http://thegrio.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/california-prisoners-16x9.jpg?w=650&h=366

Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Suggest that the way to end recidivism is to reform the prison system, and you might be accused of caring more about criminals than the crimes they commit. It’s happened to me. Often when I write or give a talk about my work with minors in adult prison, I describe the deplorable conditions in which inmates live, and advocate for reform of those conditions. Inevitably someone comments (and not always politely) that I’m “soft on crime,” that I don’t care about victims. But this is how I see it.

Given our present prison system with its emphasis on punishment and retribution, everybody suffers. Inmates, correctional officers, victims, the average citizen and taxpayer.
Prisons are violent, toxic places. They are often overcrowded and smelly with the soup of open toilets, the effluence of crammed together bodies under stress with little or no physical or personal space. The noise is deafening. TVs blare (in English and Spanish); metal gates clang; the overused PA system squawks, and inmates and correctional staff shout over it all trying to be heard.

There’s no trust in a prison, no safety, just the constant threat of violence, intimidation, the need to never let your guard down, to “give as good as you get.” If an inmate wants to survive in prison that’s the way he or she must act. If they can’t, they find themselves in protective custody which translates as months of numbing isolation in solitary confinement.

When you look at these conditions honestly, without the filter of righteousness—“that’s what they get for breaking the law”—how could you not see that the present system (the very thing people insist will deter crime) only breeds anger and resentment, hostility and hopelessness in offenders, and finally leads to more crime?

And more crime means that victims are not only not served by the system but are further threatened by it, and that their suffering reverberates into their families and communities. More crime means that other citizens become victims until nobody feels safe, and the whole cycle starts all over again. A simple statistic: Kids handled in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend and their behavior to more quickly escalate into violence than those young people who remain in the juvenile system.

But there are other “victims” of the prison system and its harsh, dangerous, and degrading environment. Correctional officers operate under the same conditions as those locked up, many times for up to 16 hours a day as they choose or are pressed into working overtime. That point came home to me at the end of one school year. As temperatures soared, the heat in the hallways and cell blocks of the older buildings of the prison where I taught (luckily with an air conditioner supplied by the school program) was insufferable. Huge floor fans only moved the suffocating air around, offering no relief, and only adding to the noise. That’s when it first hit me that the COs I interacted with every day were as trapped in the same punishing conditions as the young offenders I worked with.

But it goes beyond the everyday level of physical discomfort for COs. The need to be hyper-vigilant, the defensive stance engendered by the institutionalized hostility of the prison power structure—“us” and “them”; the keepers and the kept—takes its toll not only on COs, but also on their families. Studies have shown that 31% of correctional officers meet “the criteria for full PTSD” (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder); that the average life expectancy is 58 years old, and that correctional officers have a 39% higher suicide rate than any other occupation.

Even those of us who are not personally caught in the web of incarceration are affected by the prison system. Our tax money is spent building and maintaining these institutions and supporting what goes on inside them. In many states these funds are diverted from basic, essential services such as education. For example California spends on average $47,421 per inmate a year while the average spent per student a year is only $11,420. (A telling tweet is going around Twitter that sums it up for many states, “The people of CA are tired of Cadillac prisons & jalopy schools.”)

So when I find myself labeled as “soft on crime” I have an old jail comeback: “Don’t take my kindness for softness.” Restructuring a broken prison system so that it protects and respects all citizens while holding offenders accountable is not “soft” but commonsense. We need to create prison conditions, both physical and psychological, that encourage cooperation on all sides and that supports change as opposed to conflict and calcification of negative behavior. Programs must be developed that challenge offenders to change their counterproductive behavior. Training in real employable occupations is essential. And support services must be established that help ex-offenders meet the demands of “going straight.”

Of course, the economic watchdogs will howl. But the human costs—to inmates, correctional officers, victims and society in general—are too high to be ignored. Reforming is better than warehousing people in prison for years, leaving them to await the next dead-end. You can call it soft. I call it the only way.

Originally appeared in Gandhi’s Be Magazine

https://fbexternal-a.akamaihd.net/safe_image.php?d=AQAPP732UwtxuAPY&w=470&h=246&url=https%3A%2F%2Ffbcdn-sphotos-f-a.akamaihd.net%2Fhphotos-ak-xfp1%2Ft1.0-9%2F10603358_10152376349202144_7209319950093969348_n.png&cfs=1&upscale&sx=0&sy=9&sw=599&sh=314

Photo credit: Mother Jones

Amy Rothschild, a prekindergarten and kindergarten teacher in Washington DC, knows the world of early childhood education. She knows the value of giving children a kick start in developmental and academic skills, especially kids from disadvantaged families and neighborhoods. So why is she giving Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a hard time? Arne Duncan who recently claimed that “education is the civil rights issue of our time”; who when announcing Federal grants for improving early childhood education called this “the most important single step we can take to improve the future of our young people,” never mentioning the real world of Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown, the real world of civil rights in 2014.
In her insightful essay, “Where the Promise of Preschool Ends,” Amy calls out Arne Duncan and all the other politicians for their “one size fits all” approach to social problems and their sweeping claims that this or that policy will solve all the problems of the poor and disenfranchised. It’s the same approach that is being used in standardized testing that dictates that all kids will learn “this way” and will answer all the questions “this way.” “Where the Promise of Preschool Ends,” originally published in Dissent, challenges this easy-out mind set and puts Arne Duncan—and all of us—on notice that solving the deep rooted racism and classism of this country, and thus improve all children’s’ lives, will take more than proclamations and wishful thinking. It’s a powerful piece, but one gently told, and worth the read.

 

http://www.ciol.com/IMG/940/59940/cio-poster-gandhiji-370x264.jpg

I have been asked to become a contributor to the progressive journal Gandhi’s Be Magazine. The journal and the work  its supporting community does is inspired by the courage, the wisdom  and the philosophy  of Mahatma Gandhi. The magazine takes as it’s call to action Gandhiji’s challenge to “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” As you’ll notice looking at the magazine’s articles and the wide scope of the organization’s outreach and social action programs they are determined to do just that.  And so I’m honored (and more than a little humbled) to be invited to write for the journal’s opinion section.

I was recently interviewed via email by the magazine staff. It was an interesting opportunity for me to think about and clarify the roots of my own commitment to social justice. I’m happy to re-post the interview here on “Kids in the System” whose readers and guest contributors, so many of whom in their own work have taken Gandhiji’s words to heart, have become such an important part of my own community.

Profiles in Change

Editor’s Note: David Chura recently joined Gandhi’s Be Magazine. Teacher, Youth Advocate, and Author of the book “I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup,” David Chura blogs on youth incarceration and youth stuck in the social welfare system.

Tell us about your journey. From being a young boy to the environment you were raised in, and the adult influences that helped shape you both good and bad.

I grew up in a working class neighborhood and family where the shaping culture was an oppressive 1950s Roman Catholicism. Luckily I was a teenager during the early 60s, and so the rather closed world of 50s America was opened up for me by the Vatican Council’s social justice doctrines, the civil rights movement and eventually, the peace movement. It was in high school, a Catholic high school, that I became a fledging activist inspired by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I wrote editorials for the school newspapers that the principal would pull, organized a tutoring program for inner city kids, and started an inter-racial council. In college my commitment to social justice strengthened and expanded; at the same time my Catholicism withered but soon was replaced by a growing interest in Eastern religions particularly Buddhism. While studying in college, I volunteered at and, for a time, lived in, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality which provided meals and shelter to homeless men. Eventually I gave up my student deferment to protest the Vietnam War and applied for conscientious objector status. My long held innate pacifism found firmer footing in the teachings of Gandhi and Dr. King. To my surprise (and, I think, to the surprise of the Selective Service Board) I was granted conscientious objector status and was assigned alternative service at a psychiatric hospital. It was there that I began my forty year journey of working, at various times, as a counselor, teacher and advocate with young people pushed to the margins of society by poverty, racism, violence, addiction, abandonment.

Running tandem to these life experiences was my struggle to accept myself as a gay man in the face of a condemning culture. While the years of prejudice, self-hatred, dishonesty, and fear were damaging, in many ways they are the foundation of my deep commitment and identification with “the outsider.”

The prison industrial complex is in a downward spiral with a generation of youth incarcerated. Can you share with us your feelings on this?

I’m often asked if I see any hope of change in the criminal and juvenile justice systems—the prison industrial complex. Sadly, I feel that any change that comes about will be the result not of commonsense or of humanitarian concerns but of economics. Unfortunately prisons are a big money making industry in the United States. This is apparent when states spend more money on building, maintaining and staffing correctional facilities than on schools. I recently was in an upstate New York town where a large Federal prison was the main source of income for the community. A local newspaper headline caught my attention: “We Care About Our Prisoners.” I was intrigued—and perhaps, naively hopeful—and bought a newspaper. At issue was not the welfare of the offenders housed in the local prison but the possibility that the facility might be closed. Needless to say that never materialized; it rarely does. But it illustrated to me the cycle of dependency that the prison industrial complex creates: Prisoners, especially young people, are a commodity. Communities count on there being a steady supply of that commodity so that the money continues feeding the local economy. This economic dependence is a strong deterrent to improving the criminal justice system. If change happens it will come about only under the crush of failing state budgets.

 Tell us about your prison experience.

My ten years teaching minors (some as young as 15) who were incarcerated in a New York county adult prison was a transformative experience. When I started working in the prison I was clear about who the “good guys” were and who the “bad guys”; the “us” and “them”; the “oppressors” and the “oppressed.” I saw the correctional staff—whether officer or administrator—as the enemy. I was there for my students and thought of them as the victims of an unjust system. But as the months went by I began to see the prison culture was based on a hierarchy of power and that I was doing exactly what everyone else did who was caught up in the penal system: I was taking sides, drawing lines in the sand, deciding who people were based on what I saw or what I thought I saw.

Over time as I got to know the correctional staff, especially the correctional officers, I began to realize that they were as oppressed by the toxic prison system as the inmates—they worked sometimes for as many as 16 hours a day under the same conditions: the close, foul smells of overcrowded blocks; the crippling noise and dirt; the constant threat of violence. As the COs began to trust me more, or at least get used to me, they shared their life experiences. In many ways they were not much different from the people they were charged with “overseeing.” For some, their lives mirrored that of the young people I taught—poor, from fractured families, struggling with addiction. The difference was that they had had enough resources or supports, perhaps just barely but enough, that saved them from the same path. They were as much, what I came to think of as, “children of disappointment” as my students.

Then as I looked around me I realized that those of us who worked there as “civilians”— medical personnel, chaplains, teachers, social workers—were also deeply affected by the same oppressive prison conditions. Until I finally understood that all of us, inside and outside prison walls, are “children of disappointment.” I saw that every person I knew had experienced hardships which they handled as best they could. This final insight is what made it easier, and intensely rewarding, for me to work in the prison system 5 days a week, 7 hours a day for ten years. It is what has supported my work to break down the barriers that separate all of us from each other.

There is a movement going on that includes “New Jim Crow” focusing on how there is a disproportionate number of African American males in prison, and the failure of the system in general. In your opinion, what can we do to change this revolving door and injustice?

The metaphor of Indra’s Net, an image that speaks to the interdependence of all experience, comes to mind when I think about our racist prison system. What happens in our prisons is a reflection of our society at large. The racism of our criminal justice system won’t change until we confront the bigotry of the larger American society; it won’t change until we confront poverty and violence in our communities. Our prisons are emblematic of our standard way of solving problems: instead of addressing the roots of crime we build more prisons, impose harsher, more punitive sentences, all in an effort to turn our backs on what is obvious and must be done.

I am a “personalist” and believe that change can only come about when each of us takes responsibility for what happens around us. One way that I can do this is to heighten people’s awareness of the inherent racism and brutality of our prisons. A phrase that I pointedly use more and more in my writing and in talking to people about our prison system and its culture is that these practices are “done in our name.” Prisons are built, more people of color are arrested and harshly sentenced, inhumane practices such as extended solitary confinement (in some cases for decades) are used even for young people. All these laws and practices are implemented and sanctioned by the legislators we elect and policymakers we listen to. A Buddhist meditation teacher I have practiced with urges his students, “Don’t turn away.” That teaching holds true for all of us as we confront the injustices in our world. This personalist approach is perhaps a slow means to change but it is the only one I feel can work, as each of us, person by person, confronts and takes responsibility for the actions of our society.

If you had one piece of advice to share with a young boy, what would that be? What would you share with adult men?

“Advice” can sound so lame but indeed is so true and profound: To a young boy I would say, “Hold on to your faith in life even when your simplest hope seems out of reach.” To an adult man I would say, “Kindness is your only true legacy.”

We have an initiative called “Boyz, Inc.” which calls for more positive mentors and role models, as well as getting our young men focused on character, values, and helping to create an awareness of the importance of a positive community to support our youth… What ideas and work are you doing that corresponds with this?

I’ve always been a teacher, it seems. In my 40+ years working directly with at risk kids, my efforts have been to crack open their rather narrow, constricted and impoverished lives and show them a different world. Likewise I’ve strived to do the same for the adult world by writing in various forums about the reality of my students’ lives and the things I have learned from them.

Recently I have been working with juvenile justice advocacy groups who on the state level are pushing for reform of the regressive laws that for decades have hindered the positive development and rehabilitation of young offenders. Through my writing and public speaking I’ve tried to educate a public that, when they hear about what it’s really like for a young person in prison, will often confess, “I had no idea.” It is that awareness and concern that I hope they will then express to their lawmakers.

Hope is a rare commodity in the juvenile justice field. So when I can, I also support and mentor people who are doing frontline work with youth in crisis by nurturing their commitment and enthusiasm, and by reminding them that although what they do every day to help young people is often unappreciated and disparaged it is essential and noble work. One of my favorite Zen sayings is that life is made up of “the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows.” I know that on some days people working with troubled kids can feel as though it is nothing but “the 10,000 sorrows.” But I like to remind them that at other times it is also “the 10,000 joys.” And most days it’s just a crazy mixed-up mess.

Tell us about the inspiration for your book “I don’t wish nobody to have a life like mine” as well as the ongoing discussion you have about the prison system.

I have written all my life. I enjoy capturing the everyday in words and trying to make what I see and feel real to others. As a result, I have written about the young people I’ve encountered over the years in counseling programs, psychiatric hospitals, homeless shelters, or schools. So of course when I started working at the prison I wrote.

The longer I was there, teaching in such an alien and difficult place, I began to see that my writing was a way to understand what was happening around me. The pieces I wrote focused on the young people I taught and the world they were forced to live in, inside and outside of prison. However, I wasn’t interested in writing political science or sociology. As important as that is, there was enough of that around. What I wanted to do through the writing process was to get to understand the people, young and old, “keepers and kept,” that I encountered every day. To do this I wrote the kind of literature that I knew from my own years of reading allowed me to experience and understand worlds very different from my own: I wrote stories that had all the elements of fiction—character, dialog, point of view—yet were true to what was happening; stories that put faces to all those statistics and studies about young offenders that periodically appear; narratives that would make people say, as they have said, “I had no idea.” Overtime the stories became I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup in which I not only shared stories about the people I met but also described my own personal journey of recognizing the common humanity I shared with everyone I encountered in the prison and outside it.

Do you have anything else to share with us?

My belief in the power of the written word to change the world and the people in it has grown and strengthened over the years. That power may reside in great literature, in an article, or even an email. An awareness of this power is something I have tried to share with my students, urging them to read, and to write their own stories and share their opinions. And I’ve tried to bring that power into my own writing in whatever form it takes.

Words have carried me through some very difficult places. I’ve often reminded myself, and others, of the lines from a Galway Kinnel poem, “for everything flowers from within of self-blessing/though sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness.” Or Rumi’s “This being human is a guest house. /Every morning a new arrival.” And finally, I like to pass on to people who are feeling discouraged about their work for criminal and juvenile justice reform these words of Barry Stevenson, executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, from an interview on The Root, “…if we’re going to be a just and fair society, the place where we test our commitment to the rule of law and human dignity is not in how we treat the gifted kids, the privileged kids, the talented kids, but really in how we treat the kids that are broken, that have failed and struggled and been condemned.”

One thing you take away from Crosswinds: Memoirs of a Jail Teacher by D.H. Goddard (a pseudonym for the author who is still teaching at the jail he writes about) is that the prison system, no matter where it is located, no matter what the setting—big or small; urban or rural; county, state, or Fed—is pretty much the same: inefficiently run, punitive in its approach, more interested in retribution and warehousing than helping people change their lives. Another thing that strikes you after reading this memoir is that in these toxic systems there are always people who want to make a difference in inmates’ lives, who understand that what we are doing is not going to cut down on crime but only increase it and in the process tarnish our national character.

D.H Goddard is one of those people. A high school teacher in a county prison in what he describes as a “cow paddy town” where cows outnumber people and “the major industry is incarceration”, he cares about the young people he works with, guiding them through the high school equivalency curriculum while motivating them to change the behaviors that got them locked up in the first place.

He doesn’t hesitate to share his frustrations and failures along with his successes. The reader sees him feeling his way through an arcane system that nobody bothers to explain to him. He gets no help from his supervisor who seems more afraid of his students than interested, or from the correctional staff who are, at best, hapless if not indifferent or obstructive. Yet Goddard learns as he goes along, developing respect for his students, recognizing the lost worlds they come from and trying to make a difference.

Interspersed throughout the book are the projects he instigates—a classroom aquarium and an ambitious unit on aerodynamics, both serving, it seemed to me, as metaphors for these young people’s lives in and out of prison—as well as the risks he takes to engage his students in discussions that might help them see beyond the block, the razor-wired walls, and a world defined by abandonment and defeat.

Crosswinds: Memoirs of a Jail Teacher is filled with the author’s efforts to educate and engage students, to connect with them and mentor them as one of the few adults in their world who not only cares about them but also enjoys their company. What might happen to our penal system if every incarcerated kid—whether locked up in a cow paddy town or in an urban swelter—was given the same opportunities?

 

 

http://voicesforchildren.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Insititutional-Teenager-mixed-color-on-bw.jpg

 

Many people who work with youth locked up in prisons or in juvenile detention centers aren’t just teachers, nurses, social workers. Something else compels them to stay at a job in what can be some of the most unwelcoming places you can imagine—and are designed to be that way. Something else stirs them, inspires them to put up with harsh working conditions, and with the frustration of having their efforts often garner only poor results. As challenging as the job is, even more challenging is finding answers to the Big Questions: “Why do I do this kind of work?” “Why do I stay here?” “What’s the point of what I do?” Answers don’t come easily, if they come at all, and their comfort rarely stays around long, but it’s a process many of us in the field go through.
What I appreciate about today’s guest contributor is her willingness to share the struggle, the process she has gone through to answer some of those questions with honesty and humility. Shannah is a Family Nurse Practitioner “in one of New England’s highest security long-term juvenile treatment facilities.” Even that short description from her piece gives you pause when you read it. Yet she conveys so well her commitment to these young boys whose lives seem bleak and hopeless. At the same time she doesn’t hesitate to talk about her frustrations, confusion and fears as she searches for meaning in what she does. Her compassion and her understanding of what’s ultimately important in these kids’ lives—and in the end, in all our lives—is deeply moving.

Helping Young Offenders Find Hope in the Everyday

We think our darkness is our rap sheet, but it’s not true. Our darkness is that we don’t see the truth of who we are, we don’t see ourselves as God does…The darkness is we don’t see that we are exactly right…The people who walk through darkness have seen great light. It’s not about moving from the dark terrible past to the light, it’s about recognizing that the light has been there all along. It’s right here. We just have to see it.”
              Father Greg Boyle, Author of “Tattoos on the Heart and Founder and Director of Homeboy Industries”

“The darkness is that we don’t see that we are exactly right.” I think about this a lot in my 4th year as a Family Nurse Practitioner in one of New England’s highest security long-term juvenile treatment facilities. Here, we are not lacking for rap sheets. My patients are 15-20 year old young men who, via a series of unfortunate events and/or choices, are serving long term treatment sentences for crimes that range from carjacking and firearm possession to armed robbery and attempted murder. The facility itself is a 57-year-old concrete building sandwiched between a funeral home and an adult Department of Corrections building. As if to finalize the irony, two cemeteries flank the facility’s front and back. It’s secured with barbed wires, surveillance cameras, obscenely large locks, and an acute sense of vigilance around all things “policy.”

On high-alert, I spent the first month debating whether or not to wear my hairpins with the sharp ends to work, and settled on a ponytail. I worried about unwittingly supplying an underground tattoo ring with my misplaced pens, and I had more than one nightmare in which I “forgot to lock the door” and someone escaped. While it didn’t take long to learn to follow the rules of the building, it’s only in the last three years that I’ve found clarity about the role I play at the center and in the lives of the boys.

My professional job description is straight-forward: “Unit manager and primary healthcare provider responsible for managing all aspects of acute, chronic, and routine healthcare for young men in custody.” But if the description were all-inclusive, it would also say, “Nurse, den-mother, phlebotomist, secretary, boo-boo kisser, nutritionist, custodian, pep squad.” With an average of 15-20 residents at a time, and not a mother in sight, no concern is too small for placement on the daily sick list.

Outsiders are often horrified when I tell them where I work, and there are times I struggle to convey my feelings about the residents and the circumstances that bring us together. How can I capture the complexities of the human spirit or the chronic adversities these boys have endured? How do I relay the feeling in my stomach upon entering the unit after a particularly violent incident, and hearing that abnormal silence beyond the static of the security radio? The boys’ time in custody –weeks, months, and years—is intensely emotional and challenging, and we bear witness together daily. It takes a toll.

At times I’ve felt defeated and heartbroken by obstacles that feel insurmountable: kids picking on each other or becoming obese before my eyes; young men feeling frightened, homesick, or abandoned. Some have lots of visitors; others don’t invite anyone to visit because the pain of family not showing up is far more destructive than being alone.

I wonder what it’s like for them, living out these painfully self-conscious adolescent years being raised by guards, in-between timed phone calls and 30 minute visits with family. Will they ever forget the weight of chains and shackles, the sounds of a physical restraint, or the oppressive atmosphere during a lockdown?

When I was new at this job, I sought out details of their home lives, their charges, their gang involvement, as a way of understanding what they’d been through. I cared deeply about the boys and thought that by understanding their pasts, I’d be able to change something about their futures. Under the weighty ambition of “saving” my patients, I felt constrained by the minutiae of the job itself. Documenting clinic visits and handling administrative duties felt at odds with my desire to make a “real” difference.

Over time, as I watched the majority of boys leave the facility only to return days-to-months later (or worse, landing in adult jail), I became resigned that my impact on their worlds would be minimal. More to the point, I felt like I was failing my patients. Over and over again I asked, “How can we stand by and watch as generation after generation of our babies, our children, our young men steadily march their way to a place where few return unscathed – if they return at all?”

To combat this despair, I created a file on my phone called “Moments,” meant to capture the sweet or poignant interactions with the boys:

Discovering that AH likes to draw, asking to see the pictures he’s drawn and carefully laminated to put on his wall…watching him show off his work and reference a stack of animal books he likes to draw from.

The sheepish smile on SL’s face when he called me upstairs “to see his healing finger” but then shared the REAL reason he called for me…busting at the seams, he shares that he’s gotten into school and “passed” his job interview. So shy and so proud.

DJ during testing—“I know my Mom loves me but she doesn’t show it. I need her to show it. Doesn’t call for three days if I don’t call. Probation officer and court think I am a bad kid – I don’t care what people think.”*He says he likes it here b/c he gets fed and gets to chill and joke around. Going to live with foster family if possible. Likes to fight. Holds anger inside.

JP—the collision of fear, betrayal, anger, pain, embarrassment, adrenalin, pride, sadness, bewilderment, when he was beaten by three other residents. Face swollen and deformed, pacing, hating every tear that falls, vacant eyes.

And moments I struggled to put into words:

KJ—the smile on his face and the twinkle in those deep eyes as he left the building today (after 12+ months). What are you going to do when you get out? “Gonna have a mother’s day. Spend some quality time with my Moms.” Bittersweet—wanting to cry both for all the awesome potential and my own deep concern for his safety. Saying good-by. How proud I am of him. How badly I want him to know his worth. Don’t know how to communicate this to him.

Collecting these moments has kept me in the present over and over again, as well as helped me realize two important truths that I’d failed to see earlier.

First, as their Nurse Practitioner, I’m granted the privilege and responsibility of partnering with my boys in caring for their health, physical well-being, and hearts. I had spent so much time lamenting what I couldn’t change for them that I had missed the tremendous progress we were already making together on these issues. By turning my attention towards a “better” tomorrow, I wasn’t present to the moments already woven into the rich and complex fabric of daily life at the facility—a youth detention center, yes, but for some, the safest, most consistent “home” they’ve known. As I began to change my thinking from “not enough” to the “time is now,” I saw that the most powerful way to make the difference I am committed to making with these boys is to show up and be present, day after day, moment after moment—and I do.

I also saw that my desire to rewrite the past—in an attempt to orient our youth towards a different future—was well-meaning, but it missed the mark. While I still ask the questions—“How do we move forward, and what’s going to make THE difference?”— I now look for the answers in a different place. The answers don’t exist in their past, their stories about themselves, their home lives, or their rap sheets, but in who they are, right here and right now—beautiful, resilient, wise, courageous young men.

As a healthcare provider, I have the opportunity to create a space for my patients in which they get to show up larger than they ever thought they could be. These kids light up my world on a daily basis, and I feel that the least I can do is offer them a place to “arrive,” a place that we create together, moment by moment, where they get to show up as perfect—exactly as they are and as they are not—and so recognize their own light, the one that’s blazing brightly, “the one that’s been there all along.”

 

We always talk about how our future as a country and as a world is in our young people. The American Friends Service Committee has an interesting info-graphic showing who exactly we are talking about when we say “young people.” It’s certainly true that they hold the future of the globe. What I want to know is why we treat young people–in all countries–so shabbily, so disrespectfully–cutting budgets, services; limiting their choices by society’s expectations; labeling them in ways that damage how they see themselves. So many limits on the future. In the end it’s our loss.

http://afsc.org/sites/afsc.civicactions.net/files/imagecache/original/images/QAspring2014infographic.jpg

 

 

The days are filled with graduation speeches by the famous and the not so famous as students leave their schools and start out into the world. So I decided to re-post a piece I wrote about what it’s like for a locked up kid to “graduate” from jail and go out into the world. Indeed, a very different kind of commencement.

 

Now that all the high school graduations are over and the backyard barbeques celebrated, I’m finally coming down from the contact high of all that youthful exuberance and optimism.

It’s easy to get swept up into those good feelings. But now as I move into summer’s quieter months, I can’t help thinking about the high school students I taught in a county penitentiary and what “commencement” meant for them.

Success never came easily to my students. Why should it? They came from lives wrecked by poverty and discrimination. It tried to wreck their spirit, but it never could, not completely. In that way my students weren’t any different from the kids at our local high schools—like their peers, they believed that life was there for the shaping.  That faith in success, though, didn’t always translate onto the streets. So they got caught up in crime, got arrested, did their time.

When that time was served, their “commencement” was being released from jail.The “graduation ceremony” wasn’t much: Down to booking to sign papers, their clothes stuffed into black garbage bags. Then the booking officer handed the “graduate” bus money and delivered the keynote address, “Stay out of jail.”

And that’s exactly what they intended to do. My jailhouse students talked a lot about “starting over again,” and I believed each of them. Because while they were locked up, most worked to change things for the better. They studied for their diploma or GED. They worked at staying clean and sober. They grappled with the rage of disappointment that tore at their guts through anger management programs. If there was a thread of family life left, they reconnected with it.

When they hit the streets, they were determined to shake the dust—and smell—of prison off them forever. But the only thing that had changed while they were locked up was them, not the streets. There was nothing out there for them, no services, no resources, no one. The only things waiting were the same predator-prey food chain, the same joblessness, and the same lure of the streets with easy money.

I knew the litany these young people heard from corrections and probation officers: Get a job. Go to school. Stay away from your buddies (the only people who even remembered your name.) Stay away from your girlfriend (the only one glad to see you.) Stay in the house. Start over. Stay out of trouble. And I’ve watched more than one kid’s face fall when he was told that he had to find someplace else to live. He couldn’t live with his mother because his probation didn’t allow him to associate with anyone with a record, and since his brother, or uncle, or cousin was already there he needed to find another home.

It’s not hard to guess what all those demands sound like to a 16 year old fresh out of prison: Stop being the only person you recognize. Stop living your life.

I often tell people that the changes we demand of young ex-offenders are things most of us, even with all our assets, would find daunting. The isolation. The loneliness. The helpless rage of unreasonable expectations. Yet these kids are told to make those changes with no one to help or guide them.

It happens, though, if rarely—some kid takes the plunge into all that fear and dynamites his life apart.

Alex was one of those kids. The judge made it clear. This time no probation. Instead a full county bid. Next arrest, a long stretch in state prison. Even at 17 Alex knew that going back to the same neighborhood, the same friends and enemies would seal his fate. “I might as well stay here and wait for the next bus to state prison,” he tried to laugh it off but couldn’t.

I can’t tell you what happened, but something did. Everybody had given up on him, with good reason or not, but somehow he hadn’t. Alex had a cousin in California that he never met but who said he could come live with him. So at his “graduation” he hopped a cross country bus. However, there was nothing quixotic about his move. Alex had never been out of his own town except to go to various jails and detention centers. He knew he had to do it. It was a terrible struggle at first. The dirt jobs. The loneliness. The disorientation. The fears of failure. Eventually, though, the jobs got better and he signed up for college. Last I heard Alex was close to a real commencement.

Watching that final moment of triumph when our local high school graduates flung their caps into the air I imagined all the hands—of family, teachers, coaches, clergy, counselors—that over the years had made that moment possible.  Young ex-offenders at their “commencement” haven’t had, and don’t have that same net of hands. And yet, there are plenty of hands in each of their communities to help, if they only would. That way kids like Alex wouldn’t have to go 3,000 miles for a chance at a new beginning.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside