The mission statement of Ohio’s Department of Youth Services promises “a safer Ohio through positive change.” Perhaps surprisingly, many girls committed by the state to its only juvenile detention facility for female adolescent felony offenders also surmise a positive change in their lives during incarceration. One girl told me, “This place saved my life.” This presentation explores girls’ narratives of personal redemption and change while serving time. The predominant message that girls face while detained is that their future success depends on new attitudes, better choices, and faith in God beyond their personal circumstances. My research shows that girls are overwhelmingly taking on the fantasies that life on the ‘outs’ will be greatly changed through the “responsibility” they are taught in detainment by Christian volunteers and facility staff. Yet, I ask, how do facility and detainee narratives rely on the effacement of the profound challenges in girls’ lives, including abusive and neglectful families, urban decay and poverty, and mental illness? I consider what assumptions about youth agency are embedded in these hopes for positive change, and I argue that youth-serving institutions and programs provide disturbingly inadequate tools for youth reentry. The “place” cannot save the life, and in fact its insularity provides a disturbing guise for masking the compounded challenges girls face on the outs.
Mary E. Thomas (Ph.D. University of Minnesota, 2002) is Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University. Her research primarily focuses on the processes of racial and gender identification of teenage girls in the United States. She explores how subjects learn about and reproduce social differences like gender, race, sexuality, and class, through spatial practice. Dr. Thomas authored a 2011 book from Temple University Press, entitled Multicultural Girlhood: Racism, Sexuality, and the Conflicted Spaces of American Education. Dr. Thomas is also conducting research at the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility with young women. The project explores peer relationships in detention and utilizes ethnographic methodology.