It was like a giant switchboard, the kind you see in 30s and 40s movies, a bevy of operators plugging in a crisscross of wires, taking calls, making connections, a cacophony of chatter.

That image came to me recently as I walked into the lobby of the MassMutual Center in Springfield, MA. The only difference was that the conversations filling the hall were about the same thing: girls and young women in the juvenile justice system.

We were there—teachers, social workers, lawyers, mentors, youth workers, college students and professors—for the Through Her Eyes conference sponsored by the Center for Human Development, a regional social services agency. This annual gathering, now in its seventh year, came about when a number of professionals expressed concern over the increased number of at-risk young females in “the system,” and the need for “best practices” to help this growing population. The Center for Human Development stepped up to address their concerns with the first Through Her Eyes conference in 2004.

This increase isn’t just a regional issue, however. It is a nationwide trend. According to the Institute on Women & Criminal Justice the number of women in prison has grown 832% in the past three decades. (The male population grew 416% during the same period.) Of this population African American girls and young women are the fastest growing group. The Department of Justice reports that black females are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than Hispanics and 4.5 times more likely than whites.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. They don’t tell what it’s like to be abandoned by your family, the child welfare system, your school and community; to be physically and sexually abused; to grow up in poverty and neglect; to have your life controlled by drugs, alcohol and sex.

The conference participants, though, had firsthand experience of what life was like behind the data. They had sat with these young women in emergency rooms and clinics, stood with them before the judge, listened with them as the school principal refused to give a girl one more chance. That day at the MassMutual Center they were there to share what they had seen Through Her Eyes and to learn other ways to help these vulnerable, much neglected and almost invisible young people.

As a teacher in an adult county prison I taught high school English on the female unit several days a week. Tell people you teach locked-up girls and you can see all the images they’ve ever heard of or seen in B-grade women-in-prison movies flash across their faces: violent, tough, sadistic, sinister. I’m not sure people believe me when I tell them that none of those stereotypes really fit. Not that my students, some as young as 15, didn’t don one of those masks if they had to. After all, jail is jail and you have to survive. But in the brutal hierarchy of prejudice incarcerated girls and women are on the bottom rung. Society demonizes them as irredeemable while the prison system infantilizes and insults them. (The Warden—a white, middle-aged man—for the female unit where I taught  rationed toilet paper and tampons in order to save money.)

But when these girls came to school they were what they most wanted to be—teenagers living a “normal life.” It was a struggle since none had ever had a normal life. Not Heather who after her mother died of AIDS got hooked on crack at 12 years old and took to prostitution to support her habit. Nor Ayesha whose mother refused to name her, leaving the hospital to fill in her birth certificate, “No Name.” As Ayesha was handed down from foster home to group home to detention center she would give herself a different name. “That way I get to feel like a new person each time.” And certainly not Eppy, unless a normal life means being physically and sexually abused first by her brother, then by her uncle, and finally her boyfriend. Until in desperation and self-defense she stabbed the boyfriend with a screwdriver.

Each of us had stories like that to share during the conference. As the day wound down another image, a phrase really, came to my mind, “Only connect.” It was from E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, Howards End. “Only connect…and human love will be seen at its height.” It was as old fashioned perhaps as that switchboard image, and maybe only an old English teacher like me would think of it. But for me it summed up the focus of the conference day and the purpose of the work so many professionals like us did across the country: to give the girls and young women lost in the juvenile justice system what we all want and need—a connection to a better life and a share of human love at its height.

Originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange