The First Day I Went to Jail

Six months after I graduated from Rutgers with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I began my first “real” job as a social worker for New Jersey’s Bureau of Children’s Services.

“I want you to visit this seventeen-year old in the jail up the street,” said my supervisor.  “Her father signed an incorrigibility complaint—again.”

“Sure,” I said  as I tried to dismiss the thought that I’d accepted the wrong job. Coming from a conservative middle-class background, I had never seen the inside of a jail, let alone visited an inmate.

It has been more than forty years, so I don’t remember many of the details. What I do recall is being startled by the deep voice that came out of nowhere when I first entered the building, asking me why I was there. He buzzed me in after I responded, and I was led back to a room where I spoke with Janet (not her real name, of course).

This tall, dirty-blond young woman was amused by the fact that I was only a few years older and promptly called me “Granny.” I didn’t mind the nickname and as she talked about her life, I came to see a free-spirited girl who had been toughened by her experiences but who still managed to be kind and funny despite her dysfunctional family. I genuinely liked her and admired her compassion for others.

Over the next few months, we spent a few more times discussing her problems. It wasn’t long, however, before Janet turned eighteen and aged out of the agency system. I felt relieved of my responsibility to her, but at the same time concerned about a future with unsavory friends and no high school diploma. I never saw her again.

A couple of years later, a news article came to my attention. Janet’s murdered body had been found on the township dump—a young life tossed aside like a piece of trash. I wondered  if I could have helped her in some way avoid this ending, but came to realize that a few sessions with a young social worker could not have had a profound effect on twenty years of living in an environment of neglect, poverty and ignorance.

I can only hope that our times together helped in some way. Perhaps she made a couple of better decisions, or perhaps not. One thing I do know is that the experience of learning about a life so different from my own left a lasting imprint on mine.

2 thoughts on “The First Day I Went to Jail

  1. Shirley, what a moving experience for you. So sorry to hear that Janet had a terrible end to her life. I know from one job I had concerning abused children, I wanted to do much more for them but it was beyond my reach. The only thing I knew was that while they were in our office, we could bring a small ray of sunshine to help them laugh, play, talk to them about funny, silly things and show them they we cared about them. I know it wasn’t enough to totally help them with their lives outside our doors but for just a few moments with us, they could just be kids without any fear. I’m sure you did the same with Janet, you gave her some peace even if it was short lived. So many children are lost in the system and we can only do what we can. But if she only knew how much of an impact SHE made in YOUR life. She still lives on in your memories.

    • Moments of peace and love can go along way in a young child’s life. Perhaps coming to know someone she could trust a little helped Janet as well. Thanks for your comment, Joy.

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