Encountering the forgotten: Reflection from Spring Break immersion trip

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Reflections from spring break immersion trip to Los Angeles prisons, detention centers

They looked so young. I sat on the side of the chapel at the juvenile detention center in Sylmar, California, and watched the kids walk in, heads down and hands behind their back. Before going to Sylmar, I knew these kids were gang members.

I knew that most of them came from broken families. I knew that they had committed crimes, and some may have even committed murder. But I did not see murderers walking into the chapel for Mass. I did not see drug abusers, mothers, fathers, gang bangers or thieves. I saw kids, and these kids have something to teach us about our society’s tendency to forget.

This spring break, the Department of Campus Ministry sponsored a new immersion trip focused on learning about the concept and practice of restorative justice. A group of seven students, along with Jesuit scholastic Zach Presutti and campus minister Jen Petruso, traveled to Los Angeles to work with the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative and to see what it is like behind the walls of a juvenile hall and an adult penitentiary in the state of California. What struck me the most during our time in LA was how easily we as a society choose to forget or dismiss these men and women when our number one priority in terms of rehabilitation should really be to listen.

In the Sylmar Juvenile Hall, I heard young women talk about abuse, young motherhood, addiction, anger and uncertainty.

As we sat together, reflecting on what it means to change, I recognized their doubt and their self-consciousness.

I was a teenage girl not too long ago. I know how it feels to not believe in myself.  Many weren’t sure they were ready to change, or at least, they didn’t know how. Many had no one to welcome them back home.

The mothers in the group shared their deep desire to be good role models for their children despite their past choices. These young women have pain that I will never understand and cannot even imagine, but by listening, we could communicate through our mutual hope that life can be better, that we can be better.

At the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California, I met men whose stories made it all the more clear that we have a duty to listen. We have a duty as fellow human beings to listen to the pain of others before their silence, anger and loneliness leads them to make disastrous decisions. I met a man who is serving a sentence of 25 to life for driving the getaway car in an attempted murder case. I met another man who was in for a similar amount of time for attempting to murder the man who molested his daughter. I wanted to weep for them, but all I could do was listen.

How can we as a society listen better? How can we humanize these men and women so that their struggles to forgive or to make better choices become our struggles?  Because that’s the truth: these are our problems. We elect people who create policies that sentence juveniles to life in prison for crimes they commit under enormous pressure with underdeveloped views on violence and justice. We pay taxes that go toward housing these men and women in facilities that are eerily reminiscent of images I have seen of concentration camps, and we give little attention to the lack of rehabilitation that actually happens in these undesirable places.

If people took the time to listen, they might hear something more hopeful from those trapped within this broken system. They might hear remorse and a desire for forgiveness. They might hear hopes and dreams that need a little more encouragement and support to survive. They might hear pain and anguish and a desire to be and do better.

We cannot forget the incarcerated population in our country. We cannot forget their young faces or the faces aged by years of loneliness and the stressful prison lifestyle. We cannot forget their “F*** Love” tattoos or their desperate letters to their children. We cannot forget their desires to pray and to learn. We cannot forget their humanity. Once we see them, they remain with us. We just need to look a little harder.