Teaching, Transgressing: Film Studies in Juvenile Detention

A conversation between Ericka Adams (EA), Eréndira Morales (EM), Karen Benita Reyes (KBR), Laurie Schaffner (LS), and LaTosha Traylor (LT).

From Theory to Reality

In the summer of 2006, a group of graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago came together under the faculty sponsorship of sociologist Laurie Schaffner to study female juvenile delinquency. We sked, “What is being in the system like for young women,” and “What kinds of interventions might provide brief creative and empowering relief over a long, hot summer for young women in detention?” Out of these questions, we developed the Saturday Night Film Festival for Girls in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (CCJTDC).

Working with Ms. Anna Wright of the Special Programs and Events Unit at CCJTDC, we brought in five Saturday nights of films and related art activities in the months of June and July, 2006. CCJTDC has three girls’ units with 60 beds for young women, aged 13 to 17 years old. Our crew of eleven UIC students and community volunteers met with a total 189 detainees in the five sessions. The volunteers responded to a call on the Chicago Coalition for Girls listserv. Most were home from college on their summer breaks.

Each film we selected featured a story “starring” a young woman or young people who were actively experiencing their lives and learning difficult lessons. We sought to provide a “girl-friendly space” filled with positive music, conversation, art, and strong, compassionate career and college women.

The following is a collection of thoughts excerpted from the coordinators’ weekly written reflections and from a conversation between three of the coordinators and two volunteers after the project was complete.

“The girls arrived… and appeared to be apprehensive and excited. We welcomed them warmly; they smiled and sat on the chairs we arranged… two other groups entered with curious looks on their faces. The girls were wearing grey jumpsuits, their sneakers from the outside and maroon or blue sweaters depending on what unit they were on… The jumpsuits reinforced the sad fact that we were in a detention facility and they were the property of the state.” —Ericka Adams (ea)

Don’t Believe the Hype

One theme that emerged repeatedly was the vast difference between public stereotypes of “bad kids” and the young people we encountered in the CCJTDC.

LT After the first night, I couldn’t say anything because all I saw were the faces of these little kids who looked like my cousins back home. And they have always been kids to me, they are not criminals, and I feel we, as adults, have failed them. So I was taken aback by their innocence, which we’re not supposed to see. And I was angry that they were locked up. As I got to know them a little bit more, I listened to them talk about all these things that kids are curious about in the world. But their world has suddenly become so confined. That’s the thing that moved me the most: the contradictions from the images that we get of who these kids are supposed to be.

“I just kept in mind that it was just going to be girls, not much different than I was, hot-tempered, mouthy, ‘acting out’ to distract from their own insecurities. I thought about some of the trouble I had gotten into when I was younger… and I reminded myself that these girls are no different: they’re in the midst of a battle against forces—addictions, abuse, depression, neglect, themselves—and their futures aren’t yet set, but the challenges have begun to seriously mount.” —Karen Benita Reyes (KBR)

KBR [The girls] were not as they were being described in the news. Just to get to know them and see their humanity firsthand, it’s like an antidote for some of the academic readings and the newspapers that just say…“youth are dangerous, these are bad kids.” Even when you are trying to develop a critique of it, you are still butting up against this wall of the common perception. em And on the other hand, there was also this kind of mentoring aspect. On their end they can see the adults as bad people too, but I want them to know that there are some adults who can be approached, that do look out for you.

“During one of the ice breakers I acknowledged that I was Mexican and many of the girls seemed fascinated upon learning this; some of the girls began speaking to me in Spanish. All of a sudden, I was relatable to them. This similarity was something they could associate with and understand about me. I wish there was a mentor for each young woman inside ccjtdc to connect with and inspire future prospects, to instill some assurance that once outside, there can be more than just hoping you don’t wind up back inside.” —Eréndira Morales (EM)

EA We also told them this is not the be all and end all. There are so many other things they could be experiencing and that they would have the chance to experience. So just because they are in this situation right now doesn’t mean that everything is doomed.

LS I would think that it would be hard not to become immune, like if you worked there every day, after a while you just become desensitized. I can’t ever get used to it. And I’m proud about that. I don’t want to be dispassionate. I find it stunning that, even if they had done the worst things in the world and had the worst backgrounds, then locking them away is illogical, we should be giving them the best…

LT Yes, to balance that out.

Working Through The Kinks

KBR What informed a lot of our opinions about going in there was the concept that we are going into a place that we don’t want to exist anyway. So there’s a contradiction in why we are going in there and I think that’s hard to reconcile in ourselves, especially with the way that some of the administrators wanted to show how great this place is with programs like ours. I can understand why they’re doing that, but being hailed as a great aspect of a place that “was troubled but is coming around” is really problematic. So I think that keeping that shock and dismay [at the conditions] alive in ourselves is important to this idea of prison abolition that informed many of us as we organized this.

LS It isn’t like we are trying to make detention pleasant. Instead, one of the things we were interested in was demystifying “the criminal child” to college students, and demystifying “college students” to court-involved girls. This community/academic interchange is essential to a practice of public sociology at an engaged university, and shows how we can use higher education in service of social justice advocacy. I think that’s something tangible that we can theorize and articulate. Being a critical group, the detainees could tell we were “different” but couldn’t put their finger on it. The girls would say “I don’t get it, you not with a church, right? You’re not getting paid? Why are you doing this?”

LT I was just thinking about the use of the artwork and the dancing because we made assumptions about them that they are creative. And I think it’s really important to hit home that we weren’t just going in there to draw some pictures and show some movies. We were going in there the tap into that creative spirit inside of them and to really bring the world to them in some way. So that they can create alternatives—creative alternatives—to figure out other ways to negotiate this fucked-up world.

EA I think that the girls would be a lot calmer and more able to bond with us and engage with the program if they didn’t have the guards constantly looking over them and tapping their shoulders saying, “you come here,” and all that stuff.

LS The thing is, [the guards] see it as bringing up girls’ emotions that they then have to deal with after we leave. This is because of bringing up your humanity, giving you a moment of heart, and then sticking you back in a cage. The response can be, “I’d rather stay shut down until I get out of here. Don’t come in here trying to open me up and get me all juiced because this is my coping mechanism. This is how I’m surviving.” So we have to not romanticize everything.

KBR So there’s another contradiction between the girls’ protective survival strategy of closing themselves off and our project that asks them to open up, trust, and engage.

EA Despite their self-defense mechanisms, it’s still so important for them to know that there are people out there who care about them. We show interest and concern and that we are willing to be there to help them get through this.