Archive for the ‘Kids and the Law’ Category

I’m happy to share the following post by Griselda Cruz. Griselda is a seventeen-year-old high school student in Washington Heights who is studying health careers and sciences. She is also an intern at the New York Center for Juvenile Justice. Griselda says some very generous things about I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. Although it’s always nice to share those kinds of comments, I wanted to repost her review of the book because I was struck by the insights she has into these locked up young people and by her compassion for the lives they are forced to live. I’ve seen this reaction before in other young people who have read the book. The stories seem more real to them in ways that may not be so for older readers. In one way or another, young readers know firsthand—as friends, friends of friends, brothers, sisters, classmates—the kind of kids I write about. And because of that familiarity they have a greater understanding of our youth culture. You can check out more of Griselda’s writings on her blog at the New York Juvenile Justice Initiative website.

A Story that Caught My Eye by Griselda Cruz

Lately I’ve been reading a book that Yuval, my supervisor at the New York Center for Juvenile Justice, recommended to me. It’s called I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup by David Chura. The book is told through the eyes of David Chura, a high school teacher at an adult facility in Westchester County. Everything is exampled in details; kids come up to him sharing personal stories, real life events that you can’t even imagine. From young ages these kids have been struggling, abandoned, neglected by their drug abusive families. These are really tragic stories. They make you wish that these kids’ pasts could have been different, then they wouldn’t be where they are at now, facing serious time.

Like this young man named Ray: It was his 21st birthday and he really didn’t seem too happy. He tells us about how his mother was a drug abuser and that was what caused him to be taken away from her at 5. His father was no longer in the picture. He was in state prison. So Ray moved from home to home or lived in the streets. And to make matters worse he was raped at the age of eleven by a nineteen year old male. After that the suicide attempts began and he felt everybody thought he was a nobody because he didn’t have a family.

But one day his father came home and Ray lived with him for some time. With his father being around, his uncles, aunts, and cousins started to accept him again.  It seemed like he suddenly had a family. But he knew deep inside it was only like that while his father was there. Then his father disappeared again. He was allowed to live with his Aunt Sally for some time, but he thinks it’s only because his father left her money. The aunt would lock him up at night with a bucket to use for going to the bathroom and a pitcher of water to drink. Wow, his own family! Soon Ray was back where he started—in the streets. One day he thought things would turn around when this drug dealer took him in and treated him like his own family. But again that came to an end too. He got into some trouble that caused him to be facing time in jail.

None of these things would have happened if Ray had had a good early childhood. It’s like from a young age he was cursed to have a terrible future. But Ray also said that he blames nobody but himself. It takes a mature person to say that and really mean it! There are so many other powerful stories in this book. I’m half way through and I recommend this book to a lot of my peers because they think they have it hard, when others have had it worse!

Annie Sapucaia, a book reviewer for New Books Network with a particular interest in sociology, interviewed me recently. Her questions were pretty insightful and once again left me with the feeling that there are caring people in the world who want to “do the right thing” by all people. Here’s her introduction to the interview.

“It is easy to dismiss juveniles in prison as “bad seeds”, as people with which we have nothing in common, and of which we want only distance.  David Chura, however, did not maintain his distance, and has been working with at-risk kids for other 40 years.  His new book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup (Beacon Press, 2010), is a collection of stories from the time he taught kids in a New York County jail.  These narratives paint a picture of children who have been abused, neglected, and chronically disappointed by those in their lives and in the justice and foster system.  Chura exposes a number of issues in the justice system and in society at large  which contribute greatly to the outcome of these kids’ lives, and seeks to inform us that far from simply being “bad”, the gulf between these children and ours are mainly due to circumstances, not to personality or inborn traits.   Chura shares stories that we rarely hear, of a world we barely know, in order to give a voice to those who are often silenced. Take a listen at New Books Network.”

The field of juvenile justice is a tough one. Anyone who works with at-risk young people as a teacher, social worker, lawyer, outreach worker, health care provider, probation officer, or correctional officer and really cares about kids bumps up against challenges and hurdles and just plain bad days all the time. The kids themselves sometimes don’t make it easy and certainly society and its institutions doesn’t. It’s the caring that carries you through.

I recently read an interview in The Root with Bryan Stevenson, executive director of Equal Justice Initiative and lawyer for the defendants in the Supreme Court hearing against mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders. Towards the end of the interview the interviewer asks Mr. Stevenson why he has devoted his life to defending juvenile offenders especially those guilty of violent crimes. I could tell you what he said but it’s worth reading the whole interview.

His final words should be the anthem for everyone who cares about at-risk kids. What he said still gives me the chills.

MSNBC has done a documentary, “Young Kids, Hard Time” on young offenders who are doing time in adult jail. Young people caught up in the adult  criminal justice system have so few advocates in the face of such a huge, punishing monster and so few people have any real concept of what life in these facilities is like for them that something like this documentary can only  help to erode some of America’s hardheartedness and ignorance.

A repost from the Albany Times-Union blog by David Kaczynski, Director, New Yorkers For Alternatives to the Death Penality

“Nobody wants a life like mine.” I’ve occasionally said those words in sorrow and self-pity – particularly during the period between October 1995 and February 1998 when I lived through one crisis after another. After the burdens of that time were lifted, I resolved not to sweat the small stuff anymore. I had gained perspective on what really matters in life.

For 60 years, I’ve lived a privileged existence. I had two loving parents who provided for my care and education. I’ve enjoyed mental and physical health. I was sent to great schools where I formed deep and lasting friendships and encountered teachers who broadened my intellectual horizons. I took advantage of my American birthright to experiment with varying lifestyles in Montana, Iowa and Texas. Eventually, I married my soulmate: the woman I’d loved ever since high school.  Even after the Unabomber tragedy – in fact, because of it – I’ve had the opportunity to earn my living in ways that are healing and meaningful. This may not be the life I’d choose if I’d been able to plan it all in advance. I don’t imagine there are any young people dreaming about the future and thinking, “Gee, I want a life just like David Kaczynski’s.” But you better believe that I spend a lot of time marveling at my good fortune and counting my blessings.

I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine is the name of a new book written by David Chura (Beacon Press). The title is lifted from a comment by a young man incarcerated in one of New York’s secure facilities for juvenile offenders where the author taught GED courses for many years. In the context of the book, the comment sounds less self-pitying than factual – even altruistic in its hope that others not begin life with a stacked deck that might include being raised without hope or consistency by an unstable, drug-addicted single mother. If you are looking for life perspective, then this is one book you ought to read. If you are searching for clues to understand where civilization has gone astray, a trip behind these bars might be the place to begin. If you want to restore your faith in humanity, you will appreciate the way David Chura illuminates hope, connection and dignity enduring in the most unlikely of places.

The author finds the best in human beings by watching them closely, patiently and without judgment. In reading along, we realize that the guards are doing time along with the youthful inmates. In its many twists and turns, the book discovers in the prison labyrinth a metaphor of the confinements and refuges of the human spirit. In the face of every person he so carefully depicts, the author shows us a mirror.

Read this book. I imagine it will be an experience you’ll never forget.

By now I thought the shocked reactions to the Department of Justice’s report on sexual abuse of juveniles in detention centers would’ve disappeared. But articles and editorials from across the country continue to appear as states grapple with shocking numbers that won’t go away. Will all this worry and lament translate into change? Who knows?

The one thing I’m pretty sure won’t change is America’s fear of these new barbarians marauding our streets in hordes (except today we call them “gangs.”) Because that fear seems ingrained in our culture, kids will continue to be shut away in the very horrible places we condemn.

But if you’re going to continue putting kids in some kind of detention I have a solution: boot camp.

For several years during my ten year tenure teaching high school kids at a New York county jail I had the privilege (strange as that sounds) of teaching in a boot camp for teenagers serving county time.

When I was first approached about the assignment I turned it down.

They had the wrong guy. After all, I’d been a conscientious objector during Vietnam, and to this day am a staunch pacifist. The military approach to anything is not one I can, or will ever be able to endorse. Young guys? put in a boot camp? to be screeched at? humiliated? all in the name of “helping” them?

I wanted nothing to do with it.

Until I finally gave in and visited the boot camp on which county corrections would model theirs.

What I saw knocked the protest sign out of this old pacifist’s fist.

The boot camp was set in the Catskill Mountains, as far away from Brooklyn (where most of the kids came from) as you can get. Spotlessly clean and well cared for, the place was in stark contrast to the dilapidated jail where I taught.

Equally striking were the teenage boys I saw there with shaved heads; pressed paramilitary green uniforms, and polished boots. They went about their business with an ease that kids doing time, or even kids free on the streets rarely have.

But most impressive, and downright disconcerting, was listening to what these young guys had to say about themselves. They talked candidly about their lives in the hood; the crimes they committed; their endless stints in group homes, detention centers and jails; and the world they were hoping to make for themselves once they were out.

They talked about “core values” and the creed they lived by: “There is nothing I cannot do if I set my heart and mind to it. I am willing to learn,” a creed that gave them hope and the courage to plan for the future.

And the fact that they even envisioned a future for themselves was astonishing enough. So many of the locked up guys I taught didn’t expect to live past 21. They’d seen too many of their fathers and brothers and uncles and friends killed in the streets. Why should their lives be any different?

These “cadets” did something else I never saw in the county jail. They respected themselves and other people; recognized their strengths, yet acknowledged their weaknesses; and took responsibility for their crimes. (It’s pretty common in prison to hear guys say, “I caught a charge,” as though crime was just an H1N1 variation.)

To help them make these leaps, kids in the boot camp had weekly counseling groups, individual sessions, family conferences, job training, school, and lots and lots of PT. The correctional staff that worked with them taught them how to move in their bodies, to stand straight, to walk. There was none of the usual gangsta swagger or jailhouse shuffle. They learned how to be at ease in their bodies instead of holding them like loaded guns ready to explode.

And when they left this greenhouse of recovery for the familiar and unchanged neighborhoods they came from, these young men and their families received intense follow-up services.

It was easy to see that this was not the “scream-in-your-face-you-piece-of-shit-tear-you-down-to-make-you-better” boot camp model I knew was used in rehab centers or in other jails, or had seen horrifyingly glorified in movies like Full Metal Jacket. Instead it was what I called the social work model, one based on compassion (as oxymoronic as that sounds) and not on the barely suppressed rage so many correctional institutions are fueled by.

Much to my surprise, when I returned to the jail I enlisted in the county boot camp which turned out to be a pretty close replica of what I had seen.

I don’t believe that kids should be locked up, not in large detention centers, and certainly not in adult prisons. But if they are going to be incarcerated (and I know they are) I think that every kid should be assigned to this type of humane “boot camp.”

Because every day that I taught there, I left the jail moved by what I saw: kids, no different from society’s young “thugs” locked up just down the hall in the regular jail blocks, struggling against the odds to become decent human beings.

The numbers are disturbing. During 2008 through 2009, 12 percent or 3,220 of the kids locked up in state or privately run juvenile detention centers reported that they had been sexually victimized by another kid or by facility staff.

Even more disturbing is that 10.3 percent stated they had had sexual contact with an adult staff member. Of that number, 1,150 kids said that sex or sexual contact was forced on them. All this according to the recently released National Survey of Youth in Custody (NSYC) report mandated by the Department of Justice as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Statistics have an odd way of getting to us.

On one hand, they’re just numbers; cut and dry; lifeless; boring to read; easy to lose track of. Yet they’re potent, almost like talismans that draw our attention to the truth beneath them.

I got to thinking.

The high school I went to had about that many kids, 3,000 plus. That was a lot of kids, especially when we packed the gymnasium for a basketball game or got herded into the auditorium for what our teachers felt would be yet another enriching speaker.

3,220 kids are boundless, shot through with life and energy, loud, and, most of the time, interesting and funny (that is if you don’t let them get on your nerves.)

But this report is talking about a different kind of kid.

3,220 locked up, locked away, locked down young people adjudicated to places they don’t want to be, in places that don’t really want them because nobody else wants them. Kids forced one way or another (perhaps just by the fact that they were young, disenfranchised, and in juvenile detention) to have sex or sexual contact mostly with adults.

Adults. The ones hired to take care of them. The ones trusted with their safety and security.

But I’m pretty sure those abused kids weren’t as shocked by their caretakers’ misconduct as the rest of us are. They’ve been letdown by adults all their lives. They’re use to being disappointed. So what else is new?

There’s been a quick and horrified response to the findings of this survey. The remarks I’ve heard and the comments I’ve read have been venomous to the extreme. The staffs of these detention centers have been described as animals, sadists, monsters, predators. “Think about it. Who else would take a job like that?” “What do you expect from a bunch of bullies and psychopaths?”

I’ve been there, and said the same things. When I first started teaching kids at a county penitentiary, I had the correctional staff pegged the same way. I had my own litany of synonyms for “lowlife.”

But it didn’t take me long to see that those correctional officers were just as much victims of a violent, degrading, inhumane system as the young kids I tried to educate and protect in what small ways I could.

COs had the power. They never forgot it. The kids I taught never forgot. And I never forgot it. But that power was really all they did have: power over the powerless in an institution that had the ultimate power to keep the keepers and the kept down.

In reality, every one of us is responsible for every one of those 3,220 kids. We Americans want our jails, our juvenile detention centers, to keep us safe. The system serves at our behest. But, as this report shows (and there have been far too many reports lately tabulating the abuses of our locked up children) the system serves none of us.

Imagine an auditorium full of those 3,220 victimized kids. What could we possibly say to them?