Maria Sanchez: Solitary confinement, beatings hurt my son in California Division of Juvenile Justice

When I first held my oldest son Jesse 17 years ago
in my arms, the light in his eyes was so bright. Growing up in the San
Fernando Valley, he loved to write and draw. I was amazed by his
creativity and the beauty of his art.

On Mother's Day this year, Jesse called to wish me a Happy
Mother's Day. He also told me that prison guards severely beat him and
he was fearful they would continue to abuse him if he didn't get a
lawyer. You see, my son is now sitting in a cell at the Ventura Youth
Correctional Facility, where he spent more than five months in solitary
confinement.

The life I had imagined for my son vanished when he was locked
up in California's Division of Juvenile Justice. When Jesse told me
that the people who are paid to take care of him beat him, I called
Ventura prison officials. But they ignored my concerns.

It's a mother's worst nightmare to hear that your child is
hurt and you can't do anything about it. I will never forget my next
visit with Jesse.

As he walked towards me, I saw that he had bruises on his face
and lesions from repeated pepper spraying. His nose was broken and he
needed surgery on his knee. It was all I could do to keep my composure.

As my son spent months in solitary, he slowly became a shadow of himself.

When I hugged him, I could feel his bones because he didn't
get enough food to eat. He can barely hold a conversation with me
because all he does most days is stare at concrete walls. He received no education or programming.

He couldn't even attend church.

During some of our visits, Jesse is shackled in chains. He would get blackouts in his room, and his knee still hasn't been treated. His doctor told me he couldn't treat Jesse's knee because of his heart condition.

Before my son got locked up, he was healthy. Being locked up for more than 21 hours and sometimes more than 23 hours a day made my son sick. He is physically deteriorating. His speech is slower and he seems distant now.

The prison system has broken his spirit. I wonder if he can ever heal from this trauma.

My son has made mistakes in his life. But he wasn't sentenced to be tortured. He wasn't sentenced to sit in a cold cell by himself all day with no help. And he wasn't sentenced to be viciously beaten by guards. I want my son to get help. I want him to finish high school and to never go back to the DJJ. I want him to gain the skills he needs to make the right choices. I want him to breathe some fresh air and to have enough food to eat. I want him to get help when he gets hurt. But how can any of this happen if he's sitting in a cell all day?

I know that Jesse wants nothing more than a regular, healthy life where he can, one day, have a family of his own. As a mother, I want to see the light in his eyes again.

Maria Sanchez is the mother of a youth in California's Ventura Youth Correctional Facility. She is a member of Families for Books Not Bars, an initiative of The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.