CW: this op-ed contains mentions of suicide, self-harm, and sexual coercion and graphic descriptions of child sexual assault
According to a May report from the Texas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a federal investigation found that the Texas Juvenile Justice Department provides an “unsafe environment” for youths in custody due to severe understaffing and a lack of resources. The report states that these poor conditions “may further traumatize the youth” and exacerbate their mental health issues. The department has faced decades of scandal, including repeated reports of sexual and physical abuse.
Delicia A. Carmichael and Dajna Datral Brown speak on their experiences trapped in the Texas juvenile justice system. Both women are now incarcerated as adults and held in solitary confinement at the Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville, Texas.
My name is Delicia A. Carmichael. I’m 22 years old, serving a 20-year sentence. My co-defendant is my pimp. My mother trafficked me to him when I was 12.
The days I spent in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) have blended together. When I was 11, I was in a mental hospital in Florida because Texas had no room for me. I entered TJJD at age 15 and stayed there between 2015 and 2017.
I experienced so much chaos and trauma while in custody, including physical abuse such as being hit, kicked, and having my hair pulled. I watched staff abuse other youths, like when an officer stomped on a 15-year-old girl. I have been tear-gassed and denied a decontamination shower, then left in my cell for two days without a way to get the gas off.
A typical day in TJJD begins with staff pushing clothes into my cell. We are let out two at a time and allowed three minutes to brush our teeth, wash our faces, use the restroom, and change menstrual products.
After my timed morning routine, I’m put back in my cell to do my hair. I can only wear a ponytail. I have 10 minutes for hair care before my supplies are taken away. I must make my bed and sit in a plastic chair on a desk connected to the wall.
The only items allowed in my cell are group work, mail, and a book. I’m not allowed to lie in bed during the day or sleep at the table. I go to breakfast at 5:45 a.m., get in the pill line for my medication, then attend school at 7.
Girls who have already graduated are still forced to attend school. At noon, we’re dismissed for lunch, then guards pat me down and send me back to my cell. I’m called for a group session, the pill line, dinner, a snack, and then sit at my desk until shower time.
My nightmares of TJJD revolve around those showers, where officers would watch me through a little mirror up in the corner. Some officers would touch me, and when I said no, they would just move on to the next girl. One officer sexually assaulted my friend while I sat there. I was told not to say anything.
Inside TJJD, some girls as young as 10 were forced to strip naked in their doorways where other inmates and staff could see and told to spread their buttocks and labia.
Upon going to “security,” or TJJD’s version of solitary confinement, we were also forced to strip. When I refused, guards physically restrained me. Multiple officers held me down and shackled me with a long chain wrapped around my body, restricting movement. I was left on a bunk and locked in a cell with no way of using the bathroom or getting water for hours.
TJJD made me worse in so many ways. I have self-harm scars from my wrists past my elbows without space left to cut. I learned to use this behavior as both my voice and a coping mechanism for when officers tried to get me to use my body for things I wanted or needed. All I heard was: show me your titties, and I’ll give you an extra tray.
Some of my triggers come from my experience of being trafficked, but most of them come from TJJD. I respond to my trauma by cutting, shutting off my emotions, physical aggression, and suicide attempts.
The youth prison stripped me of my childhood. No overseas travel, no proms, no crying to my mom over my first broken heart. I’ve never filled out a job application. Life experiences are meant to help us gain wisdom and build maturity. For me, not being able to experience a normal life has stunted my emotional growth and maturity as a woman. All my intimate relationships have been toxic because I’ve never experienced or seen a healthy relationship. This is the legacy of my days from TJJD. I’m damaged.
From Dajna Datral Brown:
No 15-year-old wants to get up before the sun. In 2018, while in prison and under the control of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, I had no choice.
When I’m ordered to get up, there is no snooze button. I look around my tiny cell: I have a mat, a chair, and a desk. Light floods my cell as an officer kicks a plastic storage box inside with a change of clothes. Rushing, I brush my teeth, wash my face, and use the bathroom in three minutes—I must beat the timer. I get dressed quickly because if I’m not back by the time the officers return, I’m going to “security.”
I sit in the dayroom to wait on everyone to finish their hygiene routine. The officer announces “parade rest,” a military term that in TJJD means it’s time to line up in pairs. I loudly slap my hands to my side twice, stomp my left foot, and finally place my hands in a diamond shape on my lower back.
We’re pat-searched roughly, with officers sliding their hands under my breasts, back, and along my inner and outer legs. We wait for the command to walk to the pill line. At the medication line, we all sit on the floor while the officers sit in chairs. After receiving our medication, we must swipe by taking our pinky fingers and sliding them along our gum lines. I cough into the crook of my elbow twice and go to another officer to repeat the same process. Then it’s time to go to the chow hall; I’m always hoping for my favorite breakfast: eggs and oatmeal with fruit.
Once we’re finished eating, we’re ordered back into “parade rest” and walk to education. I tried really hard to get the credits for my high school diploma. I get frustrated because I can’t understand the work—the teacher keeps explaining it to me, but I still don’t understand. I have someone who helps me with my reading because I never finished past fourth grade.
It’s hard for me to concentrate. I’m afraid I will be selected for a random strip search. I hate strip searches. It always makes me so nervous. I have to get naked and do the routine of lifting my stomach and breasts, then squatting and spreading my buttocks. I get very uncomfortable. My own mom doesn’t even look at me naked, so why can the officers? I’m a 15-year-old kid.
This is when I’ve had problems with staff. A guard once busted my face open so badly, I had to be taken to the hospital to get stitches. He lied, saying the cuff hit me, and he slammed me because I failed to follow orders. Since then, I’m always afraid it’ll happen again. I wonder how I can protect myself.
Every time I look in the mirror, I see my scar. A reminder.
School is finished. We’re pat-searched and “parade rest” to lunch. After lunch, some people have sex in the restrooms. Guards use their power to coerce some girls into sex in the vans and cleaning closets. They give you “free world” food and gifts if you do. A guard gave my friend anything she wanted; he treated her like a queen.
Then it’s time to attend a behavior group session. Each person must say their name, age, the city they’re from, and their committing offense. We identify our behavior as “good,” “poor,” or “fair” and must explain why. Everyone knows everyone’s business and must all raise their hands and critique the behavior identified by snitching. For example: “I saw you cheat off somebody.” The accused person must stand in “parade rest” in silence for their alleged behavior.
The guards search us and return us to our cells until it’s time for a case worker group session, where you must tell your life story in front of everyone. This includes rape, molestation, and family secrets.
After dinner and another trip to the pill line, it’s time to settle down for the night. An officer kicks in a storage box with hygiene items and night clothes. We change without showering and put our dirty clothes on the hallway floor. Then it’s penal time, where we have 15 minutes to complete group work, journal, and write mail. We’re not allowed to keep pencils. During officer rounds, they mark who wants to shower.
The very minute the cell door opens, the timer starts. You have five minutes to shower, wash your hair, brush your teeth, and turn in your toothbrush and shower box. A storage bucket filled with bleach water sits in the shower area. We must place our number-labeled undergarments inside, including soiled panties from menstruation. We have kids as young as 10 who were never taught to wipe properly. The officers announce, “one minute to be back in the cell!” If we’re late, solitary confinement awaits.
This prison is more than 250 miles away from my home in Houston. I feel so alone, hurt, and angry in my cell. Most of all, I miss my sisters, aunt, and brother. I dream of holding them and being there for them.
For four months of good behavior, we can be rewarded with what is called “stage three.” At this stage, anyone can spend $10 total on snacks, hygiene products, and makeup every two weeks. A 10-year-old can buy mascara, foundation, eyeliner, and lipstick—but there’s no one to show her how to apply it.
Very few make it to stage three. If they do, they aren’t there long.
Bedtime is 8 p.m. If parents beat their kids like the guards do to us in youth prisons, they would get sent to prison and never be let out again.
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