‘I felt it was my responsibility’: Why A Probation Commissioner Spent 25 Hours in San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall
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In June, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors took a historic vote to close the city’s youth detention facility, becoming the first major city in the country to do so. The juvenile hall is scheduled to close by 2021. In the meantime, however, families of incarcerated children and advocates have continued to draw attention to conditions at the facility. On Wednesday, the Juvenile Probation Commission, a citizen oversight body, held a hearing on the issue. One of the commissioners, Margaret Brodkin, spoke of her own experience of visiting the juvenile hall and spending 25 hours in it, in an effort, she said, to better understand what children were experiencing there.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported: “Brodkin described sleeping on a cement platform with a flimsy, torn blanket with no pillow, locked in the cell from 9 p.m. until 7 a.m. The light was on all night, and the fan made noise.”
“The youth can’t have a writing utensil in their cell, which they call ‘the box,’ and struggle to eat salads with the only flatware available—a spork. Despite the passionate work of juvenile hall staff, many youths were unhappy and longed to be free,” Brodkin said. “I felt it was my responsibility to try to figure out what it felt like to a young person. I got scared, and I hated it.”
The Daily Appeal spoke with Commissioner Brodkin, a longtime advocate for children and young people in San Francisco, about her decision to stay overnight in the juvenile hall, what she learned from it, and why it mattered. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
In recent months, there has been a campaign underway to encourage state and federal policymakers and officials around the country to visit prisons, jails, juvenile, and immigration detention facilities, to speak with incarcerated people and see conditions firsthand. What led to your decision to spend 25 hours in the juvenile hall?
I felt it was my responsibility as someone who has oversight over our juvenile probation department to try and understand as well as I could what our young people were experiencing. It’s not the only thing I’ve done or intend to do but I gained important insights I could not get any other way. As someone pointed out after I talked to people about it, I’m an adult. Everything I experienced, imagine what it felt like to a 15-year-old. It did help me become more committed to the plan that we have in San Francisco, which is to close our juvenile hall and find alternatives.
Last night when I was sharing what I had observed and the fact that I had done this, I suggested to my fellow commissioners that they also do this. Not that this is by any means the only way to get info and not the only way to do one’s duty, but it is so easy to get a sugar-coated version of what goes on in the juvenile justice system. We have to find ways to get beyond that. I think this is an important way to get a much fuller picture of why these kinds of institutions are not really where we want to send our kids and are not therapeutic and beneficial for our kids.
You’ve been on the commission since April. Was there anything that happened recently that prompted you to visit?
I felt like I had to do this. Especially since we’re in the throes of wanting to close our juvenile hall. I am an advocate for that and I thought if I’m going to advocate for this I better know as much as I can find out about what life inside the juvenile hall is like and, you know, maybe it will surprise me.
It didn’t surprise me. In fact, it convinced me more than ever that this is not a positive environment. And this is despite while I was there nothing horrendous happened to anyone, you know, we have horrible things that happen in the juvenile hall but that was not what I observed. What I observed was the daily dehumanizing, deadening time that young people spend there.
These are adolescents, they’re put into their cells, and they are cells—cinder block, cement on the floor, nothing on the walls, a toilet in there, windows on the door so they can be seen at all times—at 9:00 at night and gotten up at 7 or 7:30. That’s a long time. Even if that was all the time that they’re locked up, which it’s not. That’s a long time. You can have a book or a couple of books. You can’t even have anything to write with. Why wouldn’t you give kids a tablet? What danger could that serve? We use it as an educational tool in all our schools. It’s mindless.
I learned a bunch of things but one is how much of what goes on in the institution is organized around preventing the most extreme possible thing that could happen. Which is why you shouldn’t have these institutions to start with because if that’s what you have to do, it’s inhumane.
In this juvenile hall, they call everybody by their last name. I was just stunned. I couldn’t figure out how to refer to people. The kids call the counselors by their last names and the counselors call all the kids by their last names. It is just weird and it is just one way to build a wall. And when I ask people why they do it, they don’t know. It’s because that’s the way we do it and that’s the way we’ve always done it.
You get locked in after your meal, you get locked in what the kids call “the box,” from 9:00 at night to 7:30 in the morning. What adolescent can tolerate that? Why can’t you have writing utensils in your cells, especially when they are so light? Why do they have to be the most barren, awful environments? Why? Is there some danger from putting a poster on a wall?
I understand these things sound trivial but they create an environment that feels hostile, feels like you’re being treated like a criminal, that is the opposite of what we want in terms of a caring, loving, homelike environment. And in several of the cases I saw, [the environment] was despite having staff people who actually cared about the kids. But they’re restricted by these rules and ways of doing things that even they don’t understand.
(Note: The Daily Appeal spoke with Allen Nance, Chief Probation for the City and County of San Francisco regarding Brodkin’s descriptions of the physical layout of cells and the restrictions on what young people are allowed to have with them. He said that small posters are allowed on a “case-by-case basis” but otherwise confirmed her description. He defended the physical environment and rules as necessary for safety and conducive to rehabilitation.)
Some people might say an effort to bring people in to see these institutions, that part of the idea behind that is to improve these institutions, to make them better. For you it sounds like it’s only strengthened your conviction that it needs to be closed.
Yes. Of course I want it to be better because better is better. If I can eat with a fork and have a blanket that isn’t torn up and can have a pillow and don’t have to sleep on a mattress that’s only an inch and a half thick, then that’s better. But I came away with a strong conviction that an institution like this isn’t set up and cannot be set up in a way to give young people the kind of flexibility individuality and sort of wrap services and programs around their individual needs. It’s just not set up to do that and it never will be.
What do you see the role of the commission over the next two years as being, in preparation for closing the juvenile hall?
I have been a longtime advocate for juvenile justice reform in San Francisco, among other things. And one of the things that I did as the head of the advocacy organization I ran was actually put the measure on the ballot to create the commission. And it is the only such commission in the state of California and it is the only citizen commission that actually oversees a juvenile probation department in California.
It’s gratifying for me to be on the commission and to be in a position to help it meet its mandate. Commissions generally are very influenced by department heads and consequently, are not, most often, the leaders of reform efforts. My hope is that over time this commission will become empowered to play a critical role in making sure our department meets its obligations in terms of the policies that the city has created.
There was a public hearing this week at which many people, including young people who have been detained, spoke. Do you foresee more hearings like that?
Yes, I do. My spending the night in the juvenile hall—it was good for me, it’s educational, I think more people should do it, and it is only a part of my education about these issues. There will be other hearings. I suspect our commission will have more frequent opportunities for people to speak and share what they know and share what they’ve learned. The people who know the most are the young people. The people we need to hear from are their parents and families and siblings.