Day 3 of the Juvenile Detention Tour: Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center

Yesterday I visited the young people at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center. Three classes of young men, and one class of young ladies. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t more of the same, that it was an unfortunate repeat of the last two days: good kids, bad decisions, desperation buzzing in the air like fluorescent lights. It was all that, but there was one thing I found super interesting.

When I was taking a break in the library, the librarians were flipping through the books, ripping out certain pages and sometimes throwing whole books in the trash. When I asked what they were doing they explained that sometimes the inmates tag the books with gang signs or notes and sometimes even prayers. It’s almost like they exercise their frustration by scribbling in the books. Better yet, they declare and stamp their identities on the pages, then tuck them away amongst the rest — a meta-articulation of their everyday lives. I imagined a kid, writing a message to God in a book, then coming back to check it out and read it every few weeks, reminding himself that God was there. Somewhere. Hoping that God was listening. And this note written on the pages of a novel, was in fact his message in a bottle. The desire to survive breeds creativity, and that creativity perpetuates survival.

Here are a few of the torn out pages the librarian, Amy, saved and taped to the wall of the library bathroom.

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2 comments

  1. Amy Cheney

    And…. as a clarification…. the phrase “throwing whole books in the trash” can rightfully get people upset, so let me explain that the reason books go in the trash is because we want the youth to have access to nice, new clean books that have been selected just for them. We have high standards for the books in the library: to honor and respect the youth. No one likes to read irrelevant donated books or grungy books with pages missing, graffiti with rival gang members signs in it, pubic hairs or questionable dried liquid-y material on the pages, all of which I have found. If we are able to repair, we repair, if they are salvageable we salvage them, If the books are unreadable or soiled beyond normal wear and tear they go in the trash. We have many venues for students to tag the books, including books just for that interaction within the pages of the books, as well as many ways for them to respond to what they are reading. Their opinions are valuable and are shared nationwide. Nothing would be taken out of a book that was a kid’s direct comment on the book, and the book or pages would NOT be torn out or thrown away if it had a kids’ response or prayer in it, only if it was otherwise unreadable due to bodily fluids, missing or torn pages or comments that threatened another group of kids/people/crew.

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