Life on the Pod

He stood there to hear the judge say that his trial will be held in February. He knew that meant another 64 days of incarceration after he had already been in the juvenile detention center for 6 months. The state is accusing Nigel of habitual crimes which, if found guilty, will result in his incarceration in prison until he is 21, another 3 years.

“Come in here and talk with us” was the greeting as I was walking into the pod in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. (A pod is one section, of about 30, in which 15 to 18 youth spend their day in individual cells or two common areas). They were in the TV area. Turning off the TV and circling their chairs, six kids felt like sharing their thoughts. The first kid began a heart-to-heart discourse confessing his determination to change – again! He’s “gonna do what my momma says, get back in school, stop smoking weed, go to church and not do stuff that will get me locked up.” He’s determined now but when he gets out he’s back doing what he can’t seem to stop doing. His story is a sad saga of recidivism. It isn’t his first stint being locked up, but hopes that he’ll be able to make it his last.

Immediately the others chimed in saying that that’s their story as well admitting the same challenges and the same results.  What happens to dreams and hopes and prayers to change lives? Does God not care? It raised doubts about God’s attention to their prayers and questions about their own sincerity. “Am I a phony for praying only when I’m locked up and forgetting about God when I’m free?”

Nigel came into the pod returning from playing chess elsewhere in the detention center. He and Antonio slid chairs into the circle joining in. “Father Denny, let’s do circle like we do at the center. Here’s the talking piece.” He places a small golf pencil in the center and explained to the others how it works. So what’s the question? “What’s your struggle these days?”

Tired of being locked up, worrying about court appearances and trials. Tired of staff telling you what to do like going to bed early: “I can’t sleep at 7:00 pm!”. Tired of limited phone calls, worrying about mom and siblings.

It’s heartbreaking to feel the pain of youthful hope and sincerity tangled in the web of street life. The streets are an addiction for youth who have such limited opportunities. They don’t even know what change looks like or where to begin to get out of the vortex of poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

An escape from the harsh reality of incarceration – separation from family and friends mostly – is joking around and laughing at what deep down hurts. This is where Tyshawn can shine when the talking piece comes to him. He is last to share so we abandon the circle guidelines allowing the others to question every bit of his captivating story. The questioning seemed essential to clarifying his account of events. The barrage of questions seeking detailed clarification – obvious evidence that these youth are used to court appearances – had everyone, even Tyshawn, in stitches. He later told me how tangled up he was trying to make his story sound more real than it really was. This he told me the night before he was about to be shipped out to yet another group home to see if or how long he might stay at his new placement.

I had previously spent many visits with Tyshawn in that pod, often while he was locked up in his cell for “acting out.” He is a DCFS kid – a ward of the state in the Department of Children and Family Services. He has no one in his life except group homes to care for him; and he’s not the only one in this situation in the juvenile detention center. The DCFS kids are like the throwest-aways of the throw-aways. As I listened to his telling of an outlandish adventure that had the other kids’ full attention, I was mindful of Mother St. Teresa of Calcutta who says that not being wanted is the greatest disease.

It’s not easy to walk out of the detention center at the end of the evening and breathe the fresh outside air mindful of the young ones you leave behind who can only leave their pod to stand before a judge. Then I remember what Tyshawn told me, “The circle helps us see that time in here is for all of us, who are in the same boat, to think about what we don’t think about out there.”