I was 18 years old when I was arrested and sent to jail. But the real hell of my life to come started on my 19th birthday, when the state shipped me off to a place called Alto, a notorious youth prison in north Georgia.
There was much to fear in this place, but nothing quite frightening as much as the likelihood of sexual assault.
I knew from talking to older guys in jail, before I was sent off to Alto, that rapes were common, but nothing they told me prepared me for the reality of what I witnessed. The place (it has since been shuttered) had been built in the 1930s as a hospital. Fifty years later, it was a dilapidated house of horrors. You see, it wasn’t designed to be a prison, so there were countless places where terrible and dangerous things could go on easily out of sight of any guard lounging in the comfort of a control booth or guard tower. In this environment we were expected to take care of and fend for ourselves, and some men couldn’t.
It was all a nightmare, but one incident especially continues to haunt me. A young man had recently been moved into our dorm. He was a small guy with a timid attitude. Immediately several predators began to test him. They would start by disrespecting him in some way, then, when he did not respond, they would increase the pressure. This went on a few days, until they threatened kill him if he didn’t give in to their demands.
If he did what they wanted, they promised him, they would protect him from the other rapists. In this way they “convinced” him, and he surrendered in order to save himself. So they set out to have their way. They hung a towel so that the guards couldn’t see into the area and ordered the boy to perform oral sex on them, one after another.
A line formed. Those that wanted the “service” waited their turn, while those that opposed what was happening did nothing. After an hour or so it was over. He walked into the bathroom and stood looking into the mirror. I saw him as he pulled out a blade removed from a safety razor and began to slash at his throat. He never stopped staring at his reflection. The guards ran in and took him away, never to be seen by us again
Sexual assaults happened at every prison I lived in over my nearly 25 years of incarceration. They were not always so blatant or extreme, but they were common. Victims seldom reported the incidents. If they did they risked being further endangered, not just by their attackers, but by staff as well. Often when incidents were reported the authorities did little to stop it. Sometimes the staff did not believe the allegation, or thought that the accuser had brought the attack on themselves somehow. Sometimes the staff simply resented the hassle of doing the paperwork, and they especially did not like accusations that they hadn’t done their jobs.
Also, the attackers were seldom punished to the full extent of the law. Institutions often form closed loops that resist outside evaluation, so the crimes were not always reported to the district attorneys. Even when they were, DAs were sometimes reluctant to prosecute. Crimes that occur in prison are less likely to be prosecuted, including rape. This means that attackers and victims often remain in close proximity.
Juvenile prisons do not seem to be any better, and may be even worse than adult prisons. I knew many men who had been in youth facilities, some within the past few years, and the horror stories they told about their days in youth detention centers reminded me of my own days as a teenager in prison. I was reminded of this while doing some research recently. Part of my reading included the 2010 Department of Justice National Survey of Youth in Custody. Much of it seemed familiar, though there were a few surprises as well.
This will be familiar reading to some people who know this issue and have worked to try to eliminate it. Me, well I’m still being educated about how academics and bureaucrats see from the outside a life I lived on the inside.
The report was compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. However, the DOJ review panel on prison rape downplayed the results, saying that it “indicated that sexual assault in juvenile facilities was relatively rare and facility staff, for the most part, did not victimize juvenile offenders.”
This was their position, despite the fact that of the 26,550 youths involved in the survey, about 10 percent, reported being victimized by staff. Another 2.6 percent reported being assaulted by other inmates. Of the alleged assaults by staff 95 percent were female, with 92 percent of the victims being male. These events are often minimized by administrators and categorized as consensual relationships. Even though sexual relations between staff and juvenile inmates is illegal across the United States, the male inmates who have sex with female staff are not seen as victims.
This position is ridiculous. First, as juveniles, many of these victims are outside of the legal range for having consensual sex with adults. Being incarcerated does not remove them from the moral sphere, nor does it mean that they deserve less consideration from society. Second, the power dynamics of a prisoner and his or her keepers are hugely skewed. In terms of power, the prisoner is a slave and the staff member, the master. It is not possible that a relationship can happen between a prisoner and a staff member without coercion, either implicit or explicit. The very power that a staff member holds is a huge threat. With little effort the employee can cause the child tremendous problems.
Even if the child wants the relationship, we as a society do not condone it. In the world outside of prisons these relationships are illegal. They are unacceptable to say the least in a facility where the inmate is supposed to be protected and given an opportunity to be rehabilitated. Being the victim in a one-sided relationship meets neither of these goals.
Whatever form sexual assaults take in juvenile facilities, they should not be tolerated or downplayed. More oversight needs to be in place that is not a part of the facility itself. More staff screenings need to occur at opposite-gender facilities. Those who do commit these crimes need to be punished.
The laws are already in place. They only need to be enforced with the same vigilance that sent these kids to prison.
I know a woman in Tennessee whose son was just sent to a youth detention center. He has had some problems with petty crime and drugs, and was sent to a treatment program for kids awhile back. He did not adapt very well to the program, and now he has been sent to this YDC for an indefinite period. He is 17 and the state can hold him until he is 21 if authorities decide he is not ready to be released.
She is trying to figure out how she can go see him for Thanksgiving. He is housed several hours away, and she doesn’t have a reliable vehicle to get her there. She is hoping the boy’s father, who lives in another town, will be willing to take her. Maybe he will.
This is her Thanksgiving.
There is something about the holiday season that makes these situations especially poignant for me. When I was on the inside, holidays weren’t so bad. Often the prisoners would come together and make meals, and guys would normally be a little nicer. We were all missing our families, and somehow that drew us together a little more than during the rest of the year. Somehow we were able to humanize one another a little more.
It’s only been since my release in December of 2009 that I have seen the other side of this story. For the families on the outside it is not a better time of year. When they gather around the table to eat a big meal and celebrate life there is a conspicuous absence. There is a gaping hole where their loved one should be.
Restorative justice tells us that we are all part of the web of connection. These are the strands that connect us to everyone in our lives, starting with our families and friends and stretching out to strangers thousands of miles away. Crime, and the consequences of how crime is dealt with, do damage to this web. Damage to the web is what my family felt every time they gathered and I wasn’t there. It is also felt by the family of the man I killed. I believe that it is felt by all of us when we read the newspaper or turn on the television. We can tell that something is broken. Restorative justice seeks to repair these broken strands; to restore the web to strength and wholeness. Practitioners seek to repair it for everyone affected by crime. This includes victims, families, community members, and even the ones who commit the harmful act.
Another player in this drama is the state. In most states in this country, crimes are not committed against individuals, but instead against the government. The original intentions of this system may have been benign, but the consequences today are often counterproductive, at least if our goal is a safer and saner world.
In this system, a kid who shoplifted is put in a housing unit with other kids who have raped and murdered. A 14-year-old is sentenced to do 30 years without the possibility of parole. A boy in pre trial confinement is sent to a “treatment facility” where he is raped. When he reports it, he is told by the staff, “What happens here stays here.” When the mother goes to the judge she is told that it is no longer the judge’s problem. Other juvenile judges in Pennsylvania take money from the private prison industry to hand out harsher sentences so that they can raise profits. The same prison industry crafts legislation that leads to harsher laws, then pays legislators to make it law.
And my friend tries to figure out a way to see her son, a boy who has committed no felony but is held in indefinite confinement hundreds of miles from his mom. It is clear that something is terribly broken in the system.
The answers to these problems are not easy to see, but there are people who believe that things can be made better. Many of these people are part of the system, judges and others who have a vision of making the system work more effectively. Others are working from the outside; mothers and fathers and other concerned people trying to create communities where these issues are addressed. Restorative justice is on the rise, and people of all political persuasions are starting to endorse its ideas. Nearly every day I speak with people who are passionate about how to make a safer world through this philosophy.
So I find myself feeling not just sadness, but also hope. When I became involved in restorative justice as a prisoner I saw its power to transform lives by bringing awareness and self responsibility without condemnation or self hatred. Now, after nearly two years of freedom, I see it growing on the outside all around me. It is taking root in schools and courtrooms, in families and community centers.
For this and many other things I am thankful. Today, I can be with my family for the holidays. I can do work to help make the world that I want to live in a reality. I can try to restore the damage that I have done, and to help others do the same. Even as I am filled with gratitude I want to leave a place in my heart for the sadness I feel when I think about my friend trying to reach her son. I want to say a prayer for her family and remember that the world is not yet as I want it to be. I invite you to do the same.