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Jermaine Reed is the executive director of Ujima House in Milwaukee.
An important discussion is taking place about what happens after Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons finally close. Fortunately, the Milwaukee community has the power to reimagine youth justice in our city, in our neighborhood, and even on our block.
The clear lesson of that failed prison is we cannot keep sending our young people hundreds of miles away, to be locked up without meeting their most basic treatment and healing needs. We need them in our communities where we can be intentional about how we work to repair harm and heal their trauma.
I’ve worked in the foster care system for two decades, doing what I can to bring stability and hope to children in limbo. Far too many young people end up in the juvenile justice system because their lives are engulfed by chaos.
For three years, I’ve run Ujima House, a non-secure facility in the heart of the inner-city of Milwaukee. We work with “at-promise” young men ages 12-17 who are struggling with their mental health, are involved in the foster care and youth justice systems. Our goal is to make sure they feel emotionally and physically safe – something that has often been missing from their lives.
We are currently expanding our capacity to work with 10 youths at a time. While our small size is important, perhaps the most important distinction is that we aren’t just a “facility” – we’re a home for the young men who stay with us. We take care to create a safe, stable environment that provides cultural, mental and educational support. Critically, Ujima House doesn’t have bars on the windows or doors. Juxtaposed with a prison like Lincoln Hills, we recognize the power of giving young people a sense of belonging, ownership and dignity.
When we remember these young people are our next-door neighbors, it becomes easier to teach, love, and support them – and to give them the second, third, and fourth chances they need. If we want a young man to go from stealing cars to digging out his neighbors’ cars in a snowstorm, we need to engage him, not abandon him when he needs us most.
Engagement means asking a new young person who comes through the door about what’s important to them. What kind of food do they like? What music do they listen to? What do they think about the art on our walls? How can we connect? When young people are valued and respected instead of treated as a number in the system, youth typically don’t run away — even without bars and locks, even if they have a history of such behavior. When a program is individualized, small and home-like and includes their families, young people have little reason to run.
Family connection is absolutely critical, but our current system has family separation built in. We don’t need to double down on the trauma young people have been through by keeping them away from their loved ones.
Last Christmas, we ensured that all the young men staying at Ujima House were able to be with their families for the holiday, even if it was only to share a meal. And a truly reimagined youth justice system is capable of going the distance to promote healing.
The mother of one young man we worked with lived in Chicago, so we drove him there to see her, his great-grandmother and his two siblings. The young man later said it was best Christmas gift he could get.
Right now, Milwaukee has an opportunity to create a juvenile justice system that connects young people to mentors, families, and opportunities. More bars and locks simply divide communities. Success means we must embrace young people with love in our hearts right now. We can no longer let fear push our children away.