Most of us know at least a few young teens -- 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds. A son or daughter. A niece or nephew. A neighbor or a friend’s grandchild. We see them around, waiting for the school bus, surfing the sidewalk on a skate board, hanging out at the mall. Despite what they insist, teens are only on the cusp of adulthood, and most of us will do whatever we can to help them make it in the world.
Until, that is, one of those youths gets arrested. Then all that good will disappears. At least that’s the case in over half the states that have yet to change their laws prosecuting young teenagers (under the age of 18) as adults and, if convicted, sending them to adult correctional facilities. Suddenly that young person becomes an exile to all the protections and decencies that communities work hard to provide their children, and she or he enters a world that is blind to the needs and vulnerabilities of every developing adolescent. (This disenfranchisement is made starkly clear by the fact that in some states the parents of those teens are not notified when their children are arrested.) There is nothing nice about a kid in an adult prison or jail—nothing any of us would wish on the young teens that we know.
There are lots of numbers to tell us why these laws are wrong: about 250,000 juvenile offenders are tried in adult courts annually and nearly 100,000 youths are placed in adult jails and prisons each year. Ninety-five percent of minors tried in adult courts nationwide are non-violent offenders.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]Ninety-five percent of minors tried in adult courts nationwide are non-violent offenders.[/module]Even more shocking, the suicide rate for youth under 18 in adult facilities is eight times that of kids in juvenile settings. According to a report by the Campaign for Youth Justice, inmates under eighteen make up only one percent of the prison population yet are victims in 21 percent of prison rapes. These grim statistics alone should have all caring adults voicing support for the efforts of child advocacy groups working to amend the laws in the remaining states that treat minors as adults in the criminal justice system.
But even if kids serving time in an adult facility somehow manage to keep themselves physically and sexually safe, the world of adult prison will still harm and harden them. While teaching high school students locked up in an adult correctional facility I saw what prison culture does to teenagers. The constant threat of violence and intimidation; the noise, foul smells and unhealthy food; the chaos and overcrowding; the isolation from family and positive role models; the lack of mental health services. All these factors create an environment that can, and does damage the sturdiest of adults. What kind of harm, then, do those conditions have on a young person still developing physically, emotionally, cognitively, psychologically and spiritually?
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]When we lock up minors in adult prisons the inevitable focus of incarceration becomes that of survival and of bitter resentment and retaliation for mistreatment by the criminal justice system.[/module]But shouldn’t these kids be held responsible for breaking the law? Yes. That is exactly why those who support changing these laws want to keep younger teens in the juvenile justice system. The adult prison system, the way it is now structured, is more about retribution than rehabilitation. The juvenile system, on the other hand, is designed to help children change behavior and provides them with vital services such as school and substance abuse treatment which support that change. When we lock up minors in adult prisons the inevitable focus of incarceration becomes that of survival and of bitter resentment and retaliation for mistreatment by the criminal justice system. The research supports that conclusion. Kids handled in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend and their behavior to more quickly escalate into violence than those young people who remain in the juvenile system.
Think of all the teenagers you know or see around you. What wouldn’t you do to help them, to point them in the right direction, to shield them from harm? Think of all the benefits we heap on our children, the advantages we say they all should, must have. Why does all that disappear when a kid makes a mistake and gets arrested? Why suddenly are they any less deserving of our personal and national compassion? The least any of us can do is to support those advocacy groups working for juvenile justice reform and to urge legislators to support laws that save young offenders from growing up in adult prisons.
David Chura is the author of “I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup” which received a 2010 PASS Award from the National Council on Crime & Delinquency. He has worked with at-risk teenagers for the past 40 years. For 26 of those years, he taught English and creative writing in community based alternative schools and in a county penitentiary. His writings have appeared in the New York Times as well as other scholarly and literary journals. Visit his website at www.kidsinthesystem.wordpress.com
The panel, sponsored by Boston College, was titled “Youth in Prison: The Reality of the System.” I was there to share my experiences as a teacher who worked with teenagers, some as young as fifteen, serving time in an adult county jail. I was scheduled to speak after T.J.Parsell who, when he was seventeen, served several years in an adult prison and was raped by inmates a number of times. He survived that horrific time and now as an adult shares his experiences to advocate for changes in the way the criminal justice system treats minors.
As T.J. recounted the sexual assaults he lived through I kept wondering what I could add. His experiences were so shocking, so deplorable that I wondered what more could be said.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]Yet all teenagers in adult prison live with an endless series of violations on a daily basis, violations that I could only think to describe as “everyday rapes.”[/module]However, as I listened, I realized there was a lot I could add. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, inmates under eighteen make up only one percent of the prison population yet are victims in 21 percent of prison rapes. Although those statistics are high, not all young offenders are subjected to the sexual abuse that T.J. went through and that many other kids continue to endure. Yet all teenagers in adult prison live with an endless series of violations on a daily basis, violations that I could only think to describe as “everyday rapes.” I saw that my contribution to the panel was to be a witness to those everyday degradations, assaults and violations that I learned about over the ten years that I taught in prison.
There was the everyday rape of random body searches—on the block, coming back from court, before seeing family on a visit. As Marcus, a seventeen-year-old who never shied away from speaking his mind, put it, “Being searched by police makes you feel dirty. They make you strip down, bend over, and…you know. They call it cavity search. I call it rape.”
My students lived with the everyday violation of never having any privacy when they showered, used the toilet, “went to New York” (one of their many jailhouse slang phrases for masturbating). All teenagers, whoever and wherever they are, work hard to hide their vulnerabilities especially when it comes to their bodies. In prison those vulnerabilities are even more pronounced and covered up by tough guy bravado because these boys know that their bodies—along with so much more—are no longer their own. As they put it, they were “state’s property.”
There was the everyday abuse of having their cells sacked by the emergency response team (ERT) on one of their random searches. I understood the need for such surprise searches. Even my students did, although they were loath to admit it. But none of us understood why a team of men in SWAT uniforms had to scream at you, throw you out of your bed, flip your mattress onto the floor, toss around the few clothes you had, then dump in a trash barrel family photos, letters -- even school books that you never saw again -- only to be threatened as the ERT left your cell, “We’ll get you next time.”
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]And...the everyday assault of being thrown into solitary confinement because you finally couldn’t hold in your rage anymore at such arbitrary, senseless humiliation.[/module]And “next time” might mean the everyday assault of being thrown into solitary confinement because you finally couldn’t hold in your rage anymore at such arbitrary, senseless humiliation and started to mouth off the way only angry, hurt teenage boys can. There, in total isolation, was the endless everyday rape of losing contact with humanity until you lost contact with your own humanity and found yourself participating in your own everyday rape—not showering or brushing your teeth for weeks; sleeping twelve, fifteen hours a day; and when you were awake, screaming, shouting, howling just to let the world—and yourself—know that you’re still there (sort of), doing anything to fight off that final everyday rape of extinction, of disappearing.
Even if a kid can hold it all in, follow the rules, keep his head down, there was the everyday indignity of eating food that poisoned a growing body; of living in an overcrowded, noisy and smelly block, with the constant threat of violence, intimidation and extortion; of being forced to pay extortionist prices for food sold in the prison commissary; of not getting decent health care, or any health care at all, because the gold standard was to save the county money.
The “reality of the system” is a brutal one. The Federal government has finally acknowledged that young offenders must be protected from prison sexual violence. The “Youthful Inmate Standard” regulations established by the Prison Rape Elimination Act require all prisons, jails, lock ups, and detention facilities to provide “sight and sound separation between youth and adults while restricting the use of solitary confinement and isolation practices.”
But these regulations are only a first step in solving how young people are treated in the criminal justice system. If we really want to protect them from the full assault of prison culture—the everyday rapes that have devastating effects long into adulthood—then we must get these children out of the penal system altogether, a system that was never intended to handle young offenders, and place them in environments that are designed to rebuild and to create new lives.
It’s an optimistic headline: “Prison Rape: Obama’s Program to Stop It”. It leads into a comprehensive New York Review of Books article on three recently released Federal government publications. Two of these documents examine sexual abuse in the nation’s detention centers while the other outlines the Department of Justice’s regulations for eliminating prison rape. All three aim to address the appalling number of people—young and old, female and male, citizen and those awaiting deportation— who routinely suffer sexual violence while in lockup, an estimated 209,000 plus every year according to the Justice Department.
So where’s the optimism? The guidelines established by the Obama administration are—on paper, at least—good ones. As the reviewers David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow (both staunch advocates for victims of prison sexual assault) note, the new recommendations address pivotal issues: how detention centers are staffed, how those staffs are trained in sexual abuse issues, and how inmates are supervised. Equally important is how offenders are evaluated for their potential as either sexual prey or predator. This provision is crucial in protecting young offenders, especially LGBT youth who are in greater danger of sexual harassment and abuse by peers and adult inmates. Once this information is obtained housing can be assigned based on vulnerability, which in the case of minors means not being housed with adults. There are also new standards on how prisoners can report sexual assault and on how that information is handled and investigated by staff. Kaiser and Stannow write that if these standards are successful—“and we believe they will be”—then the incidences of prison rape will be reduced dramatically.
But I can’t share their optimism. I wish I could. My skepticism stems from the way in which these regulations are to be enforced. Enforcement will be the responsibility of the state departments of corrections and the correctional staff in charge of prisons and jails.
Anyone who has worked in a detention facility knows the power of frontline staff to sabotage whatever standards or procedures are put in place. In my ten years working as a high school teacher in a county prison I’ve watched this culture of obstruction play out as many correctional staff subvert—sometimes blatantly, most times covertly—everything from innovative grant-funded projects designed to reduce recidivism in young offenders to simple routines such as making sure all inmates daily attend their assigned programs, all measures that would provide true “safety and security” for staff as well as inmates and that would further the stated goal of incarceration: rehabilitation.
What’s behind this apparently illogical obstruction? It is the same dynamic that informs so much of what goes on in any detention system; it is certainly the dynamic that is behind all prison sexual violence: the power grab. All lockups whether they be for adults, minors or immigrants awaiting deportation are run on a hierarchy of power: Who’s got it, who wants it and what you’ll do to get it. Within this structure there is the inevitable scramble for power and position in an environment where everyone feels impotent.
People who are locked up live every day of their incarceration with this lack of control (and for so many of them, every day of their lives) and so understandably make the power grab. This is especially true for young offenders who are the most vulnerable in this predatory world. Ironically it is just as pronounced with correctional staff. Over my years in the prison system I’ve often heard officers openly complain that the work they do is just as dangerous, if not more so than other law enforcement officers, yet they feel they are underpaid and not respected as professionals by their peers and society in general. So what better way to “stick it” to the system, to “show” wardens, county executives, the Feds, civilians, and certainly inmates that COs are the ones who make or break things in prison than by subverting regulations, routines, and structures.
The Obama guidelines are strong in addressing the delicate and fraught issue of sexual violence. This is especially true when it comes to the victimization of young people and the sexually vulnerable. Is it wise then to leave their implementation in the hands of the people who are themselves part of the problem both in terms of upholding standards and in terms of actually being sexual assailants themselves? (Reports show that half of all sexual abuse is committed by correctional staff.)
Kaiser and Stannow are confident that enforcement of these regulations “will make American detention facilities better run, more humane, and safer places in general.” It is a hopeful vision. But if we want detention centers that are humane and safe we have to go beyond a fresh set of regulations. We need to make fundamental changes in the prison system: confront the perverted power structure—and struggle—that dominates these institutions and that leads to sexual violence and replace it with a form of justice that truly values rehabilitation and that restores dignity and respect to victim, inmate and correctional staff. Radical steps? Yes. Do we have a choice? The numbers say we don’t—because each incident of prison rape radically changes a person’s life forever.
When most Americans hear the constitutional phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” they can tell you what it means. Hanging. Flogging. Chain gangs.
But high on my list of “cruel and unusual punishment” is sentencing juvenile offenders to solitary confinement.
What else could you call locking up fifteen and sixteen year olds, some even younger, in total isolation for 24 hours a day, in some cases for months at a time, never letting them leave their cells?
“All an inmate’s needs are met right here,” was the way the warden of the county penitentiary in New York state where I taught high school proudly described it as he gave a group of professionals a tour of the new Special Housing Unit (SHU). Each cell had its own phone, shower, toilet, concrete bed, and adjacent small-enclosed recreation area. Yes, all the needs were there except for the most essential: human contact.
These conditions, which are replicated nationally in our jails, are intolerable. The United Nations Human Rights Council reported that the United States has more inmates in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation.
Locking up a kid in those conditions, a kid with more energy than a playground can hold, whose body vibrates with urges that many more advantaged teens struggle to control and whose emotional and intellectual development is at best undernourished, can only be called “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Human Rights Watch agrees. Its recently released report-- “Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life Without Parole in the United States”-- documents the overuse of juvenile solitary confinement and its devastating impact, often heightened, by the prospect of life without parole. The young people interviewed considered isolation a “profoundly difficult ordeal,” leaving them with “thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness or depression.”
But it’s not just “lifers” in solitary who experience this “profound difficult ordeal.” I saw it when I visited my jailhouse students who were locked up in “the cage,” as they called it. They were there because prison officials deemed them a threat to “safety and security.” In too many cases, however, that “threat” came from their acting-out behaviors due to untreated mental health issues or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Still others were seen as “pains in the ass” who “just needed to be taught a lesson.”
It didn’t take long for the new SHU to fall apart, the way everything does in jail. Walls were soon scuffed and gouged from inmates being dragged in; cell door windows were smeared as guys jammed and angled their faces to see anything, anyone. The only thing shattering that intense sensory deprivation was the sound of inmates shouting to each other, howling through the thick walls, trying to connect with another human, announcing to the world, “I’m still alive.” And when they weren’t screaming, they were sleeping—15 to 16 hours a day.
My students deteriorated as well. In solitary, they abandoned any sense of civilized behavior. Young guys once clean-shaven and showered, smelling of Old Spice deodorant now reeked of unwashed bodies; their hair was dirty and matted, faces fuzzed; their eyes caked and puffy from sleep. I would bang on the window until they awoke and lifted their heads from under the pillows and blankets they burrowed under against the cold. They’d shuffle over to the door and we’d squat on our own side of the concrete and glass wall and talk through the meal tray slot. It was then that I’d be hit by the smell of their sour, foul breath as though they were slowly decaying from the inside out.
Finally in 2009 the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated these abuses. The DOJ reported that half of the inmates in the SHU were between 16 and 18, and the average stay in isolation was 365 days. As a result of these “extremely lengthy sentences,” their mental health worsened significantly, aggravated “by the jail’s failure” to provide routine treatment. Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated case. Abuses of minors in solitary are happening around the country.
The irony of their predicament was not lost on my students. We lock children up in inhumane conditions in order to teach them how to act humane. Unfortunately, as studies have shown, inmates learn a much different lesson. When they leave isolation they are angrier, more distrustful, more cynical about our justice system, and more prone to violence.
What could be a more “cruel and unusual punishment” then to confirm to these young people their bedrock belief that America, as it now is, has no place for them other than behind bars?
David Chura, author of I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, has worked with at-risk teenagers for 40 years.
It was a comment I’ve heard in one form or another at book events, at juvenile justice talks I’ve given, or in response to pieces I’d written about our national policy of retribution towards troubled kids. I have to admit, though, this guy was a bit more, shall I say, challenging, as he stood up after my reading and made his comment.
I’d read several advice articles for authors on giving readings suggesting you have “pat answers” ready for the Q & A. It keeps things moving. It may be good advice, but I’ve found it doesn’t work for me. Juvenile justice is too potent a topic be “pat answered” away. Besides, I wrote I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup about the young offenders I taught for 10 years in the adult county prison to get people thinking about this much-neglected issue. So I do my best to address each concern sincerely.
Fielding the man’s rather angry question, I talked about my belief that kids should indeed be held accountable for their actions; that they should learn that what they did affected not only their victims and their families and communities but also the young offenders themselves and their families and communities. What I couldn’t support was the punitive quality of that accountability as it is now practiced in our prison system.
I could tell that evening’s questioner was pretty disgusted. I was one more bleeding heart, one more knee jerk liberal, one more sucker taken in by “those kids.” He was gracious about it. He didn’t say any of that out loud. He didn’t have to. I’d heard it all before.
But his comment stayed with me long after the event: What did I feel about the victims?
I talk a lot about victims in my book. But the victims in this case are the locked up high school students I worked with for those 10 years. In telling their stories — stories of childhood neglect and abandonment; of sexual abuse; of violence in the home and on the streets; of parental addiction and disease — I wanted readers to at least be aware of the fertile ground of mistreatment in which these children grew up. From my challenger’s point of view I’m sure I do go on too much about “those kids” and not about the people who suffered because of their crimes. (It’s important to note, however, that many of the teens I came across in jail — and this holds true for prisons nationally — were serving time for victimless, nonviolent offences.) I was beginning to wonder if maybe the guy was right. Maybe I didn’t care about crime victims?
Like all good questions, this one stayed with me well afterwards. Yet despite the doubts he raised for me I knew that I did care deeply about the people hurt by crime; that, in an odd twist on the title of my book, “I don’t wish nobody” to have their lives damaged by the irresponsible acts of others, young or old. I turned the question over and over until finally I understood more clearly where I stood: the only way to protect society from youthful offenders and to prevent more crime was to protect the offenders themselves.
Study after study has shown that the harsh treatment of young people locked up in our nation’s jails has not only failed to reduce recidivism but has also created angrier, more bitter, more violent juvenile offenders. Lock a 14- or 15- year-old up in an adult prison with its toxic environment of noise and dirt; of abuse, intimidation and paranoia; of violence and aggression, and that kid will not leave jail with a heightened sense of responsibility towards society, ready to re-examine and change his or her behavior.
I know that my reasoning wouldn’t convince those who feel that any punishment for criminal actions is not harsh enough to give victims the justice they seek. But the more I think about it the more convinced I am of the wisdom — and commonsense, which wisdom often is — behind it: if we truly care about victims, if we want to shield people from the hurt of crime we must look at and change the way we bring juvenile offenders — all offenders, really — to true justice.
During my tenure as a jailhouse teacher and while I was writing my book, I always thought of the kids I taught as children of disappointment, children let down time and time again by the world of adults — parents, teachers, clergy, neighbors. Prison breeds disappointment, and as I did my own 10-year jail bid I watched many of my students come in as children of disappointment and leave young adults of disappointment.
That’s a transformation no one truly wants and protects no one.
Like most teachers I’ve gotten some praise from my high school students over my 26 years of teaching—a lesson “wasn’t bad,” or a particular class was “sorta interesting.” I’ve even been told that I was a “pretty good teacher.” High praise coming from teenagers.
But the truth is I wasn’t a “good teacher.” I was a “failure,” at least according to America’s “education reformers”—that “odd coalition of corporate-friendly Democrats, right-wing Republicans, Tea Party governors, Wall Street executives, and major foundations” as Diane Ravitch aptly defines them—because the kids I taught consistently lagged behind their peers in every measure, performing well below grade level, failing state standardized tests.
Given the present state of teacher evaluations, with a significant portion allotted to student performance on mandated tests, I’d be in big trouble if I hadn’t left teaching recently. I certainly wouldn’t get any bonus pay. If it were up to the Obama Administration I might not even have a job since I would be one of those teachers who, as the President noted in his 2012 State of the Union address, “just aren’t helping kids.” And if I still taught in New York I’d be facing the prospect of having my name and ratings published in newspapers and on the internet if the Legislature gets its way in what the New York State Union of Teachers called the “name/shame/blame game.”
But I know that I wasn’t a “failure,” and more importantly, that the hundreds of kids I’ve taught weren’t either. My students were mostly young people of color, living in neighborhoods and families destroyed by poverty and substance abuse, racism and violence, physical and sexual abuse. Overall, life—shaped by their own mistakes and by conditions they couldn’t control—left them little time for, or interest in education. Frequently that lack of time and interest led to trouble which led to repeated suspensions, expulsions and in some cases, incarceration. But sometimes trouble translated into being placed in a small community alternative high school or the jailhouse classroom in the county penitentiary, both places I taught in.
By the time they made it to me, my students were pretty damaged. They hated school. They could barely read or do basic math. And forget about writing. “You expect me to write?” more than one teen squawked in horror at me. But eventually they did. They read, piling up grade levels like some Americans pile up debt. They calculated. They even learned the magic of connecting sentences that made sense.
But by the state’s educational rubric, they didn’t cut it. As noteworthy as their successes were—both academically and behaviorally—they were still “failures” and I along with them: success was only validated by passing the standardized tests.
One of the hardest things I had to do was send kids into those tests who weren’t ready. I tried hard beforehand to get them out of it. I’d explain, downright argue at times, with the school administration that although my students had made solid progress it wasn’t enough to tackle the exam and so they should wait and take it next time. It never worked. “It’s the law,” I was told.
Every time I think about Tyler my palms sweat. He was a jailhouse student, lanky, 16, with an Afro picked out to an angel’s halo. But he was no angel, and he had the missing front teeth and two years at the county pen to prove it. When he first came to class he was reading on a second grade level. For some reason he was determined to improve this time round in school. He came every day, took work to his cell every night and returned it completed every morning. Slowly his reading level increased. He was pleased with himself. You could see it in the almost toothless smile he didn’t bother to hide anymore.
But he wasn’t close to test-ready. When I petitioned to delay Tyler’s exam the administrator refused but offered me her idea of comfort, “Look, it’s okay if he fails. Then he’ll be eligible for remediation.” I couldn’t help shooting back, “Sure, send the kid in so he can get shot down one more time.” I prepared Tyler for that test as best as I could. He worked harder than ever. He was psyched. “I’m gonna ace it, Mr. C.”
You know the end of the story. It’s the same for many damaged kids living in poverty and neglect, factors that the pundits say can be overcome by good, dedicated teachers. Once again Tyler “failed.” He never came back to class for remediation.
If Tyler and kids like him are “failures” then I—and all the other teachers who teach in tough places—are too. But I don’t think we should take the rap alone. As long as our educational policies let down students like Tyler in the name of “reform” and “the law,” continuing the “name/shame/blame game” instead of addressing the social conditions that cripple these kids’ lives and learning, then we as a country are failures as well, in need of some serious remediation.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Beacon Broadside.
Arizona’s Legislature recently passed a law charging prison visitors a onetime $25 fee as a way to help close the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit. Middle Ground Prison Reform, a prison advocacy group, challenged the law in court as a discriminatory tax, but a county judge upheld its constitutionality.
Fees like that, slapped on prisoners and their families, couldn’t be more counterintuitive. But then again, so many of our criminal justice policies are just that. Since it is mostly the poor, the desperately poor who fill U.S. prisons, the $25 fee is one more economic hardship offenders’ families have to struggle with. It becomes another bill they have to scramble to pay -- that is if they can.
These kinds of charges (and Arizona isn’t the only jurisdiction trying to shift the cost of incarceration to the poor) have even graver consequences. When a family can’t pay the fee, their contact with their loved one is limited, essentially cutting an offender off from the only supports he or she has in the outside world.
Psychologists have long known how central it is for an individual to have nurturing people in his or her life in order to develop emotionally, psychologically and socially. This need for a supportive network is even more essential when we talk about the young people who are locked away from family and loved ones in our nation’s prisons and detention centers.
As anyone who has worked with kids in the penal system knows on a gut level, it is crucial to have families and other supportive community members involved in young offenders’ lives as they serve their time. Now, that commonsense intuition has been given empirical strength by studies done by such juvenile justice groups as the Vera Institute of Justice which have demonstrated that maintaining young people’s connection to families is a major factor in helping kids stay out of jail once they are released.
But it’s easy to question whether these families are really such a positive influence. After all, if they were doing such a great job what are their kids doing in jail?
It’s an easy assumption to make until you see some of those family members in the prison visiting room with their sons and daughters. I got to do that at least twice a year when the jailhouse high school where I taught for 10 years in a county adult facility had its open house for families and caregivers.
The place was packed with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, or the people who stepped into those roles when circumstances -- AIDS, death, addiction, incarceration, abandonment, all the things that ravage the lives of the poor and disenfranchised -- demanded it. It wasn’t easy for many of them to get there. Meals had to be missed. Second jobs skipped. Long cross-county bus rides with tickets to pay for, transfers to be negotiated, at night, often in bad weather.
The grandmother of one of my students, Leon, a skinny 15-year-old who was finally making progress in class, had to travel over an hour on three busses to get there. It was a trip I knew she faithfully made twice a week to see her grandson. “I wouldn’t miss a visit with my boy for anything,” she told me, reaching over and giving Leon’s nappy hair a playful tug. “But now you tell, Mr. Chura, how’s he doin in class?” That set Leon squirming.
It was a conversation I had over and over during those family visits. Miguel’s uncle who gave me his phone number and urged me to call him if Miguel wasn’t in school. Luis’ mother, frail and in a wheelchair, holding her son’s hand, telling me how when Luis got out of jail she was moving her whole family out of state to get away from the gangs that ran wild in the streets. “I just want my boys to be safe,” she said, her English halting but her fear and determination palpable.
It was hard to hear in the visiting room sometimes with people chattering in several different languages, children running around, little brothers squealing when their big brother in his funny orange jump suit picked them up, mothers crying, locked-up sons trying to explain, promise, console. It was hard to hear but it was easy to know what was going on: Families -- fragile, fragmented, strained, mending -- were desperately trying to stay a family.
Many of those visitors would be willing to admit that they hadn’t done such a good job at maintaining the family bond, but that they did the best they could given the problems they had to face. Like Luis’ mother the determination was there but the resources weren’t.
If we as a nation are serious about reducing crime (and not just by increased incarceration) it is important that we not put more obstacles in the way of young inmates’ families but rather that we give them the opportunities and resources to develop and sustain those crucial connections. It’s an investment that’s worth losing 25 bucks over.
I did just that for the 10 years I taught high school students, some as young as 15, in an adult county jail, and every year it got tougher to deny the impact being locked up for the holidays had on these teens.
Jail’s a pretty isolating place. That’s one of the ideas. But in lockup they watched a lot of TV — that great purveyor of culture — and so despite all that concrete and steel and lack of freedom the holidays still seeped in. Christmas carols. Happy families. Cozy couples in front of the fire. Children happier than any of my students had ever been. Promises of peace and joy. And of course, the must-have merchandise. The holiday message blared out day and night on the blocks. Even the din of 40 teenage boys in an overcrowded dorm shouting, rapping, arguing, cursing; of correctional staff barking out orders; of the PA system announcing clinic, lockdown, lights out couldn’t compete with it. Christmas just wouldn’t leave you alone.
So day by day I watched as the holiday spirit got to these young guys. Of course they would never say out loud that it was hard being locked up for Christmas. After all they were tough and had been around more than the block. But like many troubled teens they had their own language of grief. As the weeks of cheery ads piled up, as the carols grew louder, and the TV images of happiness became more insistent, life in lockup became more tense and violent. Food trays got thrown. Noses broken. Food extorted. Threats made and followed through. Codes were called and the emergency response team, sinister black-clad, helmeted Santas, ran down the halls to haul off kid after kid to long days of 23-hour isolation in disciplinary lockdown.
“Home for the holidays” held no magic for my jailhouse students. For most of them there wasn’t much out there. Many had long been abandoned or thrown out by whatever remnant of family they had left. Like Ray who was taken from his mother at five. “She was really messed up on drugs, and my pops was doin’ his first long bid up in Attica,” he explained to me with a fierce family loyalty I couldn’t quite understand. But he didn’t defend his Aunt Sally. She took him out of foster care when he was a little older (“She needed the money”) and locked him up at night with a bucket to pee in. Then one year just a few days before Christmas, she kicked him out into the streets. But she didn’t dump him completely. She kept getting and cashing his SSI checks. I taught a lot of Rays over my 10 holidays in the county lockup.
My first Christmas in jail I brought all my students small gifts, mostly car, sports or music magazines, colored pencils, favorite candy bars, just something they could open Christmas morning. I managed to do it somehow; I wasn’t aware that I had broken procedure. But I heard about it soon enough from the warden who gave me a thorough dressing down for “bringing in contraband.” Luckily I kept the job, but more importantly I’ve kept the construction paper “Thank you” card the guys contrived to make and sign for me. After that, Christmases became even more bleak and barren.
While I was writing my book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, my working title was Children of Disappointment. The more I got to know these young throw-aways, the more I heard their stories of struggle from an early age, the more I realized how all the adults in their young lives had dismally failed them — families, schools, churches, communities, the child welfare system, the very nation that claimed children as a cherished and protected resource. This time round I was the slow learner. My students, still so much the children they had always been, had gotten the lesson years ago and had been living with these disappointments most of their lives. It took me awhile but I finally understood.
Nevertheless it is still the season of hope and light, of rebirth and possibilities. I’d like to think that we as communities and a country can do what must be done so that the lives of other at-risk children are shaped not by the cold, recurring reality of poverty, neglect and disappointment but by the compassion and good will we all hope to feel at this time of year.
This piece originally appeared on Beacon Broadside
That image came to me recently as I walked into the lobby of the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass. 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 percent in the past three decades. (The male population grew 416 percent 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.