Posts Tagged ‘Kids in adult lockup’

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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!

Alternet had a very moving piece on the abuse of solitary confinement in US jails entitled “Why is the US the World Leader in the Utterly Inhumane Practice of Solitary Confinement.”  The video is worth watching and says so much about what is wrong with our criminal justice/prison system.

 

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 was recently asked to write an opinion piece for Youth Today and am happy to re-post it here, “The Harm We Do: Kids in Solitary Confinement” For those of you who aren’t already familiar with this publication it is an excellent source of information and in-depth reporting on issues confronting at-risk youth. Youth Today is available as an online journal or in print. I personally get the printed version. I’m just a traditionalist that way, but I also find that the visual presentation and layout look great on the full page. Either way the topics covered and the reporting and writing are of the highest quality in any publication I’ve seen in the field–and I see a lot. Check it out Youth Today.

When most Americans hear the familiar constitutional phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” they can tell you what it means, at least to them. Hanging. Flogging. Chopping a hand off. Chain gangs.

Putting juvenile offenders in solitary confinement is high on my list of “cruel and unusual punishment.” What else do you call locking up fifteen, sixteen year olds, some even younger, in total isolation for 24 hours a day, in some cases for months at a time, never leaving their cells? “All an inmate’s needs are met right here,” was the way the warden of the adult county jail where I taught high school students proudly described it as he gave a group of professionals a tour of the new Special Housing Unit (SHU). It was true. Each cell had its own phone, shower, toilet, concrete bed, and adjacent small enclosed rec area. All an inmate’s needs were met, except for the most essential: human contact of any kind.

These conditions are intolerable for anyone and are replicated nationally in our jails. The United Nations Human Rights Council reported that the US has more inmates in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation. But locking up a kid in those conditions, a kid with more energy than a playground can hold; whose body at times practically vibrates with urges that many more advantaged teens struggle to control; whose emotional and intellectual development is at best undernourished, can only be called “cruel and unusual.”

Human Rights Watch agrees. It’s recently released “Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life Without Parole in the United States” documents the overuse of solitary confinement with minors and its devastating effects on them, effects heightened by the prospect of life without parole. The young people interviewed considered isolation a “profoundly difficult ordeal,” leaving them with “thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness or depression.”

But it’s not just “lifers” in solitary who experience those “profound effects.” I saw it when I visited my jailhouse students who were locked up in “the cage,” as they called it. They were there because corrections deemed them a threat to “safety and security.” In too many cases, however, that “threat” came from their acting-out behaviors due to untreated mental health issues or ADHD. Still others were seen as “pains in the ass” who “just needed to be taught a lesson.”

It didn’t take long for the new SHU to fall apart, the way everything else does in prison. Walls were scuffed and gouged from inmates being dragged in; cell door windows were smeared as guys jammed and angled their faces to see anything, anyone. The only thing shattering that intense sensory deprivation was the sound of inmates shouting to each other, howling through the thick walls, trying to connect with another human, announcing to the world, “I’m still alive.” And when they weren’t screaming, they were sleeping—15, 16 hours a day.

My students deteriorated as well. Once in isolation they abandoned any sense of civilized behavior. Young guys who would come to class shaven and showered, smelling of Old Spice deodorant, in fresh county oranges, now reeked of unwashed bodies; their hair dirty and matted, faces fuzzed; their eyes caked and puffy from sleep. I would bang on the window until they woke up and lifted their heads from under the pillows and blankets they burrowed under against the cold. They’d shuffle over to the door and we’d squat on our own sides of the concrete and glass wall and talk through the meal tray slot. It was then that I’d be hit by their sour, foul breath as though they were slowly decaying from the inside out.

Finally in 2009 the Department of Justice investigated these abuses. The DOJ reported that half of the inmates in the SHU were between 16 and 18, and that the average stay in isolation for juveniles was 365 days. As a result of these “extremely lengthy sentences,” the mental health of these young people worsened significantly, aggravated “by the jail’s failure” to provide routine treatment. Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated case. Abuses of minors in solitary are happening around the country.

I don’t know how many people get the irony involved here, but I do know that the kids I taught did, even though they never “got” irony in class: We lock children up in inhuman conditions in order to teach them how to act human. Unfortunately, as studies have shown, inmates learn a far different lesson. When they leave isolation they are angrier, more distrustful, more cynical about ever getting justice, and more prone to violence. What could be a more “cruel and unusual punishment” then to confirm these young people’s bedrock belief that America as it is now has no place for them other than behind bars?

Originally appeared in Youth Today

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.

Check out these great videos from the New York Center for Juvenile Justice about raising the age at which a minor can be tried as an adult in New York State. It is now at an appalling  16 years old. For some designated crimes children as young as 13 can be tried in adult court in New York. Those ages certainly give you pause.

This is how the Center puts their mission:

“Through advocacy, education, and implementation, the Center is spearheading an effort to transform the way children under 18 years of age are judged and treated in New York courts, including consideration of a fair and reasonable standard (age) of criminal responsibility. The center has developed and intends to implement strategies that will require children under 18 tried in New York’s courts to be judged as children.”

This summer a group of law students interned at the Center in New York City where they explored the topic thoroughly. One of the end products–along with some heavy duty legal policy explorations–was to make videos that conveyed the  absurdity of  laws that allow teenagers to be tried and sentenced as adults but won’t  allow those same teens to see certain movies without their parents’ permission, for example. These videos show how much can be put across in under 60 seconds.

When you go to jail you feel like everybody’s in your business but nobody cares. You get cuffed, shoved into the back of a squad car. The police blotter broadcasts to the world what you did. You get booked, fingerprinted, photographed, everything about you fed into “The Man’s” hungry computer. You’re watched—by correctional officers, wardens, nurses, other inmates; even the kitchen workers warily scope you out. Bars instead of doors.

At least that is how you feel if you’re a kid doing time in an adult county prison like the teenagers I taught for ten years.

Like many adolescent perceptions of the world, they’re right and they’re wrong. Everybody is in your business, watching, overseeing, suspicious of everything you do, telling you to do this, don’t do that. You’re always under somebody’s eye, electronic or otherwise, yet you feel alone, isolated, convinced nobody cares.

But I want to tell the kids I taught, and every other kid locked away, that there are people who, although they may seem to be “in your business,” want to help out, and do care.

A few of those locked up teens might have heard about the Supreme Court’s recent decision outlawing life without parole for non-homicidal crimes by juveniles. But I doubt they’ve heard about the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).  Not many people have, it seems, considering that the bill, first enacted in 1974, is woefully, embarrassingly three years overdue for Congressional reauthorization. Finally, it is making its way slowly through the Congress.

The bill calls for reforms to the juvenile justice system that are simple yet vital for the well-being of young people entangled in the system. It provides federal funds to states who comply with the following conditions when dealing with young offenders.

Participating states are encouraged to get minors out of adult jails and prisons. If they cannot for some reason, they must insure that kids in these facilities are out of “sight and sound” of adults. Unfortunately it’s a restriction that doesn’t work. In the county adult lockup where I worked, many young adolescents were housed on a minor’s block. Nevertheless, they had ongoing contact with adults at rec, clinics, the law library and in the hallways. Likewise, housing teens on a separate block didn’t protect them from the harmful effects of the adult jail culture—violent, predatory, paranoid, assaultive to all the senses—which permeated the place. States must be urged to remove youths from adult contact all together.

The bill also requires states to address what Congress calls “disproportionate minority contact.” Some of us would call it racial profiling. Some, racism.  Others, the new Jim Crow. The kids I taught would call it, “locking up the brothers.” It’s a lifeless, bloodless, meaningless term for a devastating reality—the increased incarceration of young people of color. It’s hard to believe that in 2010 the states must have money dangled in front of them to get them to work on this blatant, escalating racial disparity.

Another condition is that states must stop jailing kids who are guilty of status offences such as truancy; running away; alcohol or tobacco possession; and breaking curfew. I worked with youngsters, some living in group homes, others at home, who were doing time in an adult facility for truancy or for breaking curfew because the adults responsible for them wanted “to teach them a lesson.” I can assure you, it did.

And finally, states would be required to improve conditions wherever juveniles are detained by ending such dangerous practices as pepper spray, hog-tying and prolonged isolation; and by insuring proper mental health and medical services. Too many young inmates are in desperate need of both. Yet often these needs are overlooked or outright neglected for the unstated reason of saving money. I have seen, and written about minors slipping into depression or the chaos of psychosis because prescribed medications were denied them.

JJDPA is a good bill and there are lots of good people behind it. It has over 16 congressional sponsors, and is endorsed by 9 international groups including Human Rights Watch; 90+ national groups; 259 state and local organizations; and the Department of Justice.

That’s the news I’d like to share with the nation’s locked up kids: indeed, people are “in your business,” and because of those people you’re not alone. It might be a tough sell, though. When you’re 15, sitting in a cramped, dirty, smelly cell, cut off from anyone and anything that has any meaning for you, you get mighty skeptical and feel abandoned. I just hope the 111th Congress doesn’t let these kids down. It’s happened far too many times in their lives already.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

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.

CNN Justice (11-13-2009) did an interesting and enlightening story on the United States aging prison population and the need for increased and more expensive health care.

Americans hold firm to their belief that the only way to deal with crime is to lock people up. It’s been a “successful” strategy as the PEW Trust reported in 2008. America now incarcerates 1 in 100 of its citizens. As expensive, and as dangerous as this policy is, the public still insists that adults and  young people charged with crimes  should  be locked up in places that only teach them more crime, instill more anger and resentment and self-loathing. This policy not only doesn’t prevent crime but also endangers the health and well being of yet another generation. It costs Americans more money, money they resent spending on “ruthless thugs,” but money that has to be spent because of their shortsighted approach to criminal justice.

In my ten years teaching in an adult prison with locked up teenagers, some as young as 15, the correctional staff I worked with would often joke (in that “black humor” way of COs)  that it was okay with them for these young inmates  to keep  getting arrested; all they were doing was guaranteeing the COs’  jobs and  retirement. The edge in the COs’ comments was there, but so was the dark wisdom: Kids get in trouble, the system locks them up, then sends them back out into the world punished but not changed or given help in any way, only to get in trouble again.  After awhile, they’re not kids any more but the adults the PEW Report talked about and that the CNN Justice story highlighted.  Instead of breeding another generation of criminals, and having to pay for them, maybe it’s time to look at other ways to teach people, young and old, to be accountable for their actions.