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Stories from the field: SPLC advocate’s meeting with teen a reminder children need second chances

An SPLC advocate shares the story of a teen she met in an Alabama prison and discusses the danger of sending minors to adult lock-ups.

Driving down winding country back roads, I headed to an Alabama prison where I would spend the next several hours crammed into a small, makeshift interview room talking to children about their prison experiences.

In Alabama, children as young as 14 can be charged as adults and sent into the adult criminal justice system. But the vast majority are a far cry from the overhyped image of a juvenile super criminal.

More often, they’re like Aaron, who was arrested three years ago and placed in custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections two years later at age 17. Today, he’s 18 – still a minor in Alabama but living in an adult prison.

Aaron was my first interview of the day. He wrote to us at age 15 while he was being held in an adult jail. The words he scrawled in pencil haunted me. When most young people are composing essays for a high school English class, Aaron was writing about a bleak future behind bars.

“Right now, I feel like I’m alone,” he wrote. “And I honestly am scared for my life. I don’t want to spend half my life in a prison. I’m only 120 pounds, and I know I’m not going to make it.”

Years before landing in prison, Aaron lived in a household mired in domestic violence and drug abuse. He can’t recall any fond memories of home. His parents would abandon the family for weeks, leaving 7-year-old Aaron in charge of warming the milk bottle for his sister. It was just one of the tasks he had as he raised his siblings.

As his parents fed their addiction to drugs, he went without toys for Christmas. He endured bullying at school when the other kids noticed he was constantly rotating the only two shirts he owned.

Now society is trying to rehabilitate Aaron by locking him up in a place where he has seen more than 30 stabbings. It’s a place where older prisoners bombard him with threats.

It’s clear that we can’t help young people like Aaron get their lives back on track by locking them away in the adult criminal justice system. Research has shown that it puts young people at a high risk of sexual abuse, and it makes them 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their peers in juvenile facilities.

This is not the solution.

It’s why the Southern Poverty Law Center has urged the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, Alabama – an overcrowded adult lock-up where violence, neglect and abuse are common, especially for children.

And it’s why I make these long journeys down back roads to interview youths like Aaron. Young people have a unique propensity to change and should be housed in juvenile facilities designed to help them change.

Children make mistakes. It’s a fundamental part of childhood – the opportunity to grow and learn by trial and error. Children can change, but only if we give them a fighting chance.

Sharada Jambulapati is a community advocate fellow in the SPLC’s Montgomery, Alabama, legal office.