When I walked inside the Alameda County Juvenile Hall, I was shocked.
I had spent time in juvenile hall as a teen in Los Angeles nearly 35 years ago. The metal and concrete structure of the inside of the building looked very similar to prison.
My immediate thought was fear for the youth who live there. Not fear for their immediate safety but fear for their future. Many of the youth are either fighting criminal cases or wrestling with the inability to cope with trauma in their lives.
And I just happen to know a little bit about both of these subjects. I also know what it’s like to be locked away from family and friends in need of someone to show they care.
In March of 2015, Marin County Supervisor Kate Sears, who made it possible for me to meet Alameda County Chief Probation Officer LaDonna Harris.
This is important to this story because I had only been home from prison for five months, and here were people in powerful positions seeing value in my experience, transformation, and willingness to contribute.
Instead of considering me a felon, ex con, or some kind of potential threat they embraced me with open arms.
Chief Harris eventually asked me to sit on her Board of Advisors and then invited me into juvenile hall.
One of her request was: “Tell me what we can do to improve.”
In juvenile hall I talked to Deputy Chief Probation Officer Ian Long and Assistant Superintendent Brian Hopson. They took me on a tour of facility.
I was informed about how children are processed into the facility how they are processed in court and reasons why they are committed into juvenile hall.
We also discussed how children are treated while they are there.
Needless to say, I do not like the thought of locking children up behind bars. So, I am looking at this institution with a very critical eye.
I know they didn’t put the kids there, but I was looking at how they are being treated while there.
I have spent over 25 years in juvenile and adult corrections facilities, so I know the game. My experience taught me that when an outside observer shows up, institutional staff are on their best behavior.
When we went to the housing units, there were children out playing Xbox, studying in a classroom and participating in a group in every module we walked into.
Fruit was laid out for them to eat at their request. And then what I saw next actually gave me hope.
As we were headed out, a child was walking down the corridor. He walked up to Mr. Hopson and gave him the bro-hug. He embraced Mr. Long and myself and then began to inform Mr. Hopson about a circumstance that was challenging for him but expressed how determined he was to deal with it in a positive way.
These are the things you can’t fake. This child felt comfortable sharing his challenges and discussing his emotions. This is something he said he could not do prior to participating in programs at juvenile hall.
My take away of the day was that too often the community blames the people in charge of taking care of our youth while in their custody, and we fail to look upstream to figure out ways of preventing them from entering these facilities in the first place.
What I found at Alameda County Juvenile Hall are decent people who care. My opinion is not based on one tour of juvenile hall.
I have been there a dozen times. My appreciation is based on spending the past year interacting with Chief Harris, numerous members of her staff, independent youth program providers, as well as the youth themselves.
I want to thank Chief LaDonna Harris and the staff I have gotten to know. Thank you for showing you care.
Post Columnist Troy Williams was released from San Quentin last year for model behavior. He spent 18 years is prison.