This piece originally appeared at The Guardian.
As a teenager, I made some bad decisions. I got into trouble with the law. When I was 15, I was sentenced to a year at the Lincoln Hill School for Boys, a juvenile prison. I didn’t have a great idea what that meant at the time. I didn’t know they’d be sending me four hours away to Irma, Wisconsin, where I would be surrounded by guards who treat the kids there like dogs. They put us in cages, causing us more trauma. I ended up spending two years there after my sentence was extended.
There are about 160 kids aged 14-17 at Lincoln Hills. A lot of drama happened there with guards beating kids, making them fight each other, and that sort of thing. But maybe the worst thing is solitary.
I’ve spent most of my time at Lincoln Hills in solitary confinement. They’ve sent me about 10 times for a bunch of reasons. Honestly, I feel like the guards intentionally provoke kids to get them to react so they can put them there and not have to worry about them.
Being in solitary messes you up: You can’t sleep; you feel anxious; and the longer you are there, the angrier it makes you feel. I mean, you try sleeping with the light on 24 hours a day or having to distract yourself in a small, dirty, smelly space. And they give you 30 or 60 days in solitary for whatever — disrespecting staff, running, not even stuff that hurts other people.
Being put in the hole makes you more angry, not less.
When I got here, they told me there would be education and programs to help me deal with my anger and the things that got me in trouble in the first place. But when you are in solitary, you don’t get those programs. If you are lucky you might get 45 minutes a day with a teacher. Being put in the hole makes you more angry, not less.
You also can’t keep up with school in solitary because a lot of the time when you are only allowed out of your cell for the hour to exercise, you are “on the belt,” and they attach your handcuffs to this belt so you can barely hold a pen or anything. That’s if they give you your “out time” at all. Sometimes they just leave you in the solitary cell for days and days.
This isn’t really the place you want to be. One time, I wasn’t cooperating when they tried to take me to solitary, so they pepper-sprayed me. They do that to a lot of kids, even for nonviolent stuff like refusing a staff order. I’ve been sprayed five or six times. Sometimes they spray it into the cell; sometimes they spray it right into your face. It makes you temporarily blind and hurts really bad. One kind of spray they use is literally sold to hikers to protect them from bears attacking them.
You may think that kids who do bad things deserve bad things to happen to them. But I don’t think this is how people should treat other people. That’s why I decided to stand up and work with the ACLU of Wisconsin to change how other kids are being treated.
I’m close to my discharge. I won’t come back. But hopefully kids who make mistakes in the future will go someplace that will teach them how to make better choices and how to be successful in the world, not lessons about how much adults with power over you can hurt you without being worried about facing consequences.