“They Call us Monsters”: Juvenile Offenders, Lost ...

“They Call us Monsters”: Juvenile Offenders, Lost Hope Regained Through Arts.

Chicago is a city that deals with segregation in neighborhoods, lack of funding for education and community resources; not to mention, the countless violence centered, most often in low-income minority neighborhoods.

All this leads to the question: How are we failing children? Moreover, what can be done to ensure better opportunities for the future generations?

What About It?

With thoughts like these persisting in my mind, I came across an intriguing documentary on Netflix. They Call us Monsters centers on the experience of four juvenile offenders in a California correctional facility for minors. The story begins when the facility offers a screenwriting class, and four juveniles sign up: Antonio, Juan, Jarad, and Darrel.

These four adolescents are in the facility facing violent criminal charges such as attempted murder and murder. They sign up for the 20 week screenwriting class and, just as they are commencing, Darrel gets sentenced and transferred to an adult facility. The remaining three young men: Juan, Jarad, and Antonio embark on a journey of screenwriting, facing events leading up to their trials, and their whirlpool of emotions from it all. What’s even more intriguing is the hope these young men acquire from being able to express themselves in this writing.


The Role of Legislators

Opening the film, viewers are taken through a timeline of changes in the juvenile system: one that allowed for rehabilitation in a system that doesn’t pardon or allow second chances with lifetime sentences being implemented without possibilities of parole.

While the documentary is being filmed, there is talk of California Senate bill 260 (2013) which provides parole board hearings at 15 or 25-years for juveniles tried as adults. This bill was finally passed in 2014, and what made it distinct from others bills was that it acknowledged youth as different from adults and  deserving of rehabilitation.

Throughout the documentary, the viewers witness snippets of the discussions being held while trying to pass this bill. There was several individuals highlighted, advocating for the approval of this bill because of the psychological development an adolescent endures. Time and time again, the point of the psychological and neurological development of the brain in adolescents was brought up because it may lead to irrational thinking, judgment impairment and difficulty controlling emotions, as is developmentally appropriate.

Time and time again, the point of the psychological and neurological development of the brain in adolescents was brought up because it may lead to irrational thinking, judgment impairment and difficulty controlling emotions, as is developmentally appropriate.

The discussion of difference between psychological and neurological makeup of an adolescent and adult brain was also brought up by the attorney of one of the adolescents. The attorney stated, “When you’re 16 to 23, you are temporarily insane. Psychologically, there are elements that are similar to a person that’s mentally ill. If you track those people after that age, often, by the time they’re adults, they’ll stop engaging in criminal activity.” This discussion is essential because research studies have been done on adolescent delinquency that also back this argument.


Common Grounds to Chicago

Although the documentary is centered in California, I do see a similar pattern as to what usually occurs in Chicago. Often, juveniles are tried as adults for violent crimes like the young men faced.The supposed “system” juvenile delinquents go through only sets them up to fail, when and if they are released.

Similar to the bill proposed in California which emphasized rehabilitation, the mission of Cook county’s juvenile probation and court stress “recovery” and “reforming” through services and the community. This is hardly the case,  as there are very few funds allocated towards low-income minority neighborhoods where community resources, including education, are crucial. There has been recurrent research that demonstrates nationwide, crimes committed by youth peak during after-school hours on school days. These problems arise from unsupervised minors with nowhere to go and no programs or resources to turn to. Specifically, in Chicago even playing outside can be dangerous in neighborhoods where violence rages; which is why supervised programs such as After-school matters are vital to fund.  Repercussions of these budget cuts and low funds are also seen in the large number of individuals, both male and female in the Cook County jail system that suffer from mental illness. Such is the problem that Cook County jail has been dubbed “America’s largest mental health care provider.


Hope Found and Lost

These three young men find themselves telling their stories through discussion with each other and the screenwriter and documentary producer, Gabriel Cowan. They decide to transform experiences into their screenplay with the twist of a different ending than their own. Through progression of these weekly classes, viewers gain insight to trauma endured by these young men, familial conflicts, and unhealthy coping by doing drugs to numb themselves.

Juan decided to plead guilty and no contest, which sentenced him to 15 years. However, Juan could also be held up to a life sentence in prison, and would additionally face deportation if he got out on parole after the 15 minimal years. Juan’s story isn’t uncommon. His older brother was involved in a gang, which is how Juan became involved. Juan wanted to prove himself to his father, who favored his brother over him. Despite his gang lifestyle, Juan admitted many young memories involving Abigail, a girl he liked but never confessed his feelings to. This inspired ideas for their short film, Los, in which, Juan even calls to confess his young feelings for her.

Jarad’s case was far more complex, due to the charges he faced. Throughout the documentary we see loss of interest in his work for the program, and his complete loss in hope of getting out. Viewers witness it when he tried to provoke Gabriel, after showing up unprepared, without his “homework”. Jarad’s demeanor leading up to his sentence also changed. He tried to remain optimistic, but ultimately was sentenced to 162 years to life in prison, with eligibility for parole in 2037. Through the documentary, viewers learn that he witnessed his step-father attempting suicide which later led to family dissolution. His parents getting a divorce was what led him to rebel and act out, ultimately leading to the crime he is accused of committing, in which he left a girl paralyzed.

A Different Ending?

Antonio’s story differed than that of the three other young men, Darrel, Juan and Jarad. Antonio, once released, is faced with conflict upon his return home. He once again becomes involved in illegal activities such as doing drugs, drinking, and tagging. Once released, he has to deal with the living situation he is thrust upon;  a cramped living space leads to him becoming homeless. He enrolled in school, but discussed the difficulties of not relating to the other kids, not being cut out for a “suit and tie” and finds his motivation dwindling more and more. A concerned Cowan, comments on Antonio’s state while they film and his worries about him. One memorable moment in the documentary was when he received a letter from Jarad, after he had been sentenced. Antonio describes wanting to live for those who can’t live like Jarad or Juan. He also described being successful and wanting to do everything they would dream of. The sad reality was another, because although Antonio becomes a father, we also learn that he has gained two robbery charges.


The Take Home Message

This documentary is eye opening and crucial for discussions that need to take place, especially in a city with high gun violence like Chicago. The discussion of resources upon release or in general to treat trauma is essential. This discussion is imperative, especially due to the closing of many mental health facilities that serve minority trauma victims. Equally as important was the conversations taking place regarding neurological and psychological development of the adolescent which can also be imperative when trying adolescent and youth.

Although it tried to relay a message of hope these three young adults found in the screenwriting program, viewers were also met with a cold reality of the consequences these adolescents face.

As a Chicago native, I was swayed in my interest to this particular documentary.  My interest in adolescents and how to better help, provide resources, and advocating for them was also detrimental when choosing to review this documentary. I would definitely recommend this film to those who want to work with both minority groups and adolescents. Anyone interested in the criminal justice system and reformation should also watch this documentary. All in all, this documentary is worth recommending to anyone because of the point of views presented, the hardships consistently shown, and the small hopes that arise such as by the arts.

For those interested in the documentary, They Call Us Monsters, here is a trailer. The full film is available on Netflix.


Photo courtesy of Pixabay

(Painting of "Composition," Courtesy of Vero.)


About Lesly Guzman

Current college student at NEIU in Chicago, Illinois, future psychologist that serves the world. Self proclaimed Xicana and also feminist (an oh so controversial topic in today's world). I am majoring in psychology with a minor in child advocacy studies and plan to work with minority adolescents and children. Topics of importance to me range from inner city violence (present in Chicago), the importance of funding education (or lack of in my institution's case), to issues of identity, what it means to be a first generation college student, religion and culture, along with the utter most important topic of mental health. I challenge myself in my learning, in my views, and hope I may do the same in a positive manner for those I reach. I plan to help change the world one day, even if it takes a lifetime.