Portraits of Girls in the Criminal Justice System

From Women and Girls Lead, Vol. 3: Women, Girls, & the Criminal Justice System collection, lesson plan 1 of 7

Time: (90 minutes + assignment)

Essential Question: Which factors lead girls to have contact with the criminal justice system?

Film modules and activities adapted from the films Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story and Girls on the Wall.

Note to Instructors: This lesson deals with sensitive topics that students may be at risk for, such as exposure to physical and sexual abuse, child neglect, absent or incarcerated parents, and substance abuse issues. These topics may trigger strong feelings that are difficult to manage. Please consider the resources you may need to approach these topics. Invite a trained clinical counselor to the class for additional support if possible. Some useful guidelines for working with traumatized students can be found here.

Purpose of the Lesson: We know something about what puts teens at risk for incarceration and other negative outcomes like teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and dropping out of high school. But each person is unique and risk factors play out differently for different people. This lesson examines factors that can lead to contact with the criminal justice system. It allows students to look at challenges in their past and the role that those challenges play in where they are today. Students are given an opportunity to use creative expression to explore their current situation — whether they are incarcerated or in danger of incarceration.

Objectives * Reflect on the difficulties of opening up under challenging or stressful circumstances — e.g., in an incarcerated setting or when dealing with stress or trauma * Identify a range of known factors that can lead to contact with the criminal justice system (using the film module, students' own experiences, and related documents) * Analyze the severity of various risk factors and evaluate and discuss those that students consider to be the most difficult to overcome * Debate the question of whether all risk factors can be overcome, or in the words of filmmaker Daniel Birman (Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story) whether some girls “never had a chance”

Skills: Stating and supporting opinions in class discussions and in writing; analytical writing and viewing; note taking; interpreting information and drawing conclusions; critical thinking; identifying relationships and patterns.


Note: All Teacher and Student Handouts can be downloaded by clicking on “Download materials” button at the left of this page

Curricula Writer: Meredith McMonigle is an independent education consultant who taught middle and high school social studies, ESL and reading for eleven years. McMonigle has a background in correctional education as a teacher inside the San Francisco county jail. She is currently working on a Masters in Social Work with a focus on mass incarceration and prisoner reentry programs.

Introduction: Post or project the following quote from a participant in the film Girls on the Wall. Have students copy the quote and write a journal reflection on what the quote means to them.

"It takes a lot for me to be open, you know. And I been closed for a long time, know what I’m saying. When you finally get something out it hurts.”

Tell students that this collection of film modules and lesson plans will challenge them to open up and share their stories. This is a good time to review ground rules you may have in your class for creating a safe space for students to share personal information. One commonly used strategy is to have students themselves generate a list of guidelines and rules that they think would create a safe, supportive environment. This list can be posted and referenced throughout the curriculum. It should be clear that no one will feel pressured to share until they are ready. A good reference to get started can be found here.

Think-pair-share: Tell students that this resource is about women and girls impacted by the criminal justice system. As a way to get started, ask students individually to make a list of five things they think put teenage girls at risk for incarceration (e.g., having a parent in jail, sexual abuse, substance abuse). Have students write down the five examples on strips of paper. Have students pair up and exchange their strips with their partner. Students will read their partner's examples and put the strips in order from — in their opinion — the most- to least-serious risks. Students will go over their work with their partner, comparing and discussing their rankings.

Then, have several pairs report on their work. Ask them to share where they had consensus and where they disagreed with each other's rankings. You can use these response prompts.

We both included these examples:
One example I didn’t include but think is important is ...
We disagreed about ...
An interesting thing we discussed was ...

Ask one student volunteer to track risk factors as they are mentioned on the board. When pairs are finished presenting, lead a group reflection based on these questions: What do you notice about the list of risk factors? What is surprising about the list? Is anything missing? Do you have any other observations?

Have one or more students copy the class list of risk factors onto presentation paper to post and reference in the classroom.

Pass out "Student Handout A: Portraits of Girls Impacted by the Criminal Justice System.” Review the "Female Juvenile Delinquency Fact Sheet" and compare it to the list that the students generated. Check in with your students about the challenging nature of these topics and make it clear to them that they will not be asked to personalize examples of these risks. If students react angrily to some of the information, challenge them to channel those feelings in productive ways that will improve their lives and the lives of others. See the notes below for more information on the most difficult of these topics to discuss in a class setting.


Sexual Abuse
Research documents that prior victimization in the form of physical or sexual abuse is one of the most significant risk factors for incarceration. This is difficult terrain to navigate in the classroom. To go deeper with your students, a good place to start is the U.S. Department of Justice resource Women & Girls in the Criminal Justice System.

The organization Generation FIVE is creating a movement to end child sexual abuse within five generations.

Overrepresentation of People of Color in the Criminal Justice System
Minorities have disproportionate contact (Disproportionate Minority Contact, or DMC) with the criminal justice system. More information about this topic can be found here. If students have internet access, they can conduct state-by-state research on DMC.

Introduce the films Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story and Girls on the Wall using the "About the Films" and "Filmmaker Statement" subsections included in the "Getting Started" section. Show "Film Module 1: Portraits of Girls in the Criminal Justice System." The module includes upsetting details about physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. Prepare students for this material and talk with them about what to do if these scenes trigger difficult feelings for them.

Students will take notes on the back of "Student Handout A" as they watch the module. Allow time to complete the handout after the module is over. Then, review students' notes and discuss the following questions:

  • What risks stood out for you for Cyntoia? For Rosa?
  • Are there any similarities between Cyntoia and Rosa?
  • For each girl, do you think there is a core factor that puts her at risk?
  • How do your notes match up with the "Female Juvenile Delinquency Fact Sheet"?
  • What are your thoughts about Rosa’s disclosure that she was sexually abused as a child by her cousins?
  • Which girl are you drawn to or can you relate to the most?
  • What more would you want to know about each of them to better understand their background and what factors led them to becoming incarcerated?

Socratic Circles: Using the discussion guide for Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, read “Cyntoia’s Risk Factors: A Summary.” This handout goes into greater detail about the range of risk factors Cyntoia faced. Ask students to evaluate how at-risk they believe Cyntoia was for committing violence and becoming incarcerated. Students should be prepared to give several reasons or pieces of evidence to support their ranking. Discuss how they chose their criteria for their evaluation of Cyntoia.

Divide the class up into an inner circle and outer circle to conduct a Socratic discussion. The discussion question centers on a statement made by the filmmaker of Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story. In regard to Cyntoia, he concluded, “The sad reality is that she never really had a chance.” Ask students to discuss whether they think that is true, that Cyntoia never really had a chance. A related question to discuss is whether students think that some people cannot change.

The inner circle will discuss for five minutes whether they agree with the filmmaker's statement as well as with student opinions about whether people can change. Discussion can begin with the following questions: Do they think there are some girls that don’t have a chance? Do they think they themselves have a chance? Then, the outer circle will report on points they heard made in the inner circle. Alternatively, students in the outer circle can be assigned a student in the inner circle to paraphrase at the end of the discussion. If time and interest permit, have the inner and outer circles switch places and repeat this exercise.

Read more information on conducting Socratic Circles.

Activity: Letter Writing, Video Diaries, or Audio Podcasts: Have students write a journal entry or record an audio podcast in which they compose a thank-you note to either Cyntoia or Rosa for sharing their stories. Where possible, students should also be given the option to make a video letter. Ask students to respond to these questions: What can you relate to the most in her story? What circumstances do you think were the most challenging for her? What impact did the story have on you? How is she or can she be a leader/role model for girls in similar situations?

Students who choose to do so can actually mail the letter or DVD with the audio podcast or video file to Cyntoia to the following address:

Cyntoia Brown
Tennessee State Prison for Women
Unit 1 West, D-59
3881 Stewarts Lane
Nashville, TN 37218-3302

Alternatively, students can exchange letters and write a response as if they were Cyntoia or Rosa. Letters and responses can be presented to the class.

Assignment: Visual Self-Assessment and Reflection: Ask students to make a visual representation of the risks they have faced or are currently facing as they move forward in their lives. Students can use the metaphor of a brick wall or a wall of graffiti. They can include text on the wall that represents some of their risks. Students should add symbols or drawings to deepen the viewer's understanding. Remind students that they only have to share details about themselves that they are comfortable with.

To reflect on their artwork, have students use that information to write a poem, rap, or monologue — or another form of their choosing that could include role-play, dance, or movement — about challenges and struggles they have faced in the past. Use the examples below from Girls on the Wall as models.

When assignments are completed, arrange the classroom so that students can sit in a circle and share their work. Allow time for students to give positive feedback after each reading. What did they like? What could they relate to? What impressed them? Write these feedback questions on the board for students to reference.

You see my life started out as hell.
My mom on crack and my dad in jail.
All my life I rebelled
Kept my secrets inside I chose to never tell
I been from foster home to group home to jail
But on these things I cannot dwell.

It say, broken’ which many of us are
Then I just put, ‘you’re an Indian Giver, dog.
You give me money, you take it back
That ain’t cool
You give me love, you take it back
That ain’t cool either
You were my life, my smile
Now all I do is think, what if you were a different man
You could’ve accomplished many things
But yet instead, you love that pipe first
You loved your broad the same as that
But never showed me love at all

  1. Read this page with your class about research on the effects of childhood trauma. Lead a discussion around these questions:

    • What are some of the adverse childhood events described on the website? How do they compare to the risk factors discussed in lesson 1?
    • What does the website say about the long-term impact of childhood trauma? Why do you think trauma is difficult to recover from?
    • Why do you think post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is underdiagnosed in children?
    • What is the purpose of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network? What do you think about their approach to supporting young people who experience trauma in their families and neighborhoods?
  2. Research studies have documented the negative effects and risks of having an incarcerated parent. Read Project WHAT!'s Resource Guide for Teens with a Parent in Prison or Jail with students so they can learn more about how one can manage the challenge.

    There are six sections in the guide. Break students up into six groups (if that is appropriate in your setting) and assign each group a section. Ask them to create a poster that summarizes what they think is the most helpful information in their section. Post student work and conduct a gallery walk. Students should create a note-taking chart, and take notes on what they find most helpful or interesting about each section. Then, review the charts in the assigned groups. Conclude with each group reading to the class one of the personal stories included in their assigned section.

    (Tips for note-taking strategies can be found here.)

  • Film module:

  • Film module:

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