We must bring humanity to the daily routine and then model self-worth and civility.

Reform begins each new day with tone and stature, with empathy, respect and a culture of rehabilitation, not one of punishment. Some children have committed serious and cruel crimes.  They have inflicted great harm. They, too, must be afforded humane and just treatment. Life has been ruptured for both victim and offender. A crime cannot be undone, but it can be a catalyst for transformation.

Second chances for children are best achieved by inventive programs, restorative justice practices and allowing a child to move beyond the pain and tragedy of one’s crime.  Emancipation from street lives, confinement, court and probation involvement can evolve to lives of service and inspiration. Again and again, we see previously incarcerated youth and adults excelling in careers, family life, community commitment and often reaching back to their places of origin to inspire and inform.

A court school classroom is filled with wounded kids. Some act out. Some withdraw. The sound and sight of mental illness weaves through the rows and disrupts learning. Teachers brace for outbursts and present opportunities for learning and achievement. Watching 20 learners, stunned and stunted in emotional growth, wrestling with drug addiction or mental health misery, often embracing a subculture of crime and street chaos, mandates educational valor. Teaching staff must master the art and science of educating highly at-risk youth. The usual practices don’t apply. Court school is often the first and the last learning prospect for reluctant learners. Thousands of children read their first book while in custody.

A disturbing scene appears as one looks down the rows of student desks. Faces validate the unrelenting struggles of growing up in the turmoil of imposed scarcities. Familial, cultural, academic, financial and emotional poverty are routine life experiences for many. Others, graced with supportive families and financial peace, contend with the cruel fate of drug addiction or mental illness. The youth share their stories somberly, reminding us that their lives have been turbulent, often from birth, with little hope for reprieve. Parental incarceration, drug addiction, extreme poverty, mental health struggles, neglect, abuse and the rough ride of foster care take a brutal and lasting toll on young lives.

Reversing the legacy of juvenile carnage requires consistent facility and educational intervention and policy. We must have first-rate staff and eliminate the shouters, the screamers, the demeaners and punishers. A few positive staff relationships will not suffice and cannot mitigate the sting of unforgiving treatment. The ethic of punishment dies hard. It is visible and though not sanctioned by supervisors continues to evoke ruinous outcomes. The best and the worst of humanity are found among correctional officers. Reform is not optional. Humane treatment of our children is a key to halting the harsh, harmful revolving door of incarceration.

A candid look at the cruelty and at the inspiration found within custody reveals the ante. And what’s at stake? Thousands upon thousands of children endure custodial suffering. The forms vary and include pepper spray, harsh reprimands, isolation, mental health meltdowns, threats of suicide and a sweeping sense of feeling unsafe. Separation from family, including progeny, spark untold grief. Far too often, a family member dies while a child is incarcerated. The loss is deeply magnified by disconnection at such a dire time. Milestones missed by teen parents in custody deepen the void that precludes stable childhoods, hastening the cycle of yet another generation of bars and cells.

Days include school, meals, exercise and cell time. Special activities are welcomed by the youth. Nights nurture harsh imaginings, unbearable loneliness and musings of lost childhoods and more pain to come. Resilience is hard won, and children wear the shackles of custody long after their release.

Most of these children are coming back to us. We will find them in our communities, schools, places of worship, neighborhoods and households. We want them less broken, less diminished and less disregarded. We want programs in the facilities and schools that foster reform and engagement so upon release we can direct children to futures with promise and pride.  

Incarceration begets further dysfunction and successive confinement. Amid the tangles of broken lives are children with abilities that define all children. Some are artists, musicians and individuals with aspirations to live among us with honor. Ask a classroom of kids in a court school what visions they hold for their lives. The answers demand our respect. Within each jumpsuit lives a young person who walks a desperate path and wants to attain a life that claims the pursuit of happiness.


As reform moves forward or stalls, there is a generational price tag. Will it be costly, moving kids to a maximum-security unit within a juvenile facility, and then to an adult court, and later to an adult prison? Or rather to provide the glory of a high school graduation within the facility, with the presence of family and mentors to stand beside the accomplishment that lays the ground for infinite victories.

Looking deeply into the eyes and heart of a juvenile offender uncovers gift upon gift. By word and deed, entrusted adults, the officers and the educators, awaken our youth to exalted aspirations in the aftermath of incarceration.

Up close the talents of youth impress. Their art, creativity, critical thinking, academic successes and desire to give back to their communities inspire. Their depth and empathy stir our quest to offer visionary programs and invest in futures that benefit all. Exemplary correctional programs have sprung up throughout the nation. They need to be standard. Every day. Every hour. Every shift. A child’s life is in the hands of every officer. And every child’s future is in the hands of our educators. Education is a river of hope, flowing with a mighty spirit to reframe lives and unveil the buried gifts of broken childhoods.  

Rather than the dreadful sounds, the shouting, screaming and the concerts of door banging that characterize many juvenile facilities, we want to hear affirmation of our youth, their words of hope and goals and dreams. As they reach to us with their visions, we must extend our professional hearts, spirits and progressive first-rate interventions. The fractures of childhood can mend. Transforming lives amid shackles and barbed wires … uncovering those buried gifts.

Jane Guttman is a correctional educator, teacher librarian and author. Her portrayal of the grief and buried gifts of kids in custody is narrated in “Kids in Jail: A Portrait of Life Without Mercy.”

5 thoughts on “Juvenile Court School: Home to Broken Childhoods and Buried Gifts

  1. Ms. Guttman’s article is a stark reminder that there are human beings – children – behind all of the crime-related statistics that news media use to attract viewers/readers. I am astonished that the US is the only country in the world that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and our poor handling of juveniles in prison is one of the main reasons we need to embrace this international treaty. We are alone in the world with our retribution/punishment vs. rehabilitation perspective when it comes to young people who have committed crimes, and we stand alone with our harsh sentencing laws. The US is the only country in the world that permits children under the age of 18 to be sentenced to life without parole. The ruined families (both of the children who have committed crimes and of their victims) prove our approach isn’t working. I have read Ms. Guttman’s book “Kids In Jail”, and I am forever changed as a result.

  2. Jane Guttman vividly portrays life in juvenile detention facility and then summarizes several of the keys required to mend the fractures of a childhood marked with incarceration in a juvenile facility. While “consistent compassion, guidance, and acknowledgement of adolescent neuroscience” are all essential, the key for this reader is respect.

  3. Eye-opening article from a deeply committed educator and author. “Education is a river of hope….” We need many, many more like-minded thinkers and educators to reform our broken system and we need it now! I read the author’s book, “Kids In Jail” and it stirred me to my core! These are all of our children within the prison walls and perhaps reform begins with staffing these facilities with compassionate educators committed to rehabilitation in its truest sense and in charting new directions, discovering hidden potential.

  4. Excellent article from an educator. Guttman’s passion for her students is heartwarming.

  5. Meaningful reform is problematic unless two things change:
    (1) Our “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality. It’s fed by a combination of our Puritan inspired judgementalism and our ratings driven “If it bleeds it leads” 24/7 news coverage.
    (2) Funding. While “just throwing money at the problem” is unwise it’s also true that “while you don’t always get what you pay for you NEVER get what you don’t pay for.” Solving the problem of our Children’s Gulag won’t happen unless we do devote enough of our resources to get ‘er done.