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Incarcerated Women: The Impacts of Being Incarcerated at 10 Years Old

June 5, 2019 - 11:25 am

This KBCS series focuses on the impacts of locking up the women in our community. The following two segments highlight the experiences of Shontina Vernon: a local artist who first became incarcerated at age 10.

Part 1 – We hear from Shontina Vernon, a local artist who had been incarcerated at the age of 10, about what it’s like to be incarcerated for youth.

Part 2 – Vernon shares her experience of meeting her prosecuting attorney after she served time as a 10 year old in Texas.

Part 3 – Vernon recounts why and how she was sentenced to incarceration at the age of 10.

Part 4 – Vernon illustrates who inspired her and what words kept her afloat during her most difficult years.

Producers Ruth Bly and Yuko Kodama

Part 1

Yuko Kodama 0:00
91.3 KBCS, music and ideas. Listener supported radio from Bellevue College.

Ruthie Bly 0:10
At the start of the war on crime in the 1980’s, Shontina Vernon became one of many youth of color caught in the Texas juvenile justice system. She recounted to me what life was like behind bars for her as a 10 year old in this interview from 2018.

Shontina Vernon 0:36
Often there were young people with no outlet for their emotional life – it’s basically the same as what happens in an adult prison, right? You take it out on each other, you become the target of 1 person or there’s always a feeling that danger is lurking, despite the illusion of safety. As a survival mechanism or technique, you sort of collapse more into yourself – into your own inner life, inner world, as a way to protect yourself from others and also as a way to survive. If you’re one of those young people that doesn’t want any problems, you keep your head down, you become really introverted. You know, you just move really mechanically through the process each day, you really try to pull in. Also, you can very easily slip into a space where you can’t trust yourself, either. Because you’re here, you’re in this space, you’re in this cell, you are made to feel as if there is something about you that is fundamentally flawed or wrong. You may not know what it is, but, it’s a feeling that walks with you as a result of your surroundings.

Yuko Kodama 1:42
Because it’s used as a punishment for something that you did.

Shontina Vernon 1:46
Yes. Yes. And if no one is really talking to you about the nature of what you did, and really contextualizing it from the perspective that you are a child, then you draw your own conclusions. And you begin to make up your own stories about who you are and why you’re there and whether or not you’ll ever get out or what your life now means as a result.

Yuko Kodama 2:08
Yeah, so what are some of the kinds of stories that go through your mind as a 10 year old, in a space like this?

Shontina Vernon 2:15
Oh, I mean, “I must be really bad”. “I’m not wanted”, you know, you begin to believe the sort of systemic language that is used around you – the “legal-ese”. When, you know, when your prosecuting attorney says, oh, you’re a terror to the community, you have to be really vigilant and strong, to be a 10 year old and not internalize that, right? So you begin to take on the system’s language about you and who you are, rather than the language of people who love you, and who are invested in you doing well. You’re trying to cling on to the words of just a few folks. And who’s to say that every young person moving through the system encounters somebody that can see them, and that can acknowledge something human about them? If you don’t get that you’re just moving through the system. And, so, it’s sort of like a, kind of, choreographed, vacant way of living and existing in that space that you begin to take on. And it’s hard. I understand this, as I’ve had the chance to speak to lots of adults who have been in the system, it’s a thing that’s very difficult to shake, once you re-enter; the feeling of having to sort of shut down in order to survive your circumstances.

Yuko Kodama 3:25
So at night, when it’s lights out, and you get into bed, you know, what were some of the things that you think about?

Shontina Vernon 3:32
You think about home. You think about things that you remember – from home. You cling to your memory of your room, of your favorite things to play with, of the people that you hope will still be there, or that will remember you when you return. At least that’s what I used to think of, or, you know, you just pray to the unknown that, like, whatever this thing is that has you here will let up and you will have a reprieve and be forgiven and have another chance at things. So you think of all those things.

Yuko Kodama 4:03
And how about some of the other people in with you? How are some of the ways that other people responded to that environment?

Shontina Vernon 4:13
I think the most common is anger, and just lashing out – being very violent. A lot of the youth were violent to themselves, violent to each other, you know. So it’s turning whatever those feelings are of – whether those feelings are hate or feelings of unworthiness, you turn them on yourself and on others. And that’s generally what those young people would do while they were there. And also the power, the power differences between the people who worked there and the young people that were incarcerated were obvious all the time and always at play. So in any way that they could go about trying to exert their power or just going against authority. To me, that is about resistance and you’re trying to sort of hold on to this very core part of yourself. And so that’s what I would see – I would see folks really trying to buck the system and to lash out and often very angry and retaliatory at each other. But when that didn’t work, it became turning it in on themselves.

Yuko Kodama 5:22
That was artist Shontina Vernon, a Rauschenberg fellow and the creative director of the Visionary Justice Storylab, speaking with me in 2018. Special thanks to Producer Ruthie Bly for her help in editing the incarcerated women series.

Part 2
Yuko Kodama 0:00
91.3 KBCS, music and ideas. Listener supported radio from Bellevue College.

Prison populations are decreasing in parts of the country. But according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the time of broadcast, for-profit prisons were including occupancy guarantee clauses in 65% of their contracts to ensure these prisons can stay in business. The bed guarantee ranged between 80 and 100% occupancy rates. Research from the Public Interest shows states caught in these contracts send millions to for-profit corporations for empty beds, as they see crime rates decrease. This Research reports that the prison industry generates additional revenue from high phone rates, and prison commissaries.

Local artist, Shontina Vernon was incarcerated at the age of 10 In Texas. The prosecuting attorney in her trial was notorious for putting people behind bars. He had been monetarily incentivized to do so. Years after Vernon served her time, she was working on a theatrical play loosely based on her time behind bars. She decided to pay a visit to the prosecuting attorney from when she was 10 as part of herproject.

Shontina Vernon 1:26
I didn’t call beforehand, this place is a really small town, so, I was able to just arrive and go. And really what I was looking for; one because I was developing a character loosely based on him. I was really trying to get a sense of a feel for him – his mannerisms, and I guess his value system like what it was that made it okay. Because this particular prosecuting attorney had a history in this small town of targeting black and brown young people. I’d already heard about him long before he appeared as a character in my own life, right? Because I knew other young people who he had targeted, incarcerated, and basically thrown the book at. What I eventually discovered, which is a practice that I didn’t know was this common then, is that the counties were getting kickbacks for certain numbers of young people. By that I mean, budgetary kickbacks: your money flowing in depending on the number of folks that you managed to lock up.

So I went, I visited him. And it was really one of those moments of like, inside, it was like a celebratory moment, and like a finger sign moment, right? Because he couldn’t believe it. He absolutely could not believe it – that like I was standing before him. And I asked, “do you remember me”? And his initial answer was, “you look familiar, I’m not sure that I remember you”. And then I said, you know, well, I told him my name “Shontina Vernon, and you may not remember this. But when I was 10 years old, you sought to have me incarcerated until I was 18. Do you remember what it was for?” So I had to fill him in on the details. And then in the middle, he’s like, “Oh, I remember that”. He’s like, “but you were really going after the elderly people in the community”. So he sort of defaulted to the version that he had even then; just shy of saying, “Well, it looks like then it was the right move, because it turned you around”. So very interesting, but not something that I was surprised by because I know the lay of the land there. The truth is, and I and I said this to him as well, “you could have drastically changed the trajectory of my life, just on a whim, and kind of not really being thoughtful about where I was coming from”. So I wanted to sit there, in front of him, and to interview him so that he could understand. “It’s not a game, it’s not a budgetary mark for these communities in the way that it might be for the county, when you just target and incarcerate young people. I could be sitting here in front of you with a very different story of how my life had turned out”. So it was important for me to come back as an adult and say, “This is me – as an adult”, right? And “we can have a very different kind of conversation about the things that I was doing and what was happening. But at the time, it was as much a part of your job to ask what was going on. And what are the ways that I could have supported rather than, Oh, another one. Another one, another one, another one”.

I think according to his values, he probably does think he’s being helpful. But he’s not really considering his own implicit biases, his own prejudice, and how the structures of racism hold him up in a way that they do not for a lot of the members in some of the other communities. What’s interesting is that, for that prosecuting attorney, in his own community, was a youth pastor. And I think that’s the thing it’s like, so for our community, he was the terror. You knew, if you saw him coming, that it was going to be a problem, and he was going to do everything he could to make you pay, right? In his community, he’s heralded as like, “Look, he’s an outstanding human being and an upstanding citizen and great father and youth pastor”. And I think that like, our conversations have to be able to hold a little more complexity than they do right now. Because the truth is, he’s both of those things. And he’s having impact on one side, and he’s having impact on another. But how do we wrestle with the values that he brings to the work that he does systemically? These are where these conversations have to start going.

Yuko Kodama 5:45
That was artist Shontina Vernon, a Rauschenberg fellow and the creative director of the Visionary Justice Storylab, speaking with me in the KBCS studios. I’m Yuko Kodama and this is 91 3 independent radio.