A Thief and Murderer Afraid to Care, I Learned to Truly Understand What Life Is About

Just as lightning flashes and dances across the sky, so too, does this life I live. In a world away, a jungle so thick that everything touches you, a war not of my making, took my father and sister in a cloud of thundering smoke.

BOOM — POOF, gone forever. I was ducking and dodging bullets and bombs in a body not mine, my mother’s.

She cried to heaven above and unseen spirits all around: not for what death just took but for what was not taken. My mother gave birth to a baby before its time, knowing it would not survive.

True to her fears, I came roaring into this world to the drowning sound of silence. A stillborn baby, dead, cold and blue like the river that caressed me. My mother, seeing her plight, gave me up to this river. Took, not taken. As I was being carried away by its current.

My first act as a human being was theft. It was then I took life from Death. I opened my eyes to a billion falling tears of angels, demons and spirits alike, the pouring rain. My first breath, a sound of thunder, my mother swam after me. Took not taken.

Now safe in her arms, she whispered, “You are a constant pain and worry to me. I will call you Pheej,” a name meaning constantly in a language soon to be lost like its people.

Fated to be a thief in this life, so I chose to believe. Took not taken. Three years old, living in a camp of dirt, surrounded by barbed wires and machine gun towers. My home a house made of bamboo trees tied together. Near dying, from hunger and thirst, death came for what I stole.

“No,” I said. “This life I took cannot be taken.” Saved through a miracle and grace, away to America we went. At 7 years old, I grew bold from the loss of my innocence, torturous beatings. Took, not taken.

By 12 years old, I took a lot of pain, joined a criminal street gang. Tired of shame and in pain. Hunger for revenge, I grew cold. With no guidance nor values, not wanting to understand, I became a wicked being.

Sixteen years old, in and out of juvenile hall and the Youth Authority (youth prison), I embraced my destiny and pain. I gave life to a criminal street gang, and the streets is where I found myself drowning again, this time in a pool of my own blood. Five bullets to my body, death, my old friend, came calling again. Deja vu, it said. My vision static like an old TV, out of picture and focus, then silence. I awoke to the sounds of machines beeping, to the face of a crying angel, my mother.

Took, not taken. I’ve done things I’m too shamed to mention. A thief I truly was, not even my family was safe from me. How right she was, though I never listened. Those friends she warned me about led me straight to prison. By 17, I took two lives. Now, I was walking with a limp from the shackles and chains made of iron. “Guilty of murders,” said the jury. “Life in prison!” cried the judge.

Took not taken. To hell here I come, your newborn son. Twenty-three years later, still nothing’s changed for the better, only worse. Thirty-nine years old, a flash of blood pouring out from six holes in my chest, my body torn to shreds. Drowning yet again in a pool of my own blood. Finally, death and I are together at last, I said.

Took, not taken. Darkness, then light. A new voice echoed inside my mind. Rise, my son, and open your newborn eyes. I did. Once afraid to care, live and love. Thought it was cool being a thug. How foolish I was to ever believe my fate a THIEF! My destiny PAIN!

Truly I must have been insane. How could this be, I exclaimed! Suddenly, so simple, the answer came to me. After destroying and ruining countless lives, I have come to truly realize and understand. This life is a gift given to me, not theft.

Took, not taken. Now with meanings and purpose, a new flame ignited deep within me. Burning every ounce of my soul with a thirst and desire to raise people higher than even they can see or believe possible to achieve.

We all possess a beautiful mind, a heart filled with courage, a soul strengthened by compassion. Greatness awaits us all, accept it. Don’t follow your anger. Don’t give in to hate. Take your gift of life with the knowledge learned and build a life for the family that awaits your arrival.

The third time is a charm, so they say. I am here alive today to tell you it’s never too late. Took, not taken.

Pheng Ly was sentenced as an adult to 50 years to life at age 17 for two counts of gang-related first degree murder. Now 40, he is incarcerated at the Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

Ripe for Juvenile Justice Reform in Arkansas

Arkansas Nonprofit News Network

This is part one of a two-part series.

The number of delinquent youth remanded to the Arkansas Division of Youth Services during the fiscal year that ended in July was the lowest in at least two decades, according to figures recently released by the DYS.

Juvenile judges committed 451 youth to state custody in fiscal year 2017 — a 14 percent decrease from 2015, when commitments to the DYS reached 526.

The commitment rate does not reflect every youth confined in a facility in Arkansas. It excludes kids detained in county-level juvenile detention centers, as well as those who were transferred to the adult criminal justice system. Nonetheless, the decline in DYS commitments, which appears to be driven by local efforts in several of the state's most populous counties, has some advocates cautiously hopeful that Arkansas may be poised to finally overhaul its juvenile justice system.

Over the last two decades, most states have dramatically reduced the number of youth locked away in secure facilities, including Arkansas' neighbors. Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana all lowered their juvenile confinement rates by double digits from 1997 to 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Arkansas' rate decreased by just 8 percent over that period, despite an emerging consensus that confinement is usually a counterproductive and overly expensive response to delinquency. The question now is whether policymakers can translate recent local successes to statewide reform.

"There are parts of the state where things continue to be a problem and others where we're making great progress," DYS Director Betty Guhman told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network. The DYS is a division of the state Department of Human Services.

A top aide to Gov. Asa Hutchinson with a background in social work, Guhman previously served as chief of staff during Hutchinson's tenures in Congress and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The governor named her to run the DYS on an interim basis in July 2016 and made the appointment permanent that September. Guhman seems to channel Hutchinson's preference for cautious, deliberative incrementalism rather than bold calls to immediate action — but she is quietly aiming for big changes.

"The whole juvenile code needs to be revisited," she said. "Do you want to start picking at this or this or this — or do you want a whole rewrite? I think most everybody is supportive of a complete rewrite. ... We're really trying to do that for the [2019 legislative] session, working with judges, providers, other advocates. ... Let's see what we can all agree on and try to move forward."

"We" means three principal players. First, the DYS, which oversees Arkansas' eight residential juvenile facilities, as well as diversion and aftercare programs. Second, the juvenile judges whose courts constitute the "front door" to the system. Third, the nonprofit providers that contract with the DYS to deliver services, from managing residential facilities to administering diversion and aftercare.

In recent years, reformers in Arkansas have largely focused their efforts on the county level rather than the state, partly because of a lack of continuity in DYS leadership since former director Ron Angel retired in 2013. Angel actively pushed for legislation intended to reduce the use of confinement by steering funding toward community-based programs and away from secure facilities. The effort foundered in the state Senate, however, and Angel departed soon afterward.

Angel's successor, Tracy Steele, lasted in the job for a little over a year, as did the next appointee, Marcus Devine. Commitments to the DYS, which declined during Angel's six-year tenure, rose from 2013 to 2015.

Pat Arthur, a lawyer formerly with the National Center for Youth Law, worked closely with Angel from 2007 to 2013 to craft reforms aimed at reducing confinement. "When Ron Angel was in charge of DYS ... there was a genuine effort to downsize facilities," she said. "I worked my whole time there trying to reduce the beds."

"All of the prisons there should be closed," she added, referring to the DYS residential facilities. "They're all antiquated, large institutions that are being shown around the country, in practice and also through research, to be ineffective in providing the kind of rehabilitative programming that youth in trouble with the law need to get back on a positive track and contribute to their community."

After Angel left the DYS, Arthur said, "there was just not the same kind of commitment ... to changing the system to one that relies less on incarceration and more on keeping youth in programs that work in the community. There was lip service perhaps, but nothing concretely that was done to advance it."

Arthur retired last December and said she was not familiar with developments in Arkansas in the past year. But other advocates expressed optimism about the agency's direction under Guhman — who, unlike her two predecessors, is expected to stick around.

"I think there's reason to be hopeful, but I think there's a lot of frustration — among not just advocates but folks within the system themselves — about the pace of change," Jason Szanyi, a deputy director at the D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, said.

Since 2013, Szanyi has worked with juvenile courts in two Northwest Arkansas counties, Benton and Washington, to implement a program called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI, which has helped reduce detention in favor of community-based alternatives such as mentorships, family therapy and evening reporting centers. JDAI is active in more than 300 sites throughout the country, and Pulaski County will begin implementing the program in 2018.

In other jurisdictions, the use of a new risk-assessment tool has reduced confinement by helping judges identify various needs and risks of youth. Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell said the screening process has been "a game changer" since it was rolled out in his court in 2016 as part of a pilot program.

Between 2015 and 2016, Braswell said, "we cut juvenile confinement by 23 percent in our district. And then for the fiscal year, as far as DYS commitments, we cut our commitment by 31 percent." He noted that the juvenile crime rate seems to have dropped as well: "We also had a 7 percent reduction in charges filed by the prosecutor.

"Kids are still going to get detained when it's appropriate, but that can't always be the answer," Braswell said. "As courts individually, and then as a state, we've got to do a better job of providing services to the family earlier on in the case." Braswell also chairs the Youth Justice Reform Board, a body created by the governor to make recommendations on juvenile justice issues.

Such reforms have reduced both the number of youths detained locally in juvenile detention centers and those committed to DYS facilities — but only among those courts that have embraced them. Many other judges continue to lock up large numbers of kids each year, meaning confinement numbers have remained high for the state as a whole.

"Arkansas has not seen the same level of reduction in commitment to state custody as many other states," Szanyi said. "There's a lot of inertia in terms of how things have been done in the state, and how they've been done from county to county. That can be tough to counter without a coordinated effort to reform the system. ... You need someone at DYS who has a long-term vision for juvenile justice reform.

"Director Guhman is someone who has a longstanding relationship with the governor and understands the issues," Szanyi said. "Our hope is that ... with strong leadership at DYS, we can start tackling some of the issues that need to be looked at in order for Arkansas to see some very significant and beneficial changes in the system."

Tom Masseau is the executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that performs regular observations at the eight juvenile treatment centers and correctional facilities run by the DYS. He attributes the recent decrease in commitments mostly to individual judges choosing community-based alternatives; broader statewide reform has remained more talk than action.

"The holdup is that everybody likes the idea of reform, but nobody wants to roll up their sleeves and do it," he said. "I think when Ron [Angel] left, everything just kind of fell apart, and you had some directors who were appointed who had the best intentions but for whatever reason just couldn't move it forward. Now, I think with Betty Guhman in there — at least based on my meetings with her, she seems very committed. ... It's just contingent upon the legislature giving leeway to the division.

"I see us moving more toward some serious reforms," Masseau said. "At least, that's what we're going to be pushing for."

Braswell said the push for reform must continue at the local level, but he, too, sees new potential for the state to lead rather than follow.

"I think up to this point, DYS has been doing what the juvenile justice system has been doing," he said. "In my conversations with Director Guhman, I think they understand they're going to have to be more targeted in their contracts with the providers and making sure that judges and providers are working together to provide the services that are evidence-based and have a track record of working. To me, they understand that things have to change."

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.

Sentenced to Life Without Parole As a Juvenile: Donald Scott | Age 61

"They can keep my body locked up, but my soul and mind are always on the other side."


For more than a decade I have interviewed more than 1,000 kids in 35 states. What of these kids who were sentenced to long sentences and JLWOP, life sentences without parole? These kids become adults who become geriatric. These are the people I have interviewed for the past year.

These are their stories. There are more than 2,000 people — juveniles serving life without parole all over the country. These are some of their voices. These are their faces.

This is a series by Richard Ross that runs every other Thursday until Dec. 14.

We Can, Should Hold Kids on Probation Accountable in Developmentally Appropriate Way

Marie WilliamsIn 2015, the most recent year for which we have comprehensive data, there were approximately 48,000 youth in residential placement facilities across the country. That’s down 55 percent from 1999, when our juvenile justice systems housed more than 100,000 young people.

This significant decline suggests that the push for decarceration of youth is working. Fewer young people are being removed from their homes and communities for behaviors that come into conflict with the law. What we haven’t seen, however, is a corresponding decrease in the use of juvenile probation to sanction young people for delinquency or status offenses. Over the same time period, the proportion of kids who come into contact with the juvenile justice system (whether petitioned or nonpetitioned, adjudicated or nonadjudicated) who receive probation has remained relatively static.

While this may sound like good news, these trends actually tell a different story. Fiscal pressures and new research are prompting jurisdictions to move away from incarceration as an effective response for dealing with most young people who commit delinquent or other offenses. However, increasingly, these jurisdictions are putting pressure on juvenile probation departments to perform almost all the traditional roles of juvenile corrections: to monitor, intervene, sanction, hold accountable and rehabilitate youth.

Given this multifaceted mandate as well as the overarching need to preserve public safety, it is perhaps no wonder that many juvenile probation departments and courts err on the side of caution by imposing restrictive conditions on the young people under their supervision. Every sitting juvenile court judge and every active juvenile probation officer would, understandably, rather not risk the safety of the public by showing leniency to a young person who may have broken the law.

The problem with an overly punitive approach to juvenile probation is that, simply put, it does not work. In his soon-to-be released monograph, “Youth on Probation: Bringing a 20th Century Service Into a Developmentally Friendly 21st Century World,” Robert G. Schwartz, co-founder and executive director emeritus of the Juvenile Law Center, and 2016-2017 Stoneleigh Foundation Visiting Fellow, describes the difficulty this presents for juvenile probation officers:

“They see themselves as monitor, enforcer, mentor/coach, parent, role model, change agent, case manager, therapist, and court representative. While some of these roles can be adapted to probation that is sensitive to adolescent development, these roles are often in conflict. Probation officers face the challenge not only of adopting a role or roles, depending on the circumstances, but on conveying his or her role to youth.” What we now know from developmental science is that there are approaches to juvenile probation that may hold young people accountable while still ushering them toward more productive and prosocial behavior.

The “graduated response” approach, now being piloted by the Philadelphia Juvenile Probation Department, in partnership with Naomi Goldstein, a Drexel University professor of psychology and Stoneleigh Fellow, emphasizes rewards and incentives for positive and compliant behavior, rather than merely sanctions for negative or noncompliant behavior.

It includes opportunities for young people to exercise decision-making skills and enlists them as partners in designing their own pathways to successful completion of probation, rather than prolonging it with unattainable or unrealistic behavioral expectations. Not only is this approach more aligned with the original purposes of our juvenile justice system, there is also growing evidence that it is more effective than overly punitive approaches to juvenile probation.

In Pierce County (Tacoma), Washington, the juvenile probation department instituted what they call their opportunity-based probation program, an incentive-based system that rewards probationers for meeting goals. Using a point system, the program provides young people with an opportunity to accumulate points, earn prizes and ultimately receive recognition at a graduation ceremony. Incentives offered to youth in the program include YMCA memberships, internships and the chance to have their probation supervision terminated early.

In his upcoming monograph, Bob Schwartz draws lessons from Pierce County and other jurisdictions, outlining several principles for reforming juvenile probation to comport with new adolescent brain science while still holding youth accountable. These include an abandonment of boilerplate conditions, a recognition of youth as individuals and an avoidance of harm to young people under supervision by not setting them up for failure with impractical restrictions.

Ultimately, jurisdictions must grapple not only with ways to revamp the processes in their juvenile probation departments, but also with how to change a way of thinking and a culture that may be more closely aligned with law enforcement than with a supportive social services model. The 21st-century juvenile probation department should be modeled on 21st-century research, which tells us that kids on probation can be held accountable, and can succeed, if we create expectations and goals that are realistic, achievable and developmentally appropriate.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

These Approaches Help Young Fathers Leaving the Criminal Justice System

Becoming a father for the first time can be difficult for anyone, but when you do so in your teens or early 20s and have been incarcerated, it can be overwhelming. The right supports — stable housing, reliable networks, ties to employment, knowing how to build skills in fatherhood and healthy relationships — are essential.

This was certainly true for 22-year-old James* and 20-year-old Marcus*. Both became fathers before their incarceration; both wanted to be the best dads they could be, and both needed help upon release to do so.

After being released from prison, James joined the T.O.R.I. Program, which offered family reunification classes and employment support. During the 12-month program he learned new skills to provide for and nurture his daughter, like how to appropriately resolve conflict and effectively co-parent.

Marcus enrolled in the RIDGE Project while in prison, which offered training to help build character, leadership and job preparedness skills. Upon release, he continued to work with his caseworker to complete job applications and prepare for interviews. Within weeks, he found a job and an apartment.  

T.O.R.I and RIDGE are both faith-based reentry programs funded by federal, state, local and private funds. Each helps young fathers build their parenting and relationships skills, find employment and change the course of their lives. T.O.R.I. was founded in Texas in 2005 to provide holistic wraparound services for men and women after incarceration. Since its inception, T.O.R.I. has provided assistance in getting housing, employment, education and health care, among other services, to more than 10,000 fathers and mothers.

The RIDGE Project, with offices throughout Ohio, was co-founded by Ron Tijerina following his own experience as an incarcerated father. RIDGE provides classes on fatherhood, leadership, healthy relationships and job preparedness inside prisons. It also provide referrals for housing, mental health and addiction recovery upon release. RIDGE has served more than 14,000 individuals since its inception in 2000.

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funded 103 fatherhood grants, nine of which have focused on reentering fathers. Additionally, since 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice has funded 16 fatherhood/reentry grants. These investments come at a time where more than 5 million children (7 percent of all children under 18) live with a parent who went to jail or prison. And about 92 percent of all incarcerated parents are fathers; some estimate that as many as 30 percent of incarcerated teen males are also fathers.  

As many state and federal programs continue to strategically invest in employment and parenting supports for returning young fathers, promising approaches have begun to emerge. The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse has developed resources for human service professionals who support fathers and families, including those impacted by incarceration. Their Responsible Fatherhood Toolkit, which includes modules on working with incarcerated and returning fathers, suggests that service providers:

  • Offer pre-release assistance with child support, education and job training to prepare dads for reentry.
  • Encourage dads to write letters to their children on a regular basis, create books or art for their children, and read a book to their child, either over the phone or via audio or video recording.
  • Show fathers the value in developing a working relationship with their child’s mother and provide them with skills to improve this relationship.
  • Connect with the mother and family before a father’s release.
  • Provide relationship skills classes for couples when possible, and link fathers to community services upon release.
  • Develop relationships with local employers to help dads with employment opportunities.
  • Counsel men to be upfront with potential employers about their criminal record.

Programs like RIDGE and T.O.R.I. are providing important support services to young fathers and their children — to help break the cycle of generational incarceration. They provide parenting and healthy relationships skills training, job readiness and placement support, mentoring and case management to maintain communication channels within families during incarceration and grow them upon release.  

*Names changed

Eugene Schneeberg, is a senior fatherhood & families technical specialist at ICF, where he works on technical assistance and outreach activities related to Responsible Fatherhood, Prisoner Reentry and workforce programs. He is the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

Jackson, Mississippi, Native Working to Change Culture of Suspension in Its Public Schools

Jackson Free Press

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI — Juan Cloy remembers being suspended when he was at Provine High School in the 1980s. He and several friends got in a fight with some kids from the neighborhood at school. Everyone involved got suspended.

Of course, the idea of suspension is for kids to stay home, but none of the boys did. He and his friends went outside and walked around the corner to find the boys they got into a fight with in a car.

“One of the kids pulled a gun out on us,” he said. “… [T]here was no resolution. We never resolved that — ever. To this day it hasn’t been resolved, and this was in high school.”

Cloy, who worked as a law enforcement officer for more than 20 years at the Jackson and Canton police departments and the FBI, now is the Mississippi director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a subsidiary of the Council for a Strong America. The organization signed a memorandum of understanding with Jackson Public Schools to work on discipline and the relationship between school resource officers and JPD.

Specifically, Cloy is working to help implement PBIS — positive behavioral intervention and supports — and restorative justice programs — like justice circles, which invite everyone to share their experiences and discuss situations openly instead of being suspended — throughout JPS.

Drawing on his suspension experience in high school, Cloy says the school’s discipline procedures and culture should help resolve conflicts — not just remove kids from school.

“People say they bring that stuff from the neighborhood to the school, and that’s true,” Cloy says. “But while they’re in our care in the schools, we should have some sort of system set up to help kind of diffuse that and figure out what’s going on.”

A culture problem

As a part of his work with Fight Crime, Cloy is focused on working with JPD to help the school district suspend and expel students less.

“Statistics show that a kid who is out of school for suspension or expulsion is more likely to end up in the back of a police car,” Cloy told the Jackson Free Press in an interview.

A new report from Fight Crime published this month shows that Mississippi has higher in-school and out-of-school suspension rates than the national average. Cloy focuses on Jackson Public Schools and the Biloxi School District in his work for Fight Crime.

JPS has a higher rate of out-of-school suspension than in-school suspension, indicating that administrators are using the latter less overall, opting to just send kids home instead.

Jackson, the second-largest district in the state, did not have the worst rate of suspension by a long shot, however. Philadelphia, Mississippi, schools have the highest out-of-school suspension rate in the state, the Fight Crime report shows.

JPS administrators have worked to use suspension data to change the district’s discipline policies and implement behavioral management systems like PBIS, which rewards students for positive behavior. The district also uses Tools for Life, which teaches younger students their “tools” for negotiating and interacting with others.

JPS Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray says PBIS and Tools for Life are what helped drop the district’s number of discipline cases so far this year. At the end of October in the 2016-17 school year, 177 students were referred to the alternative school for discipline issues. This year, that number was 145.

Murray explained the discipline data to the new Better Together Commission, tasked with conducting a districtwide study and soliciting community input as a part of the third “takeover” option for JPS.

“Good leaders run good buildings, and so we have to make sure our principals are quality leaders and that they understand that they are responsible for the cultural climate of their building, and again, that doesn’t mean suspending every child, that means being able to adopt a culture,” Murray told the commission on Nov. 8.

Cloy agrees. He says he has seen a culture of suspension in his work with JPS so far. Last school year, students in JPS were suspended in some high schools for being out of class or dress code violations, while other students in different high schools receive in-school detention for similar infractions. More than 8,000 out-of-school suspensions were recorded in the 2016-17 school year in JPS. The district implemented a new code of conduct, with new discipline procedures this school year, in part due to that data.

“I just think suspension is a culture: You go home,” he told the Jackson Free Press. “And it’s a culture districtwide, so culture, as they say, is one of the hardest things to change.”

Freddrick Murray, interim superintendent of Jackson Public Schools

All about leadership

That doesn’t mean progress has not occurred in the district, however. Murray mentioned a JPS school he used to go into four years ago where discipline was an issue, but told the commission that it is very different today — and discipline is not an issue anymore. He said responsibility for the discipline goes to the school leader, the assistant superintendents and ultimately to him as the superintendent.

In the midst of a potential state takeover, Murray reorganized the district into four feeder patterns based on data, including on discipline. The district now has four area superintendents, and as a part of the reorganization, Murray removed and then hired 14 new principals for the current school year.

In Fight Crime’s work inside JPS schools, Cloy says Wingfield High School in Jackson is an example of a school that has implemented alternative and creative programming, from an arts program to jiu-jitsu to chess for students that help combat disciplinary issues. Other schools,  he said, are going day-to-day.

Cloy said he can tell when a behavioral system in a school is working.

“You can tell when a program is run, whatever the program is,” he said. “When the bell rings, and the students walk out of the classroom, you can tell who runs the building. You can tell what program is working and if there’s a program that’s being used.”

With autonomy, Cloy says, principals can work to adapt different behavioral interventions from PBIS to restorative justice practices (both proven to reduce suspension rates) effectively.

“Each school has to be treated differently, and certain principals have to be put in place and given full autonomy to run their schools and use their programs,” he said. “And if it doesn’t work, then you get a new principal.”

State reporter Arielle Dreher is a reporter for the Jackson Free Press, where this story also appears. Read more about Jackson Public Schools at jfp.ms/jpstakeover and juvenile justice and alternative solutions at jfp.ms/preventingviolence.

California Corrections Committee Proposes New Minimum Standards for Incarcerated Youth

California youth advocates are fairly pleased with recommendations on use of pepper spray, shackling, visitation rights and vegetarian meal options for incarcerated youth that came from the Executive Steering Committee of the state Board of State and Community Corrections.

Israel Villa

“This time around was historic; we are advocating for changes that have never been addressed before,” said Israel Villa, a formerly incarcerated youth. “My understanding is that the [board] usually goes with the steering committee's recommendations.”

Villa, the program and policy coordinator for the organization Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement, said he is hopeful the recommendations will be approved.

The committee held a panel with youth advocates last week in preparation for a Feb. 8, 2018 meeting, when the full board will vote on revising statewide regulations for incarcerated youth.

The committee recommended requiring that facilities must document the use of pepper spray on youth. Advocates had been hoping for a ban. California is currently one of five states that allow guards to carry pepper spray inside youth prisons.

Sara Kruzan

Sara Kruzan, a formerly incarcerated youth and program coordinator at Healing Dialogue and Action, said this requirement is a step in the right direction, but that using pepper spray should not be tolerated.

“There is a double standard in place,” she said. “If your children got into a fight at school, it wouldn’t be acceptable to pepper spray them as a form of punishment. That would be considered abuse.”

Villa said the issue of pepper spray goes hand-in-hand with the issue of staff-to-youth ratios.

“If there were more staff members available, these facilities wouldn’t need to rely on pepper spray to handle altercations,” Villa said. “These are kids, and punishment doesn’t help their situations.”

Youth advocates proposed improving the staff-to-youth ratios, but the committee decided not to recommend action on that matter. Currently, the state requires one adult for every 10 youths during the day, and one adult to 30 youths during the night.

The committee also suggested new regulations that would prohibit the general use of shackles. Instead, the facility would be required to conduct individualized assessments before each use.

Kruzan said she is worried that this proposed regulation will fall short.

“I’m concerned about who will be making that discretion regarding shackles, and why we are still OK with shackles being used on our youth,” she said. “I can’t align myself with a system that treats youth in a way that doesn’t even match our values as a community.”

Executive Steering Committee meetings are designed to provide direction and focus to the revision process by identifying critical issues, providing direction to workgroups that propose revisions and making a final recommendation to the full board. The full board is expected to make a final decision on revisions to Juvenile Titles 15 and 24 regulations by April 2018.

Revisions to California’s regulations were last made in 2014, but there is no particular rule for when a state reviews its regulations for youth facilities, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

The committee also suggested that facilities should be required to process requests for vegetarian meals, and supportive adults should not be barred from visiting incarcerated youth simply because of the adults’ conviction history.

Overall, Kruzan said these regulations should guide facilities to treat youth in a trauma-informed manner, rather than with a punitive approach.

“Anyone who is working with youth should be looking at the factors that contributed to their situations,” she said. “In my case, my trauma was never acknowledged and the phrase ‘child sex-trafficking survivor’ was never used. No one knew how to handle me, so I was criminalized.”


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The Beat Within: This Is a Poem About What Causes Poems Like This to Be Written

Before I begin this poem ...
I'd like to ask you to join me in a moment of silence …
In honor of those who died in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
On September 11th 2001 ...

I'd also like to ask you to offer up a moment of silence …

For all those who’ve been harassed, imprisoned, disappeared, tortured, raped or killed in retaliation for those strikes ... for the victims in Afghanistan, Iraq, in the U.S. and throughout the world ...

And if I could add just one more thing ...

A day of silence.

For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who died at the hands of U.S.-backed Israeli forces over decades of occupation.

Six months of silence ...

For the million and a half Iraqi people … mostly children ... who died of malnourishment or starvation as a result of a twelve-year U.S. embargo against that country … before the war ever began … and now … the drums of war beat again ...

Before I begin this poem ...

Nine months of silence
For the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Where death rained down and peeled back every layer
Of concrete, steel, earth and skin
And the survivors
Well they went on as if they were alive ...

One year of silence …

For the millions dead in Vietnam ... a people ... not a war ... for those who know a thing or two about the scent of burning fuel — their relatives’ bones buried in it — their babies born of it ...

Two months of silence ...

For the decade of dead in Colombia ... whose names … like the corpses they once represented … have piled up and slipped off our tongues ...

Before I begin this poem ...

Seven days of silence ... for El Salvador
A day of silence … for Nicaragua
Five days of silence … for the Guatemalans
None of whom ever knew a moment of peace in their living years …

1,955 miles of silence …
For every desperate body that burns in the desert sun
Drowned in swollen rivers at the pearly gates to the empire’s underbelly
A gaping wound sutured shut by razor and corrugated steel ...

Twenty-five years of silence …
For the millions of Africans who found their graves far deeper in the ocean than any building could poke into the sky
For those who were strung and swung from the height of sycamore trees
In the South
The North
The East
The West
There will no DNA testing or dental records to identify their remains ...

100 years of silence …
For the hundreds of millions of indigenous people from this half of right now
Whose land and lives were stolen
In postcard-perfect plots like
Pine Ridge
Wounded Knee
Sand Creek
Fallen Timbers
Or the Trail of Tears
Names now reduced to innocuous magnetic poetry
On the refrigerator of our consciousness ...

From the somewhere within the pillars of power …
You open your mouth to invoke a moment of silence …
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut

A moment of silence …
And the poets are laid to rest
The drums disintegrated to dust ...

Before I begin this poem.

You want a moment of silence …
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
While the rest of us hope to hell that it won't be
Not like it always has been
Because you see
This isn't a 9/11 poem
This is a 9/10 poem!
A 9/9 poem!
A 9/8 poem!
A 9/7 poem!
This is a 1619 poem!
A 1492 poem!
This is a poem about what causes poems like this to be written
But if it is a 9/11 poem
It's a September 11, 1973 poem for the people of Chile
It's a September 12, 1977 poem for the Steven Biko of South Africa
It's a September 13, 1971 poem for the brothers at Attica prison in New York
It's a September 14, 1992 poem for the people of Somalia
This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground
Amidst the ashes of amnesia
This is a poem for the 110 stories that were never told
The 110 stories that history uprooted from its textbooks
The 100 stories that CNN, ABC, The New York Times and Newsweek ignored
This is a poem to interrupt their programs
This is not a peace poem
Not some poem of forgiveness
This is a justice poem
A poem for never forgetting
This is a poem to remind us
That all that glitters
Might just be
Broken glass
And still you want a moment of silence for the dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empties;
The unmarked graves
Lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children.

Before I begin this poem …

We could be silent forever ...
Or just long enough to hunger for the dust to bury us
And would you still ask us for more of our silence ...

Well if you want a moment of silence ...
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines
The televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights
Delete the emails and instant messages
Derail the trains and ground the planes

If you want a moment of silence …
Put a brick through the window of Taco Bell
And pay the workers for wages lost …

Tear down the Liquor stores
The Townhouses
The Penthouses
The Jail houses
And the White Houses

If you want a moment of silence ...
Then take it now!
Before this poem begins
Here’s your silence
Take it!
Take it all!
But don't cut in line
Let your silence begin
At the beginning of crime …

Jesse Jackson, 52, is currently in the San Francisco County Jail for a probation violation. He has spent the better part of the last 35 years in and out of the criminal justice system.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at inocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

What It Feels Like to Be Kept in Los Angeles Prisons When You’re a Teen

LOS ANGELES — Kim McGill was only 12 years old when she was first arrested and incarcerated for grand larceny. As a young girl, she had taken order requests from individuals, stolen and sold the items. At 13, she was charged with a felony for the second time and imprisoned in a juvenile detention center for shoplifting more than $1,000 worth of merchandise. After that she was prosecuted for several misdemeanor cases, both as a youth and an adult.

As a former felon and now the lead organizer of the Youth Justice Coalition, McGill is against confinement.

“It's not about fixing the system so people re-enter with more resources,” she said. “It's about knowing that you can't get well in a cell, you can't grow in a cage.”

McGill’s memories still gnaw at her today. She described sleep deprivation due to extreme air conditioning, fluorescent lighting and lack of sufficiently warm clothing. She recalled the absence of any external stimulation: the lack of windows, the inability to see the sky and the deficiency of engaging activities.

The walls were all one color, usually beige or white. Steel cells, tables and beds were the only items in the lock-ups, unless a concrete slab protruded from the wall as a makeshift frame. Sleeping on the floor was not uncommon, nor was seeing the physically most vulnerable people being forced to sleep with their heads next to the toilet in an overcrowded cell. McGill remembered how inmates were talked at, not spoken to; and how the explicit use of her last name made her fail to feel like a human being, let alone like a child.

The United States leads the industrialized world in the number and percentage of children it locks up in juvenile detention facilities, according to Human Rights Watch.

In California, 71,923 juveniles were arrested in 2015 according to a report from the California Department of Justice. Slightly more than 58,000 were referred to probation, about 13,000 were counseled and released, and approximately 1,000 youth were turned over to another agency.

Meanwhile, improvements have been made. Lawmakers unveiled a list of bills in March 2017 in an attempt to divert youth from a school-to-prison pipeline and keep them out of the juvenile justice system.

“We have made really big progress, we just have to do a lot more,” said Dr. Bo Kyung (Elizabeth) Kim, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “We still incarcerate the most vulnerable population in this country. ... More than any other country in the world.”

Confinement conditions

Among her bad memories were the powerlessness: “As a young person you’re in cells usually with no bathrooms. So, you’re pounding on the door or a plexiglass window ... in the door, to try to get someone’s attention so you could pee. [You are] especially desperate in the middle of the night when you’re locked in, and having people either know that you’re pounding and ignore you, or pretend not to hear you, and having to pee into a towel or into a corner or hold it all night. That was particularly horrible.”

But the boredom was the worst.

Being in a place where pencils, pens, books and paper are all considered contraband, she said, inmates could spend hours, days and sometimes months without the ability to read or write, let alone do anything else to stimulate your mind.

“Once I had a nickel on me that wasn't caught during the search and I wrote with it into an entire cell wall,” she remarked. Although there would be dayroom time, it was rarely programmed to help you grow.

Contemplating whether she had found solace in anything or anyone during her most vulnerable moments, she said, “[I] can't think of any positive thoughts that got me through anytime.”

Young people who go into the system are particularly vulnerable, McGill said.

“Because of your age or because of your lack of experience, you’re introduced to people who have been much more involved in the streets,” she said. “So, prisons, jails [and] juvenile halls are also breeding grounds for violence.”

McGill pauses for a moment before saying strip searches were obviously another distinct memory. She would have to “strip down naked in front of total strangers, not only the people that you’re locked up with but the guards. In [the] case of the youth system, it’s probation officers. In [the] case of the adult system, it’s usually sheriffs, sometimes police officers.”

The stench of the facilities is another feature she vividly recalls as being unbearable. “I think that anyone who’s been locked up can smell … exactly how it smelled when we were there,” she said. “And you can differentiate between the facilities you’ve been based on the smells they had.

“Sounds at night are also something that never leaves you,” McGill said, “whether it’s the pounding of doors, crying, screaming, people mumbling to themselves, people rhyming … yelling, arguing with each other.”

But even so, McGill said she was better off than many other people who have been in solitary confinement and were sentenced to life in prison.

Racial profiling

One of the most impactful things for her development was growing up in communities of color, she said.

“I think I had the benefit of seeing the obvious issues in the system from a very young age … When you’re white [like me], and you’re going through it, it’s really obvious to you that you’re getting preferential treatment.”

On the streets, McGill was treated as a victim while her friends were viewed as criminals. She recalled being taken aside by police twice and asked if she had been kidnapped. She was constantly queried about why she was in specific areas, if she knew they were dangerous and if she wanted a ride home.

A 2017 report from Human Impact Partners found that in 2015, 88 percent of juveniles in California who were tried as adults were youth of color.

The record also cited evidence of “rampant racial inequities … in the way youth of color are disciplined in school, policed and arrested, detained, sentenced, and incarcerated.”

Crissel Rodriguez, the Southern California regional coordinator at the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, agreed.

“We see that the zero tolerance policy has actually really affected communities of color,” Rodriguez said.

Kim said youth of color are much more likely to be in touch with police negatively at every single point of contact in the system, and they are more likely to be taken further into the system than out of it.

“The justification for that for the judges themselves, is that ... it’s dangerous, so we are going to detain them,” Kim said. “It’s a way to protect them. But under the purview of protecting them, they’ve further introduced them to a system that brings them back over and over again.”

Detention dispute

In 2012 Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 9, which supported judges reconsidering the sentences of juveniles punished to life in prison. After that, most of the state’s juvenile life-sentenced prisoners are being resentenced, according to The Sentencing Project.

Brown signed SB 394 in October, legislation that now outlaws the state from sentencing youth offenders to life in prison without possibility for parole.

Today McGill, 36, leads the Youth Justice Coalition, an organization that challenges the U.S. “addiction” to incarceration and race, gender and class discrimination in the juvenile “injustice” systems. To her, and most people in the coalition, this crusade is personal.

“The greatest feeling that myself, and I think other people, have got has come through our organizing and fighting back to change the system,” she said. “It’s healed us more than any other single thing has.”


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Are Youth of Color Benefiting From Juvenile Justice Reform?

Within the scope of juvenile justice literature, studies highlight the need for both immediate and long-term reform measures. This is clearly pertinent given the existence of racial disparity in terms of treatment and confinement among youth in the United States. In fact, federal and state-level funding has been provided to address this dilemma during the past 10 to 15 years.

There are a variety of programs and policies that facilitate juvenile justice reform efforts. For instance, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has instituted a number of effective measures designed to reduce the use of detention among youth. One example is the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, which has demonstrated promising results in a number of states.

Congress is currently reviewing the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2017, which passed the House in May and was sent to the Senate. Certain components of this act will address either directly or indirectly the need for and evaluation of juvenile justice reform measures.

North Carolina finally increased the age at which a juvenile may be certified as an adult. Despite this needed change, implementation of this law may not take effect until 2019. After reviewing the 2016 Juvenile Justice Report as provided by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, I noticed the following reform findings:

Between 2010-16, there was a 56 percent decrease in youth sent to detention centers and 48 percent reduction of youth sent to development centers. A 28 percent reduction in school-based complaints and a 37 percent reduction in gang affiliation among youth were also identified.  

The report said that compared to their counterparts, youth of color are more than 2.5 times more likely to have complaints filed against them and 1.5 times more likely to experience secure detention.

To this end, racial disparity levels (or the ratio of blacks to whites in terms of treatment in the juvenile justice system) have either remained the same or in some cases actually increased. This begs the question: Are juvenile justice reform measures exclusively beneficial for youth who are not considered “youth of color”? If so, this is equivalent to the “whites only” segregation-based ideology of the Jim Crow era.

Ultimately, let’s not assume that progress in relation to juvenile justice reform efforts is applied in an equitable manner. Just as there is a racially disproportionate number of youth confined in the juvenile justice system, there is also a similar relationship with regard to those who avoid such treatment. From this standpoint, the abstract and practical concepts of juvenile justice reform must be re-examined.   

Patrick Webb, Ph.D., is associate professor of criminal justice at St. Augustine’s University. He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, editorials and books including “Incapacitating the Innocent: An Examination of Legal and Extralegal Factors associated with the Preadjudicatory Detention of Juveniles.”