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Putting on the brakes
Ann Coppola, Internet Reporter
The memorably harsh tactics of the Scared Straight! documentaries brutally showed generations of teenagers that prison was the last place they ever wanted to be. Now, one Massachusetts jail is taking the “scared” out of this lesson with its first ever “Jail Brake” tour for girls.
South Bay House of Corrections is running weekly tours of its facility for small groups of middle and high school-aged girls to help them make the right decisions in their lives.
“We’re not trying to scare kids, we’re trying to educate kids,” says Steve Tompkins, chief of communications and external affairs for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department. “We know criminal life is glorified in movies and music videos, but in the real world there’s no director saying ‘cut.’ You stay here and you lose a number of your liberties.”
SBHC started the program in 1987 for boys and has since run tours for groups of both boys and girls. Tompkins says a growing epidemic nationwide of female juvenile delinquency prompted the solely female component.
“We were looking at the dynamic of why girls are getting involved in aggressive crimes like muling drugs, armed assault, and robbery with intent to do harm,” Tompkins explains. “The young girls and women typically known for doing these kinds of things have changed in the last five, six, seven years. We want to look at the dynamic and see if we can’t get in front of the curve and address it before it explodes.”
Jail Brake brings four to five girls from schools, community organizations and juvenile agencies into the jail for two hours. They receive a tour and spend time speaking with the female inmates.
“The girls actually get to talk to female inmates and hear firsthand just how much you don’t want to compromise your life in any way that could possibly lead to a sentence to an incarceration facility,” adds Tompkins.
The program emphasizes the lack of control and privacy one encounters while being incarcerated and stresses the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own actions.
“These are very emotional events,” he says. “It can be emotional because these young girls don’t know what its like to be incarcerated, and so when they see what it means to lose their liberties - it really sets in.”
The meetings are also emotionally daunting for the female inmates.
“A lot of the females in the population here are mothers,” Tompkins explains. “They are separated from their kids and they look at these young girls and think that could be their daughter one day. They don’t need to see more young folks in here, more folks period. They really impress that upon these young girls.”
Across the U.S., the number of females arrested has increased significantly. According to the FBI, the number of females ages 15-24 arrested increased by 15 percent from 2000 to 2004. Over that same period, the total number of arrests in the U.S. increased by a much lower 7.8 percent rate.
Massachusetts courts often use Jail Brake as a condition of probation for juveniles. The potential for prevention is especially promising for troublesome teenagers who have never broken the law.
“It’s usually in middle school when kids make the decision of which way they want to go, to do the right thing or the wrong thing. We’re trying to get to them in that period,” Tompkins says.
“We really want the girls to leave here feeling, ‘Wow, I should be more careful.’”
A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts projected that in the next five years, the national female inmate prison population will increase by 16 percent compared to 12 percent for males. Hopefully with more programs like Jail Brake, this will become an overestimated forecast.
National Crime Prevention Council: Girls and bullying
Girls Study Group: Trends in girls’ delinquency