Special post by Rebecca Rosefelt, our 2017 Summer Intern:

Entrance to the Ciudad Juárez juvenile detention center.

I had prepared myself for the worst. Over the year I’d read a variety of articles and stories on prison: stories about inmates who fought for prison education; a journalist who went undercover as a correctional officer; an exposé on visiting relatives who were molested by prison officials. I understood to not wear a bra with an underwire, lest it set off a metal detector, and rushed out to buy colorful t-shirts when I learned I couldn’t wear gray or black, the respective uniform colors of the detainees and guards. If one had access to the user history of the Spanish dictionary app on my phone, that person would think I was planning something horrendous, but I was merely collecting new words I thought I might hear.

A new, stricter, juvenile penal code was implemented last year in Mexico, and it mandates that only certain crimes merit time behind bars. As a result, most of the kids sitting at the table across from me were accused or convicted of more heinous crimes, such as homicide, rape, and robbery. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the teenagers, already generally unpredictable. “How long does it take for a kid to become hardened in prison,” I wondered. Or is that just a trope?

On Saturday morning, I passed a cluster of unattended women’s purses hanging on a hook in the parking lot, the personal effects of visitors who were not afforded the luxury of a cubby behind the reception desk. I was handed a laminated number, representing one of many empty spaces available to store my dusty sunglasses and faded wallet. I passed through a metal detector, unblinking, unplugged – a decoration, or maybe a decoy. A pat down removed a granola bar wrapper from my pocket; my bra style remained irrelevant. There were plenty of words I didn’t understand, and they had nothing to do with prison conditions.

I trailed my coworker to the units where the boys are housed. Inside the dim, round dormitories, boys dangled listless arms or gently rested their foreheads against the barred doorways while hearing our invitation to attend our monthly Know Your Rights workshop. It may not have been the most enticing activity that could have been planned, but it’s time outside of a cell, and soon a gaggle of boys dragged desks with them into the auditorium. Understandably, no activities at the prison can be co-ed between the detainees, so we would pay a visit to the girl’s side later. From the visitor’s courtyard, a few boys led their mothers to benches, leaving a protective arm around their shoulder as if to say please don’t look so sad, I am still your loving son and I am ok. As with any group of kids, several eagerly volunteered to read aloud, while others shyly hung back during group activities. I spied one boy helping his friend, who did not know how to read, fill out our survey. Never was there a hint of aggression one might anticipate from juvenile offenders, but instead, vestiges of compassion and youth.

Entrance to the Chihuahua juvenile detention center.

During the week, I spread out in quiet, air-conditioned spaces, where I met one-on-one with boys who would politely shake my hand before sitting impassively across from me. Accustomed to enduring the desert heat in sweatpants, some shivered in the air conditioning. The few girls I met greeted me with wide smiles. Many offer their names upon introduction, but the interviews are anonymous, and I instead remember individuals by minute details that often aren’t reflected on paper – the teen who hasn’t met his daughter, the line cook proud of his work, the sheer tininess of a boy who allegedly murdered someone. The unwavering respect and honesty I receive from the kids lends a warm humanitarian aspect to what often feels like a slow road to success in the world of legal advocacy.

As anyone who has studied any aspect of history knows, there is nothing new under the sun. There is both solace and horror to be found by knowing that others have shared any hardship that you might encounter. On one hand, you know that you are not an anomaly and can survive this pain, and on the other, you know that such terror has been inflicted many times over. The first time a young boy confessed to me that his mother drove him to the police station after he raped his younger sister, I spent days thinking about how his mother mustered the strength to handle pain on that scale. By the third or fourth time a boy told me a similar story, it became clear that the recourse each mother took was one of necessity, arising from a desire to see justice and perhaps an inability to turn a blind eye like so many others. I saw collective strength in these women, one necessary to slowly turn the tide against the normalization of domestic assault. This is not new, but if we have learned anything from history, we have learned that we cannot sit still and expect it to change for the better.

Guards transferring a teenager back to his cell.

I interviewed 75 teens and young adults, nearly three quarters of the juvenile prison population in the state of Chihuahua. Although a significant percentage, the sample size was still small enough to leave large gaps in quantitative data. The numbers indicate clear areas for improvement, such as time to trial and a need for more hours of education. Qualitatively, it shows a lot of kids who miss their parents and look forward to leading a normal life with a job and family. From speaking with kids who entered the detention system before the implementation of the 2016 law, it is clear that detention conditions have improved significantly. The new entrants, however, remind us that there is much to be done before the conditions can be considered acceptable. The local government’s interest in JJAI’s risk analysis survey indicates a willingness to keep working to meet international, or at least higher, standards for these kids. There are countless hours of research and petitioning ahead, but every small victory is a reminder that this has been done before, and can be done again.