A couple of years ago I mentored a young woman at the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center in Mandan. The student, whom I’ll call Mary, grew up in another state but was estranged from her mom. She had gotten into trouble while staying with a relative in eastern North Dakota. Like most YCC kids, Mary had a history of addiction. She had burn marks and cuts on her arms, which continued to multiply while incarcerated.
Mary also was whip smart and liked testing my acumen with card games. We talked about what she wanted to do on the outside, like find a job at a gas station. I naively tried to nudge her toward college.
Mary turned 18 while in state custody. When her sentence was up, she was released into Bismarck — a town she had never lived in —as a legal adult. She moved into Youthworks housing and started working two jobs, which meant little sleep. Before long she was using again. The last time I heard from her, she sent a text to say she was moving to another state to live with her birth dad, whom she had never met.
Burning bridges, or having them fall out from beneath you, is an all-too-frequent pattern for incarcerated juveniles. I hope Mary found a fresh start, but the statistics are not promising. Of the YCC kids who enroll in the Bridges of Hope mentorship program, through which I volunteered, there are a few glowing success stories. But the majority disappear after a few months on the outside — to addiction, to adult prison, to the cemetery.
The North Dakota Youth Correctional Center houses children as young as 12. A few of the teens have committed horrific crimes, but for one-third of YCC juveniles, a property crime was their most serious offense. Some teens come from the foster care system, while others have families, but all youth enter legal custody of the Division of Juvenile Services when sentenced to YCC. Most have lived through unimaginable trauma, and they do receive some treatment while in custody; yet upon release they are tasked by our government — our community — to reinvent themselves with little to no resources. It should come as no surprise that many do not succeed.
This week our governor and first lady hosted the second Recovery Reinvented conference, a statewide effort to destigmatize addiction. The Bismarck Tribune recently reported on individuals attempting to creatively improve services for incarcerated teens in spite of extensive budget cuts. What would happen if North Dakota fully funded the resources necessary to give these youth a fighting chance, rather than using incarceration as a stopgap? Helping kids, while still malleable and growing, become healthy, whole persons will cost the public less than treating lifelong addiction or providing long-term prison housing for a broken adult.
Should we be locking up teenagers? I don't have a simple answer, but I encourage those interested to get to know the kids. Talk to the people who work with them. Volunteer to be a community mentor through Bridges of Hope. Donate to Youthworks, Ministry on the Margins, or Charles Hall Youth Services — the local nonprofits currently filling in the gaps. Vote.
As wards of the state, the incarcerated juveniles at YCC are the responsibility of the citizens of North Dakota. Without adequate funding — and political will — for robust mental health and addiction services, we are taking away any possibility of redemption or reinvention for these kids. It’s time to give some serious thought to whether we as a society are truly attempting to offer them a future with hope.