Juvenile justice program gives a glimpse into students’ lives through essay contest

2023 JJC Essay Contest Awards

Eighteen students residing in the Orange County Juvenile Hall recently gave people a glimpse into their lives through writing and art.

Held in partnership with the Orange County Department of Education and Orange County Probation Department, the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) of Orange County organized the sixth annual Voices from Within Essay Contest. The commissioners also added a visual arts exhibition component to the competition this year.

The local commission advocates on behalf of incarcerated youth, with a mission to inquire into the administration of juvenile court law and ensure the highest standards of care and services for young people within the justice system.

2023 Juvenile Justice Center essay contest commissioners and Richard Berman

A few weeks ago, English language arts teachers from the Otto A. Fisher School, one of four detention and treatment facilities run by OCDE’s Alternative Education program, encouraged high school and postsecondary students to write essays based on the theme “Through My Eyes.” They received 67 written submissions and 10 pieces of artwork. 

“Your participation tells me that you’re taking a step in recognizing your own potential,” Lynda Perring, the chair of the Juvenile Justice Commission of Orange County, said. “I’ve read your essays and I see your heart. We’re really proud of you.” 

On Thursday, Oct. 19, award-winning students, including those with honorable mentions, were invited to speak before commissioners and representatives from OCDE and the Orange County Probation Department at the Multipurpose Rehabilitation Center on the grounds of juvenile hall.

One by one, the students walked on stage to read their essays to both the in-person audience and more than 50 people who were logged in to a livestream through a private link for families.

Two of the participants were Francisco and Anjel, who are both postsecondary students and first-timers at the event. 

"Now I’m locked up in a cage, consequences of my choices, Waiting for a second chance, trying to not lose focus, Telling you my story, so you can feel what you can’t see. I’m not trying to glorify, I’m just speaking my reality.” — Francisco, postsecondary student

Despite Francisco’s claim that he’s not into writing because he never thought he had potential, the commission awarded the postsecondary student an honorable mention after reading his piece.

“The most important thing to me was showing my family who were watching and my girlfriend that I can do something positive for once,” Francisco said. “For so long, I think they gave up on me. I don’t think that they thought Francisco would be doing good things. When I looked up there, to me they were in the crowd.” 

In contrast, his classmate Anjel chose not to inform any family members that he would be speaking. 

“Every single night the lion peers outside its cage, It searches for a victim it will curse with filthy rage. This rage turns into action and the action turns into pleasure, Then pleasure turns to suffering, too great to even measure. I fell victim to the beast, now I peer outside my own cage.” — Anjel, postsecondary student

Anjel expressed anxiety about public speaking but was determined to make himself heard and seen, beyond his tattoos and circumstances.

“I know how to express myself better through words instead of communicating,” he said. “It makes me feel like I’m free.” 

As students spoke, Richard Berman, a teacher at Otto A. Fischer, stood at the back of the room as a source of support and a reminder for students to look up and see the people they wanted to address. 

“Their words were not just ink on paper, they were windows into the worlds they have inhabited and a testament to their resilience, courage and unwavering determination to overcome adversity,” Berman said. 

“These young voices echoed with the raw emotions of lived experiences, each essay telling a unique story of hardship, introspection and, ultimately, hope.”

Before the students were escorted back into the hall, dozens of people approached and thanked them for sharing their stories and giving them a chance to see the world through their eyes.