WASHINGTON — You’re 16, homeless and sleeping on a park bench when police grab you at 3 in the morning. Vagrancy, trespassing or a host of minor offenses send you tumbling into the juvenile justice system.
Or you’re 16, do something stupid with marijuana, get caught trespassing, missing curfews or skipping school. You have a home but no true family support system, and suddenly, with a criminal record, nobody’s hiring, school expelled you and your family tossed you out of the house. You too wind up homeless.
The connection between youth homelessness and the juvenile system is the subject of a sweeping new study by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and several of its partners. The report makes recommendations for policymakers, law enforcement and youth advocates and provides broad insights into a problem that has plagued juveniles for decades.
“Each year, nearly 380,000 minors experience ‘unaccompanied’ homelessness — meaning they are homeless and without a parent or guardian — for a period of longer than one week,” the report said. “These young people, much like their adult counterparts, are often cited, arrested, charged, and/or incarcerated instead of being provided with the supports they need. One million youth are also involved with law enforcement or the juvenile justice system each year, an experience that can increase their likelihood of becoming homeless.”
“It’s an aspirational document because we realize different communities are at different places, so the goal was to create something broad enough and offer enough solutions so people can pick out what works for them,” said Naomi Smoot, executive director of the Coalition. “It can be very frustrating to communities if you outline a host of problems, but don’t provide resources and ideas. The whole second half of the document was about providing those ideas.”
The study, “Addressing the Intersections of Juvenile Justice Involvement and Youth Homelessness: Principles for Change,” points to a form of double punishment many youth experience.
First they are abused, neglected or mistreated at home. The stress of living in such conditions or already being on the street most of the time create tensions and fear. The teen lashes out at a classmate, a fight ensues and assault charges funnel the youth into the juvenile justice system.
Homeless boys and girls often trade sex for shelter, or money to get shelter, and are charged with prostitution, even though in most states they would be classified as sexual abuse victims.
Authors of the study examined how more innocuous situations also lead to the justice system: A teen with a troubled home life stays with a friend’s family, but it’s a long way from his local school. Soon, truancy charges are filed, and another trip to the court system begins.
Citing a 2016 study by the Administration on Children, Youth and Families that interviewed 656 homeless youth, the report noted that 44 percent had been in a juvenile detention center, jail or prison. Nearly 62 percent had been arrested at some point, and more than half had been kicked out of their homes by the families.
To combat this, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice lists 10 Principles, recommendations and guidelines for those dealing with homeless youth who wind up in the justice system.
“Ensure that the laws and policies in your jurisdiction do not lead youth experiencing homelessness to be cited, arrested, or charged for survival acts or ‘quality of life’ offenses,” the first principle states.
Other recommendations include having courts and law enforcement set up diversion and treatment programs that will help avoid a criminal record while providing needed services. It also recommends that communities strengthen family-related services, and have long- and short-term housing available for youth who wind up on the street.
Smoot said the report is part of a broader project called “Collaboration for Change” that includes CJJ and many other partners. The study itself was a collaboration: Lead author Lisa Pilnik, director of Child & Family Policy Associates, received input from more than two dozen experts and partner organizations while writing the study.
The study makes special mention of the challenges facing LGBT youth, who it says are disproportionately likely to become homeless and to enter the justice system. Many LGBT youth are kicked out of their homes by family members. The study cites estimates that about 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBT.
“Provide and require meaningful gender and cultural responsiveness staff training that increases knowledge and skills, with a particular focus on LGBTQ youth, youth of color, youth with disabilities, and the reasons they are more at risk for homelessness and justice involvement,” the study recommends.
The report’s authors also warned against any efforts to make LGBT youth change their sexual orientation.
“Ensure that no young person will be subjected to or referred to programs that attempt to alter their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e., ‘conversion’ therapy).”
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NEW YORK — Wearing a New York Mets hat and a denim jacket, Cheryl Wilkins was the perfect hostess. Cracking jokes, she made sure guests — particularly young people — attending a block party in front of the state’s former Bayview Correctional Facility felt welcomed. Wilkins, who was released in 2005 after spending nearly two years incarcerated in the facility, knows what it’s like to be young and not know where to turn.
“I have a brother who died of an overdose when I was 9 years old,” Wilkins said. “I wish I would have had a place where I could unpack some of the things that were happening in my life.”
Now Wilkins is helping to create such a place for future generations.
Last year, the state of New York awarded the NoVo Foundation and the Goren Group rights to develop the facility, which was closed in 2012 after sustaining damage during Superstorm Sandy. NoVo’s goal is to transform the facility, renamed the Women’s Building, into a hub of office and meeting space for organizations working on behalf of girls and women.
On Sunday, a block party was held in front of the Women’s Building, located in the swanky Chelsea neighborhood, to get neighbors’ ideas on the project.
“Today is a chance for us to introduce the project to our neighbors and to get their ideas about the future of this space,” said Joe Voeller, a spokesman for NoVo Foundation.
NoVo isn’t just seeking input from neighbors. Since last year, the foundation has been meeting with women, like Wilkins, who were formerly incarcerated at the facility. No one knows the building better than those who were imprisoned there, she said.
“They can walk through the building a thousand times, but when they walk through it with somebody that had to live here, that was incarcerated here, it’s a different vibe,” Wilkins said, adding that an advisory committee comprised of formerly incarcerated women regularly meets with NoVo Foundation representatives to plan for the building’s future.
Sharon Richardson, 56, the owner of Just Soul Catering, said she’s thrilled to be part of the advisory committee. “They’ve been doing focus groups with me and other formerly incarcerated women, and we actually brainstorm what would we’d like to see,” she said.
Convicted of murdering her abuser, Richardson spent the last year of a 20-year sentence at the facility. She was released in 2010. She used to watch ships coming in from the window of her fifth-floor cell.
“Now they ask me what would I like to see the fifth floor look like, and it’s so powerful to be a part of that,” she said.
Deborah Berke Partners has been selected as the designer and architect for the transformation, which is scheduled to begin in 2017 and be completed by 2020.
“It will transform a space that’s been all about pain and confinement into a space that will stand for liberation and justice and equality for all girls and all women,” Voeller said, adding that leaders who work with women and children have long sought a common space in the city.
One of Richardson’s goals is to work with formerly incarcerated women to train judges, correction officers and parole officers.
“You see them going into prisons, acting in ways that are not professional — they’re hurting too, we need to sit with them, talk with them and hear each other,” she said. There must be healing in order to fix a broken system, she said.
Wilkins said she plans to stay involved with the NoVo Foundation and the Women’s Building in order to help young women avoid incarceration altogether and to help them learn from those who have been through the system.
“It took women who were incarcerated here to tell those stories,” she said. “We want to do exactly the opposite of what this building represented for so many years.”
“Our memories and the lives of the women that spent time in Bayview — we’re in the walls, we’re in the floors, we’re in the light fixtures,” Richardson said. “It’s a whole metamorphosis. I can’t wait for the day they cut that ribbon.”
Who are we and what do we stand for in criminal and juvenile justice reform? Against the backdrop of a contentious election season and robust conversations about justice reforms that have included proposals to build private prisons, the Children’s Defense Fund-California (CDF-CA) is taking a pause to revisit and rearticulate the values that guide our work as youth justice advocates.
What are the values that guide us in creating better alternatives to broken justice systems for youth? What should a continuum of responses look like for children in conflict with the law, from those who miss too many school days to those who commit more serious offenses?
First and foremost, we know what has not worked and what we don’t stand for — mass incarceration. Locking people up in droves has never been shown to actually increase public safety, but has been correlated with higher rates of recidivism and trauma.
For more resources related to evidence-based practices, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Evidence-Based Practices | Resources
Incarceration must always be a last resort, not a first impulse; it must always be for the shortest duration possible. Yet only in recent years have we begun to reverse some three decades of mass prison construction and mass incarceration.
In the early 1980s, California had 12 adult prisons. By 2005, the state had built 22 more and filled them to overcapacity, mostly with people of color, typically for sentences disproportionate to the offense, and too frequently for relatively minor crimes rooted in untreated drug and mental health issues. During that same period, the population in the state’s juvenile prison system, the California Youth Authority, ballooned to more than 10,000 youth by the mid-1990s.
None of the fast construction and growth of the prison population corresponded closely to crime rates — in fact, incarceration rates increased while crime rates decreased. Meanwhile, California built no new universities or colleges during that time.
The investment of billions in incarceration exacted vast human and economic costs. Lawsuits targeting both the adult and youth prison systems exposed rampant abuses, horrid conditions and the inability to meet the needs of people inside — in part due to the sheer size of the populations and overcrowding. The system became financially untenable. Thanks largely to bold advocacy and organizing, incarceration was scaled back. The California Youth Authority, now called the Division of Juvenile Justice, closed eight of 11 facilities. Since 2013, the combined population of the three remaining facilities has remained below 700.
Attempts to right-size the system should continue. As we recognize the mistakes of our past in creating a supersized prison industry, California should be closing half-empty and outdated facilities, and resist any further expansion of private or public prison systems. For youth, arrests are at historic lows, as are populations in detention facilities and prisons. Just in the last year, the California Department of Justice reported a 17.1 percent decline in youth arrests.
For the remaining state and local facilities, CDF-CA will continue to advocate for humane and effective treatment. Our organization has been an active partner with Los Angeles County agencies and stakeholders to renovate facilities, and reorient programs and practices more toward therapeutic interventions and education, and away from punitive approaches like solitary confinement.
All the while, CDF-CA is acutely aware that history has repeated itself over and over again — teaching us that institutions are inherently vulnerable to shifts in political climate, leadership change and overall deterioration of mission. For example, the California Youth Authority was once regarded as an enlightened step forward in juvenile justice. Visitors from around the world toured its facilities to model their own practices after its emphasis on therapeutic intervention and community-based programming. Over time, its facilities steadily declined in their programming and treatment of youth.
We unequivocally believe that mass incarceration should be replaced with mass investments in people and communities. We must continue to downsize a system that has too many entrances and too few viable exits.
We believe in shifting resources away from an overgrown prison and criminal justice economy into neighborhoods most devastated by violence and crime, which are often the same neighborhoods most devastated by policing, surveillance and incarceration.
We believe in strengthening communities through investments in schools, jobs, businesses, community centers, libraries and parks, rather than, and not in addition to, “nicer,” “newer,” “alternative” prisons or detention facilities.
We believe that rather than removing predominantly children of color from their so-called “toxic” families and communities to provide education, arts, therapy and other evidence-based interventions, we should value and provide for them where they live in the first instance. It is simply common sense to invest at the front end of young people’s lives.
This shift in resources is also a shift in paradigm — one that is part and parcel of Black Lives Matter and other racial equity movements that challenge thin veils of fear, distrust and surveillance over young black and brown bodies and systems that condition their nurture, learning and growth on being institutionalized.
In other words, we as a society still do not trust youth, families and communities of color with their own development unless we also monitor them through some state or private institution. But as long as we pour money into a framework that subsists on control and containment, even when it is also meant to be about treatment and care, our investments in communities, regarded with distrust and even fear, will continue to pale in comparison.
As various reform proposals are debated, CDF-CA urges that we learn from history and avoid any expansion of the system, especially its capacity to incarcerate: That is not justice for children.
Patricia Soung is a senior staff attorney and senior policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund-California and directs its efforts around juvenile justice reform. Dominique Nong is a senior policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund-California.
How would you react if suddenly hospitals simply replaced in-person patient visitation with video conferencing? Hospital administrators might justify this decision by saying that hospitals are scary places, so it‘s best to protect family members, especially young people, from being traumatized.
The idea that a bureaucracy could so severely restrict a family’s right to see their loved ones might seem unthinkable. However, for the 2.3 million people who were incarcerated in the United States, 744,600 of whom were in jails as of 2014, it could become a reality.
Moreover, there are approximately 5 million children who have an incarcerated parent, and in-person visitation space is essential for these young people to maintain space for family connections and well-being.
In California, the state’s jails have increasingly moved to adopt video visitation in lieu of in-person visitation. Recent estimates put California’s jail population at approximately 74,000. As such, removing in-person visitation has the potential to affect one of the state’s most vulnerable populations: the children of these incarcerated parents.
Video visitation should not replace more meaningful, in-person contact visits. Prison Policy Initiative’s (PPI) “Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails” explains how video visitation not only removes physical interaction, which is particularly crucial to young children, but the visibility of the service itself is often spotty. The design of the video consoles also do not allow for eye contact, which interferes with human ability to create meaningful social connections.
Additionally, there is often no privacy for those using video consoles, which inhibits the ability to freely express oneself. Video visitation is, in every way, inferior to real human interaction, and even detrimental to family relationships — particularly for children.
Despite these limitations, California’s county jails have moved away from in-person visitation space; newer facilities in particular are opting for video-only visits. PPI notes that video visitation has been adopted by more than 43 states, with many facilities subsequently eliminating in-person space. Moreover, the service is very expensive and puts another burden on families of incarcerated people.
Securing in-person visiting opportunities for families and young people is essential. This year, California state Sen. Holly Mitchell introduced SB 1157 to clarify that jails must continue to make these spaces available for family and youth. SB 1157 recognizes the value of strengthening family and community connections. Mitchell has partnered with a broad coalition including, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Prison Law Office, Project WHAT!, the Women’s Policy Institute and others.
As SB 1157 has been introduced in the legislature, California’s Board of State and Community Corrections, the regulatory body responsible for developing jail regulations, convened a series of committee meetings to discuss facility standards, including the issue of jail visitation space. Yet all 13 committee members whose job was to review standards on visitation space were sheriffs. These members did not want to require in-person visitation space, given the “potential negative impacts of in-person visits, such as exposing children to the inside of a jail …”
How would family members, incarcerated persons, young people, mental health professionals or community representatives respond? Unfortunately, this committee failed to include such individuals, just as many systems leaders and policymakers nationally have adopted video visitation without fully considering the long-term ramifications of their policies or consulting with those most impacted. Youth voices remain marginalized, especially those who have had a parent incarcerated.
Research shows why contact visits matter and how they can help mitigate the collateral consequences of incarceration. Yet systems across California and the country find themselves racing to adopt policies that place an undue burden on young people who struggle with their parent’s incarceration.
By eliminating in-person space, systems are multiplying the isolation and disruption that these youth already experience. When law enforcement and video visitation companies talk about the promise of innovation, we must ask what price high-needs youth and their families will pay.
Brian Goldstein is the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice's director of policy and development.
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Nationwide, more than 5.1 million children have experienced separation from a parent because of incarceration — a situation that can be as difficult as dealing with abuse or domestic violence, said the report, “A Shared Sentence.”
Research shows children may experience increased mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and children of incarcerated mothers, in particular, are more likely to drop out of school.
“Our nation’s overreliance on incarceration has left millions of children poorer, less stable and emotionally cut off from the most important relationship of their young lives,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the foundation, in a news release.
A reduced reliance on mass incarceration would help families, but policymakers and communities also can take shorter-term steps to improve children’s lives, the report said.
The foundation made recommendations in three areas: supporting children directly during and after a parent’s incarceration, connecting parents to employment when they re-enter the community, and building stronger communities that promote family stability and opportunity.
Proposals to help children include:
- Encouraging judges to consider families when making sentencing and prison-assignment decisions,
- Helping caregivers with financial, legal, health, child care and housing assistance when they step in to care for a child,
- Supporting community-based organizations that foster children’s well-being.
Sandra Barnhill, founder and national president of Foreverfamily, an Atlanta nonprofit that works with the children of incarcerated youth, said it is critical not to demonize parents.
“Unless we really acknowledge the important role that parent plays in that family or in the children’s life, we do a disservice to families, parents and even to re-entry,” she said.
The group organizes trips so children can visit their parents in prison, provides after-school programming for children and youth who have incarcerated parents, and offers training and technical assistance to other organizations, including a toolkit for after-school providers that is expected to be released later this year.
Barnhill said out-of-school time leaders who are looking to support children who have an incarcerated parent should be mindful of preserving families’ privacy and avoiding stigmatization. Society is not often kind or understanding about what children are going through, she added.
“We have to raise public awareness. These children cannot continue to be invisible,” she said.
To encourage employment, the recommendations include building better prison education programs, passing ban-the-box legislation and suspending child support orders.
And, to strengthen communities, the report advises building a supply of safe and stable housing.
“Leaders can take action right now to support children from the moment their families come in contact with the criminal justice system,” Scot Spencer, Casey’s associate director of policy and influence, said in a news release.
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A crisis is defined as “a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events is determined.” It is a turning point, a condition of instability or danger that will lead us to a decisive change.
We are at such a turning point right now with mass incarceration, which is the No. 1 public health crisis as the Vera Institute says in its report, “On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” The political climate is poised to make the necessary changes to truly reform our criminal justice system because without these changes we will have a collapse. The catastrophic fallout and collateral consequences have affected each and every one of us who pay taxes.
Studies have proven that incarcerating young offenders actually leads to more criminal behavior and more serious crimes. The harm done to their families and the community is profound. If we don’t create safe, effective solutions now it will get worse.
As the mother of a Georgia inmate, his incarceration has had a profound consequence on the way I have lived for the past four years. Pain from being dragged through the mire of the criminal justice system and fear of the unknown world of incarceration have directly affected how I do business and who I do business with. It has changed the way I vote, and it has changed the way I see the world. It has changed me.
For the returning citizen (ex-con), the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction are those that are NOT part of the civil penalties (i.e. incarceration, fines or probation). They include loss of professional license, ineligibility for public funds and potential loss of voting rights (depending on where you live), among thousands of other consequences that makes coming home and staying home nearly impossible.
Now keep in mind, I don’t have the same losses forced on me as my son will when he returns, but I have collateral consequences nonetheless. My income is less because I had to give up a full-time job so that I can advocate for my son, hence I pay less taxes. Because my income is less, my spending has decreased.
In fact, I have not spent a fraction of what I did pre-prison years, except to support my son. Between phones, commissary, gas to visit, quarters for vending during visits, books, magazines, shoes, shirts, etc., I have spent nearly $50,000. This doesn’t even count legal fees or my time. Money that I can’t get back, and money that I didn’t spend in my community.
On top of the loss of money, I no longer find the need to have a spontaneous meal out on the town. I no longer find the need to buy that pretty bauble, and I no longer have the desire to support things that have no depth or meaning. You see, when you have someone you love in prison, you are basically in prison right along with them, so being frivolous with your time and money becomes painful, especially considering how meagerly they live.
Multiply this by the 2.5 million families who have a loved one in prison and I think the numbers speak for themselves. Families who are torn apart by mass incarceration have an enormous responsibility to forsake things in order to help their loved ones. They also must prepare to support them when they return, because returning citizens are barely able to find work due to the collateral consequences of their conviction. And 90 percent of them will return one day.
Our business leaders and owners need to understand that mass incarceration and the collateral consequences it has on the families hit them directly in their wallet. And more importantly, our lawmakers need to understand that they have collateral consequences as well. With the transparency that social media allows, we can no longer sugarcoat the truth. The prison-industrial complex is a financial burden on all of us, and the taxpayers and family members are the pillars who hold up this very unstable system.
The only way we can properly turn the ship around is by using our political clout. We need to come together as one community and vote according to the needs of ourselves and our loved ones before, during and after incarceration.
We need to vote for people who have compassion for reform, and are willing to address laws that are draconian and destructive to our country. We need to vote for leaders who stand up and speak for us. With almost 7 million people in our country under some form of supervision, jail, prison, probation and parole, we must have another 7 million who love them.
The time for decisive change is now.
Kate Boccia is the founder and CEO of the National Incarceration Association.
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The Baby and Mother Bonding Initiative program (BAMBI) delivers tough love as it helps incarcerated mothers bond with their babies born in prison.
“I stayed sober for a year, and then my husband’s like, ‘Just do it one time, one time.’ And everybody knows it’s not just one time,” said Tiffany, 22, “I prayed to get pregnant or be put in prison, just so I could stop.”
Tiffany now lives in a secure residential facility with her baby, Journey, along with 15 to 20 other women and their babies. “We strive to be the best women we can be,” they chant. “Our new life begins with BAMBI.”
Citing research and data on the negative impacts of solitary confinement on the human mind and spirit, President Obama has banned the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons for juveniles. The hope is that for now, this policy will serve as a model for state correctional systems to adopt as well.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, is also working to prohibit widespread juvenile solitary confinement. Booker teamed with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, to introduce the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act of 2015 to the U.S. Senate. This legislation raises the age of criminal responsibility and restricts the use of juvenile solitary confinement.
Both of these examples and others across the country tell us that the compelling brain science is finally starting to make its way into the formation of policies — and we need to keep it going.
Studies have documented that the effects of solitary confinement on young people are damaging and lasting. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, United Nations and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have suggested or supported prohibition of the practice.
It’s very promising to see counties, states, the federal government and our president use science and data to begin to reform the criminal justice system in our country — one that impacts the lives of more than 2 million individuals and close to 1 million children each year.
Using science to support certain types of policy is a very welcome advance, and one that the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities proposes will move the needle on a wide range of challenges we face. Indeed, there is more brain science available that has broad applicability beyond criminal justice that we believe can be successfully aligned to create better policies that ensure a safer and more positive future for our children, families and adults.
Today we know how both positive and negative experiences can alter brain architecture and change the way we interact and respond to our environments, including how we relate to each other. We also know how chronic, negative experiences at home and in the community in childhood can alter the brain, affecting everything from health and education to employability. There is great possibility for success in aligning our policies with how the brain is shaped and formed to build stronger people, and in turn more sustainable communities.
The Alliance’s Change in Mind Initiative is advancing the science. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Palix Foundation, 15 community-based organizations in the U.S. and Alberta, Canada, the initiative is now studying the integration of brain science research into the nonprofit sector. Each will demonstrate, through their leadership and advocacy power, the role of our sector as influencer to alter systems and change policies.
We believe, if done correctly, science-informed policy will not just help solve some of society’s most vexing challenges, but will over time lower the cost curves in areas such as health to allow us to make deeper investments in prevention, stronger families and better communities that are key to accelerating the economic health of our nation.
Susan Dreyfus is the president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, the nation’s largest network of human-serving organizations. She is the former secretary for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and Wisconsin’s first administrator of the Division of Children and Family Services. She is a member of Leadership 18, a coalition of CEOs from the largest and most respected nonprofit organizations in America, and was appointed to the 12-member National Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities in 2013.
Juan (name changed), convicted of aggravated assault at 21, has been in solitary for five years. He has seen and experienced it all: brutal cell extractions, hunger strikes, flooded pods and endless hours spent screaming at his cell door.
By the time I met him, he'd racked up over 80 misconducts in numerous prisons and earned the enmity of most of the officers forced to deal with him. Hardly your model inmate.
Yet from our very first visit, I was struck by the humility and sadness in his eyes. Somehow, despite his “bad-boy” reputation, I sensed there was more to him, something worth saving.
Unfortunately, that was not an opinion shared by the officers at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Camp Hill. While corrections officers now receive some mental health training, most still have a mind-set geared toward control and punishment, not mental health care. So it was probably inevitable, given Juan's conduct, that he would have a rough road in prison and numerous conflicts with staff.
But I am a registered nurse, not a corrections officer. My training never presumed that harsh punishment was the best cure for behavior disorders. A few months after I met Juan, he sent me his medical records, which were a depressing read to say the least.
Addicted to crack at birth, a victim of severe child abuse and neglect, four suicide attempts as a teen, multiple mental health hospitalizations and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. If that weren't enough strikes against him, an MRI of his head revealed mild brain damage, presumed to be the result of a beating by his parents. In my view, this was a kid who never had a chance.
“Do you have any contacts or support on the outside?” I asked during that first visit.
Juan looked down but not before his eyes clouded over. “No.”
“Not even a friend — or some other relative?”
“No. There's nobody,” he said quietly.
I smiled reassuringly, hoping it conveyed the right amount of support without leaving the impression I felt sorry for him. But it was hard not to. Far too many young people, seriously abused and neglected as kids, end up right where he is.
Some enforcement types refer to people like me as “hug a thugs.” I know how they think because I used to be one of them. My grandfather was a New York City police officer. My husband is a retired wildlife conservation officer.
I come from a long line of ultraconservative Republicans with little sympathy for prisoners. I proudly considered myself an advocate for victims, morally superior to the “bleeding hearts” who predictably line up in defense of misfits and felons.
But what I had failed to realize is that in some cases, those who commit crimes were horribly victimized too. I shuddered recalling what I'd read in his record — how his mother smeared feces in his face to punish him. Who wouldn't be affected by something like that?
Over the next few months Juan began to let down his guard with me. Even though he continued to be a problem for some of the officers, I was convinced his misbehavior was the result of hopelessness and despair. One day he confided something that took my breath away: “My biggest fear,” he wrote, “is that I will die someday never being loved — by anyone.”
Right then I knew the isolation and harsh punishment he received in the Special Management Unit, designed for problematic inmates without mental illnesses, would never save him or turn him around. Juan needed to know that someone valued and believed in him, so he could learn to believe in himself. But prisons don't operate under the principles of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Clearly I had my work cut out for me.
As I continued to visit Juan, I was increasingly able to see glimpses of his true character, and the person he wanted to be. He often berated himself over his conduct, and wished he were better at controlling his behavior and moods. “I hate being like this,” he said. “I worry God has given up on me.”
With some encouragement, however, he began to set goals and asked me to assign him homework or essays on how to control his anger. But to my surprise, when I wanted to order some books for him, he urged me to wait. “Please don't get me anything until I prove myself to you,” he wrote. “If I don't get any misconducts this month, then maybe you can get me a book.”
Those were the kind of communications that assured me Juan was not irretrievably lost, despite his protracted reputation for misbehavior. He yearned to improve, to give someone a reason to be proud of him. While I understood the need to segregate him given his unpredictable behavior, he responded well to positive reinforcement and short-range goals and incentives.
Regrettably, he would never receive that in the Special Management Unit. I wrote a few polite letters to prison administrators, expressing my concern about his placement there.
Unfortunately, those concerns were not well received. I was told he did not have a mental illness, despite the fact that his medical records clearly stated otherwise. That response and Juan's continued difficulties concerned me enough to continue to visit and advocate for him, but it was to no avail. My visiting privileges were terminated and a month later, Juan was shipped to another prison, more than a hundred miles away.
At that point, things looked pretty bleak for Juan and his behavior deteriorated even further. But a miracle loomed on the horizon, thanks to some unusually progressive prison staff.
“I went crazy when they wouldn't let me see you anymore,” Juan said, after I was able to visit him at his new prison. “When they took away the little support I had, I lost all hope.”
But a year after his transfer, my husband and I were invited to SCI Forest, where we were greeted warmly by staff. The superintendent had just approved a special four-hour contact visit with Juan as a reward for months of good behavior.
“I didn't want to tell you until I was absolutely sure,” Juan gushed, a few weeks before our scheduled visit. “But I am so happy! I love these officers and I love the superintendent! He is a great man! And I have a job now too. I am a block worker and I do the very best job I can. I want to honor these people for the chance they gave me. I can't say enough about them!
And indeed he can't. Juan sings their praises in almost every letter I get from him. Whereas in other prisons he busied himself writing grievances, now Juan delights in writing thank you notes to the superintendent and his staff, and the walls of his cell are plastered with their encouraging replies.
How was this young man, once one of the worst-behaved inmates in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, able to make such a dramatic improvement? Much of the credit for that must go to the staff at Forest, who recognized the desire Juan had to improve and how to best help him achieve it.
Instead of viewing my involvement as a hindrance, they recognized that his hunger for loving human bonds could be beneficial in molding his behavior and bringing him to stability. But most of all, they demonstrated true compassion; a vital element too often missing in the process of rehabilitating young men like Juan.
Later, as my husband and I walked into the visiting room, Juan rushed toward us, wrapping us in hugs, reluctant to let go. Hardly surprising. It was the first warm, human embrace he'd received in eight long years.
“Thank you so much,” he said tearfully. “I promise you that I will keep doing my best. I want to honor everyone for what they have done for me. This is the best Christmas I ever had in my life.”
I thought about the bond Juan and I had developed, the awful abuse he'd endured as a child, and the desperate futility I felt when I was prevented from giving Juan what he needed most to heal — until now.
“Mine too,” I said.
Cindy Sanford is the author of “Letters to a Lifer: The Boy ‘Never to be Released.’” She is a registered nurse and a prison volunteer. She is married to a retired law enforcement officer and is the mother of four sons.
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NEW YORK — As the lullaby started, a little boy named Sean listened intently. His mother watched him. She had written and prerecorded the song for him from Rikers Island.
He was on a large red couch in a cluttered office, flanked by a large teddy bear in a Santa hat and Elmo. This was Sean’s Christmas present. He could also see and talk to his mother two Christmases ago, thanks to Telestory.
Telestory is a free city program that connects children to their incarcerated parents through video conferencing. Families can talk to and read to one another face-to-face through a camera and a flat-screen television.
“This program is not an agency or institution. This is a warm, accepting place where children can talk with their parents,” said Dr. Frank Corigliano, a psychologist at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan. The Society began using Telestory in 2012 to help children maintain contact with their incarcerated parent.
More than two million children have a parent who is currently incarcerated, the Society’s research found. Rikers Island houses more than 14,000 people, with a majority of those prisoners parents.
Every time Corigliano watches the video of Sean and his mother, he is reminded of the powerful connection Telestory forges for these children.
Now, this program will be offered at several Brooklyn Public Library branches.
“It’s really a lovely sight to see,” said Nick Higgins, the director of outreach services for the Brooklyn Public Libraries.
The Library runs several programs for incarcerated prisoners, such as Daddy and Me sessions, where parents are able to learn the curriculum their children are learning at school, allowing them to help with their children’s homework.
“We wanted to help children keep in touch with their parents as well as build a better bridge for those who are incarcerated back into our community,” Higgins said.
In 2014, with the help of Corigliano and the rest of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, as well as the city’s Department of Corrections, the Brooklyn Public Library brought Telestory to its main branch.
“Our core belief is that these televisits should not replace an actual visit with a parent, it should just help to bring them closer,” Corigliano said.
“Sometimes these visits can be difficult to schedule for the library, but it’s definitely worth it [for the children] in the end,” said Higgins.
“Oh yes my heart you hold, you’re worth more than gold.”
By the end of the lullaby, Sean was still excited and beaming.
“Pretty cool, right?” his mother asked.
Sean nodded, his gaze still locked on his mother. He left that day with a copy of his prerecorded lullaby, knowing that:
“Momma loves you, no matter what you’re going through.”