The teacher was preparing her lesson when we entered the empty classroom at 9:15 A.M. She had written a few math problems written on the chalkboard. We had brought a group of experts from the United States and we were on an official tour of the juvenile detention center in Chihuahua, Mexico. We started at the school building. One of the administrators explained that there are classes every day of the week, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
“How long are the classes?” we asked.
“Two hours each.”
“How many times per week does each juvenile attend class?”
The officials looked at each other, “Two times per week.” But, they quickly explained, the course was intended as a self-directed course that children could continue working on while in their cells. It seemed each time we dug deeper, the image they tried to present did not represent the reality for kids at the detention center.
After the official tour, we asked to speak with some of the detained children awaiting trial. The center has a mix of juveniles awaiting trial and those serving sentences post-trial, sometimes for 15 years for serious crimes. Three cells are dedicated to new arrivals. They may spend days, weeks or months in these cells before being transferred to the general population depending on space. The first boy I saw was a very tall 17 year old. We could barely hear him over the low echo of other conversations in other cells in the cement cell block. He mumbled, looked down, and often could not seem to not understand our questions.
His name was Jose Luis. He had been detained for two months and didn’t know when his trial would finally happen. I immediately thought back to the empty classroom and asked Jose Luis how many times per week he actually gets to go to school. “Once a week, for two hours” he replied. In fact, two hours per day he can play soccer, go to school or participate in one of the other activities. At meal times he eats in the cafeteria. The rest of the day he is in his cell. 20 hours per day. Every day. For two months – so far.
Research tells us that teenagers in solitary or near-solitary confinement like Jose Luis, for 20 hours per day, will suffer from depression, anxiety and psychosis. When we had visited the detention center doctor earlier in the day, he assured us that they have never had a case of attempted suicide or self-harm by a teen in detention while he has been there. But we could see cut marks on some of the boys’ arms, sure signs of self-harm.
I didn’t know Jose Luis before he was detained. His mother was not there to ask what he was like before. Maybe he was a brash, loud, outgoing teenager. Maybe he acted invincible. Maybe his eyes had a spark. We would never know because that was not the Jose Luis we met that day.