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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Reflections on the Morris Youth Detention Center - Part II

by Jack McKeon

My first solo venture at the Youth Detention Center never really left me. It demonstrated the need for good planning, but also for being able to go where the boys were going and being willing to abandon the plan to work with what they were hearing. It showed that I couldn’t count on my expectations. Flexibility was essential.  It also indicated that I never knew what to expect.  As a result, there was always a level of anxiety before I got there.

These boys carry a lot of baggage and from day to day we never knew what kind of mood or level of energy we might find. Being there demanded an empathy I didn’t always feel. We needed to understand that much of their negative reaction had little to do with us. I had to learn to keep my self out of it. Though there was sometimes open hostility to storytelling on the part of a few (very few) boys, discipline was rarely a problem because a guard was present at all times.  Sometimes the guard would land on the boys with some vehemence and we would have to find our way back to the telling. There could be other interruptions. Boys called out of the room. Walkie-talkies crackling and vocalizing. Other guards coming in to confer.  We found out later that the boys received ”points” if they refused to attend and more points if they didn’t participate. Keep your head up. Pay attention. Sit up. Sometimes they were woken from naps to attend. When the boys left, they had to remove their jumpers and be searched lest they take some kind of contraband from the classroom. The atmosphere obviously was not ideal.  Compounding this was the fluid nature of the population. We never knew who would be there the next session. If a Tuesday plan was to carry over to Wednesday, we couldn’t be sure that the same people would be there. This also, most of the time, kept us from forming any kind of sustained relationship with them. We wouldn’t see them over a period of time long enough to develop familiarity and trust. We were always starting over again. We met in the muster room.  It was always cold.

At first we had large groups for 1 and 1/2 hours, a long time for storytelling to any group.  It’s not clear why, since it had been past policy (under Ellen Musikant) to split large groups in half for 45 minutes each, much easier to handle and a relief for all concerned.  Maybe the guards didn’t remember or were just waiting for instructions. The guards themselves were always cooperative and often contributed or actually participated in the sessions.  More often they sat and did other work, their presence meant to keep the peace. Eventually Paula requested the old practice of splitting the groups and life became easier.

In spite of all of these issues, really bad times were infrequent. Never, ever, did any of us feel threatened, however unhappy the boys might be on occasion. But things could get unpleasant. T was a boy who had been transferred from another facility for breaking a boy’s jaw.  Gerry and I first met T in September of 2016. On our way to the session we both received a message from the education supervisor warning us that this was a particularly bad group. We should be prepared. Still, the session went well enough. Gerry had brought along his dousing rod, always a good ice breaker. Sometime later, I was there with Julie P. There was what seemed to me a calculated rudeness as Julie got started but she faced it down.  When I started my story, I was interrupted repeatedly and aggressively by T. I promised to deal with his questions after my story but I couldn’t get into it.  When another boy insulted yet a third boy, I called it a day.  We were ten minutes into the session, but it was clear to me, at the time anyway, that it wasn’t going to work. Whether it was a good or bad decision, nothing like it had happened before. 
Often, there were issues going on with guards and boys that we did not know about but which had an obvious effect. One day soon after my calling the session, I was there with Julie Della Torre.  For one of the sessions we had only T. I have no idea what had happened, but someone or something had pulled the boy’s plug. He was empty of affect and response. There was no energy left in him.  We told him stories he sort of heard, showed him pictures he didn’t look at, asked him questions he could barely respond to with a shake of the head. I asked him if he wanted to talk about the questions I hadn’t answered before.  A very slight shake of the head.  He could hardly muster the energy to move his body. It was the saddest experience of my time at the DC. JDT and I were  glad to have each other to share it with.

These were the difficulties. There was much else that made it all worth it. I’ll write about that next week.

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