My eyes flew open as the searchlight passed by the window for the umpteenth time that night. Sleeping was something you did in between. The room was about 10’ by 10’ with a big thick, double-paned window looking out at nothing. There was wire mesh in between the glass. About once every half hour or so, the light passed by each window on the south side of the “block,” shining into the cell. Apparently, this was to make sure a visitor hadn’t baked a saw into a cake, allowing one of us to turn into a fugitive from justice. I cannot remember now where the light came from. The memory of its intrusion is enough.
I had to use the bathroom and wondered if I could hold it. The very first night I was brought in to “juvie,” I slept on the floor, as there were no empty rooms. There was about a dozen of us, all sleeping on the floor on futon type mats with blankets as scratchy and rough as day-old stubble. I had a dream that I was sitting on a toilet urinating, and woke with a start to find that I had wet the bed for the first time in twelve years. Fear and shame gathered me up, like the bedding I threw in the laundry chute, hoping my secret would go unnoticed.
A week later, when I had my own “room,” I got up and padded over to the locked door. I began to knock, tentatively at first. Then, as my bladder complained, I knocked louder, banging with the side of my fist until it ached. Finally, about an hour later, I heard the slow, methodical steps of one of the direct-care staff, her important keys jingling on the end of the lanyard. She opened the door, rolled her eyes, and told me to hurry up. “That’ll teach you to pee before “lights out,” she grumbled.
My throat burned, making it hard to swallow. I had the chills and realized I’m very sick. Each morning after getting dressed, we stood in line down the long hall to see the nurse. For the fourth time in as many mornings, she told me to gargle with salt water. I finally refused to attend school and went on a hunger strike in order to get medical care. The ex-military nurse called me a baby before she found that my temperature was 104 degrees.
My plan had backfired on me. The idea of running away to force my parents to wake up had almost gotten me removed from home permanently. This was a place for castaways. Here I’m taught how to smoke pot by a direct care staff. There is a nine-year-old and her two sisters who create more havoc in the milieu than the gang bangers from East Los Angeles. We all get pelvic exams, done in haste by a rough female nurse, and once they do mine they slap “Sexual Misconduct” on my record. I have never come close to having intercourse, the whole subject of sex confusing and still a mystery to me.
By the time I’m released, I’m angrier, more distrusting of adults, more disappointed in my parents, and more ready to take the world by the throat. I’ve learned a lot by being sent to juvenile detention. And none of it is good.
Unlike grownups, children have little need to deceive themselves.