Dear Juvenile Hall: ‘Teach Me to Make Better Choices’

In a recent exercise by The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based prison writing workshop, individuals were asked to write essays describing their stay in Juvenile Hall, including what they appreciated, what they didn’t like–and the future they saw for themselves.

In a recent exercise by The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based prison writing workshop, individuals were asked to write essays describing their stay in Juvenile Hall, including what they appreciated, and what they didn’t like. Some of the responses were written as poetry or as rap. A few were letters to family members outside. All are compelling.

Stay Outta Trouble, Kids

Dear Juvenile Hall,

I’m about to be real honest with you, the reason I’m breaking the fourth wall is to tell you that the hall is not a great place. It’s always cold, you’ll wear the same clothes every day, the staff are not supportive. But don’t get me wrong, there are great staff; but being in here is like you’re in hell. So I say stay out of trouble and go to school and get good grades. Don’t be a follower, be a leader, and stay out of the hall. Take it from me. I’m 17 and a model in the making!

-Randy, Alameda

Where’s the Rehabilitation?

Dear Alameda County Juvenile Hall

I just want to say forget this racist system. This system is meant for us to fail. Where’s the rehabilitation? I’ve been to jail about eight or nine times since the age of 13, and I’ve yet to see any effort of rehabilitation. They put games and stuff in the units, flat screens, and all that type of stuff for kids to keep coming back. Shout out to the staff I mess with, but forget Juvenile Hall. The kids are the future and if the system keeps messing us over, there will be no future.

– Zay, Alameda

The Juvenile Wait

The wait is sitting in a room with four walls with a metal sink connected to a metal toilet. A few steps from it is a metal table with no legs, but connected to a wall. They put a shelf twelve inches away from the table that’s covered (tagged) in gang affiliations or a free me note. Same thing for under the table.

One inch from that is a bed that I’m supposed to sleep in that has two sheets, three orange thick covers with one blue thin cover. There’s no TV. Only your thoughts. They only let you have six books. I have a Bible, The Tears of a Hustler, The Move I Make For You, The Burden of a Thug, Egg of the Black Goat, and my favorite is Tomorrow is Not Promised. Those are the kinds of books I like to read.

When you look up from the bed you can see the metal door with a window that’s sketched up with gang affiliations, just like the shelf. But in the window you can see a courtyard. Only one basketball court with about 13 Black, Brown, White, and Hispanics all from different gangs waiting for things to pop off.

There are 14 people in this max unit, including me. Everyone in here has different beliefs. Some worship the devil, most worship God. Some just don’t believe.My name is Mario, but most people know me as Koda. I am 17 and I’m 5’8” and still growing. Right now I’m in juvenile hall for a crime I didn’t mean to do. I’m actually a good kid. Both my parents are in and out my life, but I don’t let that bother me anymore.

I was born in 2000. When I turned three I was put up for adoption. I got adopted by a woman named Juanita. A proud Black woman that I am proud to call my mother. She passed four days before my 15th birthday. After that I lost it. I started robbing and fighting people in school. Now the only thing I can do right now is pray and wait until I go back home.

-Koda, Alameda

Dealing with Little Kids, Bad Teachers, and Egos

Juvenile hall hasn’t done anything but delay my life.

It has built another section of hate in my heart.

Having to deal with staff who come to work mad

and try to mess up everyone’s time in here.

Having to deal with the little kids, bad teachers, and egos.

When you ask me what I won’t forget about juvenile hall,

that has to be a rhetorical question.

I am throwing this in the trash and forgetting everything.

I think it’s dumb that we can’t receive more food

or have the opportunity to buy things like hygiene items and food.

It’s dumb that staff could just get irritated and have us in a cell all day.

They think this is rehabilitating us,

but it just shows us what it feels like to be away

from your family and feel left behind.

Don’t ask me about life incarcerated, have you been locked away?

In all honesty this showed me how to think,

how to calm down, and how to use my words.

It showed me to appreciate my life on the outs

and how to man up and take things to the chin.

Pain is only temporary.

-Dennis, Los Angeles

The Many Lonely Hours

I hate juvenile hall but in some ways I appreciate it because I know it’s making me a better person. I hate coming here. I’d rather be out and living my life doing the things I want to do, instead of having to do what people I don’t know tell me to do.

I’ve been here twice; first time was for a gun this time it is for a violation. I was 15 my first time here and now I am 16.

The programs, the food, and education aren’t as bad as I thought it would be, but there isn’t anything better than doing what you want to do, eating what you want to eat, and studying stuff you actually want to learn about. The many lonely hours I have spent in my cell have made me realize that my family needs me and that life is too short to be always getting in trouble.

One thing I will never forget about juvenile hall is some of the people I have met and the stories that come with them. In here I have learned to make smarter decisions and to start thinking about my future before I do stupid things. Being in here the thing I miss the most is my family.

The only good thing about juvenile hall is that it could really change you for the better. But the bad thing is you miss out on a lot on the outs and miss out on a lot of time with your family.

-Brandon, Los Angeles

Teach Me to Make Better Choices

Dear Juvenile Hall

I appreciate how even though I commit a crime you still put clothes on my back, shoes on my feet, and a pillow for me to lay. Even when I steal from people’s families you still feed me.

The things that bother me the most is the same four walls I have to look at when I go to my room. I have been to the halls four-five times and each time since the age of 13, I have matured. The only thing I want to get out of the halls is to teach me to make better choices and to mature me more. I would never forget the four walls that stared at me while I was asleep.

-Wendell, Los Angeles

Daydreaming in the Hall

Dreaming, hoping I wake up at home

But I wake up in a ten by six cell all alone

It’s cold as ice and I see bricks all around

Bed hard as hell, I might as well sleep on the ground

Clean my room just to get it messed up by a GS

Getting a year for battery on some real shhh that’s some BS

Callin’ up my momma makin’ sure that she good

Worst fear is getting that phone call that somethin’ wrong

Lookin’ for love in the streets but my mom had it all along

-Jahpone, San Mateo

‘I’ll Never Make the Mistake of Coming Back’

Dear Juvenile Hall,

Thank you for teaching me how

To appreciate the little things

Being locked up really got me thinking

‘Bout how I take my freedom for granted.

You taught me how lonely I would be

Without my friends or family. You showed

Me how lucky I was to be able to wear

My own clothes and eat home-cooked

Meals. Thank you for showing me how

Lovely my life is. After I’m out of here,

I’ll never make the mistake of coming

Back again. BELIEVE THAT!

-O, San Mateo

My Weekend Day in The Hall

I wake up to the bright light in the top corner of my cell. I wait under my blankets until I hear my door open up, and the staff yell out “Sweep out!” After sweeping my room, I take a shower with four other dudes, each of us to our own stall. Sometime after showers have finished, it’s breakfast, where depending on the meal, usually only a handful of us go. More often that not, it’s Cheerios or bland oatmeal.

After breakfast, I return to bed for about two hours before coming out for morning rec for an hour and twenty-five minutes, then back to my room for 15 minutes until lunch. After lunch, I return to my room for little over an hour. During this time, I can be found reading a novel or asleep. Then from 1:30 to 4, I enjoy afternoon rec — watching TV or talking on the phone to my brother. Like before, I go back to my room for twenty-five minutes before dinner, which hopefully is fish fillet or lemon herb chicken.

With dinner finished, it’s back to my room for another hour. And finally the last two hours of my weekend is passed by during evening rec. Guided back to my room, I lay in bed and stare up at the ceiling until no longer conscious.

-Kelizha, Santa Cruz

Still Up in the Box

Still up in the box, waiting to be shipped out. Damn, this shhh is deep but I keep on striving. I go to keep moving even when it gets heavy. Don’t want to look back because the past was dirty. At night, it’s hard to rest. I wake up to a lot of misery.

Sorry Grandma, for all this time away from me. I give my promise that I’m going to get us through the struggle that we are both going through. Please take back those tears, eight months till I am back home. I will never go out like the way they took me. Life on the line, I was just trying to stay fitted. I said I’m going to risk it or stay in the same position.

-Bam Bam, Santa Clara


I’m locked up again so I guess I made a mistake

I trusted you so I guess I made a mistake

I believed something that wasn’t believable

So, I guess I made a mistake

I’ve made a lot of mistakes, I mean a lot

But those are just mistakes

And I refuse to turn these mistakes into a routine.

-Tiny, Santa Clara

My Case

Got off probation in December 2017. I been in the system since I was 15. In two weeks, I will be 18. But, damn, now I’m back where I started all because of a person that I trusted. The screwed-up thing is I really thought he was different. Never going to get over that.

Eight times in Juvenile Hall, I’m just another youngster that the Judge says, “keep leading the life that you’re now living your next stop is going to be prison.”

You see from the eyes of a Juvenile of the system, I’m just another Hispanic who’s a felon, another statistic. But it’s up to me to change that. I can never doubt myself ‘cause at the end of the day I’m the only one that’s going to help myself. Keep striving for a better life. You’ll see.

I’m locked down and in the next couple months I’m going to see everyone get released and to come back a couple weeks later. All these cats trying hard to be gangsters and that’s the difference between them and I.

I’m trying hard not to be a gangster.

Moral of this story: take it from my experiences, don’t trust a single soul. Everyone switches up and they throw you under the bus. But, it’s life. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

-V, Santa Clara

Being Locked Up Isn’t For Me

Dear Juvenile Hall

I am 18 years old and I will be 19 in a couple weeks, which is crazy because I would have totally thought I was going to end up in County. Thank God being my first time getting locked up. I got sent to Juvenile Hall.

I have to say I am not much of a complainer. The food is alright and the staff says, remember where you are. I am very open to things so I enjoy the programs very much.

Being locked up isn’t for me, but something I will never forget, is the wise words I get from these amazing staff. I truly feel like they care about us and some of them really see more in me than I ever did. I will never forget my experience in here, but the good and the bad. The staff nearly wishes I can stay because I literally always have a smile on my face to the point where people try to push my buttons to see me mad or sad. But it never works. Fake it until you make it. I’m grateful for everything Juvenile Hall has taught me, especially not to come back.

-S, Santa Clara

We Are Meant to be Someone

I’ve been having a hard time being here and away from my two-month old son. I often find myself crying when I think about him, the staff is very supportive and guiding and I appreciate that the most.

Something that bothers me is how girls often like to push buttons. It really bothers me. Well, they try and I don’t like how some staff, not all, are sometimes rude and show little interest in the main part of their jobs. Which is to counsel us and show us better ways to better ourselves and how much good we can do.

I have been here twice. The first time I entered I was 17. The hall has relatively good food and clothes are not what I’d prefer but we are not here for clothing or physical appearance. We are here for our mental image. The showers could be longer than seven minutes and is a lot of time for a growing female to shower. Going to class is great learning and being able to expand our minds is a great way to spend time in here. The teachers are nice and helpful and showing us education is important without forcing anything.

My roommate makes time pass. She helps me as well. I think it’s best if everyone gets a roommate. Something I will never forget about Juvenile Hall is the lessons taught not only from staff but fellow inmates and surprisingly myself. I learned that no matter what spot you’re in, or difficult situation, we could always change it and we are meant to be someone, as you can accomplish what you set your mind to.

-Young Bee, Santa Clara

A Blessing and a Curse

Being in the Juvenile Hall is a blessing and a curse for me. The reason whey being in here is a blessing for me is because they gave me the option to turn to God. It all started on a sunny morning with a choice of either being in my room for another hour or coming out and explore something new for me and go to church.

I chose to learn a new religion. I needed someone good on my side. I’ve learned that everything you own you don’t really own. Your car can get stolen in a heartbeat, your phone as well. The only thing you truly own is your faith. The negative part about being in here is my freedom. Whatever I do I have to ask permission. The hardest part is not being able to see my family and friends especially because I am so close to them.

-Young B, Santa Clara

Facing Life

What you know about facin’ life?

The DA talkin’ life

The whole jury white

Mama cryin’ up in court

I just told her I’m alright

But if they ever hit me with these charges

I ain’t gonna ever see a light.

-Turngeezy, San Francisco

Locked Away From the Loves of My Life

Damn, I never saw myself sitting in a cell,

Locked away from the loves of my life.

I thought I was untouchable.

Come home when I want

Skip school when I want,

You know, do what I want..

Now come to find out, as I sit in this desk,

I have a lot of anxiety and fear,

Especially when the doors close and it’s me alone,

With my thoughts.

I cry myself to sleep,

I hope no one hears me.

I ask myself am I strong enough to change?

Do I want to change?

In truth, I am afraid to change,

I want to go back to living the only life I know,

But the life I know is also the lifestyle

That can send me back to this place or worse.

Soon I will go back to my locked room.

I will pace, back and forth

I will talk to myself with worried thoughts

and again, I will cry myself to sleep.

Something has to give…

I certainly hope I find the support and love to help me change

My heart wants it now, but that may change tomorrow,

I’m a kid.

-Lonely heart, San Francisco

The authors of these essays are participants in The Beat Within’s San Francisco County Jail writing workshops. Some essays were edited or condensed for space. Full names are not used to protect the confidentiality of authors, most of whom are minors. Other essays are available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.