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My was 17 years old when she was arrested for the first time in her life, and charged in the adult criminal justice system. She was held in an adult women’s jail in Philadelphia for over six months. She was only allowed outside of her cell for two hours a day, most days.

photo credit: Shira Yudkoff

Our partners at the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP), an organization that provides art and poetry workshops for children in Philadelphia’s adult jails, first alerted us that My was being held at the Riverside Correctional Facility (RCF), Philadelphia’s jail for women. YSRP connected with Matt Hagarty, My’s court-appointed attorney, to provide mitigation support in My’s case. As a women-led team, we felt a particular responsibility to My, and were pleased to partner with her and her attorney on her case.

When YSRP first met My, we came to know a bright and passionate girl who dreamed of building her own fashion label one day. From teachers and supportive adults in her life, we heard over and over again that My was a leader, a committed student and dedicated part of her school community who regularly gave her time and talents to those around her.

We also learned that she was, for most of her six months at RCF, the only child on her unit. Federal regulations require that children like My be “sight and sound” separated from any adults incarcerated at the jail, for their protection. Effectively, My was being held in the equivalent of solitary confinement, even before she had seen a judge to determine whether her case ought remain in the adult justice system.

During this period of extreme isolation, she became depressed. Some days, My told us, the guards would forget about her altogether, not bring her meals, or allow her time out of her cell to shower or make phone calls.

YSRP returned regularly to visit with My at RCF, and to learn about her goals for the future, her strengths, and her deep resilience in surviving a turbulent childhood. Between visits, YSRP set our team of University of Pennsylvania law and social work graduate students — Eliza, Lelabari, Adina, Ed and Kelly — to work collecting education and medical records; and interviewing family members, teachers, mentors and friends about My to build her mitigation report. We also sent My books about fashion design and entrepreneurship. She used her time to begin writing a book about her life, entitled “Raised in Dreams.”

Our mitigation report included a detailed history about My’s family life since her birth; her school experience; her resilience in surviving a traumatic past; her ambition and goals for the future; and acceptances that we had secured from juvenile placement facilities, and community-based service providers that would support her continued education, growth and healing, and set her on a productive path for her future. The report also included dozens of letters of support from My’s teachers, mentors and family members attesting to her strong character, her clear leadership, and her vision for a fulfilling future for herself and others like her.

Collective advocacy from YSRP, our colleagues at YASP, and My’s attorney resulted in My’s case ultimately being “decertified” from adult court, and transferred to the juvenile justice system. We were by My’s side when a juvenile court judge ordered that she be sent to juvenile placement for 18 months — as opposed to a potential sentence of years that she faced in adult prison.

Although My was placed nearly a 6-hour drive away from Philadelphia and visits were difficult, YSRP remained in close contact with My while she was away. We identified opportunities for her in the community to support her return home, and remained in contact with her juvenile placement counselors to track her progress.

In December 2018, My returned home to Philadelphia after 12 months away from her community (a shorter period than originally anticipated). YSRP was by My’s side at her final court hearing in December 2018, in which the judge commended her on her success in placement, including obtaining her high school diploma, and released her on probation. Our first stop with My was to buy her a warm coat, as it was the middle of winter when she was released.

December 2018: My, left, with YSRP Co-Director Joanna Visser Adjoian after her last court hearing at which she was released.

Soon after coming home, My got a job with YASP, where she now works as a youth organizer to educate lawmakers and the public about the harms of holding children in adult jails, as she once was. With her colleagues, she leads workshops in the community, and supports an advocacy coalition’s efforts to remove children from adult jails in Philadelphia pre-trial. We could not be more proud of My, who is building on her strong leadership skills as she strengthens the community of advocates working for real reform in our city.

In October 2019, My published a brilliant op-ed in Penn Live Patriot-News that describes her experience being held in an adult jail, and calls on Governor Wolf to take swift action to end the practice of holding children in jails. Click here to read the full article.

Just two weeks later, My gave birth to her beautiful son, and we know they are destined for greatness. We intend to be by My’s side as she continues to be a powerful voice for change, fulfilling her dreams.

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