I went to Cochise County Superior Court last summer on assignment for the Arizona Republic. I was writing about juvenile drug smugglers being charged as adults in the county and sat in on some plea hearings. My main worry that morning had been if I was dressed appropriately for court. But then the line of trussed-up inmates filed into the courtroom. Not all were juveniles – you could tell them apart because they wore green prison pajama pants instead of red. But some of the shackled inmates looked no older than 16, only a couple of years younger than me. I suddenly became very aware of my dress and heels, the outfit that I had stressed over, and couldn’t stop staring at the striped jumpsuits and chains that adorned these teens. In another life, if I had been raised on the other side of the border, that could have been me. I saw that the teens weren’t handcuffed in front like you see in the movies. Instead, a chain circled their waists. An extending chain link was attached to each side of that loop around their middle, cuffing each hand to its respective side. As the court proceedings began, the kid closest to me started to cry. He had been staring across the room at a woman, who had been looking intently right back at him. As the tears began to trickle down his face, he reached his arm up to wipe them away – only to be stopped short by the handcuff and chain. He jerked at it a couple times, tears coming faster, the frustration and utter hopelessness plain in his eyes. He then tucked his face down into his shirt, more to hide his wet cheeks than to dry them.
I don’t know what happened to him. He wasn’t one of the drug smugglers whose case I was following, and I had to leave before he took his turn at the stand. I went to talk to Jesus, a 14-year-old kid who had been caught gathering up bundles of marijuana that had been shot over the border fence. But sometimes the two boys blended together in my mind. And whenever I’m asked about why I want to be a journalist, I remember Jesus’s story, and see the desperate, tearstained face of the other kid from the courtroom.