[:en]By Tamara Thompson
Let me tell you about Gabriel, a 16-year-old boy from Chihuahua City I met recently during a visit to the juvenile detention center there. The first thing I saw was the back of Gabriel’s head, because he and all of the other boys in the cell block were ordered to turn with their backs to us as we entered the cell block and could not turn around and face us until given permission to do so. My throat and gut got very tight at the message that this is designed to send—that Gabriel and the other boys with him behind bars are nothing. When Gabriel turned around and I saw his eyes—big and brown, a mix of shy, sad and shame, often downcast but not yet dull or defeated—my own eyes started to well up. As the mother of a teenage boy, I was keenly aware that I was approaching someone’s son and that on the day he was born, and when she held him in her arms for the first time, his mother never wished for him to end up behind bars. Now in order to see her son twice a week Gabriel’s mother has to go to a prison.
Like all the other boys, Gabriel’s hair was cut military style, and he was wearing a gray t-shirt and sweat pants. He was in a cell along with five other boys but only four beds. About 5-foot 6, he stood close to the metal bars and speaking softly and respectfully he told me that he had been going to school before he was arrested and detained—math is his favorite subject—but because he is in pre-trial detention he is not in school now. That’s only for kids who have been convicted. The middle of nine children, three brothers and five sisters, Gabriel told me that he had been in the detention center for two months for stealing a television. It was his first offense. His dream is to get out of detention and go back to school. I asked how soon that might be; he said he wasn’t sure. When he told me with resignation that he may be facing a year in prison my head exploded, and I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I wanted to scream “A year for stealing a television?!?”
I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say in response, but I also couldn’t look away. My eyes pleaded with him “Gabriel, how will you beat the odds and get your life back? How will you maintain a sense of self and self-esteem when everything here tells you that you are nothing? How will you not become a statistic and not be twice as likely to succumb to depression and the temptation to dull your pain and isolation with drugs and/or suicide? How will you go back to school when it’s now more likely that after spending two months in detention you’ll return to prison? How will you not fall prey to the two boys convicted of murder in the cell next to yours whom I’m sure will be more than willing to fill the void of your identity with their own version of who you are now, and convince you to join the ranks of serious criminals?” I didn’t ask any of these questions out loud. Instead, when it was time to go, trying to sound upbeat and hopeful, I said “Échale muchas ganas.” Do your best. “Yes, I will, thank you,” he responded.
The main factor determining Gabriel’s detention is poverty. Essentially, he is being punished not just for stealing a television but for being poor. Kids with money don’t end up in detention. Magistrate Rogelio Guzman confirmed this when we met with him recently. He also said that keeping kids out of detention who don’t need to be there will save lives. It’s easier, smarter, and takes fewer resources. It’s better for everybody, and everybody wins. The Children In Prison Project is dedicated to making sure that kids should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest time possible.[:]