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By: Reginald Dwayne Betts
When I was 16 years old, I was certified as an adult and sentenced to nine years in prison. I was certified because I had a robbery charge and in the state of Virginia if you have a robbery, murder or rape, you can automatically be certified as an adult and so I was rubberstamped and sent into the system.
When they sent me from the juvenile detention center to the Fairfax County jail, at the time they had a sight and sound policy and that meant that juveniles couldn’t be within the sight or the sound of adults. Because they didn’t have the proper facilities to hold me in the jail, they put me in solitary confinement. I didn’t have a mattress, I didn’t have a blanket, I didn’t have a pillow and I only had the clothes that I wore on my back for seven days.
You know, that sort of prepared me to understand that jail was not designed to be in my best interest and there wasn’t anybody that I could complain to.
The reality is that in prison people care about your ability to protect yourself or to do whatever you need to do to survive. If you’re younger, you aren’t prepared physically or emotionally to deal with prison. It took me seven years in prison before I talked to a mental health worker. And, um, I had spent time in two super maximum security prisons, I had spent over a year in isolation, not once was I asked, you know, how was my mental health.
For my first, you know, four to six years, no matter where I went, I would be the youngest person in the block that I was in. If I marked an adolescent shift, it was when somebody younger than me asked me for some advice, that’s when I realized that, you know, I’m basically growing up in a jail cell.
Like, I have all of these memories in my head that have replaced the adolescent markers. Like, I was in a cell below someone that beat a man to death. And I remember the guards carrying the dead prisoner on a gurney like the nurses pushing him down the walkway, banging on his chest, trying to revive him.
The thing is, what are you gonna do with all the memories that you have once you leave prison? And, I mean, that’s the question posed to all the young people who get sent to prison. Because it’s like, you will accumulate these memories and a lot of them won’t be good, and the thing becomes, what will you do with all those memories once you get home?
The Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) is dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system.
Reginald Dwayne Betts' memoir will be published in August by Penguine Books.
Act 4 Juvenile Justice is a coalition of youth advocacy groups organized around Congressional reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).