If you follow closely what is happening when it comes to America’s incarceration of kids in prisons as I do, you realize that, despite some high profile cases in which reforms have been set in motion—at  New York City’s Rikers Island, for example—the news is not very good.

Certainly progress has been made in individual cases. Those youth advocates who  have worked tirelessly  to bring changes about should be honored and thanked—as  well as the many thousands of young people who have suffered and died as a result of our cruel prison system; those lives and deaths have been a call for justice and reform to many of us. But there is still much to do across this country when it comes to children in prison.

Fusion, an online progressive news journal, recently had an article, “16 Images that Demonstrate America’s Addiction to Jailing Children” that proves the point that progress is slow to almost nonexistent in reforming our  juvenile justice system. The article’s powerful images and stark statistics make it clear why we have a lot of work to do in saving our children from a system that seems more interested in punishment than in rehabilitation. These numbers and pictures present a reality that is hard to turn our back on.

Capt. Shawn Welch sprays OC spray into the face of Paul Schlosser who is bound in a restraint chair after the inmate, who has an infectious disease, spit at an officer.  June 10, 2012.

This disturbing photo is from an excellent article on Solitary Watch about the inhumane and brutal treatment of mentally ill people in US prisons. In my ten years teaching minors locked up in a New York adult county prison, I witnessed inmates who were  clearly disturbed and dealing with mental health issues being pepper sprayed and tased by emergency response teams (ERTs) dressed in intimidating riot gear as a way to “calm them down.”

Our prisons are overcrowded with mentally ill people who get little to no treatment, handled by people not trained in these issues, all because Americans refuse to confront the needs of the poor and disenfranchised and to provide the funds necessary for proper community mental health services. Instead we, through our lawmakers, spend billions of dollars on war in its many forms.,_Jr._Montgomery_arrest_1958.jpg


This powerful quote from Dr. King contradicts the current rhetoric about “thugs” and “thieves.”

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

Guest contributor, Aliza Ansell—teacher, mentor, poet, and runner—has spent much of her life working with people pushed to the margins of society. She has seen firsthand how conditions such as poverty, discrimination, violence, substance abuse, and social isolation can misshape people’s lives. Likewise, Aliza has witnessed how those lives in turn can spin out of control. Over the years she has counseled and taught those very people.

You would expect that Aliza automatically would be against the death penalty; that although she would be aware of the horrible things that people can do, she, at the same time, would have faith in the individual’s ability to change and make amends. This, after all, is the core belief she has based her life’s work on: people can change.

Yet the actions of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the Boston Marathon on April 5, 2013 hit home for Aliza and greatly disturbed her. It caused her to reexamine some of the basic values she held regarding justice and the relationship between crime and punishment, up until the day those explosives were planted. In this powerful piece, Wrestling Dzhokhar, Struggling With the Death Penalty she takes us through her struggles to answer the difficult conundrum that all Americans should be asking themselves: Is it ever right for the state to put someone to death for a crime he or she has committed?

This piece was originally aired on WAMC. You can also listen to Aliza reading her essay.

Wrestling Dzhokhar, Struggling With the Death Penalty

It’s 2015 and I’m training for my first marathon. The winter has been merciless: ripping winds, ice, relentless snow storms. But like anyone training for a marathon, I’m out running.

I need to log an extraordinary number of miles before my race. True, it’s not the Boston Marathon; only the strongest qualify for Boston.

But this season is far from ordinary. As I head out with my dogs, I’m aware the Boston Marathon bombing trial is taking place. As my feet hit the ground, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sits facing his victims.

As I run, I think about the guide dog, Rescue, walking beside Jessica Kensky as she wheels into the courtroom. Both of Jessica’s legs were shredded in the explosion.

I look down at my running shoes. I’m aware I have legs and Jessica doesn’t. I think about Rescue, as Jessica tells her story. Rescue waits next to her, while my dogs lumber beside me.

I can’t stop thinking about Dzhokhar. As I run alongside the river, I wonder what he’s thinking while Jessica tells the jurors about the moment her body was ripped apart.

I check my watch. 5.27 miles. I unzip my orange windbreaker.

April 2013 when Boston was in lockdown, I feared for my family’s safety. It was irrational. My parents live in Waltham. But the city was in lockdown. Boston has never been in lockdown.

When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured, I wanted him to die. I didn’t care when I saw the image of him after his apprehension, his clothes soaked in blood. His thin frame reminded me that he was just a skinny teenager. I didn’t care. He ripped apart runners. He blew apart my city. He did not deserve to live.

On my runs, I can’t push past 14 miles. I feel defeated. But I lace up my running shoes and head outdoors.
Today the ice is melting. The dirt roads are a mess. I’m tired. I stayed up late watching Dzhokhar Tsarnaev walk into Whole Foods, wander around, trying to figure out which type of milk to buy after blowing apart 260 people and killing three others.

Dzhokhar waited four minutes before putting his backpack down: a backpack full of deadly explosives, the contents which would blow a part a child’s body.

I clock 4 minutes. The whole time I’m running, Dzhokhar stood next to eight-year old Martin. After the explosion, Martin’s tiny abdomen was blown out of his body.

I’m still running. I’m waiting for my watch to beep. It finally beeps. I stop dead in my tracks and burst into tears.

I’m struggling with what it means to want Dzhokhar to die. I talk with my partner Ric. I ask his feelings about capital punishment. He tells me he’s against it. As Americans we should be above capital punishment. But still, I want Dzhokhar to die.

What does it mean to take a life? I argue with Ric. I don’t want my tax dollars spent housing Dzhokhar. It costs $40,000 a year warehousing criminals. Ric tells me killing people costs more.

I stay up late another night, reading the cost to execute a prisoner.

During the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers, I was on the phone with my mother. We learned that Danny, a young man originally from China, was held hostage at gunpoint by Dzhokhar’s brother Tamerlan and driven around the city.

Stopping briefly at a gas station in Cambridge, mistakenly thinking they only accepted cash, Dzhokhar left the car. Tamerlan temporarily put the gun in a seat pocket to fiddle with the GPS. In a well-calculated decision, Danny fled across the street to another gas station. I know those gas stations. Everyone from Boston knows those gas stations.
I ran over 14 miles today. It’s not 20, but I stop fighting the mileage. I stay up late again reading online debates regarding the death penalty. The people in favor of the death penalty are people I’ve never respected, with values I don’t like: eye-for-eye values. Killing terrorists makes the United States safe values.

I stare at my computer screen. I find my answer. There, in front of me are my two choices. I choose life.

I tell Ric. “Do you feel better,” he asks? I said, “Yeah.” Not that it matters. It’s a battle that raged inside my head. The outcome of the trial won’t hinge on my battle either. It won’t bring back the souls ripped apart that day, but neither will Dzhokhar’s execution.

As the sun breaks through the barren tree branches, I put on my running shoes. I trot down the muddy icy road. There are small pockets of warm air mixed with blasts of cold. That’s life, I think, a labyrinth, tangles of sunlight and horror. And it’s our responsibility to sort through the mess.

Here is a collection of  powerful images taken by photographer, Steve Davis for a series he has been working on for years called Captured Youth.  It’s hard to look into these young people’s faces, and to see the conditions in which they live, and not ask yourself, “How does ‘capturing’ these young people really serve the interests of justice, and of our country. Look at these photographs and answer that question for yourself.

You hear a lot about how the Prison Rape Elimination standards issued by the Federal government are protecting young people in detention of any kind from sexual violence. The numbers still tell a different story.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post blog.

A prison can’t function without its pecking order. Call it what you will, chain of command, hierarchy, rank, it all comes down to power. Who’s got it, who doesn’t. Who’s on top, who’s on bottom. It’s an all-inclusive, endemic culture: wardens, top assistant wardens, captains, sergeants, and rank and file officers. Frontline correctional officers top inmates, and inmates top whomever they can.

Support staff is notched in there somewhere, just one step above inmates. These “civilians”—medical workers, teachers, social workers, chaplains—are viewed by corrections with almost as much suspicion and contempt as inmates. I know firsthand all about that suspicion and contempt from my years teaching high school offenders locked up in an adult county prison. You get the message pretty quickly when time after time you’re kept standing behind some prison gate or security door, waiting in plain view for an officer to buzz you through while he or she finishes joking with their buddy or finally looks up from their crossword puzzle.

Inmates’ lives are dominated by this same top to bottom hierarchy. For them it’s a food chain that is more blatant, more calculating. The only way to survive is to have your heel, in one way or another, on other inmates’ necks. The young men I worked with had an apt image for making it out alive: “We’re all crabs in a pail scrambling to get out, pulling down the guys in front of you, stepping on them, shoving them down to the bottom so you can make it out.” Extortion, physical strength, ruthlessness, a coldhearted distrust of everyone are the “tools” of survival. Without them an inmate’s well-being and safety are in jeopardy.

You might expect that locked up young kids are on the lowest rung of that ladder both on the block and in the general prison population. Certainly their age, undeveloped thinking and decision-making processes, their inability to physically fend for themselves (despite their bluster and bravado) make them more vulnerable to intimidation, abuse, threats, bullying, and physical force.But it goes lower: incarcerated women—what I call the invisible prison population. Despite the fact that more women are being locked up—an 800 percent increase in the last 10 years—you seldom hear what prison life is really like for them (forget the make-believe you see on “Orange is the New Black”).

The prison I worked in is one small example of how women are unfairly treated in lockup. Aside from the brutal fact of female inmates’ increased vulnerability to sexual assault by staff, the women’s unit in this particular prison was more overcrowded than the men’s, and women had limited or no access to any kind of recreational facilities, while their male counterparts had both gym and yard privileges on a daily basis.

Added to the usual indignities experienced by all women imprisoned in the U.S., the female inmates in the county prison where I taught had to endure the callous authority of a male warden. Among the many arbitrary restrictions he imposed (for example at holiday time teachers on the men’s units were allowed to bring in donuts and hot chocolate while permission was denied for the women’s block), he instigated several “cost saving measures:” rationing of toilet paper, and most egregious and insulting, limiting the feminine hygiene products each woman could receive. This has got to be the bottom of the prison hierarchy for locked up women. How could it not be? To have a man dictate how many tampons you’re allowed to use regardless of your body’s needs.

But it’s not. Some women sink even lower in the prison pecking order. As limited as the public’s awareness of female incarceration is, an even more neglected population are those women in solitary confinement. There has been a lot of attention lately to the U.S.’s overuse of solitary confinement. The United Nations Committee on Torture strongly criticized our use of this form of cruel and unusual punishment, making it clear that it was a form of torture—criticism that the U.S. diplomatic delegation sloughed off with America’s usual disdain whenever confronted with its own human rights violations. But even in the media’s coverage of the hearings and its own investigation of solitary confinement abuses one often heard about the sufferings of male inmates but nothing about those women in isolation.

In 2014, the Federal Bureau of Prisons had agreed under some pressure to conduct an “internal audit” on the uses of solitary confinement. Initially no women’s prisons were included on the list of sites to be examined. Under pressure from human rights groups some women’s units were added. However no one was able—or willing—to say exactly which ones. Once again locked up women, this time women held in solitary, didn’t even exist. Solitary Watch, the website which is a fierce advocate for all people held in “special housing units,” called these women “buried.” Another word comes to my mind, one borrowed from repressive Latin American regimes: “disappeared.”