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Teenagers spent free time on computers at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center's Camp Wilmont Sweeney in San Leandro, Calif., in 2011.

If Kids Ran Juvie

Suggestions from the people who know juvenile detention best.

Every couple of years, California takes a close look at its rules governing juvenile detention centers. In determined bureaucratic fashion, officials convene, debate and ultimately agree on updates to the state regulations covering the facilities that house children.

This year, the California Board of State and Community Corrections is doing something different: They are considering the suggestions of dozens of juveniles who have actually spent time in detention.

In January, at least 75 previously-incarcerated children and their families responded to an online survey asking what they would improve about juvenile detention. The Youth Justice Coalition, an advocacy organization, also organized a focus group of nine youths and submitted their answers.

The young people’s suggestions ranged from the childishly predictable — I didn’t get the bunk I wanted; the staff always picked on the same kids; they punished us all as a group — to the less expected: more vegetables, more dental care, more programs about drugs and alcohol. Others offered detailed proposals: locking the boxes where they submit grievances; lessons on examples of successful people to emulate; more light and more color in the facilities; more frequent haircuts; driver’s ed; an easier system for sending academic transcripts from school to jail and back; more razors for girls or at least disinfectant to clean them; more group visitation so that entire families can see each other; counseling even for children who have not threatened suicide and less reliance on powerful, mood-altering medications.

Most commonly, the kids wanted more outdoor time, more fairness, and more of a sense of their worth.

This spring, a committee of the state board will hold a meeting to discuss the children’s proposals, and over the summer, they will begin writing changes to the regulations, which may not be formally approved until next year.

Below, a sampling of the most specific and often poignant suggestions from juveniles on how to better run a jail.

“I would have like[d] to have access to classes that challenged me more. Not all students are struggling academically, but for those who are not, that does not mean that we should not remain stimulated while incarcerated.”

“They need socks and to remove the huge gate that they have that closes behind you. It seemed like a real prison. It didn’t seem like what I thought Juvie would be like. I also would like a clock so I could know what time it was.”

“I wish there was people that their only job was to help me transfer from the juvenile facility to the outside world like for example school and finding job[s] because I was lost and did not know what to do exactly.”

“I would have loved to be able to showcase my poetry at open mic nights or maybe have had us be able to describe our passions and have a moment in the day that was dedicated to researching different avenues to be productive in that field once returned back to the community.”

“Culturally rooted programs, critical thinking and life skills offered by formerly incarcerated folks who knew the struggle.”

“Place cameras all throughout so they can have proof.”

“The hardest part about being locked up was not knowing when I would go home. I didn’t understand the court process and it felt like I could be in there forever and I had no control.”

“Anytime I needed anything I had to put my request through a chain of command system which was intended to help me learn delayed gratification. This system unintentionally served to communicate my physical needs were not worthy of being met. This experience served to damage my capacity for self worth. I was denied medication for a skin condition for weeks[.] I was often denied Tylenol for menstrual cramps until an hour after I requested it for severe pain.”

“I would change the way young people get access to things. A lot of young people who come from poverty and don’t have a support system outside[,] they go crazy trying to get a cup of noodles. This is the root of a lot of conflict and problems inside.”

“Lack of access to the library and [in]ability to take writing materials and books into cells is extreme. Worst part of lock-up to endure for me and many was the boredom and inability to read and write... Made me crazy quickly — within hours my mind would unravel.”

"If my home looked like this it would have been ruled unfit for me to return home.”