From High School To High Security Reginald Dwayne Betts went from the high school honor roll to the penitentiary. He spent nine years in prison beginning at age 16 for a carjacking in Virginia. Now, he'll be the first person in his family to graduate from college — and he's giving the main student address at the University of Maryland commencement ceremony.

From High School To High Security

From High School To High Security

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The U.S. Senate is currently considering a bill to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, designed to help reduce crime among juveniles. hide caption

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Reginald Dwayne Betts will become the first person in his family to graduate from college. He will also be giving the main student address at the University of Maryland commencement ceremony. Courtesy of Youth Radio hide caption

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Courtesy of Youth Radio

My name is Reginald Dwayne Betts. When I was 16 years old, I was certified as an adult and sentenced to nine years in prison. I was certified because I had a robbery charge; in the state of Virginia, you can automatically be certified as an adult for robbery, murder or rape. So, I was rubber-stamped and sent into the system.

When they moved me from the juvenile detention center to the Fairfax County jail, they had a sight and sound policy, which meant that juveniles couldn't be within the sight or the sound of adults. Because the jail didn't have the proper facilities to hold me, they put me in solitary confinement. I didn't have a mattress; I didn't have a blanket; I didn't have a pillow; and I only had the clothes that I wore on my back for seven days.

That helped me understand that jail was not designed to be in my best interests, and that there wasn't anybody I could complain to.

The reality is that in prison, people care about your ability to protect yourself or to do whatever you need to do to survive. If you're younger, you aren't prepared physically or emotionally to deal with prison. It took me seven years before I talked to a mental health worker. I had spent time in two supermaximum security prisons and more than a year in isolation, and not once was I asked about my mental health.

For the first four to six years, no matter where I went, I was the youngest person in the block. If I marked an adolescent shift, it was when somebody younger than me asked me for some advice. That's when I realized that I was basically growing up in a jail cell.

I have all of these memories that have replaced the adolescent markers: I was in a cell below someone who beat a man to death. And I remember guards carrying the dead prisoner on a gurney, the nurses pushing him down the walkway, banging on his chest, trying to revive him.

The thing is, what are you gonna do with all the memories you have once you get home? That's the question posed to all the young people who get sent to prison. Because you will accumulate these memories, and a lot of them won't be good.

This story was produced by Youth Radio.