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Juvenile Detention, A School For Criminals
3/11/2015 4:48:07 PM

By Barney Blakeney

I’m often asked how I come up with story ideas. It ain’t easy. So I sometimes borrow ideas from other writers. I’m borrowing the idea of a story about kids in juvenile detention from Marian Wright Edelman who regularly is featured on the editorial page of The Chronicle. A few weeks ago the paper ran her column about girls in the juvenile justice system.

She wrote about Richard Ross’ new book “Girls In Justice” that combines his photographs with interviews of girls in detention centers around the country. Edelman called the book powerful and heart wrenching. She’s a great writer and I immediately visualized from her descriptions what the book must depict - girls of all colors and ages experiencing a living hell.

I’m a street guy. A friend recently described me as a softy with a rough exterior. She said the rough exterior, necessary to survive on the streets, masks my inner soft side. Yeah, I’ve been there and done that, but I ain’t no gangster. But I just grew up around gangsters.

So reading Edelman’s column, I could imagine what she was talking about - girls who are our daughters, sisters, nieces and cousins - trapped in detention facilities. She painted a gut-twisting picture of these young girls and the lives they face. I saw the faces of the two young girls who in recent weeks were liberated after being forced into prostitution right here in North Charleston.

Two young brothers have been arrested and charged with forcing the girls to perform sex acts at motels under threat of bodily harm. The brothers fed them sparingly and roughed them up to impose their will on the girls, according to the allegations against them. The two girls were under age 17 and the guys who prostituted them were under age 25. Ain’t that a blip!!!

The late singer Michael Jackson sang about that PYT (pretty young thangs). As a man, I’m all but disgusted to know what some guys will do to them. I know this one girl on the street - pretty jet black girl - she was victimized as a young girl. Ain’t no saving her now. At 35, I think she’s just too far gone. But then, prayer changes things.

Anywho, before I digress too much, Edelman’s column made me think about juvenile detention in our community. Fifty years ago, as a kid in elementary school, I was in class with a few guys who ended up in the juvenile detention system - Toe, Jerome, Hack - all good guys and smart guys.

I sometimes hear guys from my era talk about their experiences at John G. Richards reformatory in Columbia and Hines farm here in Charleston. The juvenile detention of my era produced a lot of future criminals. A lot of the guys I sat in class with then and competed with to see who could score highest on classroom tests went on to become career criminals. They were good students at Mary Ford and Columbus Street elementary schools. I guess they also were good students at John G. and Hines. I hope in the future to do a more detailed story about juvenile detention in our community, but for this column I looked up a few things to throw out there in the meantime.

I don’t know anything about juvenile detention in the Charleston area. As a cop reporter I seldom went over there. My cousin Tommy Simmons used to work at the detention center. That’s about as much as I ever knew about it. The building looks bigger than it is. It’s a 26-bed facility housing male and female offenders 17 years old and under. It’s described as a safe and secure facility manned by 23 detention personnel.

What caught my eye in an online run down of the facility was that it’s also a maximum security facility because it houses low level offenders as well as violent offenders charged with such crimes as robbery and murder. So an emotionally distressed kid always into something, theoretically could end up paling around with a kid who has much worse issues.

Charleston County School District sends teachers into the facility daily. South Carolina is one of four states that has a school district for detainees. One study described S.C.’s Dept. Juvenile Justice’s Birchwood School in Columbia positively for its arts integration and trades programs, but said its outdated facility and rigid behavior management reinforces the jail-like environment.

I know that the Charleston Area Criminal Justice Ministry breached the issue of juvenile detention in 2013 as one of its targeted focuses. I hear they’re still working on that in collaboration with local law enforcement, DSS and schools.

Edelman’s column makes me realize that we shouldn’t allow juvenile justice to become an after thought that comes to mind following each sensational crime incident. I look at my partners, males and females, whose lives have been shaped by their experiences as juvenile in that system and I see what the experts mean when they say this is about human capital and investing more now in education and paying less in the future for jails. (RIP, Jerome)

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