By Erika Mutchler, MSW
One counselor and four young prisoners from the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo, California, write about their traumatic pasts and hope for the future.
Entering the juvenile justice system as a counselor, so many perceptions and ideals came crashing down almost immediately. The outside perception of females in prison rarely holds a positive value. The public often sees incarcerated females as the most gruesome population of criminals. They must have mental health issues. They must have something wrong with their brains. They are emotional and resistant. Truth be told, these young women are incarcerated because of some- thing they have done. They have hurt someone. They were sentenced to the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) as a result of a criminal act committed. There are victims and survivors in the community directly affected by these young women. While these young women have committed an act of violence that ultimately led them to incarceration, that does not change the way we interact with them. Their time within the Division of Juvenile Justice aims to focus on rehabilitation by refocusing their underlying belief system and outlook on the world. The truth is that women are the backbone of our nation. The females we encounter on a daily basis in the juvenile justice system have dispelled so many preconceived notions. These young women are strong. These young women are bold. They are relational, open-minded, and receptive. Most importantly, these young women are resilient. Several young women have been transparent and shared their stories with you in this special section.
These young women may not have the upbringing of the majority, but they often fantasize about a life where they are respected, taken care of, loved, and appreciated. They want to feel human. They want to be heard. This ideology has changed the way that staff in the Division of Juvenile Justice interacts with female youth. It is important that the females incarcerated at Ventura Youth Correctional Facility feel empowered. This is done by offering gender-specific curricula in a safe, therapeutic environment where the females are encouraged to improve and practice social-cognitive skills and job skills.
Working with incarcerated females, staff serve as change agents who assist these young women in not only finding but using the voices they have been given. Women currently have many opportunities to exercise their voices throughout our nation. We celebrate Women’s History Month each year with a luncheon and guest speakers, including previously incarcerated women.
Last year during national crime victims’ rights week, the young women spearheaded an institution-wide fund- raiser and donated more than $1,600 to the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. They were then able to participate in a focus group in which some of their ideas were taken back to the community and used for preventative strategies.
The perception of incarcerated women does not compare to the reality of what is seen on a daily basis. These young women have experienced trauma that can be re-triggered if not handled delicately. It is the purpose and passion of a staff working with incarcerated young women to redirect their paths to ones of success, competency, resiliency and triumph. We strive to interrupt the pipeline from juvenile justice to adult incarceration. We humanize, empathize, and teach. The truth is that a staff member can learn just as much from an incarcerated youth. These young women teach us to be non-judgmental, empathetic, open-minded, resilient and continuously evolving. With focus and hard work, even the darkest situation can be a lesson learned, because nevertheless, she persisted.
Erika Mutchler, MSW is a casework specialist with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Division of Juvenile Justice’s Female Treatment Program.