The Day I Went to Jail

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Eagle Brook is forging a new partnership with the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Lino Lakes. There’s an adult prison on one side of the grounds and a juvenile detention center on the other side. Within the juvenile prison, there’s a school run by the Centennial School District. Just a few years ago it was run by the State of Minnesota and graduation rates were miniscule. Since the Centennial District took over, they’re graduating students almost every month. It’s an exciting time of change and progress for them.

When you walk into Pine School, you can immediately tell that every single one of the staff loves these kids. They have a deep desire to help them do better, to show them they’re worthy of good things, and to help them succeed. It’s encouraging to see.

The purpose for my visit was to begin a sort of pilot program where Eagle Brook staff go to the prison and speak to students about their life, their career path, and what they do for a job. Their hope is that students will begin to dream about careers beyond selling drugs, prostitution, human trafficking, settling for being on welfare, working at a fast food restaurant, or just accepting their current delinquent status for the rest of their life. They’re trying to show them that they have choices, they have options, and even though they may be incarcerated or in an alternative learning program now–that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road for them.

In all honesty–I struggled hard to figure out what to share with these kids. Over the weeks leading up to my presentation day, I was plagued with a horrible creative block. I couldn’t help but think I didn’t have enough to offer. I continually asked myself, “Why would they listen to me? Who am I, even?” I really felt like I was the wrong person for the job. I haven’t led youth group in almost three years, so I’m a little rusty when it comes to communicating well with teens. Additionally, I am an introvert through-and-through. So the thought of speaking to four groups of teens for an hour and 45 min each sounded incredibly depleting to me. I was nervous about how I would handle all of the talk-time and the smiling and the people interaction. I was really clamming up. But the night before, I finally pulled a presentation together.

WHAT I DID:

  • I started by sharing basic information about who I am.
  • I gave a summary of my childhood, my family life when I was growing up, my school experiences, moving from Minnesota to Alabama and back to Minnesota, what high school was like for me, my academic challenges, how I chose a major in college, how my career started, how I got to where I am working now.
  • I talked about what personality types work well in the Creative Communications field, what types of jobs options are available, and explained what things like writing and editing, copywriting, graphic design, art direction, marketing strategy, and market research are.
  • I gave them time to look at Eagle Brook’s Canvas magazine as an example of many Creative Communications job types coming together to create one product. Some groups were also allowed to move around the room and look at other printed pieces I’ve worked on at Eagle Brook that I brought and displayed.
  • Throughout my presentation, I showed that in every phase of my life, no matter how easy or how difficult, writing and making art were always my lifeline, my release, and my sanity. They came naturally to me. So when it came time to choose a career, it wasn’t necessarily obvious at first–but it was the wisest and most fulfilling route.
  • On a couple of slides, I asked the students questions about their hopes and dreams.
    • What are some of yours?
    • What were they when you were younger?
    • What kinds of things stand in your way today?
    • Do you believe you have what it takes?
    • What are hope-killers in your life? How can you maintain hope when things get tough?
    • It’s ok not to know what you want.
      • How many of you don’t know what you want to do with your life? Do you think you might know but you’re not sure?
    • It’s not ok to settle for less than what you deserve.
      • What do you think you deserve in life?

I know. Those are some heavy questions.

But I didn’t want to just stand there and go, “Look how great I turned out! If you pull it together, you can be just like me!” I wanted them to walk away feeling like this point in their life maybe isn’t the end. I wanted them to admit they have what it takes to do better. I wanted them to look past the REASONS things are hard and stop treating them like EXCUSES. I wanted to give them a little motivation. A little excitement about the future. And I wanted them to really believe in themselves. Even just for a minute or two.

The only way that I can really make sense of the day is to recall it by groups. So here goes:

GROUP 1: Lockdown // All Male // Ages 13-18 // Long-Term Sentences (9-18 months)

My first group of the day was all male. As they filed into the room I felt some of their eyes looking at me in a–you know–teenage-boy kind of way. I saw them sit down and whisper to each other and giggle a little bit. I already had it in my mind that I wasn’t going to put up with crap, I was going to ignore any disrespect and continue speaking. So I made the choice to put it out of my mind and try to make them engage with me in a respectful, serious way, by trying to identify with them, making fun of myself every now and then, and affirming their answers to my questions.

There should’ve been one more group joining us for this session, but they’d unfortunately gotten in trouble the night before and were on lockdown in their rooms. I heard some chatter over lunch that those students were caught the night before making plans to buy and sell drugs to each other once they are released. Someone joked that you need to be good at marketing and business to be a good drug dealer–some of them are already pros– so it was really a shame they missed my session. They said that maybe they could’ve redirected those skills if they knew about other options. I can’t imagine my words could’ve possibly had that great of an impact–but that was my feeling throughout the day. Am I really making an impact? Is this really doing anything?

The boys listened to my presentation and engaged with the questions in a respectful and enthusiastic way. They were an ideal first group. Two boys in the class said they wanted to be pastors. One flipped open Canvas magazine and saw Proverbs 3:5-6 and shouted to me, “Hey! I have this marked in my bible!” Another boy lagged behind at the end of the presentation and came up to me to thank me for coming. He said that he loves to write and he is interested in graphic design so this was really cool. That made me feel good.

GROUP 2 // Lockdown // Ages 14-18 // Almost entirely male, two females // Shorter-Term Sentences (a few days – a few months), mostly awaiting upcoming court dates.

During this session, I was excited that there would be some girls in the room. However, there’s a rule that girls always have to sit behind the boys so that they’re not a distraction. So my two girls sat in the far back of the room. But I made a point to make eye contact with them frequently.

In the front row, there were several boys who were clearly NOT happy to be there. It was the first time I felt a little bit physically uncomfortable around the students. They were scowling. They looked threatening. They were ten steps past annoyed–they were angry. A teacher noticed their incessant talking and eye-rolling so she came to sit by them during the presentation. I wanted to reach them–but every time I directed my words toward them, I felt their anger just rising off of them. Through their body language and their facial expressions. It was sad and tough to deal with.

In this class, a student asked why you can’t just take whatever classes you want in college, apply for a job, and if it pays a lot of money, take it. So I got to explain how majors work, why they exist, how to pick a field of study based on your skills and interests, and how you apply for and get offered jobs.

One of the two girls said that she wants to work in the music industry as a singer. She was really excited, however, about art and design when I talked about those things. I flipped through Canvas magazine with her for a few pages and she was excited to learn that Eagle Brook has a location in Blaine, near the trailer park where her family lives. She told me her main barrier to reaching her hopes and dreams is that, “She’s a chronic drug user.” Later, a school staffer told me she’s been in and out of that facility nearly 13 times in the last five years.

This was the first group where I encountered a student with a mental disability or delay. He loved to raise his hand and answer questions. He seemed like he had a good heart and would get excited about things easily. He also seemed like he was a seven-year-old speaking in a 13-year-old’s body. It broke my heart that he was there. What could he possibly have done? Was he coerced into doing something he didn’t understand? How long had he been there? Is he receiving any kind of therapy, counseling, or rehabilitation so that he can maybe avoid this in the future?

Students counted off as the entered and exited the room. Things are rigid there and very organized. These students have very few rights and very few possessions. They have to earn everything from the blanket on their bed to a book to keep in their room from the school library. Many of them carried their books with them like they wanted others to see they’d earned one. My heart breaks.

GROUP 3 // ALC Day Program // Solid mix of males and females // Ages 14-18

This session was only 45 minutes long, so I had to speed it up a little. That turned up the pressure a bit! It was also a smaller group than the previous two. There was a girl in this class who I’d met last December in the lockdown program where I’d joined a small group of people from EBC to serve a Christmas lunch to a few students. She’d been released since, but apparently wasn’t allowed back into the public school system. She’s living outside of the facility, but attends the alternative learning day program for school each day.

As I was speaking, this class got very disruptive. A student stood in the back and twitched periodically. The girl I’d met in December lashed out twice at another girl in the room for talking during my presentation. She recognized that I deserved respect, but was taking action in the wrong way. She had some good fire inside! Just misdirected. One of the girls was removed from the room eventually.

A guy in this class stated that his only hope or dream was to make money. I sensed something in his smirk and I replied, “Legally?” and he said, “Haha nope.” It was a good moment to feel like the kids were comfortable being a little more real with me. My level of passion was starting to rise during this class. Because they were so disruptive and disrespectful, I almost had a fire of anger boiling inside of me. Not because they were talking over me (really, who cares…) but because I didn’t want them to miss an opportunity to maybe connect with a younger person who understands what it feels like to feel depressed, worthless, and to wonder if you are really ever going to go anywhere in life. I wanted them to be encouraged. And I wanted them to look at my face and believe that I believe in them. (I know that’s asking a lot for 45 minutes…but I suddenly was filled with determination to MAKE THEM receive my message.)

After the class ended, one student hung back again and asked me some questions about book editing. Then he thanked me for sharing with the class. For all the chaos that took place during that session, that final 45 seconds with him was worth it.

GROUP 4 // Males & Females (half & half) // ages 14-18 // Day Program

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The final group. Ohhhh, friends. This final group really got me going.

A sassy and BEAUTIFUL girl named Suzan (she made sure I knew it was with a Z) sat down and immediately asked me a million questions. She had a bubbly, fun energy and I liked her right away. As the boys filed into the front, I took pride in getting them to interact with me on a peer level–and somehow, it worked. We made fun of an old picture I shared in the presentation of me wearing high-wasted, acid-washed, exposed-button-fly, long denim shorts. They also laughed at a picture of me at my typewriter in elementary school. Because I agree with them–those shorts are “too crusty” as they put it, we were fast friends.

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These kids had BIG DREAMS. A girl who has grown up on welfare wants to open a coffee shop with a daycare center attached to it for moms on welfare, one girl’s biggest dream is to get rehired at Culver’s when she is released, a guy wanted to work in the rap industry as a producer or sound engineer, a few guys wanted to be firefighters, a couple of them tattoo artists. Another boy with an obvious mental disability said that he wants to run a used car lot if his uncle will train him. He spoke slowly with a large smile as if he were five years old. My heart…

I affirmed all of their dreams–no matter how crazy or how bottom-of-the-barrel they were. They were “Amazing! Awesome! It takes a special person to be X!” Since we’d established a good rapport, I foolishly thought they’d believe me when I started telling them they have potential to be more than what they are right now. Here are some of the responses I got:

You don’t even know us. What if some of us are here for murdering someone? (My response: And?)

I came in here 13 months ago for treatment and I’m STILL here. I’m probably not going to graduate high school.

I know my path and I see it and I’m certain it’s going to go that way. I know it.

You know, you people out here and on staff can say whatever but you have jobs, you’re making money. We’re stuck in here, victims of other people’s actions, and what can we do? Nothin. (I swear to you, at the end of this rant, her eyes looked glassy. She could’ve burst into tears if I’d pressed her.)

You can say that we’re good, whatever, but we have an evil side. (My response?! Hold it lady, we all have an evil side. You’re not special.–That shot out of my mouth like a bullet. I don’t know where it came from.)

You think we’re good people with potential? Ts, aw that’s cute. (She was the condescending mean girl in the group.)

Yeowza. This is where it started to feel like Dangerous Minds and I was Michelle Pfeiffer. I was getting some real bitchy attitude from some of the girls. Some of my zingy and quick responses to the boys’ negativity had some kids standing up going, “Awww tsss” or “Ohhhh!!!!” as if I’d proved them wrong or won at a match of “yo-momma”.  I got MAD at their intense commitment to settling for less than what they’re worth, for throwing in the towel, for acting like this was the end. A fire was lit inside me and it was BLAZING.

At the end of the session, the boy who told me that because he’d been in the treatment program for 13 months and that he probably wasn’t going to graduate from high school (He is 14…I made him admit that “probably” doesn’t mean “definitely.”) came up to me to show me the design on his sweatshirt. It was AMAZING. He’d drawn it and his dad put it on his sweatshirt with an iron-on transfer for him. I told him–Dude! Be a graphic designer! And he insisted that being a tattoo artist would be more fun. I told him which one makes slightly more money. 🙂

This group was allowed to take an issue of Canvas with them. EVERY student did. One student asked me if he could take ALL of the print work examples I’d brought and I said–sure! So he has a Bible study guide, a few weekend programs, a mailer about the Woodbury campus opening, and a Closer Look book about Eagle Brook. 🙂

CLOSING THOUGHTS

  • These kids are FULL of potential. And they’re straight up ignoring it. It’s obvious, even through their angry, sassy, depressed facades.
  • I never once thought about what their offenses might have been. At least not until the end of the day. Many of them mentioned their charges, their felonies, their anger problems, their addictions. Looking at their faces for an hour and 45 minutes, seeing them smile and dream out loud about what they could be in the future–it’s hard for me to believe that some of them have trafficked other girls, have prostituted themselves, have assaulted people with weapons, have bought and sold drugs, have burglarized, have been addicted to drugs since 13 years old. How?
  • My heart breaks for the kids who have mental disabilities and are there. I don’t know if they receive any special treatment but I’d like to find out.
  • Many of them could use some GOOD counseling. I don’t know if they receive any, but I hope so. I should try to find out.
  • I noticed that when I asked them about their barriers, they’d say things like: “I’m a chronic drug user.” “I’m a felon.” It was never, “I committed felonies,” or, “I have a drug problem.” It was always I AM. That’s very final, closed-door, no-hope. If they identify with their mistakes, then that’s IT. They need someone reminding them consistently that they’re NOT their mistakes. Their mistakes don’t dictate their future.
  • I wonder how much our public school and legal system sets these kids up for success in the future. I’m wondering how we can help them and not block them because of their record.

I ended my presentation with these two quotes. I love them. They’re true in my life and I want them to be true for these kids.

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This introvert slept for 11 hours last night and her feet and calves are aching. (Nurses! Teachers! I don’t know how you do it!) My voice is raspy and my throat is sore. I feel like I’m in a bit of a daze trying to make sense of my reality after yesterday’s alternate reality.

I don’t want a pat on the back for this. Because I didn’t want to do it. And I’ll probably never know if I made an impact past the time that I was there interacting with them. But I know my heart has deepened for the outcasts, the tough kids, the sad kids, and the angry kids. I’ve always identified with them, gravitated toward them, chosen them. And that’s why I wanted to share this experience publicly. To remind everyone that these kids are THERE, they have infinite potential, they want to be SEEN, RESPECTED, and deep down—I really believe they want to be more than what they are. They just need help getting there.

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