Posts Tagged ‘Youth Crime’

Despite the fact that all the research about the “Scared Straight” approach to crime prevention has shown it doesn’t work this idea is getting new attention with a film that will be on A&E. The approach which brings young kids into prisons and has them interact with prisoners assumes that this experience will frighten kids into staying out of trouble. The results are dubious if not down right the opposite. I’ve talked to young guys who have gone through the program and there is a disconcerting glee in their wide eyes as they told me about male inmates screaming obscenities at them, telling them that they’d make a nice “girlfriend” for some brutal thug, that they wouldn’t last a day in jail,  “your ass is too pretty to waste.” The kids loved it. I imagine the dynamic is like riding the roller coaster: you think you’re going to die as your stomach chokes your throats but you know the safety bar is tight and you’ll be getting off soon. “Scared Straight” succeeds in romanticizing jail which is all a part of America’s perverse fascination with what happens in “the inside.” Kids think that jail is really “a cool place to be.” Youth Today– an excellent news source for anyone working or concerned about at risk kids– has a good article on this approach and the A&E showing

Sometimes the words of young people who have actually lived through, and survived the juvenile justice system speak more powerfully and elegantly than those of us who get to go home at night after our 8 hours behind bars.  R.Dwayne Betts, a spokesperson for Campaign for Youth Justice tells about some of his experiences in a broken down, destructive criminal justice system on Change.org You have to admire someone–anyone of these kids–who can change that negative experience into energy for reform.

I’ve worked with kids at-risk in and out of jail for over 25 years and they just don’t get it. They just don’t get that if you drop out of school, you can’t get a job; and if you hang out on the streets and drink forties the cops harass you 24/7. Get into a stolen car, let your man stash his drugs at your crib, you do jail time.

Experience aside (and some of it with disastrous results on them, on their families) kids just don’t understand that actions have consequences. But this blind spot isn’t limited to kids at-risk. We all have it. Maybe it’s the culture, maybe even the race.

This same blindness to consequences is happening in the Massachusetts prison system, as it is in many other overcrowded state prison systems. At issue is whether double-bunking at one of the state jails is the reason for an increase there in prison violence during the first 10 months of this year. (Boston Globe)

The Patrick administration along with the Department of Corrections argues that this spike in violence has nothing to do with making two inmates share a cell but rather with the type of prisoners—more assaultive and volatile—being moved.

The correction officers union along with various prisoner advocacy groups (at first glance, odd bedfellows, but often COs know, on a day-to-day level, that what’s “good” for inmates is sometimes “good” for them) are opposed to double-bunking and disagree with DOC’s conclusions. They point to the rage inmates feel at being forced to share a cell with another inmate, feeling that their own safety is in jeopardy. As one union official stated, double-bunking is “a tinderbox…the wrong statement to the wrong inmate is just going to make that place blow.

But nowhere in the discussion is anyone talking about the real issue. It goes back to the kid dropping out of school: Actions have consequences. The real issue in prison violence is that the conditions that inmates live in—can’t escape from—affect their behavior. It is, then, a much broader issue, one that goes beyond whether you stick two guys in the same cell.

Behavioral science textbooks are full of  studies that back up this premise. Put any creature (start with rats and work up the food chain) in a noisy, dirty, overcrowded, isolated, subjugated setting and the way that creature acts will reflect the conditions it’s forced to live in.

It’s pretty simple. Treat people like shit, and they’ll act like shit.

Jails are horrible places, whether they are minimum or maximum security, low- tech or high-tech. The conditions that inmates live in are subhuman: Locked away from their loved ones; stripped of their freedom, their power of choice, their privacy; the stench of their own bodies, and worse yet, of 39 other bodies living, farting, belching, crapping three feet away; the shouting and the cursing; the threats and accusations; the attacks or, maybe even worse, the constant fear of attack; the boredom, the feeling of total uselessness, the rage.

And these conditions don’t affect just the inmates. COs work in these same impoverished circumstances at least 8 hours, and all too often 16 hours a day (and who knows what those few hours of sleep that they grab are like)  absorbing, fighting off, defending against the anger prisoners, rightly or wrongly, deflect on them.

In the adult county lockup where I taught, fights were always breaking out between the kids I worked with. A student would disappear from class, and when I asked the CO or the other students where he or she was, I’d hear the latest about who beat up whom, and for what lame reason it all fell out.

In jail a fight means that the emergency response team—the goon squad—is called.  A fight means at least 30 days in “keep-locked,” 23 hour lockdown with one hour out for a shower and some rec.  Or if you’re a real badass, or had had one too many fights, or pissed the ERT off when they brought you down, you get 30 days or more of complete isolation in the special housing unit—the SHU.

Yet to the kids I taught, fights were just one more crappy condition they lived with. Besides, a fight was never your fault.

But I could never let it stop there. When a student returned to class I made a point of asking him or her what the fight was about.

“I was sick of that scumbag with no teeth stealing my banana.”

“I told him not to change the channel.”

“Yo, man, he looked at me.”

A banana? A TV station? A look?

“You mean, you got thrown into the SHU for a banana?” I’d push.

Beneath the bravado of blame, they certainly knew it wasn’t about a banana. Yet they were at a lost to tell me the real cause.  If they could, they’d have to acknowledge the deep rage and resentment they felt about the lives they were forced to live, both in jail and in their poverty ravaged neighborhoods; they’d have to acknowledge the sense of failure that they carried around about how they’d messed up their lives and how impotent they felt to change any of it. They’d have to put into words the truth—that people treated them like shit, so they acted like shit.

We’ve designed an entire prison system to rob people of what little dignity they have. Yet we still wonder why, when that system introduces something like double-bunking to save money, inmates strike back in the only way they know how, they strike back in the only way they see glorified in our culture: Might makes right.

We just don’t get it.

There are 109 inmates serving life sentences without parole for non-homicide crimes they committed when they were 18 or younger. Some, put behind bars when they were 13 or 14, have been locked up for twenty or thirty years.

Those 109– minors then, adults now in their prime, or at least they should be, if they weren’t facing a slow, cruel death in jail– are a part of something that is uniquely American. According to Amnesty International, the United States is the only country that imprisons children for life (the same country, the PEW Charitable Trust reported in 2008, that now incarcerates one out of every one hundred of its citizens).

This year the United States Supreme Court has agreed to consider two of those 109 cases. One involves a man who, at the age of 13, robbed and raped an elderly woman in 1989; the other was 16 when he took part in two break-ins in 2005. Each was sentenced by a Florida court to life without parole. The high court must decide whether such life imprisonment is “cruel and unusual punishment.”

There are over 50 groups filing in support of these two inmates. It’s a roll call of religious, legal, correctional, educational, medical and psychological professionals. As varied as the groups are, there’s not much difference in their reasoning. All the briefs, whether based on spiritual belief or scientific research, come down to the same thing, to something that seems obvious to me: children change, develop, are redeemable; children are vulnerable to immense forces in their lives, forces that they can’t control but sometimes act out of.

It seems like a lot of effort for two people (or 109, depending upon how you look at it) who, when they were young, did some pretty terrible things. But those hundreds of professionals and concerned citizens know that if we don’t stop it now, there’ll be a lot more than 109 kids facing the same fate, given the country’s mood when it comes to kids and crime. It is a mood that was set into motion in the mid-1990s when some political scientists warned the public of the impending threat of young “super-predators,” and so the jihad on juvenile crime began.

Despite the juvenile justice system’s earlier, fundamental belief that youthful offenders can and should be rehabilitated, today’s laws are more about retribution and revenge. These draconian laws seem written for monsters, and it’s not surprising, when you consider the hype surrounding youth culture today and the media-fed images of teenagers as ruthless street thugs.

I don’t know any of the 109 inmates living out their own death penalties, but over my ten years of teaching high school kids serving time in an adult lockup I’ve met my own 109+ young men and women. The teens I worked with weren’t serving life sentences without parole, but they very well could have been if, as they would say, they “were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

These locked up youngsters had been a part of the system– family court, foster care, group homes– for most of their short lives. They didn’t sign up for it; they got put there one way or another, by the actions of a neglectful mother, an alcoholic father, a teenage girl who didn’t find it fun anymore to take care of a baby. Kids like Donald, a student of mine, whose mother sent him out to the streets at 11 years old to sell drugs to support her crack habit, and where he eventually found his own habit; or Warren, whose 16 year old mother practically pickled him in alcohol while she was pregnant, and who was walking proof of the damage done.

These kids didn’t volunteer for a life spent among strangers in every variety of state childcare institution. They were there until they got tired of it, as many battered and abused kids eventually will, and started making their own choices– the wrong choices, but when I heard what limited resources they had to work with I wondered, “How could it be otherwise?” Choices that led them to juvenile detention, maybe drug rehab or a psych hospital, then back on the streets to set the whole cycle spinning again. Until finally the cops got involved. Suddenly, they weren’t seen as kids anymore (although they were), and they landed in the county lockup.

The kids I taught weren’t locked up for life like the 109, but they might just as well have been, because no matter how long a kid spends in prison, it’s a life sentence. Get put in jail and the door shuts on your life, on Life, and, just so you don’t forget it, all day long you hear cell doors, hallway doors, bullpen doors slamming, clanking, shuttering shut. No child (take a long, hard look sometime at a 15 year old boy you know and tell me he’s not a child) should be sentenced to live in the squalor only a prison can manufacture: the constant noise; the rancid smells; the aimless violence; the fear of always watching your back; the boredom of endless hours of Jerry Springer.

It’s almost commonplace these days to say that if you lock kids up all they learn is more ways to do crime. But I don’t think that’s the worst of it. Lock kids up and they come out of prison carrying things even I, with my ten years of daily jail life, can’t imagine. I’m not so much worried about what new criminal activity they might learn. What I worry about is all the new reasons they garner for doing more crime– the renewed rage at themselves for being what they are and what they failed to be; at the families, communities, schools, churches, the country for letting them down and reinforcing their sense of worthlessness.

But shouldn’t those 109 be held accountable? Shouldn’t any criminal be made to take responsibility? Indeed. Ask any of my jailhouse students the same question and most would agree. But accountability doesn’t mean punishment; it never has, except in the parlance of today’s criminal justice system. It means not turning away from what you did and the consequences of your actions, but looking at it square on and learning a better way of living.

There are many ways to do this in jail. Restorative justice programs are one very effective approach, tough love so tough that not many adults I know outside of prison could stand up against that personal scrutiny. Sunny Schwartz shows that in her spunky, powerful book, Dreams from the Monster Factory, which describes her restorative justice work with long-term California inmates. In the county jail where I worked some of my students went through a similar victims’ awareness program, and even the most hard-edged guys who swore nothing would ever or could ever touch them were moved.

Because accountability is based on the premise that people can and do evolve. One of the most moving of the legal briefs in support of the petitioners in the upcoming Supreme Court hearing was filed by eight “former juvenile offenders” whose life stories argue for not shutting off the possibility of such transformation.

Some had been convicted of very serious crimes that could have resulted in sentencings similar to the 109 had circumstances been different. Instead, they were given the opportunity to amend their lives and consequently made “significant contributions to their communities.” The eight include a Broadway actor; a former United States senator; a Latino poet and community activist; a defense attorney; a software executive; and a UNICEF children’s advocate.

The changes made by the young men I worked with might not seem as noteworthy, but to them they were seismic. Anthony, while serving time for a robbery, got his GED. When he was released he started slowly to turn his life around with the help of our school social worker. He got a menial job, then went to college part time. Eventually, supporting himself the whole time, living in SROs in the Bronx, he received his social work degree and now works with “at-risk” kids.

For Alex, the process was more difficult. After multiple arrests he knew he had to do something different or he would end up a lifer or dead on the street. He made the toughest decision of his 17 years: to leave the only neighborhood he’d ever known for a lonely, anonymous life (or so he felt) on the West Coast with an uncle he barely knew. He made the move, got a hospital custodial job and then started to work towards his dream of being a marine biologist. For many of my other students the changes were smaller– the decision to join Job Corps; to get into rehab; to contact a father not spoken to for years. Nevertheless they were still positive steps.

Each of these stories is a rebuke to laws that would lock kids up for life without parole. It’s vital that accounts like these be heard so that the American people realize that the “super-predators” they’ve been taught to fear are first and foremost children; and so that the nine justices see to it that no more children are denied the right to change and are protected against the “cruel and unusual punishment” of a slow death in prison.

This post originally appeared at Beacon Broadside