Children in Prison

I’ve been fretting about the immigrant kids incarcerated at the United States’ southern border. Surely all of us recognize that children require nurturing – without it, how do they become fully human? The conditions those youngsters are living in due to current United States government policies are causing psychological and physical duress and, no doubt, long-term trauma. This episode will come back to haunt society, perhaps through generations.

I bring this up because I’ve just finished reading “Children in Prison,” Jerome Gold’s third and final book about working for 15 years as a rehabilitation counselor in “Ash Meadow” (a fictitious name), one of Washington state’s prisons for juvenile offenders.

Although Gold is writing about a home-grown demographic, not the immigrant children, he offers profound insights into the challenges of taking care of incarcerated youngsters.

A reader could certainly draw some alarming parallels. In either case, does our society know what it’s doing? And if it is aware, why – for pity’s sake – doesn’t it care enough to insist on making meaningful changes?

When Ash Meadow was built in the 1960s, it was intended to serve as an intervention facility – a time-out space for at-risk youth. But within 20 years, and with the rise of youth gangs and the drug economy, it had become a prison.

Gold writes that the young people he worked with at Ash Meadow lived “in a world they have little power to affect, whether in or out of prison … almost all had the ill luck to be born into the lower strata of the American class system with its concentrations of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, domestic and neighborhood violence, lack of effective supervision of children, joblessness and underemployment, housing instability, untreated or inadequately treated mental illness and poor education.”

Gold chronicles the experiences of six juveniles – two girls and four boys – who were sent to Ash Meadow for offenses they had committed, and who eventually aged out of the system and were sent on to adult prison facilities, or were released after serving their time. Their outlooks and their outcomes have been varied. Some seemed to find their footing, others fell back into their accustomed ways and ended up right back in prison.

Gold points out these kids have led disrupted lives for a variety of reasons: parental neglect, abuse, poverty, violence, drugs and homelessness resulting in crippling gaps in their education and familiarity with social norms. One extremely bright kid had never known there were other colleges besides the University of Washington. Another boy had never learned how to read.

In another pathetic case, when one 14-year-old girl’s mother simply vanished, that girl dropped out of school, got a job and tried to raise her younger siblings. She was shocked, then, when they reported her for physical abuse, because that was how their mother had always punished them – “how else were they to learn if they did something wrong…?”

“Children in Prison” is heartbreaking and eye-opening and utterly worthwhile.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at

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