I Was Locked Up At 17. It's Imperative We Start Imagining A World That Doesn't Incarcerate Kids.

October 20, 2022

Instead of perpetuating a system that punishes our youth, we must empower them and give them hope for a better life.

by Jahir Williams

July 14, 2021

I can say with confidence that there is no clearer representation of the evils in our country — both past and present — than the cell of a young person in prison. I lived in one.

I am uniquely qualified to imagine what our country could be without youth incarceration and our government has finally given me reason to do so. Recently, President Biden announced his budget, which allocates $100 million to incentivize states to fund community-based alternatives to end youth incarceration and shrink the scope of the youth justice system. This is a crucial first step in imagining that someone else in my situation won’t have to experience the horrors that I did.

I was 17 years old when I was locked behind bars. I made a mistake. A mistake that happens when you’re a child and you try to keep up with and show off to your peers. The part of your brain that controls decision-making isn’t fully developed yet because you’re in the midst of trying to find yourself. For most children around the country, the responses to these kinds of mistakes are able to be handled by their parents, teachers and other trusted adults, with love and affection. But for Black and brown children, especially in poorer neighborhoods, that's not the case. Young people of all backgrounds and races engage in risky behavior at the same rates, but for youth of color, removing them from their families and locking them up in facilities or prisons is too often the first response.

For those in society who have never had contact with incarceration, I know imagining a world without prisons is difficult. For over 200 years, and despite numerous studies that show youth incarceration causes more harm than good, prisons and detention centers have remained our nation’s primary tool for punishing youth. And on any given day there are 37,000 young people locked in juvenile facilities, not including the young people incarcerated in adult facilities. Still, I’m surprised why I struggle to explain to policymakers and others the horrors that I, and others like me, experience when incarcerated. When children are placed in prisons, they are often subject to mental, physical and sexual abuse no human should endure. My peers have been body-slammed to the ground and pepper-sprayed. They are isolated from their families and adults who can offer them support, and they are deprived of the tools needed to thrive in society. I also am surprised that I have to explain the pain this inflicted on my family, my siblings and my community.

But focusing on the trauma, violence and abuses I experienced in prison doesn't mean I fail to understand that I did something wrong. But it does fail to provide me opportunities to make up for that wrong. Our challenge is to help think of other ways we can turn our society in another direction — a direction where harm is repaired, not perpetuated. It will take all of us working together to make this happen. Not with anything new, per se, but by strengthening and expanding programs that already do the work, funding programs that do work — that teach us about our history, our voice and our promise for tomorrow. There are many options available if only we are willing to fight for them.

The stories of Black and brown youth, and their often deadly interactions with the justice system are everywhere — Adam Toledo, age 13; Ma’Khia Bryant, 16; Daunte Wright, 20; Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7; Tamir Rice, 12; Laquan McDonald, 17; Michael Brown, 18. If my peers aren’t killed, they’re shuffled through the justice system — cycles of jails, court hearings and prisons for behavior that is often overlooked for white or wealthier children.

But I know there is a better way. I see it through the poems of my classmates who imagine neighborhoods built to support the communities who live there. I hear it through stories of my friends who transfer schools and feel valued by the teachers that look like them, and have the training they need to create environments in which they feel safe, not profiled.

I can imagine a world where we invest in job training programs that show youth that we can turn our interests and curiosities into a profession if we stay on track. We can center emotional and mental wellbeing in our healthcare services, so the counselors available know how to help children work through the deeper reasons behind the whys of what they might do. If we end youth incarceration and refocus on preventative measures, we would have more money to fund community-based alternatives and solutions that would ensure locking young people in a prison cell is no longer needed or necessary.

Every child needs and deserves spaces of joy. Places where they can vent, talk freely and be supported. Places like recreational camps, sports leagues and afterschool programs. I can imagine how my life would be different if I had access to these spaces that allowed me to express myself to mentors I trusted and friends that were able to do the same.

Instead of perpetuating a system that punishes our youth, we must empower them and give them hope for a better life. The solution is clear: end youth incarceration. Invest in policies that focus on care and limit interactions with a justice system not built to serve them, over putting our youth in cages. I’m grateful to the Biden administration for working to end the cycle of trauma and recidivism youth incarceration creates.

Their lives depend on us. So, are you ready for a world with no kids in prison?


Jahir Williams is a formerly incarcerated youth and youth justice advocate with the Village of Arts and Humanities and the Care, Not Control campaign.


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