Incarcerated Youth

Changing the Beat for Incarcerated Youth

Written by Victor Valle

The average number of youth incarcerations is steadily dropping. A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that the level of youth incarceration in the United States has dropped 41 percent from its peak in 1995. In the most recent study, in 2010, there were 70,792 teenagers behind bars, compared to 107,637 in 1995.

However, the problem of incarcerated youth is still a prevalent one in the nation, and specifically in San Francisco.

In many city districts, teenage youth become engulfed in the urban lifestyle, the fast-paced ways, and the always moving streets. There are many opportunities for youth in the city limits of San Francisco to get sucked down the wrong path.

Marcelo Muñoz, an Academic and Career Mentor with the Unity Council's Men and Boys Program, says, "I have worked and mentored youth from Richmond, West Oakland, East Oakland, and with youth across the Bay, from San Francisco's Bayview to Hunters Point, Fillmore, Mission, Lakeview and Excelsior districts, and I see it all the time. There are a large amount of ways to get sucked into drugs, crime, or other things. The worse part, however, is when there are kids who are just at the wrong place and the wrong time."

Children Now, an organization focused on promoting children's health and education, reported in their most recent study of youth incarceration in the United States, that "a vast majority of the country's incarcerated youth (3 out of 4) are held for non-violent offenses."

Muñoz comments that the worst problem is of how youth are treated in response to their crimes: "There are instances when the things they do are completely blown out of proportion. We lack resources for the youth to engage in to stay out of trouble. Oakland and San Francisco need to remove gang injunctions immediately. The city should also kick more money into the organizations and programs that aim to prevent youth incarceration. "

And what do those resources look like?

HOMEY (Homeys Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth), works specifically in the Mission District of San Francisco to give high-risk youth an ability to choose their own path, from education to non-violence, and to help the prevention of youth from participating in crimes and violence.

Another organization, United Playaz, has a violence prevention and youth leadership program that works with San Francisco youth through reaching out in schools, on the streets and in specific cases.      

Muñoz comments in response, "There is still a lot of work to be done differently. For starters, we can change the way we see and interact with youth.  Instead of being scared of them on the bus or on BART, we should talk to them;  even though every generation grows up faster and faster, we must remember that they are still kids. Everyone has a story."

Other organizations, however, focus on the power to give incarcerated youth, as well as some youth on the "outside," who are not incarcerated, a voice, and the ability to tell their story.

Lisa Lavaysee, program and volunteer coordinator at The Beat Within, a non-profit weekly publication of literature and writing from the inside and out, commented, "Our mission is not to fix the problem of incarcerated youth. It's to give them a voice, to bring their voices into the public forum in addition to workshops." The Beat Within does that by hosting writing workshops in the juvenile halls, and collecting the writing that is produced to publish in their magazine that youth involved can keep and read on their own.

Lavaysee adds that The Beat Within is one of the only publications of its kind: "There're not many publications that focus on incarcerated youth and the things that they have to say. We may not specifically work to prevent the incarceration, but we do focus on what the youth have to say after they've gone through that experience."

However, the organizations that still exist continue to do their job the best way they can. There are ways for everyone to get involved.

"Sign petitions, organize, get active in your community, mentor a youth who needs a positive role model, and if you yourself are not involved, then support people who are involved in working with youth," Muñoz added.

It is our job to do our part in helping to nourish and maintain the community we live in. Every person who lives here has an opportunity to prevent youth from dealing with the reality of incarceration.