‘I wanted to read books’: Former Shuman Detention Center resident shares his story

Sean Johnson

Editors Note:  Sean Johnson was of the last cohort to be housed at the now shuttered Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in 2021. He writes that the education programming in the facility and a diverse library are the two most essential needs for child rehabilitation and learning.

This is the first essay in a series that explores the juvenile justice landscape in Pittsburgh with a focus on education and mental health. These stories were funded by Staunton Farm Foundation and The Grable Foundation. 

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I was 16 years old when I first walked through the doors of Shuman Juvenile Detention Facility in April 2021. I saw that place weaken people. 

There’s nothing to do at night in Shuman. You are lonely in your cell.

There were two lights in the room, a big one and a small one. The small one never goes off. It is  on 24 hours, so we were constantly in the light. The only way to get the light to cut off is to jam the switch next to your door before they lock you in. With that light on constantly, you’re always looking at walls scrawled with gang-affiliated graffiti, slang, and violence.

I wanted to read books. I needed to read something outside of those walls. 

But on the pods there are barely any books that will help you educate yourself and prepare yourself to leave. 

Law books, books about working on houses, books about skills and trades like carpentry–we didn’t have those. There’s kids down there who can’t read. I saw that in movies before, but couldn’t believe it was real. 

It’s hard to think about good things when most of the books they offer to read are “hood books,” sometimes called “urban fiction.” These stories take place in cities; they are often filled with profanity, sex and violence. These books aren’t going to help our situation at all. They are distractions. They call them pacifiers, stuff they give us so we don’t complain about the bigger issues. These are the same books they give the adults in the Allegheny County Jail. So, when you’re old enough and you go down to the jail, you are already reading the same thing as the adults. 

I like to read books like Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games. I don’t want to read a book about a shootout–that’s PTSD. I want my mind to go to another place, another world.

We were kids. We should have been surrounded by positivity, opportunity and education.

The only hope was the school program. The school program is the only part that rehabilitates

But with classrooms so close together and a lot of personal vendettas between students, school was often cut short or canceled. 

In school, they showed us how to go to a job interview. A counselor would come and talk to people. They’d teach us things like what to do when you get home, how to get a house, how to get a good job, how to get a car, and how to get a bank account. 

These kids? They are kids going to jail for trying to act grown. Show them how to really be grown. Teach them to do stuff the legal way, that’s the only way you’re going to last.

Now, I have to do this on my own. 

My cell had old, hardened semen on the walls. We slept on thin blue mats with just a thin wool blanket to cover us up. You can get an extra mat if you go to the nurse and get a yellow slip. I once received a blood-stained pillow case and was refused another one until the next laundry day. 

The pod’s cleanliness depended on who lived on your pod because cleaning was our responsibility. A few pods were shut down because residents would flood their pod by jamming their bedsheets in the toilet. 

One night in Shuman, I got out of the shower and I went to put on the socks I was given from the staff. As I’m putting on my sock, I get stabbed in my toe by a small used needle that was inside the sock. I told the staff and they took me to the nurse. The next day I was given a shot. I’m not sure what it was called. After this, although they were the same brand, we started to receive new socks, sheets and pillow cases. 

Being in Shuman made me study my religion. Reading the Bible helped me stay in better spirits. In there, you’re alone and that’s all you have that’s 100% for you. Jail is every man for himself. I got a closer connection to God and I started to pray more. Eventually after a lot of reading, conversation and fasting I converted to the religion of Islam.

I wrote on the wall: For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; he will save us. Isaiah 33:22.

I put that there so that someone else would have hope, so there was something else on the wall amongst all the graffiti and hate. 

I always walked around with my bible and my notebook. Shuman doors don’t lock sometimes so I just kept it on me. I’d keep it in my hand or pants. I still have it. I kept it even after I converted to Islam. I still have a bag full of notebooks of my poetry and artwork from when I was inside. 

Every night in Shuman, I journaled. I asked and answered deep and sometimes complicated questions in order to stimulate my mind. In my notebook, I often re-wrote bible scriptures to try and keep my mind from being institutionalized, because I knew I was going to be in jail for a while. I am always thinking. I am never not thinking. I wrote short stories and songs and poems. 

Here’s one I’d like to share with you.