In my documentary studies class this semester, we listened to a radio-documentary piece on NPR based on a juvenile offender who was put in prison at age 15. It was called Going Home: Cristel’s Diary and documented the experiences of Cristel, who was put in prison for violently attacking a girl with a razor blade. She cut the girl’s face up so badly that her nose almost came off completely. Cristel was pregnant at the time she was arrested and had to her child while in prison. The piece spoke to me as a really powerful commentary on the juvenile criminal justice system and also how inmates are treated in prison.
Cristel uses a recorder to document her daily experiences and narrate her feelings about the prison she lives in and her surroundings. Cristel was originally sentenced to five years in prison, however, at one of her hearings, the judge decided that she should be released after only three and a half years due to her stellar behavior in the facility. Jenna, one of the women on the staff who got to know Cristel very well said that she watched her evolution, saying she came in as “a punk who wanted to fight the world,” and left “a loving adult and mother.”
Cristel says herself that she was resentful and full of hate when she arrived at prison, unable to control her emotions, and often lashing out at the staff and other girls. She had rage built up from a difficult childhood in which her mother was an illegal immigrant with six children and a boyfriend who sold drugs. The drug dealing meant that cops were in their house destroying their belongings every four months or so as they arrested the boyfriend.
She lacked a stable home environment and was resentful at the world for the life she was given. These feelings did not suddenly disappear when she got to prison, but eventually she was able to suppress all negative emotions, to the point of being viewed as a model inmate by the staff. She says of her emotions that “the anger didn’t just disappear.” She still feels the pain and anger, and yet says that she will not allow it to make her blind anymore. This seems like a triumph for her, and yet she has all of these emotions that remain unresolved, which I think could very easily come out once she is released and has to deal with higher stress, less controlled environments.
Jenna says that Cristel deserves to be released because of all the progress and self-control she has exhibited, which she knows has not been easy for her. However, she says that she worries for the girl because she was left sorely unprepared for how to go back to the real world and deal with her emotions in a uncontrolled setting.
This seems to me to be a lingering effect of the notion of super predators promoted by politicians in the 90’s. We view children who are violent offenders as heartless and beyond the point of being worth our effort in trying to reform them. In general, there is also not a lot of emphasis on helping inmates with emotional issues and trying to fix the problems that made them end up there in prison in the first place.