Kids in Adult Prisons: A Different Kind of Commencement

Posted: June 5, 2014 in Education, Juvenile Justice
Tags: , , , ,

The days are filled with graduation speeches by the famous and the not so famous as students leave their schools and start out into the world. So I decided to re-post a piece I wrote about what it’s like for a locked up kid to “graduate” from jail and go out into the world. Indeed, a very different kind of commencement.


Now that all the high school graduations are over and the backyard barbeques celebrated, I’m finally coming down from the contact high of all that youthful exuberance and optimism.

It’s easy to get swept up into those good feelings. But now as I move into summer’s quieter months, I can’t help thinking about the high school students I taught in a county penitentiary and what “commencement” meant for them.

Success never came easily to my students. Why should it? They came from lives wrecked by poverty and discrimination. It tried to wreck their spirit, but it never could, not completely. In that way my students weren’t any different from the kids at our local high schools—like their peers, they believed that life was there for the shaping.  That faith in success, though, didn’t always translate onto the streets. So they got caught up in crime, got arrested, did their time.

When that time was served, their “commencement” was being released from jail.The “graduation ceremony” wasn’t much: Down to booking to sign papers, their clothes stuffed into black garbage bags. Then the booking officer handed the “graduate” bus money and delivered the keynote address, “Stay out of jail.”

And that’s exactly what they intended to do. My jailhouse students talked a lot about “starting over again,” and I believed each of them. Because while they were locked up, most worked to change things for the better. They studied for their diploma or GED. They worked at staying clean and sober. They grappled with the rage of disappointment that tore at their guts through anger management programs. If there was a thread of family life left, they reconnected with it.

When they hit the streets, they were determined to shake the dust—and smell—of prison off them forever. But the only thing that had changed while they were locked up was them, not the streets. There was nothing out there for them, no services, no resources, no one. The only things waiting were the same predator-prey food chain, the same joblessness, and the same lure of the streets with easy money.

I knew the litany these young people heard from corrections and probation officers: Get a job. Go to school. Stay away from your buddies (the only people who even remembered your name.) Stay away from your girlfriend (the only one glad to see you.) Stay in the house. Start over. Stay out of trouble. And I’ve watched more than one kid’s face fall when he was told that he had to find someplace else to live. He couldn’t live with his mother because his probation didn’t allow him to associate with anyone with a record, and since his brother, or uncle, or cousin was already there he needed to find another home.

It’s not hard to guess what all those demands sound like to a 16 year old fresh out of prison: Stop being the only person you recognize. Stop living your life.

I often tell people that the changes we demand of young ex-offenders are things most of us, even with all our assets, would find daunting. The isolation. The loneliness. The helpless rage of unreasonable expectations. Yet these kids are told to make those changes with no one to help or guide them.

It happens, though, if rarely—some kid takes the plunge into all that fear and dynamites his life apart.

Alex was one of those kids. The judge made it clear. This time no probation. Instead a full county bid. Next arrest, a long stretch in state prison. Even at 17 Alex knew that going back to the same neighborhood, the same friends and enemies would seal his fate. “I might as well stay here and wait for the next bus to state prison,” he tried to laugh it off but couldn’t.

I can’t tell you what happened, but something did. Everybody had given up on him, with good reason or not, but somehow he hadn’t. Alex had a cousin in California that he never met but who said he could come live with him. So at his “graduation” he hopped a cross country bus. However, there was nothing quixotic about his move. Alex had never been out of his own town except to go to various jails and detention centers. He knew he had to do it. It was a terrible struggle at first. The dirt jobs. The loneliness. The disorientation. The fears of failure. Eventually, though, the jobs got better and he signed up for college. Last I heard Alex was close to a real commencement.

Watching that final moment of triumph when our local high school graduates flung their caps into the air I imagined all the hands—of family, teachers, coaches, clergy, counselors—that over the years had made that moment possible.  Young ex-offenders at their “commencement” haven’t had, and don’t have that same net of hands. And yet, there are plenty of hands in each of their communities to help, if they only would. That way kids like Alex wouldn’t have to go 3,000 miles for a chance at a new beginning.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

  1. Janet says:

    Great story about Alex. I have found, that almost without exception, it is the kids who do this–break all ties and start new somewhere else– that succeed. It is scary yes, but getting caught up in the legal system and having no control over one’s life is far, far worse….I think that as a culture we need to understand that change is not always easy nor comfortable, be ready to accept that and move ahead with the process.

  2. Jeff Nguyen says:

    “I often tell people that the changes we demand of young ex-offenders are things most of us, even with all our assets, would find daunting. The isolation. The loneliness. The helpless rage of unreasonable expectations. Yet these kids are told to make those changes with no one to help or guide them.”…this is a powerful statement, David. We ask of kids that which we are not even willing to do ourselves.

    Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away I walked the long and lonely path of addiction recovery and had to leave friends who were like family behind. You’re right on that Alex shouldn’t have to travel thousands of miles for a single, outstretched hand.

    • David Chura says:

      Thanks, Jeff. Grounding your response in the reality of your life helps to put this lonely journey in perspective. Young offenders wanting to change are not that different from other people with their own internal and external struggles. Certain stories like someone overcoming physical disability get lots of positive press and response from the public. But when someone is seeking to change an addiction, say or a life on the streets, suddenly all that compassion and good will disappear. Seeing these young people trying to do it on their own with almost no resources is painful and infuriating.

  3. Janet says:

    Hi again. Yes, it would be easier and beneficial to have access to decent job/housing placement services, but I don’t find the fact that Alex had to travel 3,000 miles necessarily a negative thing for Alex. It gave him that “new beginning” and a chance to re-invent himself by his own power. Yes, such kids have had enormous stresses of all types but I think it gives them a greater capacity, not weakened capacity.

    This is not to say that such kids realize this innately, they do seem to need this pointed out and engage in some re-framing to see the obvious. I have seen incarcerated kids very, very nervous about change or being “on their own” yet they are the sole parent in the household taking care of their younger siblings, dealing w/abuse and working after school (if even still in school). They have already shouldered more adult responsibility and hardship than the “mainstream” kid may in a lifetime. This makes them MORE, not less capable. They don’t stop to really think about all they DO accomplish because it is buried within the business of living.

    I feel compassion for their struggle but I admire their strength, tenacity and adaptability. Are these traits often mischanneled? Yes, but they are in there. I believe these kids have incredible untapped potential, they just need to realize and utilize that resource. A little guidance can go a long way to aid in that “discovery”.

    • David Chura says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Your passion and compassion come through loud and clear.I think it is important to remember that Alex was the exception. He did have internal resources and at least one adult willing to take a chance. But too many of these young people don’t have that reserve, and certainly not that one adult, as hard as that is to believe. I think it is hard for us adults to really grasp the lack of support and resources that most experience. We can urge them to do what they can but I don’t think we can appreciate the loneliness of their lives, lives lived in a society that places no value–no value–on their lives. I worry that we can too easily fall into “blaming the victim”. Yes encouragement, yes a positive message, but until adults take full responsibility for abandoning these children–and I mean all of us–things won’t change. Society must be held accountable.

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