A documentary film about teens behind bars
The documentary, 'They Call Us Monsters,' is a rare glimpse into the lives of the most vulnerable of those residing in America’s system of mass incarceration—juveniles facing a bleak life in prison. These adolescents would not have been deemed adults in virtually any other setting. They are unable to purchase cigarettes, rent a car or even vote. Yet, they are held to an arbitrarily created standard of adult convictions. It is clear from the film there is no easy answer for what to do with adolescents who commit serious offenses.
As the film’s director explains, the mentality of the 1990s of being tough on crime led to the message that “these kids are lost, defined by and no better than their worst act.”
We meet Jarad, Juan and Antonio, who are held in a maximum-security compound within an L.A. juvenile facility. They are participating in a screenwriting class with the assistance of Gabriel Cowan, one of the documentary’s producers. The film captures their weekly attempts to create a script that will be eventually filmed or acted. The three work with Gabriel on a story that turns out to be an amalgamation of their own lives. In one poignant moment, Juan agreed that the movie had similarities to his life, but he quickly says that they wrote a happy ending because “people don’t want to see an ending like this one [my life].”
The complexities of the problem
Watching the movie is an emotional rollercoaster. As you hear about the crimes and the realities of what they have done to their victims, it is easy to move into anger...blaming them, their families and society for what happened. The documentary then shifts gears and shows the main characters being playful, acting like any other teenager you would see. The juxtaposition of these young offenders fooling around on one hand and recognizing the seriousness of their crimes on the other exemplifies the film’s unresolved tension of two opposing realities.
David Wagner, who represented California State Assembly 68th District (now the mayor of the City of Irvine), made an excellent speech that was quoted in the movie.
“Teenagers are different—psychologist tell us, hell, any of us who have been teenagers or have teenagers know they are different, but there are other people as well, the victims who have been promised that the perpetrators will be locked away. That said, the kids are different, and locking them up and throwing away the key does trouble me”'
This is the constant pressure, holding youth accountable while at the same time acknowledging they are not adults and unable to make life-changing decisions by themselves.
One young person in the film, Antonio, was released during the filming. We watched as his bright future slowly tarnished as he returned to his “old ways” and lifestyle, only to see him be returned to jail for two robberies. Watching this, it seemed almost criminal to set him up for failure. Neither Antonio nor his family had an opportunity to learn skills or identify resources to prevent his getting into trouble again.
MST-FIT, a program that works
At the University of Washington, we have piloted and managed an adaptation of Multisystemic Therapy (MST) designed to work with adolescents who have been placed in juvenile facilities. The model, MST-FIT (Family Integrated Transitions), is focused on assisting young people who are returning home by helping their caregivers develop plans that will increase their likelihood of success. We see this same dynamic happen over and over again—young people commit a crime, get placed, return home and have the same thing happen again. It’s not only costly to taxpayers, but unfair to these young people. We will either pay now or pay later. States have an obligation to provide treatment to young people, and the treatment needs to ensure that both the young people and families have the tools and skills to make better choices for the future.
Without options, as the film depicts these young men and their families, as well as the victims of their violent acts face a tragic situation. They have undermined their potential and futures, and created havoc in the lives of so many others. I watch this film and wonder, "What would have happened if these young men's families had been provided an MST intervention?" Would they have benefited from their families being more skillful and effective in supporting more positive choices and would they be on a different pathway other than spending much of their lives in prison?
Joshua Leblang is a senior lecturer and Eric Trupin is the Director and Vice Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington.