Former Westchester County Jail teacher shares experience with juveniles in adult institution

Posted: August 23, 2010 in At-risk kids, Education, Juvenile Justice, Minors in Adult Jails, Westchester County Jail
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This article by Noreen O’Donnel appeared in the Journal News, newspaper for the Lower Hudson River Valley on August 16, 2010

David Chura began teaching in the Westchester County Jail 15 years ago, when the news was full of stories of unrepentant teenagers committing horrendous crimes. “Super-predator” was the term of the moment.

Would all of his students be violent and aggressive, he wondered. Would they see any value in education?

“Then I would meet these kids,” he said.

Now Chura, 62, has written a book about his years in the jail: “I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup.”

“I was struck by the stories of the kids that I worked with,” he said. “Like many people, I had a lot of stereotypes about who these kids were and what they were going to be like and what kind of problems they would present. When I got to know the kids, it was a real eye- opener about the kinds of experiences they had lived through.”

Children of disappointment, he calls one chapter.

Who were they?

There was 15-year-old Warren, born in the jail to a mother whose drinking had, in Chura’s words, short-circuited his body and brain.

There was Jonathan, a 16-year-old still sucking his thumb who watches over the jail’s egg incubator until the chicks hatch. He cares for a lame one everyone calls Cripple.

And there was Ray, taken from his mother when he was five, locked up at night by his aunt and raped when he was 11.

On his 21st birthday, he plotted his life for Chura as if it were a graph, with a succession of foster homes, suicide attempts, psychiatric hospitalizations and drug rehabs. He ends with this in red marker: “PEACE. ONE LOVE!”

The title of the book comes from Ray.

The classroom was a place where the young inmates could be kids, he said. Far from being uninterested in school, they took advantage of it, he said. Many showed talent, if some of it raw.

“As much as their lives were pretty chaotic, they were really interested in making something of themselves,” he said.

Chura, whom the inmates called “Mr. C.,” argues for treating them as the adolescents they really are. He asks people to “take a look at what the juvenile justice system does, specifically what happens when you lock minors up in an adult facility.”

“That’s really the crux of it for me,” he said.

The number of juveniles in prison has risen by 35 percent since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The number housed in adult prison has skyrocketed , up by more than 200 percent.

Last year, the department accused Westchester County of subjecting inmates at the jail to unconstitutional living conditions, including excessive force by correction officers. Among the complaints: failing to provide acceptable medical and mental-health care, especially to juvenile inmates. Last week, neither the U.S. Attorney’s Office nor the Westchester County Jail had any comment about the investigation.

Chura, who has retired and is living in western Massachusetts, said he is not writing specifically about the Westchester County Jail, but about a system.

“If we continue to lock up kids at such an early age without doing any rehabilitation, you’re talking about increased adult population in jails, and that’s just very expensive,” he said.

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