Back to school--but not for California's incarcerated youth

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Joaquin DiazDeLeon, of the Ella Baker Center, rocks the bullhorn
By Melanie Tom, Field Organizer

As families struggle to send their loved ones back to school, families of incarcerated youth in the California youth prison system are painfully fighting for simple improvements like clean food, medical treatment and dignity. Instead of stocking up on pencils and scoping out new shoes, last week family members gave up their weekend and traveled hours to rally at the Ventura youth prison in the city of Camarillo. They came with stories of attempted suicide, untreated broken noses, and solitary confinement.

It was my first rally at a prison of any kind and from the start, it was a bit eerie. Prison administrators made space for the action in the parking lot of the Ventura facility but blocked one exit with a squad car and stationed prison guards on the opposite corners. Administrators were outside observing the rally but stayed off into the distance, visibly commenting to each other throughout the program. We had driven so far and were so far away from anything familiar that it felt as if we were chanting to the sky. If this felt isolating, I wondered what the young people inside felt like when held in solitary confinement for 12 days. It was awful.
Then the program shifted. Joaquin Diaz De Leon, formerly incarcerated for two years, stepped to the bullhorn. Up until then, the rally had naturally formed a safe, supportive semi-circle around the speakers. Joaquin boldly turned around and faced the administrators directly, shouting his story through the bullhorn.

His bravery and passion prompted parents and grandparents of incarcerated youth to line up to shout their stories and share their pain. For most families, this was their first rally and the first time they ever spoke in public. They hadn't plan to speak and didn't have anything prepared--they simply spoke from the heart. Hearing their stories moved me deeply. Tears sprung from my eyes and my cheeks were eventually slick and wet. Their pain and sorrow dug straight to my heart as they went up to speak, one after the other.

It's back to school season and yet not all young people will be heading back to school. Let's support our young people in prison by supporting the Ella Baker Center's Books Not Bars campaign here.

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