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January 10, 2019
Vol. 14
No. 14

'How They See Me Versus How I See Myself': Girls' Reflections from Inside the Justice System

Girls represent a growing share of the juvenile justice population. The girls who are sent into the system are disproportionately girls of color, and many are LGBT/gender-nonconforming (Saar et al., 7–8).
In most cases, the offenses that these girls commit do not present risks to public safety; instead, they reflect trauma that the girls have experienced. At higher rates than boys, girls in juvenile justice have mental health needs that most often go unaddressed by a punitive system that exacerbates their symptoms (Saar et al., 12).
The system rarely provides girls with the opportunity to express themselves—or to be heard when they do. Typically, juvenile justice facilities do not see the girls for who they are, and they seldom offer the programs that girls need: healing-centered, gender-responsive, culturally competent, or trauma-sensitive interventions.
In October 2018, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality's Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity and Rights4Girls published a compilation of girls' visual and written work about their experiences with the juvenile justice system. This project turned a lens toward the girls, providing space for them to speak for themselves and allowing their work to stand on its own. To truly support girls, we must let them lead: We must hear their stories, respect their perspectives, witness their brilliance, heed their creativity, and recognize their resilience. Our publication reflects that philosophy.
In these pieces, readers will find stories of profound trauma and journeys to overcome insurmountable odds. Experiences of violence, neglect, homelessness, sex trafficking, family separation, and abuse have led to justice-system involvement for many of these young artists, and they are honest in their feelings of anger, frustration, or self-blame. Other artists re-affirm their sense of strength and beauty while also conveying hope and optimism for a brighter future. We made a conscious decision to publish their work without censorship because it reflects the realities for those girls at the time they created the art and shows the complexity of human emotion. We must honor their truth, their feelings, and their voice.
Some artists describe juvenile detention centers as places of healing where they had access to essential services and support from staff members. Others view detention centers as cages and probation as chains holding them back from achieving their full potential and dreams. We have much to learn from their varied experiences and perspectives. Although there are some innovative programs across the country serving girls in the juvenile justice system, we implore readers to imagine a world where girls do not have to be incarcerated in order to feel safe, be supported, or have access to vital resources. We can, and we must, do better.

Gao Zong: "Artist's Statement"

The half of my head is about stereotypes.All people think the Asians are smart.Half of my face are parts I didn't see as worthy.I am now trying to make myself worthy.The system doesn't know who I am.They can determine who I am but they can't make me act the way they want me to act.
How the System Sees Me
How I See Myself

Brianna H.: 'Coming From Where I'm From'

I'm from a loving homeFrom palm trees growingNice blue skies and some interesting guysI come from pain that sits in my veinsBut I try my best to hide it awayI come from bad choices and locked doorsRespect but lost moralsDreams that faded with lost souls

Anonymous: 'Now That I'm a Felon'

Never had a childhood,I call it 14 and grown. Family torn by the bottle,I am all alone.Breaking glass and screamsin my peripheral vision. Dad breaks me like it's his missionMom doesn't careShe never listens.I'm stuck in this life,I'm imprisoned.I don't get decisions for my lifenow that I'm a felon.It's going to stick to me like an addiction,even though I'm tryna break through like am-munition.Truth is,the felony will always stay,but I gotta hope to see better days
How the System Sees Me
How I See Myself

Sabrina Russell: 'Who We Are'

Isn't It Crazy How We All Live To DieOr Put A Smile On Our Face Just To Cry Later On TonightAnd We All Walk Around Trying To Hide All The Pain In Our Eyes.They Call Us JuvenilesBut They Don't Know Our Pain.They Don't Know How It Feels To Be Left In The RainOr How It Feels Not Eating Every NightStruggling To Make It In This Thing Called Life.They Tell Us To Make The Best Of Every SituationAnd No Matter The TroubleAlways Remain Humble.I Talk To God On My Knees And Pray For My Momma,I Pray For The People Who Can't Make It Out The StreetsFor Those Who Go Nights Without Any Sleep.Many Who Struggle Say They On The GrindBut All They're Doing Is Wastin' Time.Life Is What You Make Of It,Things Aren't Always Handed To YouSo You Have To Get It Through.Hard Work And DedicationBut Were Just Some "Juvenile delinquents With Out Any Motivation"No motivation To Get Through Life Trying To Find A Safe Place ToSleep At Night BecauseThese Parents Aren't Parents,They Have Kids Just To Give Them Back to The State,Now The Government Trying to Raise Money To Give Them A HotPlate.Man This Stuff Out Here is Crazy!The Things Us "Juveniles" Go Through On The Daily Basis,We Don't Get Enough Appreciation For All The Stuff We Do,Like Fighting For Our Life Because Our Parents Don't Have The Strength To,Or How We Raise Ourselves When No One Else Wants To,They Think We Act How We Act Because We Think It's CoolBut They Don't Know That These Streets Have Turned Us Into Fools,These Girls Do Anything for Some Cash,Do Anything To Duck Off The Stash,Calling These Grown Man Daddy Because You Never Had That Figure In Your LifeBut There's No Way Out It's Like You're TrappedIn A CageAnd The Only Thing You Know Is That You Have To Fight To Get Through The Day.

Briana Evans: 'I Can Wear My Hair How I Want!'

I read an article somewhere about a Black girlwho had her natural hair out in an afro. She gotsuspended because her hair was "inappropriate"and/or "not done". The article really angered mebecause I wear my hair in an afro. I wear myhair natural! And this young girl got suspendedbecause her hair was worn in the natural state it isafter it's washed? So I painted a random girl withan afro with fists coming out of her hair meaningnatural hair. Girls Rock!

Markayla: 'Do You Remember?'

Do you remember when I first held you?Do you remember me crying too?Do you remember you taking your first step?Do you remember the scrapbook I kept?Do you remember your first blankie?Do you remember your first birthday party?Do you remember me taking you to Disneyland?Do you remember the beach and the sand?Do you remember your first day at pre-school?Do you remember the lunches I packed for you?Do you remember me picking you up every day?Do you remember how I would kiss your booboo's pain away?Do you remember how mom was never there?Do you remember that mom never really cared?Do you remember mom being on all those drugs?Do you remember mom bringing in all those thugs?Do you remember what those men did to me?Do you remember mom spending all the rent money?Do you remember all the bruises I used to have?Do you remember all those men mom made us call "dad"?Do you remember them taking us to foster care?Do you remember mom losing all of her hair?Do you remember all those things breaking?Do you remember us in the corner shaking?Do you remember the day our mom died?Do you remember me on my knees begging God why as I cried?Do you remember all the good times we had?Or do you remember how the good never outweighed the bad?

Deaijia Helms: 'What does it mean to be back in the System?'

Bagatelles Soothing SpirtsMaking the body intensify lockers from within Windpleasantly brushing my skin What it means to beblack? As the light hovers our surface Churning hairinto different flavors Melting pot of a melanin glowWhat does it mean to be back? Forcing ways to easypaths Always having to watch your amount of slackMaking sure you succeed to your highest needsWhat it means to be black? Circle being evened with no permission Bodies being bruised from lack of nutritionLack of education and opportunities Or beingfed with silver spoons So you fail to make conscious decisions Doesn't that make me like you? WE ARE NO DIFFERENT
How I See Myself in the System

Anonymous: 'Artist's Statement'

I never have been much of an artist. I'm typically best with words. However, recentlyI've gone through one of the toughest situations of my life. A situation where you'rehopeless. People look at you with prejudice, and those in the legal system fail to wantto help you – in fact they deny you of any rights or help. That's what I wanted to conveyin this drawing – my coming of age & therefore absence of assistance I practically begfor in my life. How this society of the United States of America has failed to help mereach my dreams. Am I even a dreamer anymore? You have to put on your mask of beingfine, but you aren't; once you show your true dark wretched colors people flee fromyou. I'm homeless, with a vile father & disabled mother.

Valerie H.: 'Yesterday I was 12'

I was 12 when I began to recognizehow much I was a targetA bullseye on my back walking on thewrong blvdsIt was the silence, not the sounds ofthe cityThat was the loudest drowning outThe awkward pauses in the joyouslaughter of boys who left mewith the bluesDancing two left shoesI don't know when them goals I had hidBuried in the backyard.
The preceding works are excerpted from I Am the Voice: Girls' Reflections from Inside the Justice System , a collection of artwork and poetry by youths in the U.S. juvenile justice system, published in October 2018. The project was a collaboration between the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality's Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity and Rights4Girls , a nonprofit working to end gender-based violence. Read the full publication.

Saar, M. S., Epstein, R., Rosenthal, L., and Vafa, Y. The sexual abuse to prison pipeline: The girls' story [report]. (2015). New York, NY and Washington, DC: Human Rights Project for Girls, Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and Ms. Foundation for Women. Retrieved from

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