Posts Tagged ‘Criminal Justice’

It’s never easy being locked up in  prison but at holiday time it’s even harder. Being separated from family and friends, from the  larger community of town, neighborhood, church, the world at large becomes more pronounced. In this piece by guest contributor Gayle Saks-Rodriguez you can feel the anguish of a young mother locked away from her children at Christmas. But as often happens with Gayle’s pieces things take a different turn and suddenly a lament becomes a realization of gratitude. You can read more of Gayle’s writing at her site My Life int the Middle Ages where this piece originally appeared and here at “Kids in the System.”

Christmas on the “Inside”: Another Face of Criminal Justice

for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

– Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird”

This morning in my prison writing workshop, a young woman awaiting sentencing broke down in tears as she shared that she had recently been falsely accused of assault. There is no doubt in my mind that she was telling the truth. The circumstances were more guilt by association and she had the strong feeling that she was judged solely on the color of her skin.

“I’ve never laid my hands on ANYBODY,” she said emphatically and convinced me more than anything I have ever been convinced of in my life.

Usually, when a woman in the class ends up in tears, and it has happened in every class I’ve led, the other women keep quiet for a moment, let her cry and then comfort her. Today was a very different scenario, the women dishing out more tough love than compassion. Even her cellmate, who had grown very fond of her, described it as a “lesson,” one that should remind her to start hanging out with a different crowd. Another said to make sure that any car she gets into has working head and brake lights, that there are no “works” in the car, and other necessary precautions to keep her from being an obvious target. She continued to cry and said “All I want is to be home with my babies for Christmas, and instead I’m here.” It was devastating and I pray that the judge believes her and that all she gets is a slap on the wrist and gets to go home to spend the holidays with her “babies.”

After the class there was a Christmas program, an “inspirational concert” performed by 9 female inmates led by one of the incredible social workers who work in the program. The concert was combined with a “graduation” from the 2-week orientation program and a celebration of a few women who had completed their GED. It took one woman 6 years, but she did it, and when she stood up to accept her certificate, the pride on her face was immeasurable.

Before the concert I wondered what could possibly inspire these women to sing, especially at this time of year. They were in prison, at Christmas, many withdrawing from drugs, most having had their children taken away, but they still wanted to sing. The first of three spirituals that they sang is called “Precious Lamb of God,” and the message—and the answer to my question—couldn’t be clearer:

When I always didn’t do right
I went left, He told me to go right
But I’m standing right here
in the midst of my tears, Lord
I claim You to be the Lamb of God

Even when I broke Your heart
my sins tore us apart
But I’m standing right here
in the midst of my tears
I claim You to be the Lamb of God

New life can begin
for You washed away, washed away every one of my sins
Whom the Son sets free, is truly free indeed
claim You to be the Lamb of God.

At the end of the ceremony, the female sheriff gently acknowledged that yes, the holidays were coming, and yes, they were not in an ideal setting. When the woman said to the crowd, “It’s GOOD you’re here, it could be worse,” and the inmates nodded their heads and said “You’re right,” I understood what she was saying. They could be dead, they could be stumbling through traffic high on meth, they could be jerking off some stranger for $5.00 so they could buy a pack of cigarettes. Clearly, this time of year is spun as a time of gratitude but for so many people, there seems to be little to be grateful for. However, if all it takes is to sing to make us feel inspired I’ve learned yet one more thing from these incredibly strong women.

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.”

I recently wrote about the “cruel and unusual” punishment of putting young offenders in solitary confinement, forcing them to live in an environment of complete isolation in some cases for months at a time. The reasons for their isolation are myriad: to maintain what corrections calls “safety and security;” to separate the mentally ill  especially if they appear to be disruptive to general population; to “teach them a lesson” (adolescents especially in prison can be oppositional and rebellious); to separate “troublemakers” who  raise issues that perhaps challenge the prison culture.  Whatever the reason, the effects are negative and far-reaching.

Solitary Watch a wonderful and tenacious watchdog of the murky world of solitary confinement, recently posted an article that shows the devastating damage that solitary isolation has on young minds. What consistently comes to my mind is that the damage we do to the young will only come back to hurt society since a damaged young offender will inevitably grow up to be an even more damaged and potentially dangerous adult.

I urge you to check out the article.

The International Centre for Prison Studies recently published a list of countries and their prison populations. The US is number one. Our prominence on the list is embarrassing for those Americans and the rest of the world who see the United States as a humane and progressive country. But the numbers give one pause. Why do we spend more money on prisons than on schools, for a starter? Clearly our model of criminal justice is one of retribution and not rehabilitation. Study after study has shown that changing behavior is much more cost effective than locking people up for decades, living, as it were, on the state. Check out the numbers.

“You don’t care about the victims. All you care about are those kids.”

It was a comment I’ve heard in one form or another at book events, at juvenile justice talks I’ve given, or in response to pieces I’d written about our national policy of retribution towards troubled kids. I have to admit, though, this guy was a bit more, shall I say, challenging, as he stood up after my reading and made his comment.

I’d read several advice articles for authors on giving readings which suggested that you have “pat answers” ready for the Q & A. It keeps things moving. It may be good advice, but I’ve found that it doesn’t work for me. Juvenile justice is too potent a topic be “pat answered” away. Besides, I wrote I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup about the young offenders I taught for ten years in the adult county prison to get people thinking about this much neglected issue. So I do my best to address each concern sincerely.

Fielding the man’s rather angry question, I talked about my belief that kids should indeed be held accountable for their actions; that they should learn that what they did affected not only their victims and their families and communities but also the young offenders themselves and their families and communities. What I couldn’t support was the punitive quality of that accountability as it is now practiced in our prison system.

I could tell that evening’s questioner was pretty disgusted. I was one more bleeding heart, one more knee jerk liberal, one more sucker taken in by “those kids.” He was gracious about it. He didn’t say any of that out loud. He didn’t have to. I’d heard it all before.

But his comment stayed with me long after the event: What did I feel about the victims?

I talk a lot about victims in my book. But the victims in this case are the locked up high school students I worked with for those ten years. In telling their stories—stories of childhood neglect and abandonment; of sexual abuse; of violence in the home and on the streets; of parental addiction and disease—I wanted readers to at least be aware of the fertile ground of mistreatment in which these children grew up. From my challenger’s point of view I’m sure I do go on too much about “those kids” and not about the people who suffered because of their crimes. (It’s important to note, however, that many of the teens I came across in jail—and this holds true for prisons nationally—were serving time for victimless, nonviolent offenses.) I was beginning to wonder if maybe the guy was right. Maybe I didn’t care about crime victims?

Like all good questions, this one stayed with me well afterwards. Yet despite the doubts he raised for me I knew that I did care deeply about the people hurt by crime; that, in an odd twist on the title of my book, “I don’t wish nobody” to have their lives damaged by the irresponsible acts of others, young or old. I turned the question over and over until finally I understood more clearly where I stood: the only way to truly protect society from youthful offenders and to prevent more crime was to protect the offenders themselves.

Study after study has shown that the harsh treatment of young people locked up in our nation’s jails has not only failed to reduce recidivism but has also created angrier, more bitter, more violent juvenile offenders. Lock a 14 or 15 year old up in an adult prison with its toxic environment of noise and dirt; of abuse, intimidation and paranoia; of violence and aggression, and that kid will not leave jail with a heightened sense of responsibility towards society, ready to re-examine and change his or her behavior.

I know that my reasoning wouldn’t convince those who feel that any punishment for criminal actions is not harsh enough to give victims the justice they seek. But the more I think about it the more convinced I am of the wisdom—and commonsense, which wisdom often is—behind it: if we truly care about victims, if we want to shield people from the hurt of crime we must look at and change the way we bring juvenile offenders—all offenders, really—to true justice. During my tenure as a jailhouse teacher and while I was writing my book  I always thought of the kids I taught as children of disappointment, children let down time and time again by the world of adults—parents, teachers, clergy, neighbors. Prison breeds disappointment, and as I did my own ten year jail bid I watched many of my students come in as children of disappointment and leave young adults of disappointment.

That’s a transformation that no one truly wants and that protects no one.

Originally posted on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

It’s good to see that juvenile and family court judges have spoken out about the “Scared Straight” approach to juvenile justice. They raise the same issue that so many of us have expressed: are kids really deterred from crime by the controlled, choreographed exposure to jail culture? Check out the judges’ statement.

Despite all the research, the data gathering, the studies, news reports, the impassioned pleas of professionals, clergy, and even the occasional politician; despite all the talk about America being “post black,” the incarceration of African Americans,  young black men in particular, continues, and nobody seems to care.

In Today’s News New Jersey an excellent and powerful indictment of America’s racist justice, “Unforgivable Racism: Black Men, Criminal Justice”, is worth reading.