This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What was your first involvement with the court system?
NYKIA: My name's Nykia Gatson. I will be 21 in June. I was formerly incarcerated in the juvenile justice system down here in Kansas.
My first encounter, I would say, with the system is when I was 10 years old, I ended up getting locked up for stealing.
And then after that, it just kept growing and growing.
And then eventually growing older, I ended up getting kicked out of school. And then I ended up getting expelled all the way to where I couldn't go back.
When I was 15 years old, I got sentenced to prison for 24 months.
And then while spending time in the prison I actually lost my mom and my dad.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: I’m sorry to hear that. How was it for you to go in at that age?
NYKIA: They booked me for a charge that was equivalent on the scale to a murder charge. I did not know at the time the severity of what I was actually facing until I actually sat in jail in the juvenile detention facility for going on six months. I usually go in and then I get right back out. But it wasn't that. It was, oh, you're about to spend a lot of time in the system now.
My mom, before she passed, she came to visitation and she had told me, she was like, "You are needing to fight for yourself. They're trying to sentence you to adult time, eight to 15 years on the adult side, and send you to prison."
I then knew that my life was about to change. I knew my life was about to be very, very different from an average 15-year-old.
I had met with my attorney. I'll never forget the time when he said, "I've never been to trial before on a case like yours." So I then knew I'm about to be going in here with grown-up people who are using different words that I have no knowledge of, who are sitting around me communicating and talking about things that I just don't know about.
Because where I grew up, we didn't have money for attorneys. We didn't have money to provide additional education on the things that I was being charged with. It was nerve-wracking to me.
They offered me a plea offer of eight years in prison. I was young. I'm 15. I have my whole childhood ahead of me. I don't even know what life is yet. I want to go to prom. I knew. I was like, I'm not going to be there.
He offered me the eight years, and I told him to fight for me. "Fight for me as if I was your own child." And he said, "Okay, I'll fight for you."
They offered me another plea deal for four years to go to the juvenile correctional complex.
With my mom being gone, with no family support, with a lack of understanding of what's really going on in the court system, everything, I signed the plea to go to prison for four years of my life at 15.
It was just me and my attorney. I was crying.
Before we went into the courtroom, this lady just randomly appeared to me. And she says, "I need to meet with you in the visitation room before you go in here. Well, I'm your guardian ad litem. Because your parents are gone, because you don't have any family support, I'm going to be stepping in as if I was your parent." She said, "I'm going to offer the judge a deal myself to give you 36 months instead of 48 months.” I said, "Okay, that's still a long time, but it's better than the 48 months."
She said, "Yes. So when you get out, you'll have somewhere to go. You'll have someplace to stay at. Because if you turn 18 in the system, they're going to throw you out and they're not going to care about where you have to go. They have independent living centers for kids like you."
Kids like me? Okay.
I was terrified, because I was like, I want to be around my family. I have an older brother and I have a younger brother. I was being torn away from everything.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Were you offered any type of intervention, like therapy, when you first went into the system?
NYKIA: Oh no. Yeah. The only possibility was for me to go to prison. There was no rehabilitation for kids like me, as they say.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: You said, “kids like me.” What does that mean, “kids like me?”
NYKIA: “Kids like me” was a definition of a bad kid, hypothetically a bad kid. I felt like over the years of me growing up in the system that a kid like me was treated disproportionately from the other kids, especially because I'm a woman of color.
Kids like me who had nobody. Kids like me who talk differently than other people.
Kids like me who got in trouble more than an average kid, or a kid that's supposed to be in middle school but now you're about to go to prison.
A trouble kid. That was me.
INTERVIEWEE: Your mother told you, you’d have to advocate for yourself. How did it feel, to hear that from her?
NYKIA: My mother had explained to me, that, "This is serious. You need to say something. You need to do something for yourself. I can't always just be there and speak for you. I need you to hold yourself up and speak for yourself." It wasn't shown to me how to do that unless that was in a violent way, and, "Oh, if somebody hit you, hit him back." I was a violent kid. I didn't know what that advocacy looked like.
I'm meeting with an attorney and I'm meeting with the judges and I'm meeting with the prosecutors, and they're using this language that I was not hip to, I don't know what these words mean.
I don't know what a plea offer means.
I don't know what directly committed means.
I don't know what parole looked like.
I didn't know that I had to have supervision over the course of my life all the way up until I was aged out of their system.
INTERVIEWEE: Were you ever able to have some moments with yourself, or with any adults who advocated for you, to reflect on what was underneath all your anger?
NYKIA: My household was very, very chaotic all the time. I grew up in an environment where abuse was normalized and I grew up in an environment where you had to survive off of going and stealing and providing for yourself. And so over the years, I'm getting irritated and I'm getting mad and I'm getting frustrated.
As a child, because I was incarcerated and I had lost my mom, JDF had put me on a one-on-one status due to my charges. They put me into a cell by myself, a whole dorm by myself, just me and the staff all day. And if they did not have enough staff, I would be in the room all day by myself, having to cope with my mom passing away, and then the aftermath of it, having to sit there alone and go through all of that by myself, I'm irritated and I'm mad and I'm confused.
How do you heal, being in a room all day? How do you heal whenever everything is being taken away from you, but a rubber pencil and a piece of paper? How do you heal from all of that and not be mad?
I'm still working through my own emotions with not having parents around as I've grown older, not being able to be shown how to pay a bill or being shown how to go out here and provide food for yourself without going and stealing, or having a job and being consistent with that.
I get irritated sometimes because I'm new to learning these kinds of things. I didn't have that support from a loved one as close as a dad or a mom to be like, "This is how you handle things when you get mad.”
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Were you offered grief counseling?
NYKIA: So I was offered a mental health worker that ran every single other pod. So, "When you could get to me, you could get to me," is how she was.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How old were you when you finally started to get some positive input or guidance from someone, and who was that person?
NYKIA: While I was incarcerated, I made a decision. I told myself, I was like, "Either you're going to get out and you're going to go back and you're going to do the same things, and you're going to be in here with nobody, and it's going to be a tougher world for you because you're not going to be a kid anymore. You're going to go to the adult side. You're going to go to adult jail, or you're going to get out and you're going to be phenomenal. You're going to grow. You're going to flourish. You're going to be all that you can be, and not live and suffer from what you've been through."
I made the decision. I made the decision to go and be better.
I met a mentor while I was incarcerated. And so she stuck with me the whole way through. Even to this day, I still call her. And she's been a huge support.
So after I got out, I reached out, and I followed through with doing a little bit of advocacy work. Also then I got the opportunity to work alongside another nonprofit.
After I turned 18, I started to meet people in the organization work, and nonprofit work, who really just started to advocate for me as well. Because I was still on parole when I got out, and I was going to be on there for a while. I needed to get settled. I needed to get people in my circle who were going to mean well by me.
The organization work that I've been doing, we've kind of molded into a family. You know what I mean? We've molded into a family. We can come and talk to one another if we needed help, or if I needed somewhere to go.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Can you speak to some experiences that you had dealing with fines and fees associated with different court experiences that you had?
NYKIA: I paid a ton of money to the system, especially because I didn't have a parent covering child support every month or just being there to pay the restitution that I owed. I believe that I had paid at least over $5,000 in restitution.
I just got off probation in February of this year. I still had to pay the restitution that my parents should have paid.
They took everything that was half that was given to me. And I didn't have much. It would be $20. I would have $10 on my books to spend.
They would take everything that my family members had to send in. So it was a lot of money.
And on top of that, because I was receiving a social security check every month, the state would collect it. Like, oh yeah, here, we're going to pull this child support out. We're going to pay restitution out. We're going to pay the cost of her living in our facility out. And then she can have what's left over of the death benefits that my mother left to me.
I was a child and I received up until I was 18, so over the three years they've been taking money from me. Every month you just imagine how much money that really was. I've never known.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Are any of those fines or fees still following you?
NYKIA: You know, being 11, being 10, being 15, now 20 going on 21, it is still following me. They even explained to me that it would go on my credit if I didn't pay it. So I was going to have something on my credit if I didn't pay it. And I was just like, "That's ridiculous," because why do I have to constantly keep coming out of pocket for things that I just yet don't have the funds for?
They actually detained me again in March, and they sent me back to the juvenile correctional complex. They weren't supposed to. I had caught another adult charge outside of the juvenile charge. And so that should have closed out the juvenile case by itself. And so they were supposed to already had closed the case out, but they didn't, they had left it open. And they found that they had violated over four different statutes whenever they sentenced me back to the juvenile correctional complex. They were never supposed to sentence me back there and they failed to do their jobs.
Every day you have to pay to be in jail. Since I'm an adult, I'm the only one that's accountable for it. While being detained, I still had money that I had to pay out of pocket, even within the short amount of time that I spent in the facility, because I was there for about 30 days. That still accumulated, of course, with being in there, although it was an illegal sentence, everything.
So how do you expect me to pay you back when you just took everything that I worked for? How do you expect me to pay you back when I have to go out here and look for another house to live at, pay for tax on my cars or pay for food and the necessities that I need in life? How am I supposed to do that and pay you too? I mean, you just took everything. I lost my job.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: While you have an outstanding balance, is there anything that these fees and fines are impeding you from doing?
NYKIA: I haven't applied for any loans or anything of that nature, but I'm sure that when going and applying and trying to find financial resources that if that is on my credit, of course, I'm not probably going to be eligible for the loan that I've applied for or for help for financial assistance. They're just probably not going to do that. So yes, they will hold you accountable and they will write it on your credit if you do not pay them.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How old were you when you started to pay your own child support?
NYKIA: I was about 15 years old whenever I started to pay. They had put my father on child support, but then they waived the fee because he was nowhere to be found in court. So after they waived the fee and they directly committed me to the system to go to the juvenile correctional complex, they then started taking child support out of my social security income, which paid for the cost of living of a child being incarcerated in a facility that you are at. So I was paying for myself in the system to cover the cost of myself being in the system because I had no guardian.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Can you talk about how felt to be paying child support as a child?
NYKIA: So I'm like, okay, how do you expect me to rehabilitate back into the society when you've taken everything that I could have used to help me obtain another lifestyle or go to college and apply that to my tuition or to get a car or to get an apartment? How am I supposed to navigate the world with nothing?
How am I supposed to sit out here and understand that going and stealing and robbing and doing all of that, the extras, aren't the way.
Having not enough all the time then puts you in survival mode to get enough. So that's how I was in life. I just came from that.
I thought it was absurd to even pay child support. I'm a child paying for myself still. It's crazy.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: You have a child now, correct?
NYKIA: I do.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: I'm sure you can understand the irony now of a child supporting another child.
NYKIA: Even just being taken away, even from your parents, and then they have a cost for you.
Growing into my adulthood and even having to be a parent to another child and raising up my own child, just imagining somebody taking out of the mouth of the people that I feed or I love and genuinely care about, and then having to watch them suffer and having to figure out a way of life by their self is unimaginable, unimaginable.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: You and I are talking about fines and fees and I say, "I don't understand what the big deal is. I'm a taxpayer and I paid for you there." What would you say to me?
NYKIA: Why are they making children pay the cost of the same thing that we're already paying for in the community? People are already paying for us to stay here. Is that not enough money or are we just being greedy? The system is sitting here making children pay the cost of what their parents should already be paying in the community, not double taxing us to be in jail and then be outside of jail and still tax us to hold onto us in the facility. It just doesn't make any sense. It's a never-ending cycle.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: If you were advocating for yourself and people were trying to ask you, "So what can we do?" What would your answer be?
NYKIA: There is a program out here I believe that pays for people's, what is it, finance fees? But the program was created so the kids would go to school and they would get good grades and for each A they received on their report card would be $150 off of their restitution. So we're not only advocating for success, but we're also reinvesting into what good we can help alongside our youth and our communities. So I thought that was the best alternative that I have yet heard.
There should be no reason for youth to even be paying any fines or any fees as a child, you should be living in a child's life and just having fun instead of having to worry about a bill, that's just unnecessary. Again, just to recircle back, I think the best alternative is just to end it all and stop the youth incarceration. If there has to be one, definitely implement that, reinvesting into our kids and having something to where we can easily help them pay it off.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What would you say to the 10-year-old you today, if you were able to speak to her at this point?
NYKIA: There are learning experiences in life where you are going to not have anyone at times. You're going to be beaten and you're going to go through things that make you feel uncomfortable. You're going to go through people, you're going to go through life. You're going to have to learn what support looks like. You're going to have to navigate through your own life by yourself, for the most part. But the people who are going to come across to you in life are going to be so much pouring into you that your cup is going to overflow with different opportunities that you never knew could possibly be there for you. So to never give up and to always hold your head high, to always give yourself that confidence and give yourself that motivation to always drive and keep going and always be all you can be even when you feel like you don't have it in you.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What would you say to your mother, if you were able to speak to her?
NYKIA: My mother's name was Teresa. I would definitely say that there have been many blessings that have came to me after my mom has passed. But I would give everything back to have my mom any day. I wish that I could have my parent present in the moments when I really needed them. When I was vulnerable and I had a lack of understanding of a lot of things in life, I would definitely want to cherish more moments of being happy and living with my parents versus living with a stranger. I would definitely wish to have that all back instead of being by myself all day and having to experience life. But it was greatly appreciated to have a mother like her when she was a part of this earth. Yeah, it was amazing.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How have you tried to break the cycle and make it different for your own child?
NYKIA: I would first say when doing the work that I've been doing, advocating for juvenile justice reform, was a little bit tough because I would have a superior and a probation officer who would always watch everything that I did and comment on the work that I've been doing. So it silences the young people in our community to not advocate for themselves. Then it becomes drowning to the young people that are actually out here doing the work.
Then we have to learn how to balance, we have to learn how to communicate and we have to learn how to move and navigate in those kinds of spaces with those kinds of people, probation officers, judges, attorneys, and political people.
So I would say that being on panel discussions, doing videos, being published in magazines, going and mentoring other young people in the community, having community events and gatherings, being on paper for lawsuits, and having that recognition to other young people in the community who just don't know how to yet advocate, that's the work that I believe in. That's the work that I want to continue to do.