At the age of fifteen, G. Callen was arrested for robbing a storage locker and sent to Southgate Juvenile Detention Centre. He spent three weeks there, describing it as hell before he escaped. This is the story of his three weeks of hell.
Warning for language and suggestive abuse in later chapters.
The anger was strong. The rage he felt at life itself coursed through his veins and made his heart pound. He barely acknowledged the sheer force of self loathing he felt; it was a daily occurrence and now part of who he was. And that was the question. Who the hell was he? All he had was a name. No scrap that, he thought. All he had was half a name – Callen. And that was only a surname. The types of kids that were called by their last name were usually those that were despised, whether that was despised as bullies, or despised as the kids no one wanted to know and just labelled as ‘trouble’. Callen usually fell into the second category but there were times when he had to be the bully if only to survive. Survival. Hell, that was a whole new topic. He had no idea how he did it, and some days he had no idea why he even wanted to survive, but it seemed to be an inherent skill. He had survived fifteen years of hell. OK, some months were better than others, but now he had reached his fifteenth year, things had reached a crescendo.
He picked fights knowing he would lose and he regularly skipped school. He had shoplifted in plain sight of a store detective, hoping to get caught and be suitably punished, but lady luck had for once been on his side and he’d easily evaded the rent-a-cop. He deliberately wound up the last three foster families he’s been placed with, earning himself the belt, being locked in his room and even locked out of the house. Not that it really mattered as he’d spent more and more days and nights roaming the streets than in the so-called safety of a home where adults apparently wanted to help him.
‘Out of control’, ‘a challenge’ and ‘a hopeless case’ were the three phrases the social workers had freely spoken about in his presence for the last five or six years. Callen had lost count exactly when those phrases came to embody who he was. Maybe it had started earlier. He’d been ten when he’d hit his foster father with the broom handle that had been used to beat him. That fighting instinct had stemmed from witnessing a previous foster father beating his foster brother to death in front of him. Life had not been kind to Callen, but it was the violent thoughts and memories he allowed to surface that fed his mood, as he listened to the inane and condescending babble of his latest social worker.
“I’m just trying to understand what you’re thinking, Callen,”
Callen pushed back a mop of dark blonde hair from his eyes. His head remained low but he looked up at his latest case worker. She was making all the right noises and Callen studied her slowly. She was older than his last one – at least thirty. He guessed she was kind of pretty. Her face was oval shaped with dark brown hair that bounced around her shoulders when she moved her head. Her brown eyes were magnified by her thick rimmed glasses and as her hand poised over her pad, she had a tendency to fiddle with her engagement ring. Callen wondered whether it was a clue that she was unhappy in her personal life.
In response to her question, Callen just shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t give a crap that Miss Williams wanted to get inside his head and understand him.
“Callen, I’m here to help you. If you can tell me what happened in your last placement then I can investigate the matter further.”
Callen again glanced up at Miss Williams and quickly looked away as he inadvertently made eye contact.
“I only have the information provided to me by your foster father, and it isn’t very complimentary about you. I want to hear your side of the story. I don’t believe there is any such thing as a bad child. Children are vulnerable and impressionable and it is up to us adults to help shape you in to the people you become. If certain individuals abuse that position of trust, then they have no right to be involved in the lives of young people and children, particularly those that are at risk.”
Miss Williams observed her young charge. She had read Callen’s file months ago and her first impression had been the same as many of her co-workers, some of which had the so-called pleasure of placing him in the past. But seeing him now, after he had spent over a month on the streets and been arrested for burglary, all she could see was a child that was broken; a child that was so full of rage and hatred – of himself and of the world – that he was spiralling in to a life from which he would very soon struggle to escape. Lorna Williams had been his care manager for the last four months and had placed him with the Stoneman’s. They were a family that had proved solid in the past. Sure there had been the usual gripes that came from them preferring the older children. Older children meant teenagers. And teenagers in foster care fell in to two categories. Those that recently had the misfortune to be taken from their parents, either for their own safety or through a family tragedy, or those children that had been in the social welfare system from a young age and for various reasons, had never been adopted. Either way, the children were extremely vulnerable, and being at such a critical age were frequently a challenge.
“I’d like to understand why you ran away,”
Callen finally raised his head; his clear blue eyes were as hard as ice as he stared at Miss Williams. Instead of answering he again shrugged his shoulders and remained silent. Nothing good ever came of him speaking the truth about adults who abused their position – and abused him. When he was younger he had spoken up, only to be labelled a liar. If he wasn’t to be believed when he told the truth, he would either lie or remain quiet. The path he chose was dependent on who asked the questions. His gut told him that Miss Williams had good intentions but past experience had long since told him that good intentions meant nothing.
“Callen,” Miss Williams smiled at the teenager, trying to get him to understand that she was on his side. “You ran away from your foster family. You disappeared for six weeks before you were caught breaking into a storage facility. You’ve been sentenced to six months here at Southgate Juvenile Detention Centre. This is your first day and I’m here to help you. If you talk to me I may be able to help reduce your sentence. There has to be extenuating circumstances. Do you know what that means?”
Callen once again looked down at his feet. He wasn’t really sure but it sounded like his social worker was trying to help by saying it wasn’t his fault.
Once again, Callen shrugged. “Dunno,”
Lorna Williams gave a small and quiet sigh. How terrible was it when her success criteria was measured against getting a troubled child to utter a single word.
“It means that a situation outside of your control affected your actions and makes them seem worse than they really are. Something caused you to run away, to live rough and to commit a crime. Did you break into the storage locker for shelter? Were you looking for something to steal so you could eat?” Lorna paused to observe Callen and with a sinking feeling realised that whatever small victory she had achieved had just as quickly disappeared.
Callen sat with his head down, shoulders rounded; his body language screaming at her to leave him alone. His left arm was protectively curled around his right side and she wondered whether Callen had been injured when he’d been caught. She had read his arrest record. ‘Resisting arrest’ and ‘reasonable force’ were choice words that had been recorded by the officers concerned. There was no mention of medical assistance being given to Callen, and Lorna narrowed her eyes as she asked, “Did you get hurt when you were arrested?”
Callen looked up with a half smile that never made it past his lips and mumbled.
Realising his arm was giving him away; he moved his hands to his lap and forced himself not to tap his fingers together. There was no chance he was going to admit that the arresting patrol men had punched him several times to stop him from struggling and slapped his face before deliberately tightened the cuffs until his wrists chafed. Fourteen hours later he’d been before a judge, then transported from the police station to Southgate Juvenile Detention Centre.
Southgate was an old jail house built in early 1900s and a former men’s prison for those found guilty of minor crimes. In the late 1970s, the existing adult prisoners had been transferred so the site could be modified to house the criminal elements within the local youth community. The high brick walls that circled the front of the prison and the imposing steel gates had been demolished and extra land had been acquired to the rear, allowing the youths more outside space. Internally there had been little refurbishment; the teenage inmates were housed in cells rather than the more modern dorm rooms that were starting to appear in the newly built youth detention centres. The prison had received bad press since re-opening as the facilities were basic; the cleanliness and hygiene of the entire complex was questionable. There had also been rumours of abuse, most of which had been perpetuated by former youth prisoners. None of the allegations had yet been substantiated, however most of the investigations had been undertaken by the directors of the facility itself.
They were all rumours that Callen had heard, however so far his first day had been uneventful. Upon admission he’d been roughly searched and his personal items had been removed. In reality all it meant was his army green bedroll, printed with CALLEN. G, had been confiscated, along with a tattered rucksack containing a few clothes and some out of date and stolen biscuits. In return Callen was provided with a standard issue t-shirt, sweater, trousers and underwear, given basic personal hygiene items including de-lousing shampoo, and pushed into the shower block. Once clean, he had been ushered into the Intake Office and questioned about his name, address and history. Callen had given short, sullen answers where he could and attempted to evade the more serious questions relating to self harm, suicidal thoughts and questions about drugs and alcohol use.
As he sat opposite Lorna Williams, his mind wandered to the final stage of his processing. He’d been told in no uncertain terms how the centre worked, the strict timetables for classes, the amount of time he’d be alone in his cell and the constantly supervised free time. Poor behaviour was punishable through isolation. Southgate was a ‘hands-on’ facility which meant force would be used by the Correction Officers if rules weren’t followed. He would be treated as a prisoner, not a teenager and he was reminded that this was not a ‘cushy children’s home’.
“Callen are you listening?” The voice broke through his thoughts, causing Callen to jump. “Callen, my concern for you extends to the police too. If excessive force was used on a vulnerable child then –”
Callen gave a short sharp laugh at Miss Williams’ words. He did not consider himself vulnerable. He was more than capable of taking care of himself; it was other people he had problems with. And he certainly did not consider that he was a child. He had grown up a long time ago out of necessity and part of that growing up was the realisation that all adults were liars and no one could be trusted. Promises were only made to be broken. Just like the rules.
“Callen, you are fifteen and still a child in the eyes of the social welfare state and the law,” she softened her voice, adding. “And however tough you consider yourself, you are vulnerable. The only support system you have is the State and I am trying to help you, but I need you to help yourself by talking to me.”
Silence ensued yet again. Lorna Williams shook her head. She so desperately wanted to make a break through with Callen and with the other four children currently in Southgate that fell under the jurisdiction of Southern Los Angeles Social Services Office.
“Look, if you don’t want to talk to me then you have a weekly appointment with the psychologist which will be set up in the next few days, as well as group therapy sessions. You need to talk to someone. It really will help.”
Lorna saw Callen fiddling with his fingers and correctly interpreted the action as nervous energy and restlessness. She realised he was very uncomfortable in her company and it was a common reaction from the numerous teenagers she encountered. Occasionally she was able to connect and start to make a difference to a young life but unfortunately those wins were few and far between. Callen was just like the majority of children currently serving a sentence in any of the thousands of juvenile detention centres across America. Realistically and statistically he had no hope of making anything of his life. Once released, the likelihood was that he would reoffend and serve more time behind bars. It was a circle that would continue until he reached adulthood, when time behind bars meant adult prisons, with hardened career criminals who preyed on young men to either abuse them further, or to welcome them into their family and cement them in to a life of crime.
“I think we’re finished here,” Lorna said. “Just think about what I’ve said…please.”
Without looking up, Callen stood and walked to the door. A Correction Officer had been waiting outside and Callen deliberately walked into him, causing the officer to roughly push Callen away and turn him in the direction of the recreation area. Progress was slow as they negotiated two sets of secured doors and the Correction Officer had to unlock and relock each one whilst Callen waited. Several minutes later, they reached the recreation area which consisted of a large common room for activities. The time was 3:30pm and classes were finished for the day. Callen had been advised he had an hour of free time before dinner and so he glanced around, wondering what to do. There was a single pool table at the far end of the room which was closely monitored by two guards. He was intrigued as to why there was a pool table in a prison as cues and the balls themselves were easily classed as lethal weapons. Tables and chairs were fixed to the floor in the middle section and at the opposite end easy chairs circled a large fat TV which was playing Bugs Bunny cartoons.
He wandered to the end of the room and grabbed a spare pool cue.
“Play the winner?” he asked of the two older teens that were currently playing.
“Get lost,” said the tall dark haired youth who was lining up his next shot.
“Bit difficult in here,” Callen replied candidly.
“Yeah, well try loser,” his opponent, a short fat Latino boy responded.
“Scared I’ll beat you? Then you’ll be the loser…” Callen decided to take his frustration out on the two teenagers by antagonising them. He really had no intention of making friends in this place.
“I ain’t scared of nothin'” the dark haired teen retorted.
“Prove it,” Callen said. “Bet you I can win by doubling the eight ball in the top right pocket.”
“He’s a hustler, Matt,” warned the Latino.
“Yeah Matt,” Callen mimicked. “You too scared of losing to find out?”
Matt glanced at Callen before leaning over the pool table and making a successful pot. Satisfied that he’d left the cue ball lined up for his next shot, Matt placed the butt of the cue on the floor and leaned on it.
“What you betting?”
“Packet of smokes,” Callen lowered his voice in case the guard was listening.
“Yeah?” Matt’s question left little doubt in Callen’s mind that he didn’t believe him. “And where did you get ’em?”
“The guard that led me here…picked ’em out of his pocket,” Callen spoke casually as though it were no big deal. He deliberately avoided sounding boastful until he understood the pecking order of the centre.
Matt stared at Callen and then at his Latino mate. Finally, Callen’s response was met with a nod of approval.
“Deal,” he nodded. “I win, I get the smokes.”
“Done,” Callen said.
The game took less than ten minutes to complete, with Callen deliberately missing shots until Matt had no choice but to pot balls. When Matt missed his second to last shot, Callen seized the chance to clear up, sinking each ball cleanly until he only had the black remaining.
“Eight ball, top right, doubled in,”
Matt moved towards Callen until he was standing directly in front of him and invading his personal space. He had a good four inches on Callen who refused to back away. The two locked eyes and Matt spoke, slowly and threateningly. “If you make me lose, I’m gonna take those cigarettes off you and make your life in here hell…”
Callen shrugged and stepped away. Leaning over the table he lined up the eight ball and played the winning shot. “Off the cushion and into top right pocket,” he gloated with a smirk.
“You gonna let him get away with that?” Latino boy asked.
“‘Course not, Jose.” Matt replied.
“Best of three?” Callen asked sarcastically, well aware of the trouble he was causing.
“Give me the cigarettes,” Both Matt and Jose stepped closer to Callen who was now slowly moving to the far end of the pool table.
Callen looked around for escape routes. There were about a half a dozen boys in the room, mostly watching TV and all disinterested in the happenings around the pool table. He glanced in the direction of the guards. One was observing their activities with a passive expression on his face, leaning against a wall. Callen again moved away from the boys, tapping his fingers on the table, hoping the officer would see he was the victim. Without warning, Jose snatched a ball from the table and smashed it down on Callen’s left hand. Callen instinctively clutched his hand in pain just as Matt rushed around the side of the table and brought the pool stick down on Callen’s shoulder. Breathing hard, Callen made a fist of his right hand and swiftly punched Matt’s left side, causing the older teenager to gasp sharply and bend over. He quickly landed another hit to Matt’s side. Kill or be killed, were the only thoughts running through his mind as he smashed his knee up in to Matt’s face. Callen had no intention of losing.
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