The violence I was exposed to at an early age shaped who I became. It desensitized my perspective on violence, numbed my cries and dumbed down violence to the point I stopped asking why.
I developed a twisted view where I viewed violence as normal, justified and should be left in silence.
I was in a baby stroller when my mother was robbed at gunpoint. At 5 years old I saw my mom’s boyfriend beat her and I was thrown into a pool, left to doggy paddle, almost drowning while grown-ups laughed, drank alcohol and got high on drugs. Soon after, a man was killed in front of our house, lying dead in the middle of the street.
At the age of 12, I began to use drugs/alcohol, ditch school, act a fool, run the streets and rebel against my mother. As I look back, it was this older cat who was a bad influence in my life. The truth is he introduced me to drugs/alcohol, gangs, violence, robbery, stealing, and a criminal lifestyle.
Every time, I got into trouble my mother exposed me to the truth that he was no good. I ignored her voice of reason. I was hard-headed, thinking I knew it all. I also looked up to this older cat because he could fight, had cars, money, and status in the hood.
Ducking down when shots were fired or running from crime scenes until you were tired became normal and made me feel tough, cool and down. Seeing people get shot, beat up, rat-packed or stabbed became part of the criminal lifestyle. Some would laugh if you got beat up or knocked out in a fight. I was sucked into the dark street life and couldn’t see the light of normal life.
As my life spiraled out of control, at age 16 I committed a second-degree murder and two attempted murders. This older cat gave me a gun, delegated someone to drive the getaway car, and he turned state’s evidence against me!
The sad truth is my mother told me over and over don’t hang around him, he’s no good, but I chose to follow him, to fit in and be accepted. What if I would have listened to my mother? What other choices or options were available? Another truth is I knew in my heart and gut he was no good.
Through Juvenile Hall and prison I experienced effects of violence and PTSD. In Juvenile Hall my neighbor was making loud noises. Staff thought it was me. I stood my ground and stuck to the truth. The 250-pound staff member grabbed my neck and lifted me toward the roof.
When I was in the “box” (the hole) in Juvenile Hall, my neighbor, who was on psych medication, made loud noises. Then I heard thumping, yelling “get down” and finally loud moaning cries, as three staff took him down with a beat down.
In prison, the security squad raided my cell at 3 a.m. All I heard was: “Put your hands up,” while flashlights blinded my eyes. Then I was snatched off my bunk in cuffs.
To this day loud noises, keys jingling, flashlights and the smell of pepper spray triggers a hypervigilant, paranoid, aggressive state of mind. I look down a lot because eye contact with power-hungry cops leads to violence or harassment. I don’t like people behind me, too close to me, and I feel anger toward authority figures who abuse their power.
I say to the young juveniles out there, listen to the ones who love you and care for you. Pay attention to the warning signs of truth. Never forget you have the power to make positive choices in your life.
You have the power to listen to your gut, be a leader and not a follower like I did. You can face these truths and do something about it. Truths, adversity, struggles or mistakes can all be teachable moments that you can grow and learn from.
If a truth in your life comes to the light and it’s too heavy for you to understand. Talk about it with a family member, teacher, preacher, guidance counselor, coach, mentor, or some responsible adult. Please don’t ignore these truths before you do something you regret later … like me regretting my choices 23 years later, still incarcerated, serving 15 years to life!!!
Mathew Edwards was sentenced to life in prison while a juvenile for second-degree murder and two attempted murders. He is now 39, in San Quentin State Prison.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio 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.
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.
“A lot of parents out here are scared of their own kids”: Venus Singleton, the mother of a boy shot as part of the blood feud between rival houses in Harlem.
From a Skirmish to a War
NEW YORK — The father of the dead girl takes a look at the brown painted door and shakes his head with contempt. He’s standing where his favorite daughter had danced moments before she was chased down and shot four flights overhead on a cool late summer morning.
“If that door was fixed,” he says pulling at the busted entrance door, “then none of this would’ve happened. She’d be alive. Playing basketball. My life would’ve kept going like it was. But that’s not what happend. It was broken. We’re talking two years later. How can these kids be safe?”
Taylonn Murphy ambles through the same door his daughter, Tayshana, ran through the night she was killed, and into the lobby of 3170 Broadway, one of the nine high-rise buildings that make up the General Ulysses S. Grant Houses, near the border of Harlem and Morningside Heights.
“You can’t believe the emotion that I feel walking into this building,” he said, taking a deep breath, as if to steel himself.
He walks slowly through the squalid lobby. A message is scrawled on one of the mailboxes built into the wall to the right of the elevator. It warns the police to keep out. There are two staircases in front of Murphy marked with signs indicating well A and well B.
See more photos from Harlem on JJIE's Art & Photo Blog HERE.
Murphy chooses B, the one his daughter’s killers took the morning they shot her to death on Sept. 11, 2011.
He explains the details of the case the best he knows them, after sitting in on hours of hearings and court trials. There was a fight between groups of youths from the Grant Houses and the Manhattanville Houses that night. Some youths from the Manhattanville Houses had vengeance on their mind.
“It takes a lot out of you,” he said, huffing as he climbed another of the 43 stairs, retracing the killers route one step at a time. “You try to do the best you can.”
According to the Manhattan’s district attorney’s office, Taylonn’s daughter, known to her friends, basketball teammates and family as Chicken, was outside when two young men from Manhattanville came looking to settle the score. Prosecutors described it as a “cold and calculated hit.” The two men criminally charged with shooting Murphy reportedly said they did not “give a fuck” when she pleaded with them that she was not involved in the fight.
Murphy, a senior at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, was considered one of the best players in the nation; a point guard. She had aspirations -- realistic ones according to scouts -- of starting for a WNBA team.
“Chicken ran up the other stairs,” her father said, trudging up the staircase. “Them boys, they came this way.”
Somewhere in the flights above, someone slammed a door sending a report echoing down the building. Murphy paused when he reached the spot where the gunman fired the shots that killed his daughter.
“He got here and at about the same time she came out of the other stairwell, and that’s when it happened,” he said. “He shot her. Pop. Pop. Pop. This is basically the spot where she died. This spot is where it went from a skirmish to a war -- to where we are today.”
Ghostly tributes to Tayshana are barely visible on the dimly lit hallway wall. They show signs of being scrubbed off. One wishes the dead girl, a “Happy 20th BDAY.” Taylonn’s daughter was 18 when she was killed.
“Look at this,” Murphy says, clenching his jaw. It’s the one time he betrays any real anger during the tour of his daughter’s murder scene. “They’ll make sure they clean up a birthday message to my dead daughter,” he hisses through his teeth.
Somewhere upstairs a loud voice echoes in the stairwell. Murphy struggles with his emotion. Tears well for an instant. The moment passes and he finds his composure.
“But they can’t find time to fix a door,” he said. “A door. But they sure as hell make sure they clean this up. What does that say?”
A Broken Door Lets In a Killer and Lets Loose Vengeance
The crack in the dented metal door at 5170 Broadway in the Grant Houses is barely an inch wide. It’s hard to notice. The door is supposed to lock automatically when it slams shut behind you, but it hasn’t worked properly for a long time. On its own, nothing is particularly noteworthy about a broken door in a New York CIty Housing Authority property. Many of the doors in New York City’s housing projects are busted, and residents grow accustomed to it.
But shoddy door repairs and poor upkeep do not explain the role this run-down housing complex has in one of the bloodiest and most violent feuds in the city. Murphy’s killing on an early morning in the gloomily lit fourth floor hallway has led to a series of retaliatory beatings, stabbings and shootings. This historical beef between rival houses has turned into internecine warfare between the two sides since the morning of Murphy’s murder.
On the night she died, Tayshana Murphy was chased into her building by residents of the Manhattanville Houses and gunned down -- “smoked,” as the killer described it -- just feet away from the safety of her apartment and her mother. She was not the first victim to be hunted down, shot and killed in the long-standing feud between the residents of the Manhattanville and Grant Houses, massive apartment complexes that sit across from each other like two ominous fortresses at the intersection between Harlem and Morningside Heights in the northwestern corner of Manhattan. And, judging by the fate of those who’ve been beaten or shot since, she won’t be the last.
“It’s called despair,” Taylonn Murphy said. “It’s not just this community, it’s all communities where young men and women are willing to stomp each other, stab each other, shoot each other. This is what things look like when hope is gone.”
Now, with the trial of Robert Cartagena, one of Tayshana Murphy’s accused killers, set to start, there is a palpable fear the violence will increase. Police who patrol the area say it’s just a matter of time until one of those bullets hits a vital organ and kills another teenager in this seemingly pointless warfare between Harlem’s own Montagues and Capulets.
“It’s not like they’re missing on purpose,” said a community affairs officer who works in the 26th Precinct.
No one can articulate why the blood runs so bad between the two houses. Old timers say that in the old days it was about pride, girls, boasting about who was tougher. Back then, fists, not guns, settled the score, residents said.
That is part of what makes the bloodshed so frustrating for people who are trying to stop it. It’s fueled by an almost inscrutable rage against people who live seven-tenths of a mile from one another; who are, they say, trapped in the same predicament of unemployment and listlessness, caught in the crosshairs of a crushing boredom.
“P” is 17 and was born and raised in the Grant Houses. The combatants in this homegrown strife struggle to give a meaningful explanation for their behavior, even though for many it defines who they are. They freely acknowledge that their foes are teenagers and children who, like themselves, have grown up on the same city blocks and have often attended the same school together as little boys. And as teenagers they have more in common, including a shared frustration at their neighborhood and dim prospects. Nevertheless, the rivalry persists.
“When you’re young, growing up, you don’t want to share the block with no one else,” he said. “I want it to stop, but I know it ain’t going to stop anytime soon. We have too much pride, you know? We don’t want them to have the last word. It’s a brotherhood with people you came up with. It’s not about the brick or the mortar, it’s not about the building. It’s about where you come from.”
“That’s what we like to do,” explained a tautological Naquan Brockington, 17, the brother of Tayshana’s killer. “There’s nothing for us to do. We don’t have nothing to do. If we’re not fighting we’re just hanging out. If we ain’t fighting we’re getting locked up.”
Last summer, when Tyshawn Brockington was sentenced to 25 years to life for killing Murphy, Justice Thomas Farber, the judge who heard the case, described the hatred between the two sides as motivated by “desire to create self-worth by creating a sense of otherness in people who should be your brothers and sisters. This is a cold-blooded execution — I can't think of any other way to describe it."
In the months after the verdict, Chicken’s father took that message to heart. He reached out to Arnita Brockington, the mother of his daughter’s killer, and Derrick Haynes, whose brother was the first fatality in the feud, and asked them to help him bring an end to the blood feud that cost his daughter her life. The three have started an anti-violence campaign in the two houses. They have done everything from holding rallies to looking for jobs.
“A lot of the children from the Grant Houses are still angry over what happened to Taylonn’s little girl, Chicken,” Arnita Brockington said. “And a lot of kids from Manhattanville are angry my son is under arrest and in prison. There’s still a lot of hurting on both sides.”
Murphy and Haynes have physically intervened in the feud. They have put their bodies on the line. Pacing the courtyards and streets of Harlem, they reach out to teens who are on the verge of violence, making efforts to negotiate a peace. For a while they were successful. A truce held, but it has since fallen apart.
An Old Feud Fueled By Desperation and Made Deadly by Guns
Dedications to the dead like those to Chicken are familiar in the Grant Houses, as they are less than a mile away and just across Broadway at the Manhattanville Houses. The two apartment complexes sit on superblocks on the northwest corner of Harlem, just a few blocks from Columbia University, which is in the process of building a new science center right in between the houses.
Like much of gentrified New York, the neighborhood has recently transformed in ways that are hard to believe. But even as newer and richer residents have moved in, the prospects for the teenagers in the houses have remained stagnant at best. Occasionally a side street shuts down and some do-gooders roll out a lopsided basketball hoop on wheels, or a scuffed ping pong table or some other ramshackle distraction. But most of the time, it’s a life of monotony. School and the streets, streets and school. No community center, no programs.
“Myself, and Arnita and Taylonn, we’re adamant about this,” Haynes said. “We have a big issue here. Kids are going to die. We negotiated a truce, we got these kids to put their guns down for a while, and check their bad attitudes and be neutral. But there’s only so much we could do.”
The violence can break out anywhere. Haynes and Murphy recalled an incident at the pool over the summer. Some Manhattanville youths saw some Grant youths in the public pool and the two groups collided at the fence and threatened each other through the fence. The violence grew so bad at the juvenile detention facilities that the arrestees from the two houses needed to be sent to different boroughs to keep them from fighting while in custody.
The most recent incident reported to police in this boredom-fueled blood feud occurred a few weeks ago. Some teenagers from the Grant Houses attacked a 17-year-old boy from Manhattanville near a store on Old Broadway.The victim was beaten with an unknown object and suffered cuts to his head and chest. Javon Peterson, 16, and Terrance Milton, 21, were arrested and charged with second degree gang assault, according to police.
A trip to the Lincoln Fried Chicken near Old Broadway, a contested neutral zone where much of the violence occurs, can lead to a brick attack, or a beat down. Often, the victims of these non-life threatening attacks don’t even bother reporting these incidents to police. They bring them back to their people at the houses.
Haynes and Murphy said the local children are indoctrinated into the feud at younger and younger ages. They said boys as young as 11 and 12 are recruited by the older teenagers to start scrums with the children from the other complex. They’ll have them collect rocks, bottles, and any projectiles they can find on the street or rummage from a city garbage can, and go and throw them at their rivals. These lead to fights that lead to beatings that lead to retaliation until the violence ends at the end of the barrel of a gun. And then the cycle of vengeance starts up again.
A Killer’s Mother, A Victim’s Father and a Desperate Plea
It all started with a dance.
Eli Haynes Jr., a 15-year-old, had attended a party one summer night in 1972. He would not make it home to his apartment in the Manhattanville Houses. A trifling dispute over a girl and a dance that lasted too long led to a gun brandished by one of the boys. Eli ran to break it up and was shot. He bled to death on the basketball court. Haynes was 10 when his brother was gunned down. He remembers the frantic moments when the news reached his house, even now as he tries to end the violence that some residents say started this rivalry.
“This right here, we’re two minutes from Ground Zero, so put your helmets on,” Haynes says with a smile.
On the route from Grant to Manhattanville he gives a running commentary of the rivalry.
“A boy was stomped there,” he said pointing to a stretch of wide sidewalk. “Over there one was attacked with bottles. They’ll move from their fists to bottles, from bottles to bats, from bats to knives, and from knives to the gun.”
On the way he runs into an old friend. The Mighty Mike Cee started his rap group in 1972, the same year the feud caught its first body, Haynes’s bother Eli. The band was named the Fearless Four, and it featured two members from Grant and two from Manhattanville. Back then it was no big deal. Now the Mighty Mike Cee, a father of two daughters in Manhattanville, said such a thing would be unimaginable.
“These same kids who are firing at each other and whatnot are the same kids who are going to school with each other,” he said. “It’s about the kids. Ever since that night Chicken got killed there’s been major beef. These kids hope to harm each other.”
Haynes continues his routine patrol, walking back and forth between the Grant and Manhattanville houses when a young man catches his eye. Earlier in the year, Haynes met this boy after he had been arrested and brought into the Bronx juvenile correctional facility where Haynes works. The boy, 16 and a resident of the Grant Houses, recognized Haynes as a prominent resident from Manhattanville. The boy made Haynes a promise that night. He told Haynes that as soon as he got out he’d take care of him on the street.
Now, months later, he is walking along Broadway with a friend near 126th Street. This is the first time they have seen each other since the boy made the threat. Haynes pulls him aside.
“Hey,” he calls out. “You remember me,” he asks with a knowing smile.
A look of recognition flashes on the boy’s face. Haynes approaches him.
“How you doing?”
“Nothing,” the boy responds sullenly.
“What are you doing?”
“You know, chilling,” he responds.
They exchange a few words. Haynes asks if he needs anything. The boy shakes his head sheepishly.
“A job,” he answers without hesitation.
“We’re working on it,” Haynes said, clasping the young man’s hand and pulling him affectionately into his chest . “We’re working on it.”
Both Sides of the Gun
Haynes and Murphy envision turning Old Broadway, the ground zero of all the violence, into a demilitarized zone -- a permanent “play street.” They want to convert two abandoned, shuttered beauty salons into youth community centers, staffed with mediators, intervenors with moral authority, seen by youths from both sides as credible.
“We all are coming together to try to get this thing squashed,” Haynes said. “It’s rare to have parents from both sides of the gun to come together and and bring a message of peace to the community.”
The young people tell Brockington and Haynes and Murphy that they respect what the three survivors are doing. But they add, they need more than three symbols; they need something to do.
“These programs do more than just get them off the street,” Murphy said. “It does more than give them opportunity to get employment. It gives them something else they need -- to show them that someone out there cares,” he said as he walked through the courtyard of the Grant Houses, nodding and making himself visible to anyone who might need his counsel.
While Arnita and Taylonn have been able to set aside their differences, their children have not. Naquan Brockington, Arnita’s son and Tyshawn’s younger brother, and Bam Bam Murphy, Chicken’s younger brother, still resent each other.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of people who are willing to do it, I caught a lot of heat for it, from my mother and my children, but they’re coming around slowly but surely.” “Once we start thinking this is a normal way of life then we’re basically committing to genocide.”
A Passport For Success
It was cramped and hot in the Community Board building. Members from both houses, some of whom had fought in the past, sat scrunched together around a small office table. Outside, Old Broadway had been converted for the day into a “Play Street” with a basketball hoop rolled out for the local youth to shoot around.
A mix of community affairs officers and patrol cops from the 26th Precinct lingered at the end of the street. Inside, Theodore Gershon, an adviser in his 60s from Columbia University’s community affairs office, led a jobs seminar organized by Murphy and Haynes. They described it as a “baby step,” a way to get the two sides to sit down and focus on something other than revenge. Gershon would later comment on how he had never felt so much tension in a room before.
Gershon explained to the teenagers and young adults in attendance, among them Tayshana’s brother, that this was a long step in the often frustrating process of just being able to get a chance to get an opportunity to get in a line for a job. He handed out some forms and leaflets. One of them read: “My Passport For Success” and had bullet points of advice on how to secure and keep a job: “Attitude and Behavior, Initiate and Seek Opportunities, Adapt to change.”
As Gershon walked everyone through what to fill out and where to send it, Bam Bam, 17, noticed through the window that Tyshawn Brockington kept riding and popping wheelies on his bike to get his rivals attention and glowering at him. Bam Bam’s friend elbowed him and motioned with a meaningful expression to Brockington’s display. Their eyes met through the window. Bam Bam exploded.
“This is bullshit man,” he barked. “We need jobs now. Not these forms,” he said slamming his fists on the table.
He got up and headed for the door with his friend in tow. Taylonn hustled after him. Father and son, exchanged heated words. Bam Bam tensed up. Across the street, Brockington kept staring. The young residents from both sides were waiting for something to happen. Police noticed the tension and got ready to move.
Taylonn calmed his son down enough to send him in the direction of the Grant Houses and away from Brockington. He stalked off agitated, but he left without incident.
Afterward, Taylonn was in good spirits.
“That was the first time they’ve been together since Chicken was killed where they have gotten into a physical confrontation,” he said beaming.
We Ain’t No Gang
After Bam Bam left, Arnita led her son over to Gershon. The two had a long conversation, and Brockington took his card with a promise to call him soon.
Bam Bam has a disarming, wide smile and a tattoo that runs the length of his arm that reads “Loyalty Over Love.” It took awhile, he said, for him to come to terms with his father’s mission to embrace the mother of the rival who murdered his sister. And there are times when it’s harder to accept than others.
“At the end of the day we took a loss, we lost my sister, and people have a certain feeling over that,” he said.
He said he is frustrated that outsiders see him and his friends as irredeemable thugs. He says he is just as frustrated by the violence.
“We’re out here strong,” he said. “They labeled us a gang. We ain’t no gang. We just grew up together. We don’t have secret meetings or talk about stuff like that.”
Bam Bam made a motion with his fingers indicating money.
“Listen, man, if we had some money, if we had jobs,” he made a sweeping gesture with his arms taking in both projects. “This whole thing, this beef? There’d be no beef. No one would care.”
Naquan Brockington, although he would never admit in front of Bam Bam, agrees.
“I don’t know why we’re fighting,” he said after a long pause. “We don’t know what we’re fighting for really. Hopefully before someone dies again this thing will be squashed. Nobody knows. Maybe if we had some jobs out here, something to do, we wouldn’t be fighting.”
Brockington said his brother gave him a message to deliver to his people in Manhattanville.
“He tells them all to stop fighting. He gave the call to stop fighting. He don’t want them to be where he’s at. He looks at it, like, that his life is already gone, it’s over. He doesn’t want me or his friends in the situation he in -- behind bars facing 25 to life.”
He talks about his brother obliquely, without explicitly mentioning the killing.
“It’s stressful,” he said about his brother in jail, possibly for the rest of his life. “I’m sad. I’m missing him. I hate that he put himself in that predicament. He don’t really talk about it. When I see him he says he just wants to come home.
“They be trying to stop it, but there’s nothing they can do. They can’t stop it. The only way it’s going to stop is if we stop it. Some of them is listening, but I can’t stop tell them what to do, they’re the same age as me.”
“I want to go to a safe place”
The last thing Venus Singleton remembers hearing as she sat on a bench outside of her building on 550 125th St. in the Grant Houses before the gun shots was her son LaQuint’s voice. He was warning her and his little brother to get inside.
“He went to the little chicken place around the corner,” she said recalling the evening. “He yelled, ‘Mom! You and Karron get back in the building!’ I wasn’t confused. I saw like nine of them together. I yelled at my little son to get back in the building and that’s when it happened.”
She heard five shots. The dents from the bullets are visible on a column above her head where she stands and recounts what happened that evening. Everybody was running up the path toward the building in a frenzy, but not LaQuint. She pushed past the frenzied crowd and headed toward the sound of the gunfire.
“Everybody was running one way and I was going the other,” she said. “Where the hell was LaQuint at? That’s all I was thinking. I needed to see where my son was at.”
When she saw him, at the spot where the pathway meets the sidewalk, lying in a burgeoning pool of his own blood, she thought he was dead.
And then he lifted his head.
“‘Mom calm down,’ he told me,” she said. “‘It don’t hurt that much. I’m money,’ he told me.”
Singleton saw the gunman and his accomplices running across the street toward Old Broadway and the Manhattanville Houses. Someone nearby flagged down a patrol car and paramedics were called. While he was lifted into the back of the ambulance, LaQuint confided to his mother: “I can’t cry, mom. I can’t cry. I can’t cry.”
“It was a lot of pride,” she said. “He wouldn’t drop a tear.”
Singleton said she does not know what the answers are. She said the inexplicable feelings these children have toward each other show no signs of letting up. She wants someone to do something, but isn’t certain what that is.
“In the last few years there have been more shootings, more gunshots, it ain’t getting better, it’s just getting worse,” she said. “A lot of mothers are going to cry if we don’t do something about this. It’s a life or death situation for my sons and I want to go to a safe place but I don’t know where that is.”
A lot changed for Singleton after the shooting. The light went out in LaQuint’s eyes, she said. He used to be full of energy. Now, she said, he just sits and stares. She had to learn how to change a colostomy bag. She consults a sheet obsessively to make sure she is properly following the instructions.
She has learned that the type of bowel movements her son has and the type of bag he uses affects how long to keep the pouch on. He doesn’t have the disposable bags. So she needs to be attentive to wash them out thoroughly. She made an anguished sound trying to explain the sense of shame she felt being disgusted having to handle her son’s excrement.
At first, the process would make her dry heave, but she has started to get used to it. She still calls the nurses several times a day to make sure she doesn’t make a mistake. She worries if she does, that he’ll get an infection. Then, she’ll make things worse than they already are.
It’s part of the game. Because you got to establish a certain thing. You got to establish some fear in that female in order to get that respect. You have to really show that girl — if you told that girl you was gonna kill her, when it come time to [fighting], you have to almost kill her, to beg her to say, “Daddy, no please don’t kill me.” You have to be that serious.
(*Editor’s note: “Laura Abasi,” “DJ,” and “Quinn” are not the characters’ real names. All other names in the story are real.)
In early spring of 2004, Laura Abasi stepped out the passenger side of a white Mercedes coupe and onto a red carpet. Laura, 21, didn’t have much time to get ready for the event, an album premiere party at an entertainment studio on Manhattan’s west side.
It didn’t matter. DJ had walked into her room about 30 minutes before they had to leave and thrust a shopping bag at her. She slipped on its contents — a knee-length, multi-colored, long-sleeved wrap dress and strappy black stiletto heels. Both items fit perfectly. DJ knew her size — her body — better than she did.
At the party, DJ strode into a thicket of artists and music industry execs flitting around the crowded studio. DJ was Laura’s pimp, and he had purchased her outfit for the occasion. He knew some of the famous faces at the party through his boss, a Billboard chart-topping rapper. DJ introduced Laura to his boss and his wife, and maybe two other men in suits. Of course, DJ referred to Laura as “Amber,” her professional alias. She hadn’t heard “Laura,” her given name, since she was a teenager.
DJ’s boss knew he was a pimp. He had even cast DJ as a pimp in a recent music video, but MTV cut the scene when producers realized DJ wasn’t acting. If anyone else at the party understood or even wondered about DJ and Laura’s relationship, they didn’t indicate it.
“This is Amber,” DJ said.
Laura had turned her first trick on February 1, 2000, for a pimp named Quinn. The Kenyan-born, 5-foot-11 high school dropout thought she would become a model. At 18, she was old for a “green” prostitute — pimps usually “break” girls before they reach 14. And, with her doctor father and middle-class upbringing, Laura had seen more Volvos and college pamphlets than most trafficking victims ever would. Laura’s family emigrated to the U.S. when she was a baby and eventually settled down in a suburban part of Queens.
Laura was a high-worth prospect, so Quinn didn’t rush the “seasoning” process. Laura was 15 when Quinn, who was in his 20s, stopped in the market where she worked after school. He posed as a hopeful suitor, and then a trustworthy boyfriend, until Laura believed her captor was her soul mate. Once Laura moved into Quinn’s apartment — just a few subway stops away from her parents’ house — the road from impressionable teenager to brainwashed chattel proved to be short. Laura went into hibernation and out popped Amber, a hardscrabble bitch who could tell an eager john by his gait.
But Amber really took over when DJ entered the picture. They met in late 2000, when DJ’s Escalade rolled up next to her on Broadway and 55th street.
“Bitch, you mines now,” DJ had said.
When Laura didn’t hop in the car, DJ opened the back door to offer proof of ownership. Laura saw everything she owned strewn across the back seat, indicating that Quinn had traded her. She understood that DJ was now her pimp, so she acquiesced and moved into his New Jersey McMansion that night.
Since then, Laura had dangled on DJ’s arm at a number of industry parties. She knew she wasn’t a guest, so she never acted like one. As usual, she didn’t take hors d’oeuvres from trays or even go to the bathroom. Instead, she stood in a corner while DJ sidled up to celebrities.
Someone else may have felt awkward standing alone at a party, but Laura didn’t. Feeling awkward would have required Laura to think critically about how other people saw her. Laura hadn’t thought for or about herself in years.
Like thousands of other American girls, Laura gave up control of her mind when she fell into pimp-controlled street prostitution, a rampant form of human sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is a type of modern day slavery and, according to New York State Law, occurs when people profit from the control and exploitation of others through sex. The idea that street prostitutes exercise free will is a lie, according to advocates and former victims. Pimps target vulnerable girls — often runaways, foster children, undocumented immigrants, and victims of physical and sexual abuse.
Laura’s story, as bracing and violent as it gets, is not uncommon in New York, the country’s fourth-largest hub for human trafficking. Until 2007, sexually exploited children like Laura were criminals under state law. But in the past seven years, through anti-trafficking legislation and judicial reform, activists and lawmakers have worked to change the laws so that sexually exploited youth are treated as victims, not criminals.
Laura didn’t wonder why the outside world — white-collared men, rappers, neighbors, and town car drivers — either overlooked what DJ did or, often, helped him do it. She didn’t find it upsetting, or even odd, that people saw pimps like DJ as hard-knocks heroes — and women like Laura as property. Survival instinct and delusion subdued any impulse to question DJ’s perverted version of the truth.
For instance, DJ often said, “I love you so much, you’re gonna make me kill you.”
Wow, he loves me that much, Laura would only think in reply.
Although Laura stood in silence, the party itself was loud. Bass-heavy tracks competed with the din of conversations that surrounded her. She watched hip-hop artists toss back champagne and throw up crossed, sideways peace signs for photos. She might have ordered champagne herself, but DJ prohibited alcohol — he thought drunkenness was unladylike.
DJ did, however, endorse drug use, and dispensed generous helpings of whatever his girls needed to meet their nightly quotas. Some girls liked the hallucinogenic haze of an ecstasy-and-weed cocktail. Others preferred to turn tricks on a cocksure cocaine high. And then some girls liked the hard stuff. But drinking enabled sloppy behavior that threatened DJ’s control, and he didn’t tolerate it.
After a few hours of partying, DJ collected Laura to leave. They stopped at a diner in Weehawken, N.J. on the way home for a late night snack. DJ talked, cracked jokes and shared observations.
Laura ordered her favorite treat, pigs in a blanket, and responded when summoned. She knew to limit her contributions to conversations.
“Yes, Daddy,” and, when appropriate, “No, Daddy.” And after five years under pimp-rule, she knew to use the word “no” sparingly.
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After five years under pimp-rule, she knew to use the word “no” sparingly.
In late spring 2004, about two months after the rap album party, DJ called Laura and told her to cut the night short. Laura usually got home from work around 7 a.m. and flopped on her bed to watch reruns of the family sitcom "Home Improvement." DJ occasionally joined her. But that night, Laura walked through the door around 1 a.m. and found DJ sitting on the living room couch with a piece of loose-leaf paper in his hand. It was Laura’s to-do-list, which included a reminder to send her mother $2,000.
DJ just stared at Laura when she refused to give him a straight answer about the $2,000 on the list. He looked stunned. Until that night, he trusted her more than anyone — more than his mother Lil’ Ma; even more than his now dead attorney, Russell Paisley, who kept DJ, and a lot of New York pimps, out of jail and in the game year after year.
DJ’s steady timbre escalated into a gravelly bark and Laura, wise to his temper, took off. She dashed up the stairs and into her bedroom. Although her room provided little refuge, Laura didn’t consider going anywhere else. By that point, she had been arrested on prostitution-related charges over 20 times. To the justice system, she wasn’t a girl in need — she was just a criminal. And to the outside world, she was a whore going nowhere.
Laura waited at the far corner of her room, bracing for DJ’s attack. Like all pimps, DJ had strict rules. The handful of girls who rotated through DJ’s house couldn’t leave without permission or keep the money they earned from prostitution. Laura, in particular, could make over $10,000 a week — sometimes, she made that much in one day. Every penny was supposed to go to DJ. He bought everything Laura owned or used, from floor-length furs she wore while turning tricks to Tylenol and tampons.
But Laura had secretly held on to some of her earnings. She had hidden rolled-up bills in condoms, and stashed the condoms in Arm & Hammer baking soda boxes scattered around the house.
While Quinn avoided Laura’s face when he beat her, DJ didn’t care. DJ was a “Gorilla Pimp,” a distinction reserved for pimps who dole out near-fatal beatings on autopilot. DJ even preferred to have sex with Laura right after he beat her, before the slippery blood in her weave dried into clumps. She called it “grudge-fucking,” but it was textbook rape.
DJ kicked open Laura's door and stood in the doorway. His rabid gaze said he was angrier than usual. He’d ditched Laura’s to-do list and grabbed tools from his arsenal: his “nookie,” a whip made from twisted clothes hangers, and a metal bat.
He rushed at Laura, hurling his fists into her head. He swatted at her face until her eye sockets and lips swelled into bloody pillows of flesh. Then he proceeded to ransack her room for the money. Laura knew that she didn’t leave her to-do list lying around. Another girl in the house had found it while rooting around her room, and then gamely placed it in DJ’s hands.
He cut open her pillows and mattress, and pulled apart her dresser. Oh God, don’t tip over the baking soda, Laura thought. But, when he came up empty-handed, DJ turned on Laura again.
DJ beat her until after the sun came up, making sure to immobilize her so she couldn’t grab the hidden money and flee. Laura fought back until her kneecaps gave out, and screamed until blows to her face rendered her mute. But she didn’t cry. She never cried during beatings, even when DJ left her with “tiger stripes,” lines of open wounds in her back.
Grueling sensations hit every nerve ending in her body. She couldn’t distinguish stinging lacerations from throbbing joints. She assumed this was the feeling of dying. As hours passed, she grew numb to the deafening pain.
Sometime that morning an older white man entered Laura’s room, where her swollen body languished on the bed. Swaths of blood had turned the white wall beside her into a grisly canvas. Laura recognized the man as a doctor who sometimes visited the house after beatings. DJ only endorsed hospital visits when the doctor believed girls would die from their injuries.
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DJ only endorsed hospital visits when the doctor believed girls would die from their injuries.
DJ stood at the door while the doctor poked at Laura’s eyes and palpated her bruised neck. Although she wouldn’t walk for two months, and a broken rib made it hard to take even shallow breaths, the doctor decided she wasn’t about to die. So the two men left the room.
Laura had seen DJ morph into a monster many times since receiving her first beating at 18. Usually, she just vied harder for his love. But that night changed things. For the first time, DJ questioned her loyalty — and so did Laura.
Six months later, in October 2004, Laura tore away from the curb of the Plaza Hotel in the royal blue SUV DJ had bought her to use in "the life." This was her first chance to escape since she tried to leave DJ two months earlier. Her first attempt failed because DJ had secretly put GPS tracking devices on her car and phone.
Laura enjoyed three days of freedom before DJ captured her and left her naked and penniless in a hotel off the highway in southern New Jersey for four days. Then, he brought her to his house and locked her up again — for a month. DJ eventually released Laura to go turn tricks, but only under supervision of Kimmie, another girl in the house.
Laura and Kimmie went out together the next day. Laura tricked Kimmie into leaving her alone in the car while Kimmie met a client at the Plaza. Once Laura felt that Kimmie’s date was well underway, she hopped into the driver’s seat and took off.
Laura called her friend Tonya to meet her at the Queens Midtown tunnel, trembling as she coordinated her getaway. Laura decided to ditch the car and her phone across town from the tunnel because she knew DJ tracked them. So she drove to a garage by the Westside Highway, handed the car to a valet, and threw out her phone. Then she trekked back across Manhattan in four-inch heels to meet Tonya.
After moving onto Tonya’s couch, Laura burned all reminders of DJ — clothing, underwear, photos, and tchotchkes. But she didn’t cut ties with the life. Prostitution provided fast, easy money, and Laura had grown accustomed to a lifestyle that minimum wage work couldn’t support.
She feared DJ, not the johns, or “tricks,” whom she considered easy to manipulate. Sometimes, her clientele of mostly middle-aged and older white men paid $3,000 a night for intricate dry humping. Laura didn’t see any reason to get a regular job.
In August 2010, almost six years after leaving DJ, Laura walked into a Manhattan holding precinct on Varick Street in a lightweight work dress and heavy handcuffs. Once inside, the officer hollered that he had “another body coming downstairs.” Laura realized she was the body.
Can’t they use any other word?
She began to scream at the officer.
“My name is fucking Laura,” she said. “Laura Abasi, motherfucker.”
Laura didn’t know why she had to sit in the precinct in the first place. If she had one person to blame, it was Norma Platt. Too bad she didn’t exist.
When Laura started turning tricks in 2000, Quinn told her to identify herself to police as Norma Platt. When Laura moved in with DJ later that year, he gave her fake identity documents bearing Norma’s name. Because she incurred all 24 arrests as Norma, Laura technically fled DJ with a clean record.
Norma’s checkered past, however, caught up with Laura at JFK airport in the summer of 2008, on her way home from her grandmother’s funeral in Kenya.
JFK customs officials took her fingerprints and Norma’s criminal record popped up. This detainment triggered two years of court date postponements that Laura didn’t take seriously. Getting caught, however, compelled her to quit the life for good.
Eventually, on an August morning in 2010, Laura’s court date arrived. She expected to get a fine, at most. Instead, she ended up handcuffed in the back of an unmarked Chevy Impala. Immigration Customs Enforcement officers whisked her to the Varick Street holding Precinct. Later that night, ICE hauled her off to Monmoth County Correctional Institution in Freehold, New Jersey.
Six months later, on December 18, 2010, Laura milled around the prison common room after dinner. She wore long underwear below her burgundy standard-issue jumpsuit to keep warm. She knew ICE sent her to prison for “crimes of moral turpitude,” but she wasn’t sure what moral turpitude meant.
Previous experiences made her wary of lawyers, so she didn’t seek out any representation. Lawyers, however, came to her. In October, two Legal Aid attorneys visited the prison and told Laura she may get deported based on her prostitution history.
Laura didn’t know when her sentence would be over, but she hoped it wouldn’t last too long. So she sat tight and waited to bid goodbye to the 149 other female inmates to whom she spoke as little as possible.
Around 8 p.m., Laura heard a prison guard bellow her name from across the common area.
“Pack it up,” he said, without further explanation.
Laura didn’t comprehend that she had been discharged until the other inmates started clapping.
Packing didn’t take long. Laura retrieved the dress she’d worn to jail and threw books in a plastic bag. On her way out, the prison guard handed her a bus ticket, and pointed her towards a station across a wooded area. The temperature lingered somewhere below freezing and the air assaulted her bones, but she didn’t care.
Following the guard’s directions, Laura ambled through the brush in the general direction of a bus station. After about 45 minutes, she reached a thoroughfare lined with stores. A middle-aged man asked her if she had come from jail, and told her she missed a bus to Manhattan. Then, she heard someone yell her name.
Just a hallucination, she thought.
She turned around and saw her best friend Natalie’s Chinchilla jacket. She had no idea how Natalie knew she was there, but she didn’t care. They hotfooted towards each other, shrieking with delight.
On Laura's way to the car, the middle-aged man asked for her bus ticket.
Why the hell not, she thought, and handed it over.
Almost a year later, in November 2011, Laura walked down a cobbled side street in lower Manhattan with one of her Legal Aid attorneys, Meredith Ryan. Laura had an appointment at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit organization that provided counseling and legal services to victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking. Ryan had reached out to Dorchen Leidholdt, a sex trafficking expert and the legal director at Sanctuary, to prepare for Laura’s deportation hearing.
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Laura couldn’t see herself as a survivor of modern day slavery, or a casualty of a culture and legal system that patted pimps on the backs and then slapped handcuffs on their human cash cows.
Leidholdt had reviewed Laura’s case and determined she was a clear victim of sex trafficking. She saw Laura as a potential candidate for a New York State court process called vacatur, which could expunge her prostitution arrests. Vacatur entailed a separate legal proceeding because prostitution fell under state jurisdiction, whereas federal law controlled immigration.
The idea of another hearing exhausted Laura, but what choice did she have? The past year had been a whirlwind of setbacks. Laura moved in with Natalie after she left jail, and spent a month in a depressed haze. She lost her car and apartment from delinquent payments. Her boyfriend broke up with her. She didn’t have a job. And deportation still loomed on the horizon.
At Sanctuary’s unmarked offices, Laura met Leidholdt and Emily Amick, a young staff attorney. Laura told Amick her story through DJ’s eyes — a beautiful girl lured into a fast life of glamour and money. Laura couldn’t see herself as a survivor of modern day slavery, or a casualty of a culture and legal system that patted pimps on the backs and then slapped handcuffs on their human cash cows.
After Laura finished relaying her saga, Leidholdt and Amick said a lot of things that Laura didn’t understand. She cringed when they called her a victim, but she tried to suppress her frustration. Laura wanted to grab a cab home to Queens and sleep off the meeting.
She agreed, however, to join the three attorneys for lunch. Laura normally shied away from groups of women — flocks, she termed them. But she figured she’d be seeing these women a lot. So, she tried to get comfortable with them.
In April 2012, Laura, now 30, woke up in an Albany Ramada Inn well before her alarm blared. She’d spent many nights in hotel beds with clients, but this time she shared a suite with her attorneys. She had packed black business attire because the occasion called for it, not because men fawned over a hooker who looked like a CEO. Laura had agreed to tell her story at the state legislature to support the latest bill in a wave of anti-sex trafficking legislation.
New York State made sex trafficking a crime in 2007. The Legislature passed a law to recognize children and teenagers inveigled into prostitution as victims of trafficking. Before then, they were criminally liable sex workers.
Amick begged Laura to prepare remarks for her speech, but she decided to wing it. She performed better off the cuff. Laura hadn’t shared her story in public before, and she wasn’t looking forward to it. But, she knew that lawmakers needed to understand why sex trafficking was so lucrative and hard to curb.
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“He beat me every day — I have scars on my face, my scalp just so he could have that control, that mind control.”
Laura knew from experience that a female body was a more valuable commodity than any illicit good. DJ could have moved several kilos of high-grade heroin a week or sold shiny black Colt 45s by the trunkful, but pimping was a better bet. Higher earnings, lower penalties — the career criminal’s dream. Laura felt a duty to help squash that squalid dream, even if deportation followed.
Laura approached the podium around 9 a.m. and stood before about 30 elected officials. Her name-tag said “Kenya,” the name she chose when her attorneys said she needed a protective alias until her cases ended. Laura locked eyes with Amick and Leidholdt when she started speaking. When she felt tears forming, she tilted her head towards the ceiling. She no longer sounded like DJ’s publicist.
“He beat me every day — I have scars on my face, my scalp,” she said. “Just so he could have that control, that mind control.”
She described a law enforcement system that didn’t try to protect her.
“I was a child,” she said. “I didn’t know any better. I had no one to assist me. I had no one to go to. The police failed me. The judge failed me. Everyone around me failed me. The only one I thought was there for me was my pimp.”
She lamented the label “prostitute.”
“I’m at the point where I just feel worthless because I have this word “prostitution” follow me everywhere. I’m not a prostitute. I’m a good woman.”
The label would follow her for at least another year, until her vacatur hearing. Laura was among the first persons who could request to vacate prostitution arrests based on her trafficking status. A 2010 bill made vacatur an explicit legal recourse for trafficking victims — which meant sex workers who could show that their pimps kept them in prostitution through coercive tactics that included supplying drugs, withholding identification documents, lying, and threatening physical injury, deportation or public exposure.
Bill by bill, statute by statute, the state Legislature created a new legal system. It not only decriminalized prostitution for trafficking victims, but also gave girls like Laura the chance to re-enter society without stigma.
These anti-trafficking efforts were a huge coup, yet the laws still had gaps and loopholes. New York State was the fourth biggest hub for an industry that dealt primarily in young girls. Slavery was a bustling business, in New York and elsewhere.
When Laura finished speaking, Amick paraded her through a receiving line of lawmakers. In Amick’s eyes, Laura had graduated from survivor to leader. But Laura didn’t see it that way. She was just a woman telling her story, and she was exhausted.
A year later, in June 2013, Laura stood before a judge in a midtown courtroom for her vacatur hearing. Her legal team included Leidholdt, Amick, Ryan, and two more pro-bono attorneys from the white shoe firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. After months of arduous prep, the hearing only took 10 minutes. Laura’s attorneys presented documents. Then the judge shuffled the documents and struck her gavel against the wooden bench.
The judge vacated all 24 prostitution arrests, which meant that Laura would likely get to stay in the country. ICE had moved to deport her based on crimes of moral turpitude. Her newly clean record, however, bore no signs of moral turpitude. So ICE had no reason to send her back to Kenya.
Laura breathed a loud sigh of relief. She had lived in a daze for two years. Without any way to orient herself in the world, nothing quite made sense. But now, with a clean record, Laura could restart her life.
After hugging her lawyers outside the courthouse, Laura left by herself. She wandered into a restaurant on Broadway for a sit-down lunch. She liked dining alone.
Three months later, Laura arrived at the midtown offices of the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell for The Abely Awards, an annual event to honor domestic violence victim advocates. She walked over to the sign-in table to get her name tag, which said, “Kenya” in black lettering. The Kenya era, however, had ended on August 15, when Laura won her deportation hearing.
With both her prostitution offenses vacated and her deportation order reversed, Laura could resume control over her life. She could call herself whatever she wanted. Laura didn’t fear rebuke from DJ, but her attorneys considered him dangerous and wanted Laura to keep her protective alias. So, she was Kenya for the night.
Women dominated the event, but Judge Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York, was the man of the hour. A week earlier, Lippman had announced the creation of 11 Human Trafficking Intervention Courts to handle all prostitution cases that went past arraignment. The statewide system would be the first of its kind.
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Not all people in prostitution were trafficking victims, but many were. And at least half of these victims were children.
Specially trained judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors would jointly evaluate cases with a focus on providing defendants with social services rather than prison sentences. The creation of the courts reflected the basic tenet behind anti-trafficking legislation: the criminal justice system should treat people charged with prostitution as victims, not defendants.
Social services, including shelter, therapy, job training and immigration support, could help people leave prostitution for good. Not all people in prostitution were trafficking victims, but many were. And at least half of these victims were children.
Judge Lippman’s announcement came as a surprise, even to insiders like Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who authored New York’s Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, among other anti-trafficking legislation.
After Lippman accepted his award, Laura joined Leidholdt to introduce another honoree and one of Laura’s pro bono attorneys, Samidh Guha. During his short speech, Guha told the audience how Laura turned herself into the police when she didn’t meet her nightly quota. She knew DJ would beat her if she didn’t bring home enough money. Jail was a less daunting prospect.
Laura pointed her phone at Guha and joked about Instagramming the event. But as he shared snippets of her trafficking experience, Laura’s face gelled into a sober stare, and she looked up. She had never heard someone else tell her story. Coming from Guha, whom Laura regarded as a legal shark with deceptively sweet blue eyes, the details of her life sounded savage.
She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath.
“OK, I think I deserve some wine now.”
It was Thanksgiving day, and no one ordered the turkey dinner. As usual, the smell of drawn butter clung to Laura’s apron as she carted around platters of battered shrimp. Laura scanned the few occupied tables in her section and wondered why she agreed to work on Thanksgiving.
Laura began waiting tables at a seafood restaurant after she got out of prison. In the summer, tourists filed into the kitschy eatery for jumbo portions of deep-fried seafood, but cold November weather brought sparser crowds. At times, when Laura collected checks, she couldn’t help but think back to the days when she made $30,000 in one sleepless weekend.
She didn’t mind waitressing. She was good at it, and her coworkers treated her like family. But Laura couldn’t deny that she missed the rush of cramming stacks of hundred-dollar-bills into her purse.
People who weren’t in the life — who didn’t understand the life — were “squares.” Laura knew she could never make it as a square. She tried to leave Amber behind when she left DJ. It didn’t work. At 32, with a clean record, Laura felt ready to start over. But this time, she accepted that Amber was part of her.
Once Laura recognized some of Amber’s contributions to her personality — brazen, strategic, unfazed by attention — she realized she needed to make use of them. Laura used to dread talking to strangers about her past, but she’d come to enjoy it. In the coming months, Laura would appear on the CW news to talk about sex trafficking at the Super Bowl. And in March, she’ll participate in a United Nations panel about prostitution as sex work.
Laura wanted to choose a career that would enable her newfound interest in public speaking — law seemed like a good fit. She once thought of lawyers as paid liars, but then they became her liberators. Some attorneys, she learned, worked hard to do good. Laura now thought she might want to be one of them.
CHICAGO - Violence stalks Chicago’s streets, but when faced with staunchly rising homicide rates that show no sign of ebbing, residents’ capacity to tolerate the state of crime drains by the day.
After Hadiya Pendleton performed with her high school marching band during the presidential inauguration two weeks ago, the King College Prep teen became Chicago’s 42nd homicide victim of 2013 when she was gunned down on Chicago’s South Side – the unintended victim of a gang dispute.
Her death added to a January homicide toll that was the bloodiest since 2002, according to Chicago Police reports, suggesting that despite wide attention to Chicago’s murder woes, shifts in policing strategy and big promises by powerful politicians, there will be no immediate respite to the escalating violence that claimed more than 500 in 2012.
The ups and downs of Chicago’s homicide toll over the past six years/Graphic by Lynne Carty/The Chicago Bureau
Perhaps it’s because Pendleton performed for Obama, or maybe because she starred in an anti-gang public service announcement four years ago (Pendleton PSA) pleading for an end to the chaos, but the nation has embraced this 15-year-old as a symbol and not just another statistic.
As for those who study crime, who write about it and opine about it in Chicago, the nation’s murder capital, the question remains whether it will really matter:
“There is action because of the attention but it is not clear that it will work,” said University of Illinois at Chicago’s Dick Simpson, a known political expert and former alderman who recently studied the nexus of drugs, gangs and police corruption.
The recent moves by City Hall and police brass, for example, are not only an open question for Simpson but do not impress the likes of Tracy Siska, whose organization, The Chicago Justice Project, analyzes and presents on police data and statistics.
“The [high crime, and particularly this sensational murder] is nothing new to Chicago and the faux responses will also be nothing new,” he said. “You will see the police author some new plan to ‘really impact violence’ that has little chance of impacting violence.”
So what will it take to really dent the violence that stains the city and its reputation as a tourist, business and social destination? Siska, who recently analyzed crime and economic data in a column posted on the Bureau, said there will be no unraveling the riddle of Chicago’s high crime until the city’s native cycle of poverty is given real attention and ultimately fixed.
“Nothing,” Siska told the Bureau Friday, “will change until we start talking about changing the horrific economic conditions of these communities and the flow of easily available guns from the suburbs of Chicago.”
With gun control dominating public policy debate at every level of government since the Sandy Hook mass shooting, which claimed 20 children, Pendleton’s death is another source of pressure for the nation’s leaders to deliver on anti-violence promises.
Yet strip away Pendleton’s connection to the president – whose Chicago home is a short distance from the murder scene – as well as the politically charged timing of her death, and she becomes like any other bright-eyed victim of rampant child violence.
The fact is that in many neighborhoods, Chicago’s streets, front yards and parks aren’t safe for children to play, and the reasons for that have only increased despite the youth task forces and anti-violence efforts.
In addition, Chicago has pounced on anti-gun initiatives with sweeps, gun swaps and new laws. Hoping to clean the streets of so much weaponry, Chicago Police have turned to gun buybacks. They have staged weapons raids and strictly enforced gun laws by tacking on taxes – and potentially more severe sentences – for committing a crime using, or in possession of, a weapon.
Does it count for much?
Pendleton was hanging out with friends after school in a neighborhood park when an unknown assailant shot her in the back on Tuesday. She died at the scene, but another boy was wounded in the leg and transported to the hospital. It’s an all too familiar scenario for those working in violence reduction, and although Emanuel’s news conference following the tragedy has been met with both doubt and support, activists largely agree that crime is a symptom of deeper-set social illness.
Gary Slutkin, founder of Cure Violence, which employs interruption methods to address crime in individual neighborhoods, sympathized with the mayor’s move to do all he could in the immediate wake of Pendleton’s death. However, he said a complete understanding of Chicago’s violence requires viewing crime as an epidemic to be eradicated through a public health, disease control outreach approach.
“Violence feeds on itself,” Slutkin said of analyzing rising homicide rates in recent months. “The problem has been so refractory for so many years that it hasn’t been completely diagnosed, completely understood. It actually operates through our brain processes of copying and of social belonging, and so you have to use the sciences of interruption and behavior change to effectively get reductions.”
He added that although Pendleton’s story certainly deserves the media spotlight, it’s more imperative that solutions to systemic violence are equally addressed.
In many ways, Emanuel and McCarthy, experts are saying, have reached back to the days of Mayor Richard M. Daley and past police bosses like Terry Hillard with an inching toward more, and closer, interaction between the cops who police our streets and those who live here, run the businesses and community organizations who try to prop up the most at-risk residents and neighborhoods.
The push then, mostly in the 1990s and through the early 2000s, was called community policing and was credited, in some circles, with vastly reducing crime – both nonviolent and violent – in Chicago. But pundits love to dismiss politicians and while others are looking for answers in what Emanuel and McCarthy announced, others, including the union, see it as grandstanding by a mayor who has seen problems with the schools, with violence, with city’s finances, among other issues, in his short tenure.
McCarthy can still stand on statistics showing an overall dip in crime to the lowest level in years. But the sensational – the talked-about – statistic is murder, and Chicago ended 2012 as the nation’s bloodiest city. The murder capital of the United States once again.
In fact, so much has been tried in Chicago, and so much has fallen short – including strict anti-gun laws – that the city is frequently pointed to as an example of where the local anti-gun measures have actually proven a catalyst for the high number of killings here. Rather than blunt crime, the pro-gun lobby has said the strict control over guns in Chicago has contributed to the violence.
That, according to other academic, health and law enforcement studies, is nonsense, with anti-gun groups arguing that more guns leads to more opportunity to kill by intention or accident.
Still, for all the high-minded talk, what the conversation for most Chicagoans and most in the nation boils to is this: A 15-year-old majorette, who spoke out against violence, who did well in school, who was very much a part of her family and neighborhood, is gone. There is now a $30,000 reward for anyone who can provide information about her death.
“These were good kids by everything that I learned,” McCarthy said at a Wednesday news conference. “Wrong place at the wrong time.”
Bureau reporters Safiya Merchant and Lynne Carty contributed to this report
Last Friday 20 children aged six and seven were systematically executed by a young man, who has been politely defined as suffering from a personality disorder, but who in another time would simply have been referred to as a mad man. His baby-killing arsenal included a Glock 9-mm handgun, a Sig Sauer 9-mm handgun and a Bushmaster 223-cal semi-automatic rifle.
Our president brushing tears from his eyes, said, “The majority of those who died today were children -- beautiful, little kids … They had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”
“Our hearts are broken.”
The president wept.
We, as a nation, mourned.
But we as a nation have tolerated a country where gun-related homicide deaths are 20 times greater than any other Western nation. In the last 10 years, more than 140,000 human beings were victims of gun-related homicide, another 208,000 turned guns on themselves, and since 1968 -- the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated -- more than 1 million deaths in the United States were gun related, according to Children’s Defense Fund statistics.
So, we as a nation have mourned a million times over, wiped away torrents of tears -- and have acted as if nothing can be done to stop the mayhem.
I am here to say something can be done – if we want it to be done.
Let me first wind the clock back to 1995, I helped oversee a project called the Minnesota Action Plan to End Gun Violence. We held forums all around Minnesota and talked to more than 500 adults and then an equal number of students at one junior and senior high school complex.
The most important lesson I learned is that a civil discussion can be held around gun violence related issues. People can advance meaningful ways to help reduce the gun violence. I also learned afterwards that the typical way the debate is framed now, whether intentionally or by happenstance, prevents viable solutions from occurring.
Here is an example of what I mean, which I have spoken of many times since. After the publication of the Minnesota Action Plan to End Gun Violence, I was invited to the local public television affiliate with about 100 other people who were working every day to end violence of all kinds. We were asked to sit stadium style before a panel addressing gun violence. It was the type of balanced panel we are all used to seeing. It included an anti-gun person, someone from the NRA, a politician from the far left, one from the far right and a mom whose son had been killed. Remember this is public broadcasting so the producers wanted it to be fair and balanced -- for real. But it took about five minutes for the sides to dig into their positions. If you were watching from home on your TV, you would shake your head and say, this is impossible. You can never reach a middle ground, never do anything to end gun violence. The sides were too far apart.
However, if they had only turned the camera around 180 degrees, there were 100 people who spent every day of their lives trying to end violence. One told me he called himself a straw bearer. He knew he alone could not stop gun violence, but he could do his share, which would be the equivalent of throwing a straw on the camel’s back. If enough others did the same, if everyone threw a straw to end gun violence, then eventually the back of the camel of gun violence would be broken.
The take away: One of us alone, isolated from others probably can’t affect change. However, if we see ourselves as individual straw bearers for change and know others are doing the same, we can collectively accomplish a lot. We did so with drunk driving, we did so with seatbelts and auto safety, and we did so with cigarette smoking. We can do it with gun violence.
There will be push back from the manufacturers who make the baby killer weapons and their overtly and covertly paid minions. Change will not happen overnight, it will happen one straw carried by one straw bearer at a time. But eventually that camel’s back of violence will break and we collectively can take control of the gun violence that plagues every nook and cranny of American life.
On Saturday, Newtown, Conn. officials released the names of the 20 children and six adults slain in last Friday’s shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School. According to initial reports, all of the children killed in the attack were between 6 or 7 years old.
State police say 12 of the young victims were female and eight were boys. All six of the slain adults were female.
H. Wayne Carver II, the state’s chief medical examiner, said it appears as if the victims were all killed using the same firearm. “All the wounds that I know of at this point were cause by the one weapon,” he told CNN.
At a news conference, Carver said while examining seven bodies, he observed that each victim had been shot anywhere from three to 11 times by the alleged gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza.
“I believe everyone was hit more than once,” he said.
Postmortem examinations of the children have been completed, he said, with most of the adult victims examined on Saturday evening. Examinations of the alleged gunman and his mother, Nancy -- found dead in her Newtown home and believed to be the first victim of her son’s rampage -- are scheduled to conclude before the end of the weekend.
Investigators have said Lanza attempted to purchase a firearm at a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Newtown earlier in the week. The weapons Lanza allegedly used in the massacre were all legally purchased by and registered to Nancy Lanza, ABC News reports.
Several law enforcement officials said the alleged gunman was involved in an altercation at the school on Thursday.
Lieutenant J. Paul Vance, Connecticut police spokesman, said Lanza forced his way into the school on Friday morning, and that investigators had uncovered “some very good evidence” regarding possible motives for the attack, according to The New York Times.
For more than two decades, Georgia State University professors Phillip Davis has studied corporal punishment as a form of discipline in the home.
Today, you can find him in his office atop a downtown Atlanta high-rise, nestled in a mountain of books, research papers and students' work that seems nearly as tall as the building.
Through his largely survey- and interview- based research, Davis has taken a variety of approaches to assessing the dynamic of spanking, slapping, whipping and other forms of corporal punishment within American households.
“Nine out of 10 people have done it, and nine out of 10 adults got it when they were kids in one way or another,” Davis said. “ Most who use it grew up with it, so it’s all very normal -- as in ancient history.”
And, in fact, corporal punishment is a practice that dates back to ancient history in varying forms, but the ancient practice has been coming under some very modern scrutiny. Just in the past 30 years, Davis said, public perceptions surrounding corporal punishment has undergone a considerable shift -in both the home and educational settings.
“Comparing early 20th century and late 20th century, spanking has for some [people] come to mean violence, for some it’s come to mean a bad habit, for some it’s come to mean abuse,” Davis said. “These are very non-traditional meanings associated with this practice that has an ancient history.”
“Spare the rod and spoil the child.” -Samuel Butler, 1662
How long have you been working on corporal punishment research? For you, what are some of the most interesting findings, trends or developments over the years?
“I got interested about 1989-1990, so that makes it quite a while. In the 1990s the topic really took off.”
“Almost all the research is survey research. In my own projects, I thought it important to observe and interview people as well as do surveys. That survey data has ended up focusing in the ‘90s on long-term negative effects, or potential negative effects of spanking.”
“The new myth is that spanking causes things like lower achievement, child aggression, adolescence aggression, adult partner violence later on. The important thing to remember, I think is that it’s frequent and severe hitting in the absence of parental warmth that is associated with a long list of negative effects, or potential negative effects. It increases the chances that kids are going to be aggressive themselves at school, do less well long-term and have more difficult relationships. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of explanation for all those things that come later on."
"Most people that grew up being frequently spanked don’t engage in partner violence and didn’t become schoolyard bullies, but the likelihood goes up. Murray Straus, one of the pioneering researchers [in the field] said it’s kind of like heavy smoking. Most heavy smokers do not develop a life-threatening disease, but their risk of doing so is far greater than non-smokers.”
“All kinds of things need more investigation, [like] what parents need instead if they’re being told to find something else. Nothing works all the time. If they’re given alternative techniques like time-out, just about anything can be abused and done too much and carried too far and is not going to work all the time."
“It’s really hard to know how to intervene into practices that have long traditions of social support, legal support, family support -- and a lot of people feel like they’re being disloyal to their own parents if they challenge traditional family practices like spanking."
In “Threats of corporal punishment as verbal aggression: A naturalistic study” you talk about adults normalizing their aggression toward their children, and the role situations in a public setting play in developing the reaction as “nothing unusual.” What kind of impact, if any, does this type of normalization have on children, family dynamic or society at large? Are there other implications?
“One effect of treating [corporal punishment] as normal is that it goes unquestioned and becomes deeply entrenched as a cultural trait, not just a personal habit. It’s one of the cultural traits commonly found around the world, so the practice continues at the social level and the practices continues in families from generation to generation."
“There’s nothing that shows if we spare the rod that the child will be spoiled, but it goes back to what anthropologist call magical thinking, ‘If we do X then the kids will be protected against all the various kinds of lures and seductions and won’t go astray.’"
"I don’t have any doubt that it’s well intended, normalized, viewed as a family tradition that doesn’t hurt, but can only help. But does it hurt, [that's] where the public needs to hear about some of the research that [says] ... it very well can.”
Has there been any public shift in public perception of spanking or corporal punishment as a form of discipline in the past 50 years?
“Probably in the last 30 years attitudes of approval [for corporal punishment practices have gone] down, disapproval [have gone] up."
"Maybe half of the U.S. adult population still agrees or strongly agrees with the statement ‘sometimes children just need a good, hard spanking,’ but that’s down from 80+ percent. So opinion polls do find less support over the years, and reported rates of spanking are down."
"But still, for those three- and four-year-old kids, especially sons, the majority of parents say that at least once in the proceeding year they spanked. When asked why, the answers usually are a familiar sounding list of ‘some kids need it, some kids don’t,’ ‘sometimes there’s no other way,’ or ‘as a last resort -- I do it after I try everything else.’”
In the past you’ve looked at corporal punishment cessation among parents that spank their children. Why do parents stop, and what kind of impact does it have on their children?
“A couple dozen mothers had quit and I asked them why and what the circumstances were. Some said they got scared when it did escalate too far and were too angry, hitting too much or too hard. Some said they had kind of an epiphany when their child did something or said something that challenged the practice, or the child spanked their doll and the mother then said that wasn’t a practice they wanted to see their child continue doing. Some took a parenting class and heard the issue raised for perhaps the first time that it may not be a great idea."
"I’m not sure it’s a quick fix, but most researchers and child advocates and parent education people say it takes more work not to than to go ahead and spank. Other things, like reasoning, take more time."
"When parents do try to quite it looks like it’s not easy, that it’s a hard habit to kick. I don’t think it’s addictive, but it’s a custom – and not just an individual custom or habit, but a cultural trait."
“I don’t argue for national legislation that would ban the practice at home or criminalize the practice. I think people need to be given a whole lot of information and support, parental support, paid family leave – not just unpaid family leave – the U.S. is behind the times there. Childcare needs to be more highly paid instead of one of the worst paid jobs and needs to be recognized as a crucial and critic job. It’s something that needs the support of everyone.”
How is the meaning of spanking changing?
"I think social movement activity and media coverage of controversies elsewhere has a lot to do with it. People sometimes get the mistaken idea that it’s been criminalized because they get mistaken information."
"Comparing early 20th century and late 20th century, spanking has, for some, come to mean violence, for some it’s come to mean a bad habit, for some it’s come to mean abuse. These are very non-traditional meanings associated with this practice that has an ancient history."
"Child advocates and parent educators need to remember that it’s probably going to polarize and push parents the other way if we call it violence, pre-abuse or potential abusive and so on. That’s too derogatory, I think, for something well-intended parents often do."
"So a small fire of controversy in one county, or one state, or one school district can get national attention. People can ridicule the controversy and think that’s a stupid or unimportant issue, but overtime those seeds of doubt about the practice can be planted. Most people have heard that there’s something controversial about it."
What role does spanking or corporal punishment play, if any, in the development of deviant social behaviors later in life? Is there a link between physically disciplined children and larger social problems, or criminal activity/predisposition?
“Retrospective studies looking back in time based on surveys and interviews with kids in trouble with the courts, as well as with adults in trouble with the courts and in the correctional system, uniformly find those adolescence and those adults ... got plenty of corporal discipline at home."
"It’s too simple to say cause-and-effect and that’s why they got in trouble, but it’s not the absence of spanking that people contend [contributes to wild behavior later in life (abridged for clarity)]. That is not the case."
“I would say social marginalization and social oppression in its many forms has more to do with who ends up in prison than the harsh punishment they received as children.”
What advice would you give to parents today?
"It’s not being disloyal to ones own parents to raise kids in your own way or to not do everything that they did. A lot of times, people will say my faith demands it, or my community demands it, or my family demands it, or my own parents demand it, but there are ways of getting around that. Doing non-traditional child rearing, especially if the kids are getting all kinds of guidance and nurturing and discipline in other ways, [then] they don’t need to be hit."
"There’s no research that shows some children need to be hit.”
“Just think about the reasons, justifications and rationals that we often use to carry on our old ways. They may need to be reconsidered."
"I don’t tell people not to do it. There are certainly worst things to do, but there is no research that shows kids need it, or that some kids need it, or that if they don’t get it they’ll turn out bad. There’s good reason to suspect their chances of getting in trouble increase, especially if it’s frequent or severe."
“No one knows how frequent too frequent is, but in all likelihood it’s not contributing to the child’s well-being or prospects for living a high-quality adult life.”
The beating death this week of 19-year-old inmate Jade Holder at an Augusta, Ga., Youth Development Campus (YDC) is the latest in a series of incidents that have renewed focus on safety levels within Georgia youth detention facilities. Last week, for the second time in six months, county police were called on to quell a riot at the DeKalb County Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC). In May, a murder suspect escaped from the DeKalb RYDC, only to be found and returned a few days later. And in July, the Eastman YDC was the scene of a fight that led to an investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).
These incidents have all come after an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice over implementing changes at the facilities, something that was supposed to improve and stabilize the system. That agreement came after a DOJ investigation in 1997 found serious abuses, including overcrowding and abusive behavior by staff. Georgia agreed to improve conditions and signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Department.
While the MOA, which ended in 2009, led to improvements in education and medical care at the YDCs and put the focus on rehabilitation, it has failed to totally safeguard inmates and those officials working in them.
It may be uncertain how deep the problems run within Georgia’s YDCs, but there are some clear issues within at least a few.
In the Eastman facility, for example, a number of people who have worked there say both inmates and staff are at risk. Dormitories are often under-staffed, they say, and attacks against guards and between inmates are a regular occurrence.
Victoria Floyd was a juvenile corrections officer inside Eastman for four years from 2007 until 2011. She says she was assaulted multiple times by inmates who threw urine and feces on her and in one instance an inmate groped her buttocks.
“Those things happened because of poor staffing,” Floyd said. “Those times I was assaulted, I was the only officer in the unit or the only officer escorting residents.”
According to Floyd, she was routinely assigned by herself to guard dormitories housing 32 male inmates. In a perfect world, Floyd said, a unit would be staffed with three guards who would divide the inmates between them. In reality, Floyd felt fortunate if she was assigned a unit with one other guard, taking 16 inmates each. At times, she said, she didn’t feel safe.
Another former Eastman guard, who wished to remain anonymous, said the 32-to-1 ratios were not unusual at the YDC because the staff was too small, leading to high levels of violence. According to the DJJ policies manual, each facility sets it’s own standard ratio.
A DJJ official, however, said the ratio at Eastman, a facility that can hold 330 inmates, had been set at 16-1.
The environment inside Eastman, the former guard said, which houses older inmates aged 17 to 20 committed for violent crimes, is anything but positive. He added he was assaulted twice while he working as a correctional officer.
Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner-designee Gale Buckner declined to comment when asked what her assessment of Georgia’s YDCs are because she has not yet had a chance to assess the situation for herself.
Buckner was appointed Commissioner after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal assigned former Commissioner Amy Howell to a new role in another state agency. Buckner joins the DJJ at a difficult moment for the agency following the beating death of Jade Holder at the Augusta facility.
The six Youth Development Campuses run by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) are intended to “provide secure care, supervision and treatment services to youth who have been committed to the custody of DJJ,” according to the DJJ website. All of the YDCs are also accredited schools that allow inmates to finish high school or earn their GED. However, that has not always been so.
Georgia also operates 20 Regional Youth Detention Centers where youth are held for shorter periods of time while they await their hearings in juvenile court. The RYDCs typically house 30 to 40 inmates.
Former correctional officer Victoria Floyd says, while she believes in rehabilitation, she worries DJJ’s new policies are too lenient on kids, leaving other inmates at risk.
“If one kid assaults another kid he may get a slap on the wrist,” she said, “but now the victim may be afraid to leave their room or go to education classes.” That means a guard must stay behind with the youth decreasing the amount of guards in the classes. That puts everyone, kids and guards, at risk, she says. Handing out tougher punishments will discourage further violence and reduce the chances of more serious incidents such as the one in Augusta earlier this week.
“I feel that for the future of Eastman YDC, in order to progress, things need to change as far as a stricter environment for the youth,” Floyd said.
And a large part of that involves hiring more correctional officers to reduce the ratio of guards to inmates, she says.
So why hasn’t the DJJ hired more guards?
Funds allocated specifically for YDCs in the DJJ budget have fluctuated over the last eight years, ranging anywhere from as high as $103 million in 2004 to as low as $61 million in 2011. (The 2012 budget allocates $70 million for YDCs.) It is not clear how much of that money is designated for staff and correctional officers in the YDCs or why Eastman is maintaining high ratios of guards to inmates.
According to one former administrator who worked at Eastman and asked to remain anonymous, DJJ has been fortunate that more inmates haven’t been hurt. He says the problem originates at the top of the DJJ, not in the YDCs themselves and that politics plays a large role in the decision-making.
I saw a lot of violence during my years in prison in Georgia. Most of the time, however, this violence happened because of miscommunication.
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.