Meet The Girls Spending Their Teenage Years Behind Bars

Channel 4 head to Indiana to find out what life is like for girls growing up in prison

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by Jess Commons |

Shocking fact of the day kids; The United States has 70,000 kids behind bars, yep that’s right 70,000. By contrast, here in the UK, we have less than 2,000. Even taking into account the differences in population, that's proportionally seven times less.

Armed with that info, filmmaker Matt Pelly took himself off to America's Midwest, to the state of Indiana, to spend time in two of the state's juvenile detention centres to find out what life is really like for the kids growing up under the supervision of prison guards.

‘I think it’s more of a punitive culture,’ says Matt when I ask him about why so many kids are behind bars in the US. ‘It’s a bigger place, a difficult place to police. Plus, they’ve still got guns. Also, we don’t lock kids up for less serious crimes like truancy and robbery, whereas they would.’

While most teenagers probably spend their days at school, hanging with friends or erm, Snapchatting, the typical day for a teenage girl in prison is very different. ‘Well, they wake up really early; something like 5:30AM’ Matt says while I silently freak out about anyone having to be up that early in the morning. ‘Then they have to wash and go to breakfast, but they have to do it in unit order so they might go for a wash at 5:30, then go back to bed for an hour and a half . They do school for two or three hours, then lunch, then more school, then go to bed around 8:30 I think. They’re very strictly ruled; how much food they have to eat, the calories they have to be given… If you’re well behaved you get coloured sheets. Like, that’s their reward for being good.’ Ouch, tight ship.

In the documentary, Matt meets one girl who works in the kitchen at the centre and earns, wait for it, the princely sum of 97 cents an hour. All of which will be spent at commissary. ‘Comissary is a big thing and there’s two things that have value; food and stuff like shampoo and shower gel. Make-up isn’t allowed and they’re all dressed in totally oversized clothes and I just think it must be so hard. Especially for young women; it’s that time in your life when you’re experimenting and everyone wants to look good and you just can’t.’

Due to this basic stuff the teenage girls in prison have to live without, Matt thinks a lot more emphasis is put on social dramas; more specifically 'girlfriend drama'. In fact, one of the girls in the documentary claims that 97% of the female inmates are gay. ‘I don’t know, who am I to say?’ Says Matt when we ask him if this is really the case. ‘What is interesting to me though is that in the boys prison we filmed in, boys tend to fight, be aggressive when they come up against adversity whereas girls tend to form relationships and get close to people to protect themselves. So whether that’s gay or not I don’t know.’

Being teenagers, how do they deal being away from social media, the internet and their phones? ‘You’ve got to remember, a lot of these kids don’t have broadband at home. Most of these kids are the poorest in America. They don’t have mums and dads, they don’t have laptops, it’s a very different kind of world that they grew up in.’ And what sort of stuff are they in prison for? ‘The majority are in there for non-violent crimes, like truancy, drug offences and burglary and then about a quarter were in for battery, rape and murder.’

While the girls are in the detention centre, there’s a massive emphasis put on education, both on school subjects and learning how to behave through one-on-one counselling sessions. ‘These are all mental health trained counsellors who know it’s about talking to them like their parents. It's like having a school but having one teacher for every three kids.' Matt explains. 'It's just little things like this girl was like "I *need *for you to arrange for my mum to come to graduation" and the counsellor corrects her to say "I would *like *for you to arrange for my mum to come to graduation.'" So it's about re-educating them socially? 'It's the kind of thing our parents would have taught us growing up, but these kids are only getting it now from strangers. A lot of them are medicated but I think that's a whole other story.' So will their time in juvenile detention centre pay off in the end? Well, as Matt says, 'it's a long old road,' but we can hope.

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Follow Jess on Twitter @Jess_Commons

Kid Criminals is on Channel 4 tonight at 9PM

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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