Accountable, Not Condemned

Photo by Derrick W., Just Kids Youth Leader

Photo by Derrick W., Just Kids Youth Leader

I am creative, dedicated and fiery. I’m a writer and a musician. Growing up, I composed music and I played almost every instrument, including my mother’s pots and pans. I inherited my love for music and preforming from my father, who is a pastor in the Hispanic Evangelical church. My mother is a school teacher. From her I learned the science of teaching. I taught other kids music and about the bible. I would practice my own music for 6 or 7 hours every day. By the 10th grade, I had earned a spot at Duke Ellington School for the Arts in D.C., where I began to excel in the music program.

I was talented, but I needed some direction in my life. When the out-of-state tuition bill came from Duke Ellington at the end of the semester, I couldn’t afford to finish the school year. I was consistently having problems with my mother and father and I ran away from home. I was struggling with depression and had a long history of failed diagnoses and psychiatric drugs, dating back to the seventh grade. I was living with my sister, making friends with the wrong people and making some bad decisions.

I was a 17 year old knucklehead when I robbed a pizza man one night. I needed to be held accountable for my actions, but not condemned. The juvenile justice system introduces youth to environments and people that can influence them positively and create incentives for change. I know that if my case had been handled in the juvenile system, I would have received the support and rehabilitation that I needed. It would have changed my life. I was at an age where I could have done whatever I wanted to do, be whoever I wanted to be. Who knows what I would be doing now…

But that was not what happened. Instead, I spent 18 months in Montgomery County adult jail.

As a juvenile in an adult jail, no one cares about you. It was a trying time for me emotionally and psychologically. There was no rehabilitation. I was locked in a cell for 20 hours a day with an older man. I was surrounded by career criminals who showed me pictures of the money and cars that they had. They tried to teach me to gamble so that they could take my money. I got in fight after fight after fight. I had to make a name for myself, keep up an image. Since I was so young I didn’t want to be perceived as weak and able to be taken advantage of.  When you are in adult jail you have to adopt a different set of values to survive. Those who are feared are acknowledged and respected in jail. That is what I aspired to be, and that is what became my reality.

The time I spent in adult jail in Montgomery County recalibrated my perception of who I was and what I was capable of. After 18 months of being incarcerated I was Scarface. I was Tony Montana. I was going to break every law. I was going to get myself a gun. I was going to sell drugs. That’s what I had learned from my isolated jail environment; that’s what I was emulating. Within 3 weeks after being released I was incarcerated again, and within months I was locked up for a federal crime that was predicated on my felony as a juvenile. I was 19 years old and in federal prison.

I am a convicted felon. A convicted felon is treated like the scum of the earth. You become socially handicapped and are blocked from professional and entrepreneurial opportunities. I have been denied free internships. I can’t even move into an apartment with a felony on my record.

There have been times when this has caused me so much frustration that it makes me want to give up. But I’ve been through too much to not make it significant– to make it count. I am moving forward despite these challenges and I decided to not allow any degree of challenge or difficulty to stray me from my goals. I am finishing up prerequisite sciences and am now entering an internship that will make me eligible to apply for the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, Cuba. Things are improving for me in many ways, in spite of my experiences. I am a product of something greater than my record.

-Joel S.


Heads up – the video below is NOT a Just Kids video. It is an ad.


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