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Letters from juvie

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Faced with strip searches, isolation and hourslong waits to use a toilet, three juvenile inmates describe their experiences in New Mexico’s largest jail for children.

In July, Searchlight New Mexico published an investigation into troubling conditions at Bernalillo County Youth Services Center. The story found that the severely understaffed facility “essentially” uses solitary confinement to detain juvenile suspects in cells without sinks or toilets, and subjects children — some as young as 12 years old — to strip searches.

Since it was published, three young inmates — residents, in the 78-bed facility’s parlance — have gone to great lengths to share their experiences. They have penned letters about their lives inside “juvie” and mailed them to their mothers, with the understanding that these letters would be passed on for publication. Searchlight has confirmed the identity of the boys, who are all under 17 years old. Each stands accused of murder.

They uniformly report that they rarely get to see the sun and seldom attend classes (despite the presence of an on-site school) or even get to borrow books from the on-site school library. They say they often wait for hours on end just to use a toilet. Two wrote lengthy letters that Searchlight offers nearly in full below; the third letter writer reiterated many of the points in those missives.

Their accounts echo what former employees have also alleged: that some guards routinely neglect their jobs to play foosball and ping-pong on tables installed for children, but to which few kids are given access; that the “residents” are rarely allowed outside, despite the facility’s frequent boast that it possesses the state’s tallest rope course; and that illnesses, including Covid-19, are virtually unavoidable in the “locked down” facility.

Here are two excerpts from their correspondence, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Bruises, black eyes and marks: Letter #1

To who this may concern. I’m a ‘resident’ at the juvenile detention center in Albuquerque, NM, and as someone who lives here, I would like to talk about our conditions here.

I and some of the other kids here have sensitive skin, which I have to use a soap for my skin which they’re not willing to supply for us anymore, so my skin itches all the time and it’s not just me. Some people here have it worse.

I’ve been here in the facility for 15 months and I’ve seen a lot of s— happen here and I’ve seen staff hurt the kids during restraints. I seen the bruises, black eyes and marks all over a couple of kids and the kids have too much pride to be a ‘snitch’ to speak out about it.”

Most days we have to wait hours to go to the restroom, which has affected some of the kids and when you halft to hold your pee for that long it hurts. Some people can’t make it to the restroom, so they pee in cups or milk cartons and if the staff finds out, they get in trouble.

The laundry is never clean. It smells like pee or mildew and that’s what it smells like every time the same person that does the laundry is in charge of giving us sheets and blankets, which smell the same and we have to use them for months because the laundry person can’t or won’t exchange them.

As I said, I’ve been here for 15 months and I can count the number of times I been outside on my fingers, even though there is a back ballfield with a really high fence.

There is APS (Albuquerque Public Schools) building in the facility with a library but we’re not allowed to take books back to the pod even if a teacher gives it to us. And there are some people that can’t afford to order books online and the ones that are actually on the pod (cell block) have pages ripped out or pages stuck together with nasty stuff.

Our mail is held for weeks before we actually get it. Sometimes our mail disappears out of nowhere, even though you know it got there and it’s our only communication with brothers and sisters and aunties, uncles because we are only allowed to call and visit our parents and grandparents.

We’re locked down a lot, so most days we don’t get to do our hygiene. So by the time a new staff comes in and we ask to brush our teeth, they don’t let us because it’s supposed to be done at a certain time.

School gets canceled more than it’s supposed to, so a lot of us are behind.

We have brought these things up to the facility, went through the proper channels to get these things fixed. We even brought these things up to the assistant director of the facility. Nothing changed. Actually things are getting worse and worse. That’s why we came to you guys for help to bring some light on the situation and make it known that the shit that goes on here ain’t right and the facility don’t plan to change it anytime soon.

I didn’t put my name because I’m scared of the repercussions of speaking out against the facility.

We are locked down in our cells all day, like a animal in a zoo: Letter #2

The positive things we can do is read and workout in our cell. Besides those two things, we can’t and are not allowed to have puzzles in our room. We can’t have a deck of cards to keep us occupied.

More than likely, when we get ‘clean’ rolls (bedding), they smell like mildew and underarm sweat. The towels smell like wet dog or sometimes pee. The facility does not care about our basic hygienic needs. The deodorant does not work on multiple kids, so everybody is musty all day. The soap they give us (is) not actually body wash. It does not clean or wash your skin.

The cleaning products they give us is mostly always watered-down vinegar. It does not do a good job at killing germs and viruses. And being in a closed facility, germs spread faster so we have nothing that actually helps with get rid of them and with covid still going around, the staff can come in with covid and pass it to a resident or a person can come in off the streets with covid and bring it into a unit.

The facility keeps our mail from us. We still have rights and one of our rights is for us to be able to get our personal and legal mail. One resident had to wait a whole year to get a letter from a loved one and the letter was dated a year before, so they don’t do their jobs.

We are locked down in our cells all day like a animal in a zoo. It really messes with a child’s mind. Being isolated and confined in a 10-by-10 cell every day with nothing to do can make kids antisocial and depressed and not want to be around anybody because they are so used to being alone in that cell.

We can’t go outside and breathe fresh air or feel the sun even though they have a whole back ballfield in the back of the facility that has a 15-foot-tall fence surrounding everything, so I don’t see why they keep us inside all the time.

The food portions they give to us is not enough to fill up a growing boy or girl enough. I have been losing weight like crazy. And when I go to sleep, I’m still hungry. I wake up with hunger pains.

By Joshua Bowling

Searchlight New Mexico

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Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative and public service journalism in the interest of the people of New Mexico. It is a registered 501(c)(3) organization; tax identification number 81-3234552. Contributions are tax deductible.

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