As many of you probably don’t know, I at one time worked as a legal aid for an attorney who provided legal access to Youths who had been adjudicated felons in Ohio and were housed in Juvenile Correction Institutions.
Because of matters involving confidentiality, I can’t tell you anything about the youths, other than to say that I dealt with them according to my position. I can’t mention them by name, first, last or otherwise. And I can’t tell you anything about their issues (even if I didn't mention them by name or aliases) because frankly, it would be improper and it could get me in a boatload of trouble. Frankly, I have shut most of them out of my mind. When you leave a job like that, you put it all behind you because that’s what you do.
What I can tell you is that one of items that I found most fascinating was something kept at the Department of Youth Services – the "yearbooks" from the 1960s from the Girls Institution. These were on display at one of the facilities where I was seated for the meetings with the youths. Because you can't take anything like a crossword puzzle or a cell phone into the facilities, all you have to kill time while you are wait for the next intervgiew is to look at whats on display around you.
The books were everything that you would expect to find in a High School Yearbook. There were pictures of girls in this year of school, and that year, all dressed in their finest, grouped according to their grade level. There were pictures of these girls in choral robes, in their gym cloths and in their school cloths. Sewing class, Office Procedures Class and Drama - all covered is stark black and white photographs. There were even "prom" photos - the girls were paired with boys from the now closed male industrial school across the road.
And like all yearbooks, there were girls that turned on the 500-watt smiles for the camera, and then there were the girls who just stared at the camera like deer in the headlights. You could tell who the brown “nosers” were and who wanted to be popular and who could rip your head off your body, if push came to shove. Everything was as normal as could be.
But there was just one thing that was off about this yearbook – and after looking at them it dawned on me – no last names.
When a youth is convicted as a youth of a crime, the justice system believes that Juveniles, if retrained to rejoin society, can make a go of it in the world. So, except for those who commit the most heinous crimes, when they get out, or turn 21, they get a fresh start. So if their names had been in the books, its something that could follow them into adulthood, thus no last names. Just pictures of Doreen, Mary, Sally Thelma, Dorcas, Ann, Maria, Melvina, Janice…
There were autograph pages, but these were blank. That got me wondering what would these girls say to one and other on these pages, because it isn't like these were the times that they would treasuer for a lifetime. Would one write "To Flinch - Next time I see you in the "caf" I'll cut you," or "One day we'll look back at this time and remind each other how special solitary was in the "pit"."
This got me wondering – did any of these albums ever leave the facilities when these girls left state custody. Did “Dorcas” ever take her copy home with her when her time for gumball theft ended? And could she if even if she wanted to? Because one of the conditions of most parole sentences is that you can’t cavort or mingle with other convicted felons when you are "on the outs" these "friendships" should have ended immediatly upon discharge. It isn’t like you could share the “good times” with just anyone on the outs.
Of course, Twilia, Judith, Donna and Tercela might have formed a bond so strong that no threat of returning to lock up could have stopped them from a reunion and a broken beer bottle fight on the sly.
After pondering these things, I went back looked again at the faces of the girls in their groups. Looking closer you could see a lot more than just on that first cursory view. Some of the girls stared into the camera, their faces stoic, their eyes tired, unamused by the charade. Other faces looked bemused, as if they knew that this moment of normalcy was as fleeting as was their ability to wear street clothes. In every group there was at least one girl who was white, very pretty, lovely hair, dressed nicely. This girl almost always smiled so brightly and with so much "Hollywood" appeal that you almost needed shades. For a moment I found myself thinking that their inclusion must have been a mistake, until my training reminded me that these girls were most likely to have convicted of crimes of opportunity. In juvenile hall, its always the ones that develop instant rapport with everyone that create the most trouble, because they are usually the ones that create trouble.
Statistics show that a kid who commits a crime of passion is more likely to be successful in getting turned around than one who habitually steals. So these "darlings" reminded me of the ones who stole a time too many, or worse. And this reminded me of the kids that I used to see. The ones that you develop instant rapport with are most likely the ones trying to play you. Or they can be the ones so desperate gfor anytype of human contact that they sign up to talk to you just because they need to. Its hard to tell what, if anything is real or true inside a world that operates in the reverse of how life should be. Eventually, they'll be back out on the street, but odd are they'll back up in a prison.
I hope one day to find one of these gems at a flea market. Maybe “Donna” or “Durango” did get to take one home and maybe it will end up at flea market.
Each book, a real reminder of real life Reform School Girls, 2 gr-8 2 b 4-gotten.