Our failure to plan ahead when helping loved ones adjust to life outside of “the Prison Industrial Complex” is comparable to re-teaching a youngster how to walk again after a serious injury. You take it one step at a time.
Here is a letter recently received by the JJIE:
I have a grandson in prison in North Carolina. After he is released, he is coming [to Georgia]. I am trying to get things together for him before he comes. Can you offer me any advice? -- Lynn
This is a common occurrence for far too many grandparents. One of the first things I would advise is gather as much personal information about this young man that his parents, family or former neighbors can offer. It is important to attempt to develop a healthy adult relationship with him.
It is equally important that your expectations are discussed in detail so that misunderstandings can be avoided. I would be careful not to dwell on the past but instead highlight the realistic things this young man can accomplish in the future.
When dealing with young adults it is essential that boundaries be set that are reasonable and productive. Life is full of rules whether we like it or not. I would encourage you to explain to your grandson that this is an opportunity to restart your life and to explain how better opportunities can be available when you constantly put your personal view of the future in proper perspective.
I would emphasize over and over that this can be a new lease on life for your grandson. One that requires being very intentional and committed about what he wants and expects out of life.
This is a time when the emphasis on careful planning must always be highlighted. I would strongly urge you to find out what specific work skills your grandson has. I would take him on a visit to a technical school or career academy that has personnel to assess the level of interest he has in a given profession. These are probably ideas that no one has truly taken the time to explain to your grandson.
I would then encourage you to sit down with him and discuss the options and then insist he commit to one of the professions after careful consideration. I would help him list the pros and cons of his decision making.
Many grandparents will discover that these young men typically have not given much thought to developing long-range personal goals. This is an opportunity to discuss the importance of having significant life goals. It is also an appropriate time to discuss the importance of working hard and smart to achieve personal goals.
This is a key time when grandparents must deliberately guide their grandchildren into healthy relationships that potentially will have a positive impact in their lives. I would try to provide several healthy group options for interactions for your grandson. I would not hesitate to take advantage of some of your personal contacts whether it is in the church, valued friends or other community based organizations.
It is possible that there are already support groups in place that address many of the issues that you and your grandson will be confronted with.
I would challenge your grandson to come up with his own personal plan, with your input, of course, so that he has ownership. I would then encourage you to monitor the success of this personal plan on a weekly then on a monthly basis.
There is much research out there on what it takes to turn around troubled youth. My advice would be to access some of this information as quickly as possible and implement your plan.
The information contained in JJIE.org columns are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for legal, professional or medical advice that meets your personal needs, it is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of a professional who understands your personal issues related to the topics discussed herein.
Rumors about what one guy had said about another, or allegations of some misconduct such as stealing, would lead to a confrontation. The accused would feel trapped into responding with violence. The culture was attuned to respect, and instances of disrespect were seen as reasonable grounds for hitting someone, or at least threatening them. Even when a man was disinclined to violence he would feel the pressure of his peers to go along with the norms. He would also be aware that by holding back some people would perceive him as weak, so being peaceful might actually lead to more violence.
Once, my towel was stolen. This was no ordinary towel, but of the “free world,” something that my mom had sent me. “Free world” goods had much greater value in prison, and I was outraged at my loss. One common strategy for dealing with theft was to pick someone who you thought might be a thief and attack them. This was seen to prove that you would stand up for yourself. I thought this idea was stupid. Randomly picking someone else to become a victim didn’t seem like a good way to stop thieves. I was determined to find out who had taken my towel.
Another consideration was status. I had been in a few years then, which I thought accorded me a certain amount of respect. I was determined to keep that respect, which I felt I had earned, even if it led to violence. I thought that I knew who the perpetrator was, so I confronted him. He denied it, and even worse he seemed sincere. This posed a dilemma for me. I was inclined to avoid violence, but by accusing him I had put myself at risk. Even though he wasn’t eager to fight either, I believed that to turn away would be a defeat for me.
I confronted him in a place where there were no guards, and where I had enough friends to keep a gang from attacking me. He turned out to be a better fighter than me, and I remember thinking as I tried to keep him from kneeing me in the face while watching my blood drip onto the ground, that there must be a better way to deal with things. Our fight ended, and we never had any other problems, but I never got my towel back either.
I did develop better strategies over the years, but I continued to see violence everywhere I went. I studied Gandhi’s approach to nonviolence, but it seemed hard to put into practice. I studied Buddhism and its ideas of not harming, but they didn’t seem to fit my needs all the time. Then, in 2004, I discovered Nonviolent Communication, an example of applied linguistics that has as its goal increasing empathy and self expression. It was created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, and has been used from inner city Chicago to Rwanda.
Rosenberg gives a simple, though not easy, procedure for engaging in any kind of communication. It involves observation of facts separated from opinion, awareness of emotions stimulated by events, awareness of what universal needs are not being met for us, and a request that aims to get our needs met. It always holds the needs of the other to be of equal importance, and teaches a kind of dialogue that fosters empathy and honest expression in a way that lets the other person see us as fellow human beings instead of opponents.
Practice of NVC, as it is known, increases self awareness. This leads to increased choice in how to reach our own goals. Increased empathy leads to a desire to contribute to others, not out of duty, but instead as a natural expression of who we are. NVC is essentially a method of cognitive reframing, literally allowing a practitioner to see the world in a new way. Some friends and I began to study it, and then to teach it to others in several settings. The responses were dramatic, with individuals reporting less stress, better relationships, and more happiness in their lives. Most important to me was a decrease in their aggression and violence.
I recall one man’s change in particular. He had been in for about 10 years and was often involved in verbal and physical conflict. After a few weeks of class, he came up to me and related an argument he had gotten into. Excitedly he told me, “I didn’t hit him!” This was a huge breakthrough for him. He had been able to see the humanity of the other, and had been motivated to help him instead of harm him.
I am convinced that teaching these skills to kids, including those who are incarcerated can decrease the occurrence of crime, especially violent crime. Preferably NVC, or some similar method, would be taught in schools before kids ended up in trouble. What is needed are people interested enough to learn the skills themselves, then willing to share them with kids, teachers, parents, institutional staff, and anyone else who is in contact with young people.
The controversial reality television program “Beyond Scared Straight” will return for a second season on the A&E cable network. The show follows a small group of at-risk kids as they are taken inside prison where inmates try to scare them away from lives of crime by yelling at them and describing the brutal reality of prison life.
Juvenile justice experts have derided the show for advocating a program that many studies have shown to be not only ineffective, but also counter-effective, increasing the likelihood that kids will commit crimes in the future.
John Wilson, a juvenile crime expert said at the time of the show's premier last January, “The research is clear that Scared Straight is a failed program that does more harm than good.”
The show’s producer Arnold Shapiro contends the studies don’t provide an accurate depiction of Scared Straight’s success. He says the best tool to assess the programs is follow-up with the kids. Shapiro produced the original documentary “Scared Straight!” along with a number of sequels that checked in with the kids from the first film.
Sadly, not all of the kids from the original film avoided prison. As JJIE reported in February, Angelo Speziale was recently convicted of murder despite his claims that “Scared Straight!” changed his life for the better.
“Beyond Scared Straight” debuted to 3.7 million viewers in January making it A&E’s most watched debut of all time.
In 1985, at the age of 18, I was sentenced to life in prison for murder. I was sent to Georgia Industrial Institute, commonly known as Alto, after the nearby town. Throughout the system at that time Alto had a reputation for violence. Though I was tried and convicted as an adult, this prison was designed for “youthful offenders.” Only a handful of prisoners were over the age of 22, and many had arrived there at ages 14 – 17.
During 25 years of incarceration, I never again lived at a prison with the same levels of assault, robbery and rape. Alto was a hyper-violent place. There is an awful synergy when young marginalized men are placed in a situation with little supervision or protection. I remember thinking that Lord of the Flies was a perfectly logical picture of young men isolated from the adult world.
Until my release in 2009, I continued to meet young men who had had similar experiences in “youth prisons” or in youth detention centers (YDCs). I met many young men who were transferred directly from YDC into the adult system. Even though the adult prison was usually a safer place, they would maintain the same set of survival strategies they learned in the juvenile system. This often led to fighting and other behavior that caused them and others problems.
From 2005 until 2009, I was involved in a mentoring program that mixed older prisoners with these young men. They were well adapted to the environment of the youth detention centers, but their adaptations were not suitable for prison, much less the outside world. Prisons are communities, and when these young men entered the community with their annoying and often dangerous habits, there was often a “there goes the neighborhood” response from the older prisoners. One of our goals as mentors was to model a different approach to living in a prison, an approach that placed personal growth over violence and other nonproductive activities.
The mentoring project was conceived by a group of lifers who had served many years in prison. I brought my interest in restorative justice to the group because it addressed the role that prisoners could take in repairing themselves and their communities. I had studied several approaches to rehabilitation, and restorative justice seemed to offer the best method for affecting change in ourselves, our companions, our families, and in our community. The mentoring group was an example of a restorative effort that we, as members of a community with specific needs and skills, were best able to carry out. The various activities we did within the group were less important than the example we set for the young men of taking responsibility for ourselves and our community. We demonstrated an alternative to their habitual responses. This was restorative justice in action.
Restorative justice acknowledges the importance of involvement by everyone who is affected by crime. Society, families, friends, victims and offenders are all impacted when an act damages the web of connection. The needs of all must be addressed if full restoration is to be achieved. The offender’s role in this effort has been largely marginalized. Whether or not those dealing with offenders view them as needing help or needing punishment, the offender has been a bystander in the process. Either the system is doing something “to” the prisoner or “for” him. Both ways minimize his accountability and his ability to effect change within himself. What we learned, and what we modeled to those young men, was that without our own involvement in our rehabilitation we would never achieve our full potential as human beings.
Through this and similar experiences I became convinced that only an effort that fully involves the offender, that empowers him to be truly responsible for himself, will succeed in bringing about true rehabilitation. If an effort is able to mobilize this power, then it will take root among the prison population, the group that can best bring about needed change. Once an offender is able to take this step he can proceed to help his companions. By developing personal insight he gains empathy for others. Not only can restorative practices be used to address the actions for which someone is incarcerated, they can also be used to address the prison environment itself, where the various roles of offender and victim are played out almost daily. In our group we were able to address the actions that had brought us to prison and the many negative actions that took place in the prison.
Of course, many pieces of the problem are yet to be solved. Offenders must be able to take responsibility without giving up their legal rights. Structures should be created that allow for victim/offender dialogue when appropriate. Most importantly, in my opinion, safe spaces need to be created where the offender can focus on restoration instead of survival. When you live day to day worrying about being assaulted, killed, raped or robbed you have very little energy for introspection. Barb Toews, in her book Restorative Justice for People in Prison, writes about “restorative spaces,” places that promote respect, care, healing, accountability and nonviolence. In my experience, these places do not yet exist in what we call prisons and youth detention centers. I believe that I can begin that work now, with the people I know can affect the most change: offenders.
At first glance, flogging appears to be an archaic, cruel punishment too reminiscent of the Dark Ages. But former police officer and current criminal justice professor Peter Moskos thinks flogging could be one solution to many of the problems facing the criminal justice system — problems such as overcrowding. Moskos’ new book, In Defense of Flogging, lays out his argument.
In an interview with Salon.com, Moskos said he thinks when compared to prison, flogging is “the lesser of two evils.”
“Taking away a significant chunk of someone’s life is far worse than any punishment that is virtually instantaneous,” he told Salon. “We should be honest about prison and recognize that we’re sentencing people to years of confinement and torture.”
Moskos admits that flogging isn’t a likely alternative to incarceration, but hopes his book will get people thinking outside the box.
“I wanted to throw a hand grenade into this debate because I don’t really see it going anywhere,” he said.
When Andrew Peterman of Idaho first came into the juvenile justice system at age 15, he did not know that schizophrenia was driving his anger, which in turn was resulting in arrests and illicit drug and alcohol usage. In time, thanks to juvenile detention and treatment for his schizophrenia he has been able to straighten out his life.
In fact, he has come so far on his journey that the Coalition for Juvenile Justice awarded him the 2011 National CJJ Spirit of Youth Award to "recognize and celebrate a young adult...who has made great strides through involvement with the juvenile justice system, overcome personal obstacles and is today making significant contributions to society." In the video below by Leonard Witt, Peterman tells of his journey through crime, drugs, schizophrenia and rehabilitation. See the video time splits below.
- Introduction, Spirit of Youth Award: 00:00
- Trouble begins at age 15, no coping skills 00:50
- At 17 tried as an adult 01:20
- Three felonies, classified as "persistent violator" 01:50
- Avoiding automatic five extra years of incarceration 02:23
- Diagnosed with schizophrenia, treatment helped 02:35
- Relapsed into drug and alcohol abuse, quit taking medication 02:50
- Decides against evil methamphetamine world and turns to God 03:28
- Used coping skills learned in juvenile detention 03:55
- Now attends college, will finish in August 2011 04:06
Watch for Andrew Peterman's essay on how juvenile detention is more demanding than adult prison later in the week at JJIE.org.
Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ), says research shows that it is important to "keep the kids out of heavy duty lockup as much as possible." In this video interview conducted by Leonard Witt, she says "Reclaim Ohio" is a project that saves money and has better outcomes than the bars and chains approach.
See subheads and time split guide below the video.
Time splits to help guide you through the video:
My boy, Christopher, was convicted and sentenced under a set of laws passed by the Georgia Legislature in 1994. This package of misguided legislation popularly known as “the Seven Deadly Sins,” was an effort to lock up juveniles without any meaningful opportunity for rehabilitation and without any possibility of parole.
He is not, I’ll make clear, an innocent victim. We are responsible for our own actions. But the circumstances of his crime did not then and do not now warrant destroying his life with a 30-year sentence.
A group of older teens put him up to robbing a woman and stealing her car. During the ordeal, she was tied up, understandably terrified, but not injured. After my son and the others were arrested, the older ones put the blame on Christopher. With the help of their testimony, he was convicted as an adult and is currently serving the 30-year mandatory sentence without the possibility of parole.
He has already served 14 years to date, and has been incarcerated with men who have lighter sentences for more severe crimes. Even if he had received a life sentence for his actions, he would now be eligible for parole after serving 14 years.
For the last two years, I’ve been aggressively advocating -- not only on Christopher’s personal behalf -- but for all juveniles who find themselves in the middle of a very unbalanced and harshly brutal method of sentencing. It is indeed my most earnest hope that I can lend my voice to an effort to create equal justice in our judicial system.
Abraham Lincoln said, “He who sees cruelty and does nothing about it is himself cruel.” I feel this statement is so applicable to the current judicial system, which requires lengthy mandatory sentencing for juveniles as young as 14, with no opportunity for parole.
As I began this tumultuous journey on behalf of my son, I was saddened to discover that the public is largely ignorant of Georgia’s and the nation’s laws governing juveniles, and therefore truly unaware of these issues and injustices within the juvenile system. Many are in the dark as it relates to these appalling harsh realities that so many of our nation’s young people, all under the age of 18, are enduring as they are being tried as adults and serving disproportionately long sentences in violent adult prisons.
I am troubled as I dig deeper in my research and engage in dialog with other mothers, fighting their way through to make sense of such an unjust system. This fight has forced me to take a more aggressively active role in sharing this story and educating the masses about this horrendous, unjust judicial system.
While Christopher and others must accept the consequences of their actions, only an inhumane and unjust system would apply Georgia’s laws (SB 440 & SB 441) to children, removing them from the juvenile justice system and placing them in an overly populated adult prison system, where the chance of rehabilitation is almost non-existent.
After two years, Christopher was placed under a 24-hour suicide watch after slitting his wrist. Being incarcerated from a young age with deviates, murderers and hardened criminals can extract that kind of emotional toll on a young teen. He has, to say the least, been emotionally damaged.
Mixing men and children together in prisons creates the perfect school for debauchery. I was devastated to discover that he was physically and emotionally assaulted as a prison guard turned a blind eye during these disgusting incidents.
My son and other young inmates do not belong in an adult prison where other seasoned inmates prey on their weaknesses, innocence and vulnerabilities. We need to do away with draconian laws that oppress and humiliate our children. Instead, they need a system that will give them the help they so desperately need.
My son is currently enduring a living hell and this hell will last until he is forty-four years old.
During these 14 years of serving his sentence, Christopher continues to express his genuine remorse about his choices as a teenager and continually expresses repentance for his actions. However, he can do little else to make restitution while in prison.
Recently, Georgia's new governor, Nathan Deal, has quietly indicated that he may be willing to reassess SB 440 and 441. It is still a long way from becoming reality, but reforming the 1990s-era laws could provide my son the opportunity to be heard in this life. As an advocate, it also provides me a chance to help change these horrific, unjust laws that so detrimentally effect all youth.
As Christopher’s mother, I want his story to be yelled from every rooftop. I want him and others like him to have an opportunity for restoration, rehabilitation and a safe reintegration into society.
I want them to be given a second chance to have a productive life.