Janus, my captivating diary

Tea Torbenfeldt Bengtsson

How do incarcerated young people experience the ultimate exclusion from society? Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in the juvenile prison system, Danish sociologist Tea Torbenfeldt Bengtsson and graphic artist Sara Busch tell a fictional story about life behind bars.

I’m 16 and stuck in a cell. I’m never going to miss its stink and its cold walls. I’ll always remember the disgusting margarine on toast and waiting for footsteps in the hall. Footsteps that may unlock my door. The only thing I’ll miss is my neighbor Ibrahim.

Ibrahim’s my friend. He knocks to me at night, and he helped me that first day in the yard. They called me ‘Danish pig’, and Ibrahim helped me. Everyone knows Ibrahim, and Ibrahim knows everyone, even the adult prisoners. He’s been here lots of times and can get hold of anything. But not booze. In the beginning, it was tough not being able to drink. My bones were so cold, I thought they would break when I was sweating like a dog. It feels good to puke, but it’s Ibrahim’s hash that helps most.

I visit Ibrahim and Ibrahim visits me, when we’re allowed. We hang out, smoke cigarettes and chat. Play checkers. I never win. Ibrahim knows everything. He lives in town. When we get out, we’re going to move in together into his uncle’s apartment. Then he’ll teach me everything, and I’ll be able to help with his business. I’m not going back in, that’s for sure. Living in town with Ibrahim. It’s going to be cool.

After 26 days in the cell, I was transferred to the room with the flowing walls. It’s a month until my seventeenth birthday. I didn’t manage to get out. I was in the room and tried to get the walls to flow, but they decide that for themselves. It’s mostly at night that they become like water, so I can see straight through them. It didn’t happen on my birthday. I couldn’t get out then. No one came in either. They baked a cake and gave me some deodorant as a present. I was happy anyway, unfortunately.

I’m going crazy in here. The other boys get on my nerves. I want to get out, out, out! It doesn’t help. No one tells me anything. Maybe I’ll be here forever. Allan’s been here almost a year, but he’s crazy. He stabbed his friend with a knife. That’s crazy. Even if you’re on drugs. You don’t stab your friends. I could never stab Ibrahim, no matter what. He’s my friend. My only friend. The ones back home are a bunch of idiots. I’m not going to see them anymore. But I have Ibrahim.

Allan thinks he decides everything here. The adults let him decide everything. Like he’s something special. It makes me want to puke. Rahil, my new neighbor, got hold of some hash. It helped. It’s great to have a laugh and just flip out about how dumb the social workers are. They don’t know we have hash. There’s a lot they don’t know. Some of them are OK. Let us watch movies and stay up late. But some are just a bunch of bitches. Especially Rina. She was sweet-talking. Talk, talk, I understand you, you can talk to me, talk, talk. Fuck her. I should never have told her about the flowing walls. Big mistake.

She talked. Of course she did. Talked with all the others. They thought I should speak with some kind of psych-person. Like I’m crazy. I should never have fallen for her social work shit, but I know that now. I don’t talk to anyone. I refuse to talk to anyone other than my lawyer. He says they can’t force me to talk to anyone.

Rahil’s OK, but not like Ibrahim.

Rahil punched Allan. Allan stuck his gross hand down into Rahil’s chips. They didn’t notice a thing even though Alan was crying like a pussy all day. It was a laugh. Rahil’s actually OK. He’s going to court soon. I hope he’s not going to get released. But with that bank robbery, he’s not getting out.

I went through the wall and visited mom. She was happy. She sat in the green chair by the window and smiled. I know she wants to visit me here. But she’s not allowed. She’s not allowed to call either, so she doesn’t call. Allan’s mom calls the adults all the time, and then Allan cries. Luckily, my mom never calls. She knows I can take this. I’ve looked after myself and her. So she knows I can take it. It was good to see her happy last night. So she’s probably alone. That idiot Claus must be gone. Then I can move back home. I’ll have to talk with mom about that. If only I could call her.

Rahil didn’t get out, but he’s changed. Everything’s changed. Lisa came to the ward. A girl. Fantastic. I thought. She’s the biggest bitch you can imagine. Of course, Rahil’s crazy about her. Does everything she says. He thinks he’ll get to fuck her. That won’t happen. I know girls like Lisa. They’re not girls. They toy with boys’ minds. Can get them to do anything. But not me. I see through her.

In the beginning, she reminded me of Mikael’s little sister. Same cock-sucking mouth. So I got a hard on. Mikael’s little sister gave the best blow jobs. I wanted to fuck her for real, but Mikael just flipped out on me. He went at me with a baseball bat from the club. I screamed that she wanted it, but Mikael just kept hitting. When I ran, he threw the bat after me. I got eight stitches on the head. We’re not really friends anymore. She fucking wanted it. She came into Mikael’s room while Mikael was doing something with his dad. Said she had something she would show me for 100 kroner. I said she should get lost. Afterwards she started crying, so she got a Coke and half a bag of chips.

Rahil and Lisa are always laughing. It gives me a headache. And Allan, that little shit, just sits there and laughs along. Everything’s just so fucking funny. They bake cakes. So fucking fun. Makes me want to puke. I hope they get rid of her soon. I tried telling that social worker cunt Rina. She smiled and said we all needed to be here and make the most of it. I’m going to poison her or something.

They haven’t heard from my mom yet. Rina wants to call her. I say she should get lost. Mom shouldn’t talk with a bitch like that. I’ve seen her and know she’s doing well. But it wouldn’t hurt if she called. Especially now that Claus has moved out. Or maybe he’s dead. Hope he’s dead. Some of his gross friends from the bar probably knifed him. Thinking of it makes me smile. I could knife him. Stab him again and again. Then get rid of him. That’s what I should’ve done. Then I could’ve been here for murder. Wouldn’t the others be scared then? I should’ve done it that time mom went to the hospital. At night, while he slept on the sofa. It would’ve been so easy. A big knife across the throat. Done.

I dreamed of Lisa. I came on her face, and she licked her red lips. I can’t stand it. The walls won’t let me come out anymore. I just lie on the bed and look up at the worn blue curtains. One of them is longer than the other, and there are 24 ½ ceiling panels in the ceiling. I know everything, even with my eyes closed. But I stay in my room anyway. They won’t let me eat in here, so I haven’t eaten anything but chips and cookies for the past 12 hours. I don’t give a shit. I’ll bash her if I hear her stupid laugh one more time. If only I had some booze or just some hash. Maybe Rahil can help. I need to get hold of him without the bitch. I don’t have any more cigarettes either. I need to find a way out, now.

My case is going to court, but there’s no indictment. So it’s just an extension of my custody. They say I don’t need to come to court, but I want to. Then I’ll run away, quick as I can. That’s my best chance. I’ve discussed it with Rahil. He agrees it’s my best chance. I run real fast. They won’t get me. Then I’ll be free.

I can’t eat a thing all morning. I need to be perfectly ready. Two officers are coming. They put me in handcuffs. It’s not necessary, I say. One of the officers looks at me stupidly but says nothing. He grabs hold of my arm and cuffs me. I hate the fucking cops.

I didn’t escape. The whole thing happened so quickly. In, talk, talk, out, and gone again. They never took off the cuffs. That’s illegal actually. I’ll tell my lawyer about it. Rahil says I can get compensation. Maybe I’ll spend the money on furniture for my and Ibrahim’s apartment. Maybe he’s called here. The adults would never tell me. He’s probably called a million times. Fucking adults.

We’re painting. I’m doing a totally cool painting for my and Ibrahim’s apartment. Sort of almost totally black, but with silver lines that form a hemp leaf. Allan and Rahil are there too. Lisa leans over the table. I can see her tits while she says to me, “Janus? Do you like getting it up the anus?” There’s a roaring in my ears. Allan and Rahil are laughing their heads off. I look at her, say nothing. “I mean, I’m thinking, maybe your mom called you Janus because she knew you’d be a shit packer?” She smiles, and Allan and Rahil’s laughter rises. I stand up. I want them to stop. Bash them. Bash Lisa. I take the painting. Throw it at her. She moves away, laughing. Two adults come in and say all kinds of things. They drag me out of the room. Drag me over the cracked painting.

Talk, talk, talk. They want me to see a psychologist. He comes and talks too. More talk. But then they move Lisa to another ward. Rahil thinks it’s because he fucked her. NO! They got rid of her because they knew I’d bash her. They knew I’d do it.

Tonight, I can walk through the walls again. I draw in the cold night air and look up at the stars. I think about getting some booze. I end up at home with mom again. She’s not happy anymore. She’s lying on the bed. The living room is full of Claus’ gross friends. One of them is pissing into a potted plant. The plant is already dead. I want to get out of there. Mom’s friend, Else, leans over the dinner table. One of the gross ones fondles her. She says no. He hits her and pulls her pants off. She cries a little. Then the next one. I want to get out of there. Let the kid have a ride, one of the gross ones says. They all laugh. I want to get out.

Finally, Mark, my big brother, comes in. He throws the gross ones out. Just like when I was little. I’m happy to see Mark. It’s been a long time. He doesn’t really see me. Just slaps me on the head. Mark lives in town. I almost never see him. He doesn’t want to see mom. Says it’s her fault. It isn’t. I’m glad to see Mark. Want to talk to him, tell him that I’m also going to live in town, along with Ibrahim. Maybe we can meet.

They let Rahil out. I don’t get it. It’s not fair. The new guy’s named Sean. I actually know him a bit from before, from a dealer named Lars. We’ve smoked together, but not more than a couple of times. Sean always slipped away when the party really got going. There were these wild parties at Lars’ place. Tons of booze, tons of drugs. Crazy. Once there was someone who walked along the edge of the balcony, slipped, and smashed himself up in the grass. Crazy. He still walks on crutches. We call him Citizen Kane.

The adults still don’t know when I’ll be allowed to get visits or calls. They also say that Ibrahim hasn’t called. They’re lying.

Sean’s OK. He plays music and has tons of hash. Sean’s definitely on my side. He doesn’t say much. Soon he’ll be 18. That’s probably why. He’ll be 18 in just one week. Maybe they’ll move him. I hope he stays.

Sean’s a bit like Mark. Like he’s not really here, like he’s on his way somewhere else. If only one of them would take me with them.

Ulla from social services came by today. I can’t move back home. Mom’s been hospitalized again. The house is gone. She doesn’t say whether Claus is also gone or where my things are. Mom probably won’t be coming home either. Can’t handle it, Ulla says. There’s a roaring in my ears. I want to get out. Ulla just talks. She doesn’t listen. I try to tell her about the apartment in town with Ibrahim. She just raises an eyebrow and shakes her head. “I can’t go along with that, Janus. You understand that, right?” Fuck NO. Ulla says I’m her responsibility until I’m 18. More talk, foster family, place to stay, assistance, exciting, good adults, new friends. No. Finally, Ulla leaves.

I sleep. That’s how I’ll manage things now. Just sleep all the time. I don’t even count the days anymore. Now, I’m just here, sleeping. They tell me to get up. I don’t. I don’t care anymore. They talk about what will happen, where I’ll be going. School, tests, apprenticeship, make something of myself. I just need to get out, away.

At night, I finally get out through the walls again. I meet Ibrahim on the beach. We make a fire, like a bonfire on Midsummer’s eve. We throw all sorts of stuff on the fire, even books and paper. Ibrahim burns his school bag, a real kids’ bag with Spiderman on it. I had a bag like that too. We laugh. Ibrahim has booze for me and hash for himself. We lie in the sand and build our apartment

Ibrahim is dead. Shot.

We see it on TV. I know it’s him. Even before they tell me. Just shot. Gang wars, the adults say. They don’t understand anything. Ibrahim can’t die. Not him. All the others can die. I smash the TV. They drag me into my room. They stay there, don’t want to let me out. I kick the chair to pieces.

What about me, now? I don’t get up for days. They leave me alone. Serve food in my room. Rina talks again. I don’t hear her. What am I going to do? Thinking about going after Ibrahim. Maybe I can get shot too?! I’ve got to find out who did it. I’ve got to get revenge. I owe that to Ibrahim. I’ve got to find his cousin. Maybe he knows who did it. Then they can send me off to get revenge. I’ll do it. I’ll find Ibrahim’s cousin and get revenge.

Finally, I can receive calls and visits. That means they’ll be letting me out soon.

No one really comes to visit. Mom’s in the hospital. Ibrahim is gone. Mark might not know I’m here. Who else might come and visit? Claus? No thanks. Maybe I can call Mark and tell him I’m here. I don’t have his number. I could also call Mikael. Maybe he’d want to talk to me now. So much time has passed. I try calling him. His number doesn’t work anymore.

Rina helps me find Mark’s number. I call him. He doesn’t answer. I hear his voice on the answering service seven times.

Ulla comes back. She says she’s found me a place to stay. I don’t want to go there. She says I can come with her and take a look at it. Now? Yes, she says. OK. We drive off in her car.

We stop at a red light. I open the door, and I’m off.

Tea Torbenfeldt Bengtsson is a Danish sociologist whose work focuses on the juvenile justice system. She recently defended her PhD dissertation—titled “Youth Behind Bars: An ethnographic study of young people confined in secure care in Denmark”—at the University of Copenhagen. Sara Busch is a graphic designer and a recent graduate of the Copenhagen Design School.