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The Insiders

DJJ teens tell JTC kids about life ‘behind the fence’

Posted: August 3, 2017 4:32 p.m.
Updated: August 4, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

Frank Green, DJJ’s coordinator for The Insiders program, waits to see how kids at the Jackson Teen Center in Camden react to a point he’s made while introducing Austin and Aeraunna. Green said the program is coming up on its 25th year at DJJ. “These aren’t bad kids,” he told the audience of mostly teenagers, “but kids who made bad choices.”

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Austin and Aeraunna each took a turn standing on stage at the Jackson Teen Center (JTC) in Camden on July 27, speaking to a half-filled auditorium of teenagers, parents, staff and others about how they ended up being incarcerated “behind the fence” at the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

Austin, 18, and Aeraunna, 16, earned the right to become members of “The Insiders,” a part of DJJ’s Communities in Schools program in which a select group of students travel throughout the state, telling their stories about the choices that led to their incarceration.

(DJJ withheld Austin and Aeraunna’s last names as part of privacy and security measures.)

No sugar coating

According to Insiders Coordinator Frank Green, who accompanied Austin and Aurenna, The Insiders is coming up on its 25th year at DJJ.

“This is probably the most important panel we’ve ever had,” JTC Executive Director Brian Mayes told the audience.

Green led a conversation with the teens in the audience, saying he was “not going to sugar coat” anything for them.

“These aren’t bad kids,” he said of Austin and Aeraunna, “but kids who made bad choices.”

Before becoming Insiders coordinator, Green was a probation officer in Charleston. There, he said, he saw bright young people who were also struggling with authority.

“And that’s the fastest way to get into DJJ. It’s not where you want to be. I’ve seen kids get trapped in this system, and no one wants that for you,” he said.

The two things, Green said, that would serve teens well in staying out of trouble were to respect themselves -- because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to respect others -- and to use proper manners.

“Manners and respect will take you further in life than anything else,” Green said. “Do the right things because they’re the right things to do. Character is what you’re doing when no one’s watching. If your character is poor, no one’s going to be around you or work with you. It’s a cruel world; if you have poor character, no one’s going to want to deal with you.”

Green said a lot of teens fall into DJJ -- a place from which they can’t simply go home at the end of the day -- because of people they hung out with.

“If you’re the only person with a bright idea in the group, you need to get out of that circle,” he said.

Green also urged teens to allow their mothers and fathers to fulfill their roles as parents -- to guide, feed, clothe, teach and love them.

“Everyone’s story is different, but there’s someone out there who cares about you,” he said.

He said a lot of teens who end up within the juvenile system for the first time end up being shocked by the experience, many being later diagnosed with PTSD -- post-traumatic stress disorder.

“You’re not only hurting yourself,” Green said of committing crimes, “but the people who love and care about you. It hurts your parents, who, if they have to take you to court-ordered appointments, are not going to work.”

Austin

“I was in 5th Grade the last time I went to school,” Austin, who is now 18, said.

He said he grew up in a poor family that never seemed to have enough money. He didn’t use that as an excuse for his future behavior, though. Austin admitted that he couldn’t seem to force himself to do the right things.

“I got behind in school and I acted out instead of asking questions,” he said.

A truant who skipped classes often, Austin said he ended up being ordered by a judge to attend school. It even got to the point where police officers would show up at his door to take him to school. He would still run away once they left campus.

“They even gave me people to help me in school, but I just became the class clown,” he said.

He ended up before a judge again and, this time, was ordered to spend 30 days in juvenile detention.

“I missed my family and, when I got out, I said I wouldn’t go back to jail,” Austin said. “I went back to school and I did well, but then I started skipping again.”

At this point, it was just him and his mother. He said he would be sitting at home and, when he got bored, started walking the neighborhood. One day, he came upon a group of older teens, around his age now. They tried to get him to leave.

“I told them no one tells me what to do, so I started drinking and smoking with them to gain their respect and they let me hang out with them. Soon, we all stayed so high, we dropped out of school and knew that no one would give us jobs,” he said.

Then, one day, one of the group said they wanted to go and take something -- steal. Austin said it started with candy bars and other food to “feed his homies.” Then they wanted real money.

“We started robbing stores and houses. We wanted more, so we started breaking into vehicles. And we never got caught. We started thinking we were pros. We forgot all about school,” he said.

Another fateful day came: a member of the group suggested they go after something “big.” They decided to steal a brand new motorcycle from a lot. Another member of the group took Austin, who would be the one to do the deed.

“After we got the bike, we ended up in a police chase; there was even a helicopter. We came up on this red light and we decided to go for it,” Austin said. “My friend went through first, but when I went through, I got hit by a car. I thought I was dead, but I wasn’t, and I saw my friend ride off -- he left me there.”

Austin said he ran back to the motorcycle, but then got hit by a patrol car, leading to his capture. He ended up before a judge again -- a judge who rendered an indeterminate sentence that could last until he was 21 years old.

“I realized I had been going in front of the judge my whole life,” he said.

Once he was behind the fence at DJJ, he found himself not caring about life or himself … until a teacher promised to help him earn his GED.

“I worked for months and months and I earned it. I don’t feel worthless anymore. I’m now a peer mediator, helping others. And, today, I made the last payment of restitution for the motorcycle I stole,” Austin said to a round of applause.

He received another round when he announced that he had been accepted to Allen University.

Aeraunna

It took two years before anyone really started to believe her story. By then, it was too late -- Aeraunna had already started breaking into cars.

It all began when she was 12 years old. Her adoptive mother was beating her. She told everyone, but no one believed her. So, she acted out, by committing crimes and ended up in the juvenile justice system for the first time at age 13.

At one point, her adoptive mother stabbed her in the thigh. The Department of Social Services got involved and saw how she had suffered marks, welts and other injuries. By then, she had told her biological mother what was happening.

“I was worried I was going to get killed,” Aeraunna said.

She ended up on probation, but didn’t complete it, still struggling to deal with the abuse from and lack of any real consequences for her adoptive mother.

One day, when she was 14 years old, as a way to express her anger, she set fire to an apartment.

“There was a lady living there with six kids,” Aeraunna said. “She had to start completely over.”

She admitted she would keep committing crimes as a way of acting out.

That led to her being given a 15- to 24-month indeterminate sentence.

But, like Austin, she has worked hard to earn the right to sometimes come out from behind the fence to talk to other teens.

“I’m an honor roll student now, and one of the first girls in The Insiders,” Aeraunna said. “This is the first time someone’s believed in me and started helping, but I also have to push myself. I’m going to prove them all wrong. I’m going to go to college and be somebody in my life.”

It was hard for her to come to the JTC that day.

“You all get to go home, and I have to go back to behind a barbed-wire fence,” she said.

At the same time, she is looking ahead to the day when that won’t be the case.

“What happened in my past is in my past and I’m not going to let it affect my future,” Aeraunna said.

Behind the fence

While answering questions, Austin told the JTC kids that when you commit a crime, you’re being selfish.

“There are more victims than you think,” he said. “There’re my parents and my little sister. I live three and a half hours from here, and it’s hard for my mom to visit me.”

He then proceeded to describe his day behind the fence, which includes going to school year-round.

It starts between 5 and 5:30 a.m., he said, where a headcount is conducted.

“You have to give your last name and your (DJJ) number. It’s sad that part of your name is replaced with a number.”

Such headcounts happen multiple times a day.

They receive whatever medications they may be prescribed and head to breakfast.

By 7:50 a.m., they are in school. If they’ve already received their GED, they will go to classes that teach various trades. Lunch is at noon, Dinner is after more classes in the afternoon and then lights out not long after.

Austin said DJJ inmates are classified in phases. Phase I inmates are usually the newest and have no privileges. Phase II gain a few privileges while Phase III, where he is now, are able to take part in programs like The Insiders.

“It allows me to do a lot of things,” he said.

Conditions can get worse, though, if you act up. He admitted that happened to him once.

“I ended up in a concrete box (room) with a concrete bed and a concrete table and combination sink/toilet,” Austin said.

Now that he’s 18, he, technically, could be transferred to a Department of Corrections prison. He said he is on “adult parole” and that if he ever messes up again, he could be transferred.

“I’ve seen that happen and some of them never get out,” he said.

“This is the reality,” Green said afterward. “They live behind a 16-foot barbed-wire fence. If you make one wrong decision, you’ll end up right there with them. This is a picture of how quick one wrong decision can land you in the system. I’ve seen three months probation turn into being in until 18 years old. If you’re doing anything (bad) with anyone, stop that -- today.”

Green also told parents that it all comes back to the household. He urged them to talk with their children and visit their schools. And he had a few last words for the kids at the JTC:

“If you don’t think you have anyone to talk to at home, go to your teacher or counselor or school resource officer. Start disciplining yourself to do the right things for the right reasons.”

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