Beyond Bars: Restorative Justice for Juveniles

This post is a part of our series, Beyond Bars. Beyond Bars blog posts are pieces sent to us from people who are currently incarcerated. These posts are not written by Ella Baker Center staff and we try to keep them in their original form. The Beyond Bars series is meant to foster connections with folks inside by sharing their stories, perspectives, and vision with our supporters. If you have been touched by a particular piece or would like to send a note of encouragement to any of the authors you may email it to norma@ellabakercenter.org or send a letter to:

Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
Attn: Norma Orozco
1419 34th Ave, Suite 202, Oakland, CA 9401

Philippe 'Kels' Kelly, currently incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison, writes about the importance of SB 1393, a bill passed in 2018 that prevents prosecutors from transferring 14- and 15-year-olds to adult court.

I grew up in L.A. born in Louisiana, West Monroe in 1983. I was raised by my aunt and step dad since birth. I was very smart and intelligent in school; a straight A student with excellent attendance. I always participated in class activities such as discussions and helping other students with their work. I was also on television, for a math competition in which I came in 2nd place.

My home life was better than most in my community. I never had to worry about where my next meal would come from, where I would sleep or if I had enough clothes to not wear the same stuff every day for a week. Running water, electricity, or things of that nature weren’t a worry for me, but I was hurting mentally and emotionally and didn't know how to express my hurt and ask for help from the physical abuse and neglect I suffered from.

I eventually ventured out into the streets seeking validation and to boost my self-worth. I chose to normalize violence and adopt the criminal lifestyle and saw violence as a way to solve my problems whenever I felt fear or rejection. I became callous, cold, and selfish and I chose to murder an innocent for nothing.

I was tried as an adult at the age of 15 and sentenced to 40 years to life and sent to prison at the age of 18. I take full responsibility and accountability for everything good, bad, or indifferent that has ever happened to me. At the same time, I went through a lot and endured so much because I was still developing and still a child in so many ways. I came in very young.

The system is very punitive and rehabilitation was not even a thought. It took a lot of messing up mentally, physically, and emotionally before I got tired of the criminal lifestyle that I wanted to change and do something different, something better. It took me 30 years to realize and understand how much damage, trauma, pain and hurt I caused so many people with my reckless decision-making on the streets and in the prison. The biggest mistake I made outside of killing another human being was NOT ASKING FOR HELP because if I did, I would not have ended up spending 20 years of my life in a prison, on a 40 years to life sentence.

Senate Bill 1391 can aid in the process of stopping our young people from future damage and trauma faced by going to prison, especially at such a young age. San Quentin is a rare prison, in terms of the many programs and self-help groups available to the incarcerated population. Mostly all the other prisons, especially Level 3’s and Level 4’s, and even some level 2’s, are very dangerous and not a place for an 18 or 19-year-old child. They should never have to experience living in fear each second of the day, not knowing if they will live to see another day.

I think a good place to start is making the juvenile halls, placements, camps and DJJ’s (Department of Juvenile Justice) more restorative and rehabilitative so that our young people can transform their lives and help their peers do the same. SB 1391 is a great thing but it means nothing if rehabilitation and restorative justice is not a part of the process.