WHEN I WORKED IN A JAIL

When I graduated from college I moved back home with my parents. As is common for most. However, Im not sure most parents give you 8 weeks to “get a job and move on”. I know. Cruel, right? It explains a lot about me however. I am kidding of course. They had two other kids and Im pretty sure plans to rent my room out but whatever.

So in December of 1995 there was no such thing as an Internet Job Search Engine. Or if there was the Ellis’s did not have access to such new technology. Yes- I am old. So job hunting had to happen the old fashioned way. Newspapers and hitting the streets. My grandmother had told me that she worked for the City of Denton for a few years and loved it. They “had good benefits” she said. So off I went to the City offices to look at job postings. And let me add that a 22 year old girl with a degree in Psychology and work experience at a Deli and a tanning salon is in HUGE demand. HUGE. (Sarcasm).

So I looked at all of the job postings and wrote down all of the descriptions of jobs and contact information. One caught my eye. It paid the most. Like $24,000 a year. Which to me was totally off the charts. I would be RICH! Job Title: Juvenile Detention Officer. Sounds easy enough. I typed up my resume, proudly displayed my degree in Psychology across the top and sent it in. Im pretty sure via snail mail. And what do you know….they called me. For an interview. I was so pleased to tell my Dad I had an interview and would be out of the house and on my own as timely as I could. And then I told him the job title. And he might have grimaced a bit. Or been nauseous Im not really sure which. What could he say, though…he TOLD me to find a job.

As if you didn’t already picture this as my childhood I was a bit sheltered. I grew up in middle class, white suburbia. Not a whole shit ton of exposure to crime, domestic violence, drugs or broken homes. So walking into a jail for the first time (well OK an American jail…thats another blog) was quite eye-opening and a tad scary to be honest. But my interviewer was female and cool and put me at ease. She did look at me funny when I first walked in. “UMMMMM are you Jennifer Ellis?” she asked. I MIGHT have been a tad smaller than she expected, or blonder, or both. Let me just fast forward here and say I nailed it. The interview that is. I was funny. And charming. And scared shitless. And might have embellished how deep my desire was to help wayward youth. I just needed the paycheck. HIRED! Hired? Holy crap. A mix of happiness and total fear filled my parents. And me.

It was everything you picture it to be. It was sad and depressing and eye-opening and life changing. Working in a Juvenile jail. I worked there for a year before moving to Austin to work in Juvenile Probation there for several years. I learned more about the world, about me, about people, about everything in that first year working than I ever did in years of college. That job shaped my beliefs….political and social. It changed the way I look at people. It slapped my stereotypes in the face. These kids and their families taught me more than any book ever could have.

One of my first night’s on the job two 16 year old boys were brought in for murder. I spent 8 hours a day for a year with them. Taking them meals, walking them to class, giving them chores to do, medication, walking them to visitation, speaking with their families, walking them to court dates. You really get to know someone when you spend 8 hours a day with them. They were tried as adults. And sentenced to 75 years in prison. I don’t have much to say about that. Except that I still think about those two boys sometimes.

When I tell people now that I was a Juvenile Probation Officer they laugh, then look at me and say “Seriously?”. It seems like a bazillion years ago. I guess it was. I had my hair pulled out, was bitten, spit at and had a few things thrown at me. There were moments I was scared. But the good far outweighed the bad. Those few years…before kids, before you get old and jaded, when your mind is open…I wouldn’t trade them for anything. That job changed how I thought. And shaped how I raise my kids. How I look at other kids. I am so grateful I was too stupid to realize how stupid the whole idea of me working in a jail was. Funny how things, moments, people can affect your life in so many ways, for so very long after they over.

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