When I imagine what prison is like I do not picture children. I picture mean, muscular, ugly men or strong angry heavy women who seek their prey before they become one. It is an unsafe, dirty, dark, place where people are beaten, raped, and forgotten. The worst of the worst get sent to prison.
About a year and a half ago I was asked if I would lead a group of trafficked girls who are incarcerated. I jumped at the chance to work with these girls who experienced the same tragedy as me, trafficking. I had my time in juvenile detention. I get what that’s like and I also get trafficking. This couldn’t be a better fit for me.
I planned what the structure would be, researched some curriculum and topics, and was ready to begin. What I didn’t realize was that I was not going to a juvenile detention facility. I was going to the only juvenile prison for females in my state. This is where the worst of the worst are locked up, but this place is for children.
After a few months of planning, I was ready for my first day, but also nervous about whether the girls would be receptive to me. I am not the cool rebellious traumatized girl I used to be. I am a professional, educated, mother of four, who has overcome the trauma of trafficking. Will I still be able to relate? Will they see me as an old white woman who doesn’t get them? I wasn’t sure, but I was about to find out.
I walked into the room where eight young teenage girls sat patiently waiting for me. They all had their hair in a ponytail. Their outfits all looked the same; gray sweatpants, shirt, dark tennis shoes. All the girls stared back at me as I walked in the room. I had on your typical jeans and a t-shirt. My hair is highlighted blond and hangs just below my shoulders. I didn’t feel scared at all. I was eager to get to know these girls and hoped that my old middle-class white woman self wouldn’t create a barrier with them.
As I walked into the room where they waited for me their eyes all peered back at me attentively. I think they were wondering who I was as I was them. I looked at each girl and saw soft eyes, smooth skin, pretty smiles, and friendly faces. It wasn’t an intimidating group. They looked like the kids at my child’s school, like regular teenagers. They looked like they could have been one of my children. I didn’t see the ugly, strong, heavy, mean-spirited women that I imagined lived in prison. What I saw were children.
By Toni McKinley, LPC