Fines and fees imposed in juvenile court can drive youth deeper into the system and their families deeper into poverty, a new report says.
Every state imposes monetary penalties or costs on juveniles, a burden that hits families who are already struggling especially hard, both emotionally and financially, according to the report by the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia.
The costs can include fees to attend programs that are alternatives to incarceration or to have a mental health evaluation, charges for record expungement and restitution payments to victims.
When families can’t pay, the consequences may include sending a youth to a juvenile placement rather than an alternative community-based program, keeping a youth on probation longer than they otherwise would be or having their driver’s license revoked.
“This is a glaring example of justice by income,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director at the center and the report’s lead author.
The financial burdens of adult court have drawn increasing attention in recent years, but the juvenile system has gone largely unexamined, prompting the center’s researchers to wonder about the experiences of young people and their families. For the report, they examined state statutes and surveyed families and practitioners in most states.
“We got a resounding answer that young people all across the country are facing court debt. It’s harming them and their families,” Feierman said.
In a companion report, criminologists also zeroed in on how costs or fees affected recidivism in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
The study, one of the first to look at the connection, found that financial penalties increased recidivism instead of deterring further offenses.
In addition, the report found a link between court-ordered financial obligations and racial disparities. Youth of color were more likely to still owe money after their cases were over, leading to further charges, longer probation or other punishments.
Feierman said the findings point to one way to curb racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system — by moving away from fines and fees that disproportionately affect some communities.
Gary Blume, a partner at Blume & Blume Law in Alabama, said he often sees families struggling with the financial problems the report highlights. One common scenario is that a juvenile on probation is hit with a fee that they can’t pay and has to remain on probation until they can.
During that time, they can be sucked further into the system because of curfew violations or other technical violations — which often comes with a new round of costs.
“It just creates a vicious cycle,” he said.
The consequences also aren’t uniform, Blume added. While some judges are mindful of the burdens families face, others are less so. And even when judges would like to waive fees or fines, some costs are mandatory.
Feierman said some of the fines and fees are set up as a punishment or a way to right a wrong, such as restitution payments. Others are a funding mechanism, a way to fill gaps in juvenile justice budgets that have been slashed.
All of them can be overwhelming to a family, even in small amounts, said lawyers and advocates across the country. And there are hidden costs, too.
A family may need to find the money for a class that’s an alternative to formal prosecution, but they’ll also need to come up with the money for transportation, said Mae C. Quinn, director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis.
“The cost of just doing business needs to be taken into account as well,” she said.
One fee that differs somewhat from the others are restitution payments that go directly to victims, Feierman said. Helping to make a victim whole may make sense, but even then, states should be aware of how much money juveniles and their families have and whether alternatives such as community service may be more fruitful.
“If a young person doesn’t have the money, it’s not going to help the victim and it’s not going to help the young person get back on track,” she said.
Financial obligations vary
The report looks at eight categories of financial obligations that states use: probation or supervision, informal adjustment or diversion, evaluation and testing, cost of care, court costs and fees, fines, expungement and sealing, and restitution.
All states impose restitution costs of some kind, but they vary in their use of costs across the other categories. Under state law, New York only uses restitution fees; Alaska and Vermont use restitution and cost of care fees. Others though, including Texas, Arkansas, Oregon, Kansas and Michigan, have fees or fines that fall into seven of the categories.
Most states and localities haven’t made any major moves to change their practices, but some examples exist, according to the report. In Alameda County, California, officials put a moratorium on fees and costs after a report showed the harm to families and a minimal financial benefit to the county. And Washington state lawmakers eliminated a variety of fees, allowed youth to petition the court for relief and gave judges discretion to consider a juvenile’s ability to pay restitution.
“Counties and states across the country should consider a similar approach — eliminating harmful costs, fines, and fees, and ensuring that any orders of restitution are reasonable and effectively balance the victim’s need to be made whole with the financial reality of youth and their families,” the report said.
Matt Conklin, a juvenile justice reform advocate at Kansas Appleseed, said he was struck by how many fines and fees Kansas applies. The group will be encouraging families to tell their stories and sharing the information with legislators to encourage reforms, he said.
“This is the signal for us, the wake-up call that can hopefully inspire us,” he said.
This story has been updated.
Warning: What you are about to hear I wish on no one. That is why I am writing you this letter.
Now, close your eyes and imagine this: You’re 14 years old and just graduated from the eighth grade, summer is here and you cannot wait for your final summer vacation before high school begins. Your future is so bright; your vision is not yet clear on who or what you want to be; maybe a teacher, fireman, professional athlete, computer technician or an engineer.
Then you wake up one morning and there are cops at your front door calling out your name and saying, “You are under arrest for murder.”
“No! Not me!” is all you kept saying as they walk you to the cop car. You can feel the cold handcuffs squeezing tighter.
You see your parents and your siblings crying, not knowing what is to happen with you. One bad decision and your life is crushed. How can this be happening to me?
One year in Juvenile Hall and another in the county jail fighting the case. Then, “Bam,” the hammer drops: 25 years to life in prison is your sentence. You are so numb and shocked it is difficult to accept the reality that lies ahead for you.
Even though you were just a teenager, they still send you to a Level Four adult prison. Now, keep in mind that you stand 5 feet 5 inches tall and weigh “a buck nothing.” Seeing so much violence in prison, the vicious things you see every day, scare you to your bone, you can’t sleep with chill running to your dome. Crying for your mom and missing home.
Now, open your eyes. Could this be you? Really, think about it, could it be you?
This is a true story about my life. At 14 I thought hanging out with my so-called friends and my now ex-girlfriend was all that mattered.
I always thought I knew it all and had everything under control. I thought I was the one making the decisions in my life. Only to find out it was only half-true. Yes, it was my decision to make, but most of my decisions were based on a distorted belief of what I thought I had to do or who I had to be.
I was a follower and made decisions based on my insecurities because I wanted to be accepted by my peers. I wanted to be respected, and I wanted to be thought of as a cool guy who could be trusted, relied upon. That belief got me into a lot of trouble and made my life miserable.
I didn’t care about whom I hurt or anyone’s feelings. All I cared about was myself, and this false self-image that I had of myself. I didn’t care about any consequences or what I was doing to my community.
Nineteen-plus years later and 34 years of age, where are those friends now? They do not ever write, let alone visit me.
Guess who writes and visits me? My family and my elementary school teachers; the ones whom I never listened to before. Yeah, you heard me right, my third- and sixth-grade teachers still write. They are my true friends!
Even though I did not pull the trigger, in the eyes of the justice system I am just as guilty: “guilty by association.”
What does a true friend mean to you? Here is what it means to me now: someone who has my back, and I don’t mean have my back when I get into a fight. By having my back I mean being there when a situation like a fight is about to happen; but before it happens pulls me to the side, tells me it’s not worth it and takes me away from the situation.
I wish I had listened to those friends in my life. Instead, I chose the friends who thought fighting was the right thing to do. Look at me now! Not knowing if I will ever see home again. I was sacrificing today for tomorrow.
What are your dreams, goals and vision? Most important, what do you want to be? The choice is yours and only yours to make.
Pao Yang is serving 25 years to life for first-degree murder at the adult Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California.
This column appeared in The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth. David Inocencio founded The Beat Within 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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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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The first time I saw a stabbing victim was my second day in prison. I heard screams coming from the hallway, and then an officer came into view, dragging a prisoner by his shirt. The victim was moaning in pain and the officer was asking him who “stuck” him. I stood holding the bars, watching the scene with a kind of detachment that made it surreal. I was terribly frightened.
Over the next 24 years I had a lot of other scary experiences; too many to count. In a way I became used to them, or at least learned to repress the fear. I haven’t experienced much fear since I got out of prison in 2009, not beyond the usual fears of daily life. That changed a few weeks ago though, and it was all because of the teenagers.
I have been doing some teaching work at a high school near where I live in north Georgia. The initial idea was to share communication skills and strategies for resolving conflict more effectively. The kids had issues with various aspects of the school system: attendance, performance, altercations with other students and teachers. The school brought my colleague and me in to help the kids have a better chance of success in school, and perhaps even in life.
I had a lot of ideas about what to teach. I know what works, what connects to people’s basic needs and desires. Not only does it work, it is empowering. Knowing these skills is a way to get what we want, and who isn’t interested in that? These are skills that everybody wants, or at least I thought they were. Now I am not so sure.
I was in the middle of an extremely interesting (to me at least) exercise about how we respond to conflict. There are basically five different styles, and it pays to know which ones we, and others, are using. This concept can be represented spatially, using two axes. One represents self-interest, and the other represents investment in relationship. As I was sharing this with the kids, they showed their interest in different ways. Some began conversations with their peers, some began to look at their phones, and some lay their heads on the desks and closed their eyes. Things were not going as well as I had hoped.
I began to feel afraid. Here I was trying to do the work I feel called to do, wanting to share something that might help these kids to achieve something in life besides unemployment, poverty, and maybe even prison or death, and I was failing miserably. My partner noticed that we had forgotten a handout we wanted to share, so I quickly volunteered to go get them, seizing the opportunity to escape from my increasing fear.
Going to the office and back was about a 10-minute walk, and as I came back down the hill I took the opportunity to calm down and connect with my own intentions. I noticed the tension I was carrying in my body, born of my fear, and I reflected on all of times I had been in really dangerous situations. I have had people threaten to kill me, and knew that they meant it. I reminded myself that I wasn’t in that kind of danger.
Instead it was fear of not connecting with these kids, of what could happen to them without the skills we were offering. It was a fear of not being able to connect with them in a way that would lead them to listen to me. They were good at blocking out adult voices, they do it all day long, and I didn’t want them to do that with me.
By the time I was back at the classroom door I was calm and even energized. I entered, not knowing what would happen, but willing to see. If what we tried worked, then we would keep doing it. If it didn’t, we would stop. The main thing was that we wouldn’t give up on them.
I think this attitude is vital to dealing with young people. If I want to do this work then I have to be ready to adapt my delivery, to try new things, and to engage them where they are in the moment. Too often adults give up on kids who are “difficult.” It is easy to write them off as unable or unwilling to learn and grow, but this just isn’t true. Usually we don’t move forward because we, the adults, don’t know exactly what to do. This isn’t a good enough reason to stop though, and I can’t fool myself into thinking that it is.
As a colleague once told me, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” If I have to do things poorly before I can do them well, then I will. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
NEW YORK -- As Ara Oshagan rocked his first-born son to sleep he prepared to meet monsters.
While he bounced and cooed his boy, Sebouh, to sleep to the achingly plaintive melody of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata he was the image of a doting father, but in his mind he was quietly bracing himself to meet some of what many considered to be California’s youngest and most dangerous criminals.
The geo-physicist turned documentary photographer had never been behind the walls of the juvenile detention facilities that dot the outskirts of Los Angeles along the spine of Interstate 5 in the Central Valley, but the following morning he was going to take his camera, walk in, and take pictures of killers and gangsters.
“I expected the worst,” he said. “The worst of the worst; The ones glaring at you in those orange jumpsuits. You see how they’re portrayed. I expected them to be standoffish, imminently violent, unstable. Ready to do anything.”
What he encountered subverted his anxious expectations. He found a teenager, a piano prodigy before he was tried as an adult and put behind bars. The young inmate was tinkering with an electric piano, and in the grey gloom of the facility echoed the same funereal, haunting sonata he heard in the comfort of his son’s nursery the evening before. The inmate played Beethoven with precision and feeling.
“What I met weren’t monsters,” Oshagan, now 47, said. “They were normal kids. I knew the system wasn’t working -- I didn’t know exactly how bad it was until I started talking to these kids and seeing what happens to them.”
The pictures Oshagan took that day and for years after from 2001 to 2005, are part of a exhibition called “Cruel and Unusual” on display inside a massive 40-foot long shipping container stacked on the uplands of Pier 3 along the Waterfront in Brooklyn. The show features a collection of pictures by photographers from across the country chronicling life behind bars, some of which were gathered by co-curator Pete Brook during what he calls the Prison Photography on the Road.
Brook hopes the people who come to see the pictures will undergo the same sort of transformation that Oshagan did when he started his project.
“This installation doesn’t come close to describing the problems with the system and the need for reform,” he said. “But for many people who are uninformed with the subject matter I’m hoping it will be a jolt, an awakening, and a reason to go look deeper into these issues under their own steam.”
“Cruel and Unusual,” named ironically after the Eighth amendment (and, Brook notes, written into the English Bill of Rights in 1689) is part of a larger exhibit, described by its organizers as a “photography destination” called Photoville -- a 60,000 square-foot village featuring 30 containers with exhibitions ranging from the photojournalistic to the playful and bombastic, hands-on workshops, projections and lectures open from June 22 to July 1.
Last year, Brook and fellow blogger and curator Hester Keijster began talking about assembling an installation to showcase the work that so many photographers were doing to document the life of prisoners and the system of corrections. They curated a show in Noorderlicht, a gallery in Groningen, a town in northern Netherlands. The gallery decided to send “Cruel and Unusual” as its contribution to Photoville.
Brook, who started a blog featuring prison photography in October, 2008, said he became interested in prison reform when he started researching his master’s thesis on a prison museum in San Quentin. A native of England, who grew up in Lancashire, Brook said he does not want to be perceived as an outsider chastising the United States for what he sees as a deeply flawed prison system.
On a recent morning sweat dripped from Brook’s face as he put the finishing touches on the installation. He scrawled facts and quotes directly onto the grey sides of the containers, the red and black markers squeaking on the corrugated metal. Above him a string of bulbs casting a wan glow hung from the roof. He wore a pair of tan cut-off shorts, a T-shirt with a picture of faded palm trees and some scuffed black scandals. He blended in well with the gritty, frill-less presentation of the work -- raw, bleak photos taped to the wall without the formality of staged lighting and frames.
“Cruel and Unusual” is like looking at a fractured dimension of real life; A parallel universe much like ours but taking place behind bars. It captures the full range of the human experience, but rigidly contained to barren cells and cramped hallways.
There’s a pregnant woman, her swollen belly poking out of her prison issue clothes. Four couples beam at the camera, newlyweds, women who married serving time with no parole, who will never have an opportunity to consummate their relationship. Men squat in a circle around a small picture of Jesus with a heart engulfed in flames in a pantomime of a structured religious service. Grim faced men in Louisiana’s Angola state prison push a gurney toward the hospital ward to collect a corpse.
And then there are the young. In a number of pictures, the insecurity and confusion of adolescence is played out in rusty cells and behind thick security gates. In one shot, a boy swimming in his prison-issued uniform stares up at a wall inside a daunting metal cell that dwarfs him. In another, a girl hides her face behind her long blonde hair sitting on her bed.
Joseph Rodriguez, 61, who also has pictures of juveniles on display, said he was once one of those youths. He was arrested in Brooklyn for a number of minor charges. His mother
couldn’t afford the bail so he was shipped off to Riker’s Island. Rodriguez said there wasn’t a juvenile wing back then. He shared a cell with a 38-year-old man. He thought about suicide.
“It smacked me in the face the minute I walked in there,” he said. “It’s a life that people don’t understand. Anything that is humane is thrown out the window. Handcuffed, strip searched, a million guys trying to hustle you, you are challenged the minute you walk in the door.”
He said he knows the pictures that he takes now as a documentarian won’t be enough alone to change the system, but for him it was the camera where he found salvation.
“I’m standing there in the darkness, the darkest place of my life; you can see it in the letter I write to my mother. I said I want to change myself. When I got out I got a camera. I went from shooting drugs to shooting pictures. It saved my life, man.”
Oshagan, now a father of four, said working with juvenile inmates changed how he looked at himself as a parent. He always told himself that his children were different, special, an attitude he said he shared with many doting parents.
But after spending time with juvenile inmates, seeing their curiosity about photography, and their sense of humor and watching them weep when they talked about the mistakes they made he said he realized they weren’t monsters. In fact, he said, they weren’t that different than his own children.
“I could see the potential of, you know, ‘my kid could be like that,’” he said. “You can see these are really good kids and you can’t believe that they are where they are. And then you understand how it is that one little thing got them here. One thing. You can imagine your own kid making one stupid mistake. It opened my eyes. Anything is possible.”
Photo of Pete Brook by Jack Jeffries
Reading saved my life. I can only guess at how many books I read in my nearly 25 years of incarceration. I feel certain that it is easily over a thousand. For me, the longer and more detailed the book was the better. One perfect book was To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember squatting in the hallway outside of my room after lights out so I could finish the last few pages. Dune was another favorite that I read over and over. I would recite its litany against fear, which begins, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer…” But the greatest book was Les Miserables. When Jean Valjean, towards the end of his life, says, “To die is nothing, but it is terrible not to live,” a depth of connection transfixed me completely and tears streamed down my face. These worlds, and many more, helped keep me sane and alive, and gave me a way to continue to learn about and experience life.
I imagine that reading serves this function for many people, but there is something particularly powerful about its power in the darkness of prison. It is a light that shines because of the help of many people, from family members and librarians to non profits that send books to prisoners.
A few weeks ago, I met some folks who shine this light into a particularly dark corner of the prison system. They were from the Free Minds Book Club, a Washington, D.C.-based non profit that serves juveniles who are being held as adults in the D.C. jail. Free Minds Book Club runs two weekly writing workshops for them in the jail. They encourage the kids to express themselves in poetry and prose and to share their work with their peers. The results have been terrific. For some of the kids, it is the first time that they have been asked to really share themselves. They also read books and have discussions, just like book clubs around the world. Right now they are reading Muchacho by LouAnne Johnson, author of Dangerous Minds.
Besides the book club and the writing classes the group holds workshops, called On the Same Page, around the community. They share the writings of the kids and use them as a springboard for starting discussions about ways to reduce violence and crime. Another program is called Write Night, where volunteers read the kids’ work and write their responses, which the kids get to see later.
Their work doesn’t end at the jail. The program has been running for 10 years, and now many of the participants are in federal prison or have been released. These kids, because of where they live, can be shipped all over the country. But Free Minds continues to support these young men, some of whom may spend their entire lives in prison. For some of the young men, Free Minds is their only link home.
Free Minds also distributes a regular collection of writing from their members around the country, called The Connect. It is a monthly newsletter made up of writing, articles and poems from staff, kids who have come home, kids still on the inside, family and community members. It offers advice, book reviews and news from home. Tara Libert, cofounder, writes, “…most of all [it offers] encouragement so our members don’t feel like no one cares or [that] they are ‘out of sight, out of mind.’” Recently five of their writers comprised the editorial board for a new literary journal; They Call Me 229-359. It contains submissions from around the country.
There isn’t enough room in this space to talk about everything they do, so I encourage you to go to their site or check out their Facebook page. They maintain a blog where they post members’ poems each week. You can go there and leave comments, which will then be printed and mailed to the poets in federal prison. It is a kind of virtual Write Night, and serves the same purpose of connecting these youngsters with people on the outside. Free Minds is a group of people who are doing restorative justice week in and week out, and they deserve our support. I leave you with a poem by one of Free Mind’s contributors:
MARCH 1, 2012
I think my face is only a disguise
2 hide the pain you cannot see
Because if my face was my heart
You’ll probably see a different me
And another half of me is bitter
And another half is sweet
But I try 2 keep
My skeletons buried 6 feet
I am only 18 but my life is so deep
But from the view of my face
My secrets are kept 4 keeps…
NEW YORK -- Getting shot was probably a critical turning point in Ray Tebout’s life, he says. It was 1990. Tebout had just turned 16 and was living on the streets of the South Bronx, selling drugs and doing his best to survive. And then some guy had to go and shoot him in the foot.
The day of the shooting Tebout was on the corner selling drugs when “a guy wanted something from me,” he said. “I gave it to him but he decided he wanted something from someone else.” The man got angry and walked away but then — suddenly — he turned around and shot Tebout.
“Getting shot in the foot may not sound like much,” he said, “but it’s pretty horrible.”
Homeless, with his foot in a cast and walking on crutches, Tebout was mostly immobile, at least by the standards of drug dealers in the South Bronx.
“Losing your mobility in such a predatory environment was tough,” he said. You can’t sell drugs, he added, because you can’t run from the cops or the thugs.
He may not have been able to walk, but this was still the first step toward turning his life around. But it was only the first, very tiny step and it would be years, spent in and out of prison, before his life would be truly stable; before he stopped burglarizing stores because he was starving, homeless and desperate.
In early February, Tebout sat on a panel discussing prisoner reentry during the second day of the John Jay College/Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America held here. His words held an added resonance as he was the only speaker on the panel to have actually been to prison. But now Tebout stands on the other side of the wall, counseling former inmates like himself and proving that a prison sentence doesn't preclude you from becoming a leader in your community. Tebout is now director of counseling at College Initiative, a reentry community organization in New York City that helps the formerly incarcerated transition into college.
Tebout was born in Manhattan in 1974 but spent his youth travelling the country with his family, finally landing in the Bronx when he was 12. All those years of travel isolated him from other kids, leaving him with very limited social skills.
“I was a misfit there,” Tebout said. “I was decently educated, but not socially educated. I read well but I had zero social skills.”
Suddenly he was an awkward suburban kid dropped into a “hostile urban environment.” It wasn’t long before he was committing petty burglaries and selling drugs.
“My first criminal activity was to fit in,” he said. “It gave me something to bond over with folks. When you are interested in engaging in criminal activity you find the people involved in criminal activity.”
It was an important step in the wrong direction, but Tebout says, “It took me out of the position of least powerful in my social group.” And eventually, he says, his petty crimes became more violent.
Tebout’s father had sent him to a number of good schools, but he struggled with authority and got kicked out of them all. “That didn’t work out,” Tebout said simply. Frustrated and facing his own troubles with addiction, Tebout’s father kicked him out. He was 16.
Tebout lived on the streets of the Bronx for 10 months, selling drugs to survive. But he soon realized there was an easier way, he said, and he started looking for people to rob.
“It was a lot easier to rob people than it was to stand on a street corner and sell drugs,” he said.
But then he was shot, left defenseless in a dangerous place and was soon arrested for burglary.
“I was hungry, it was cold and I needed something to eat so I burglarized a store with a couple of guys,” Tebout said. “They got away and I didn’t.”
Tebout was soon back on the streets, his case dismissed and sealed.
When he was 18, in 1992, everything fell apart once and for all when a late-night robbery went sideways. Tebout wanted to make some money. His sister was struggling and he wanted to help her out.
“I was already robbing people,” he said, “so I decided to go out and look for somebody and at the end of the night in a quiet subway station I found a guy.”
Tebout's target pulled a gun on Tebout and tried to shoot him but he managed to wrestle the gun away from the man. Then Tebout pistol-whipped him.
Tebout says he still feels remorse for the attack.
“That was probably one of the worst things I have ever done,” he said. “I think about what that man must have gone through and it’s horrifying. I feel really terrible about it.” Having been attacked himself, Tebout said, he knows the pain the man must have gone through.
He was convicted and sent to prison for 11 years. His time there, Tebout says, was horrible.
“I think I only slept, ate and fought for the first year,” he said. Soon he got involved with gangs on the inside. Tebout is a big guy, tall with a shaved head, and intimidating, but everyone can use protection.
“In some ways [gang members] were essential to helping me out with my time,” he said.
But his first seven years in prison weren’t moving him any closer to rehabilitation. Tebout was actually adding more time to his sentence.
“As I stayed in prison my time got increasingly violent,” he said. “I got an additional one and a half years. It was escalating and escalating.”
Tebout appeared lost, a young man who only knew violence and crime. But his grandmother, like so many grandmothers, knew her grandson better. She wrote Tebout in prison and asked him simply to be a good citizen. He listened.
However, his rehabilitation wasn’t overnight. His criminal behavior faded away slowly, partly out of necessity.
“For gangs that means your defenses are down,” he said. “You are vulnerable and I had to be careful.”
He didn’t stop getting in trouble, he says, but he was more thoughtful and stopped being reckless.
But one day, he says, he prayed and then he was done.
“I’m out,” he says he thought at the time. “I’m not going to put my hands on anybody. I’m going to go out and be a good citizen.”
His good behavior didn’t go unnoticed by prison administrators and they offered him spots in rehabilitation programs telling him his participation could lead to an early release.
Tebout went along with it, mostly because he wanted to get out of prison faster, he says, but eventually he saw they were helping.
“The value of those programs to me,” Tebout said, “was that it started me thinking differently.”
One program defined criminal thinking as the lazy, easy way out and helped Tebout identify the steps to stop him thinking like a criminal.
“I needed to start pursuing the longer, harder road,” he said.
And he did, becoming part of the 33 percent of ex-offenders who do not recidivate according to an offender reentry report for Congress.
Speaking on the same panel as Tebout at the February symposium at John Jay College, attorney Margaret Love described some of the difficulties many former inmates face.
"There are more and more laws that exclude people with convictions from a variety of benefits," she said. "There are upwards of 35,000 laws."
Even harder to deal with is the social stigma, she says.
"Most people who are convicted are not a public safety threat," she said. "But the pervasive backgrounding and the fear that has overcome us since 9/11 has made it very easy to exclude people who have characteristics we fear."
Tebout was released from prison when he was 29. He has $170 in his pocket and the support of some positive friends. Tebout is still proud that he didn’t land in a homeless shelter upon release and instead stayed with an old friend from high school.
He started working in restaurants and used the money he earned to put himself through culinary school. He cooked professionally for two years but he said, “I realized I was doing more counseling in the kitchen than cooking.” So he switched gears and moved into human services.
He continued to work hard, earning credentials in substance abuse counseling and entrepreneurship teaching all while working as a counselor at the Fortune Society, a social service and advocacy group that supports successful reentry into society after prison. He later joined College Initiative and enrolled in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he is pursuing a bachelor's degree.
His work has done more than just keep him out of prison, it’s given him a purpose.
“No one was addressing the needs of those being released from prison,” he said. “It’s very rewarding.”
According to the Reentry Policy Council, many communities have few, if any, reentry assistance programs. Through his counseling work, Tebout is working to change that.
Tebout brings a lot of personal experience to his counseling work and says he knows how to approach teenagers in danger of travelling the same path to prison that he did. It’s all about choices and Tebout can’t make decisions for them.
“I’m not here to tell you what to do,” he tells his mentees, “but here are your options.”
Juveniles transferred to adult corrections systems reoffend at a higher rate than those who stay in the juvenile justice system, according to a new report from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). The report also found insufficient evidence that trying youths as adults acts as a crime deterrent.
Entitled “You’re an Adult Now,” the report published in December 2011 is based on the findings of three-dozen juvenile justice and adult corrections experts convened by the NIC in 2010 to identify challenges when youth are transferred to adult court.
Highlighted in the report, written by Jason Ziedenberg, director of juvenile justice at M+R Strategic Services, was research by the Centers for Disease Control that found youth transferred to the adult system are 34 percent more likely than youth who remain in the juvenile justice system to be re-arrested for violent or other crimes.
The safety of juveniles in adult prisons is also a serious concern, according to the report, which cites a Bureau of Justice Statistics study that found, 21 percent of the victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in jails in 2005 were under the age of 18. The same study reported 13 percent were victims in 2006. However, the report notes only one percent of inmates are younger than 18.
Also cited as a serious concern, the report said juveniles often lacked access to services for mental health and learning disabilities.
In the report, the NIC calls for more research into the effects of juvenile transfers.
Photo by Clay Duda | JJIE
The California State Assembly is considering a bill that would ease restrictions for members of the press to interview prisoners. The legislation, known as AB-1270, passed unanimously out of the Public Safety Committee Jan. 10 before being referred on to the Appropriations Committee.
The bill, sponsored by Public Safety Committee Chair Tom Ammiano, requires the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) to permit reporters to interview inmates personally in California's prison unless the warden determines the interview poses an immediate threat to public safety or the security of the institution. Reporters must request the interview in advance. The warden then has 48 hours to respond.
Once an interview has been granted the warden is required to notify the victim or their family of the interview at least two days prior.
The new law also allows reporters more freedom to record interviews. Previous legislation prohibited the use of cameras and other recording equipment. AB-1270 would allow the use of recording equipment that prison staff have inspected before entering the prison.
Supporters of the bill include the ACLU, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, California Newspaper Publishers Association and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
Photo by Flickr | billaday