An excellent visual analysis of what is wrong with our juvenile justice system and how to make it right from Youth Transition Funders Group.
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.
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.
One thing you take away from Crosswinds: Memoirs of a Jail Teacher by D.H. Goddard (a pseudonym for the author who is still teaching at the jail he writes about) is that the prison system, no matter where it is located, no matter what the setting—big or small; urban or rural; county, state, or Fed—is pretty much the same: inefficiently run, punitive in its approach, more interested in retribution and warehousing than helping people change their lives. Another thing that strikes you after reading this memoir is that in these toxic systems there are always people who want to make a difference in inmates’ lives, who understand that what we are doing is not going to cut down on crime but only increase it and in the process tarnish our national character.
D.H Goddard is one of those people. A high school teacher in a county prison in what he describes as a “cow paddy town” where cows outnumber people and “the major industry is incarceration”, he cares about the young people he works with, guiding them through the high school equivalency curriculum while motivating them to change the behaviors that got them locked up in the first place.
He doesn’t hesitate to share his frustrations and failures along with his successes. The reader sees him feeling his way through an arcane system that nobody bothers to explain to him. He gets no help from his supervisor who seems more afraid of his students than interested, or from the correctional staff who are, at best, hapless if not indifferent or obstructive. Yet Goddard learns as he goes along, developing respect for his students, recognizing the lost worlds they come from and trying to make a difference.
Interspersed throughout the book are the projects he instigates—a classroom aquarium and an ambitious unit on aerodynamics, both serving, it seemed to me, as metaphors for these young people’s lives in and out of prison—as well as the risks he takes to engage his students in discussions that might help them see beyond the block, the razor-wired walls, and a world defined by abandonment and defeat.
Crosswinds: Memoirs of a Jail Teacher is filled with the author’s efforts to educate and engage students, to connect with them and mentor them as one of the few adults in their world who not only cares about them but also enjoys their company. What might happen to our penal system if every incarcerated kid—whether locked up in a cow paddy town or in an urban swelter—was given the same opportunities?
Many people who work with youth locked up in prisons or in juvenile detention centers aren’t just teachers, nurses, social workers. Something else compels them to stay at a job in what can be some of the most unwelcoming places you can imagine—and are designed to be that way. Something else stirs them, inspires them to put up with harsh working conditions, and with the frustration of having their efforts often garner only poor results. As challenging as the job is, even more challenging is finding answers to the Big Questions: “Why do I do this kind of work?” “Why do I stay here?” “What’s the point of what I do?” Answers don’t come easily, if they come at all, and their comfort rarely stays around long, but it’s a process many of us in the field go through.
What I appreciate about today’s guest contributor is her willingness to share the struggle, the process she has gone through to answer some of those questions with honesty and humility. Shannah is a Family Nurse Practitioner “in one of New England’s highest security long-term juvenile treatment facilities.” Even that short description from her piece gives you pause when you read it. Yet she conveys so well her commitment to these young boys whose lives seem bleak and hopeless. At the same time she doesn’t hesitate to talk about her frustrations, confusion and fears as she searches for meaning in what she does. Her compassion and her understanding of what’s ultimately important in these kids’ lives—and in the end, in all our lives—is deeply moving.
Helping Young Offenders Find Hope in the Everyday
“We think our darkness is our rap sheet, but it’s not true. Our darkness is that we don’t see the truth of who we are, we don’t see ourselves as God does…The darkness is we don’t see that we are exactly right…The people who walk through darkness have seen great light. It’s not about moving from the dark terrible past to the light, it’s about recognizing that the light has been there all along. It’s right here. We just have to see it.”
Father Greg Boyle, Author of “Tattoos on the Heart and Founder and Director of Homeboy Industries”
“The darkness is that we don’t see that we are exactly right.” I think about this a lot in my 4th year as a Family Nurse Practitioner in one of New England’s highest security long-term juvenile treatment facilities. Here, we are not lacking for rap sheets. My patients are 15-20 year old young men who, via a series of unfortunate events and/or choices, are serving long term treatment sentences for crimes that range from carjacking and firearm possession to armed robbery and attempted murder. The facility itself is a 57-year-old concrete building sandwiched between a funeral home and an adult Department of Corrections building. As if to finalize the irony, two cemeteries flank the facility’s front and back. It’s secured with barbed wires, surveillance cameras, obscenely large locks, and an acute sense of vigilance around all things “policy.”
On high-alert, I spent the first month debating whether or not to wear my hairpins with the sharp ends to work, and settled on a ponytail. I worried about unwittingly supplying an underground tattoo ring with my misplaced pens, and I had more than one nightmare in which I “forgot to lock the door” and someone escaped. While it didn’t take long to learn to follow the rules of the building, it’s only in the last three years that I’ve found clarity about the role I play at the center and in the lives of the boys.
My professional job description is straight-forward: “Unit manager and primary healthcare provider responsible for managing all aspects of acute, chronic, and routine healthcare for young men in custody.” But if the description were all-inclusive, it would also say, “Nurse, den-mother, phlebotomist, secretary, boo-boo kisser, nutritionist, custodian, pep squad.” With an average of 15-20 residents at a time, and not a mother in sight, no concern is too small for placement on the daily sick list.
Outsiders are often horrified when I tell them where I work, and there are times I struggle to convey my feelings about the residents and the circumstances that bring us together. How can I capture the complexities of the human spirit or the chronic adversities these boys have endured? How do I relay the feeling in my stomach upon entering the unit after a particularly violent incident, and hearing that abnormal silence beyond the static of the security radio? The boys’ time in custody –weeks, months, and years—is intensely emotional and challenging, and we bear witness together daily. It takes a toll.
At times I’ve felt defeated and heartbroken by obstacles that feel insurmountable: kids picking on each other or becoming obese before my eyes; young men feeling frightened, homesick, or abandoned. Some have lots of visitors; others don’t invite anyone to visit because the pain of family not showing up is far more destructive than being alone.
I wonder what it’s like for them, living out these painfully self-conscious adolescent years being raised by guards, in-between timed phone calls and 30 minute visits with family. Will they ever forget the weight of chains and shackles, the sounds of a physical restraint, or the oppressive atmosphere during a lockdown?
When I was new at this job, I sought out details of their home lives, their charges, their gang involvement, as a way of understanding what they’d been through. I cared deeply about the boys and thought that by understanding their pasts, I’d be able to change something about their futures. Under the weighty ambition of “saving” my patients, I felt constrained by the minutiae of the job itself. Documenting clinic visits and handling administrative duties felt at odds with my desire to make a “real” difference.
Over time, as I watched the majority of boys leave the facility only to return days-to-months later (or worse, landing in adult jail), I became resigned that my impact on their worlds would be minimal. More to the point, I felt like I was failing my patients. Over and over again I asked, “How can we stand by and watch as generation after generation of our babies, our children, our young men steadily march their way to a place where few return unscathed – if they return at all?”
To combat this despair, I created a file on my phone called “Moments,” meant to capture the sweet or poignant interactions with the boys:
Discovering that AH likes to draw, asking to see the pictures he’s drawn and carefully laminated to put on his wall…watching him show off his work and reference a stack of animal books he likes to draw from.
The sheepish smile on SL’s face when he called me upstairs “to see his healing finger” but then shared the REAL reason he called for me…busting at the seams, he shares that he’s gotten into school and “passed” his job interview. So shy and so proud.
DJ during testing—“I know my Mom loves me but she doesn’t show it. I need her to show it. Doesn’t call for three days if I don’t call. Probation officer and court think I am a bad kid – I don’t care what people think.”*He says he likes it here b/c he gets fed and gets to chill and joke around. Going to live with foster family if possible. Likes to fight. Holds anger inside.
JP—the collision of fear, betrayal, anger, pain, embarrassment, adrenalin, pride, sadness, bewilderment, when he was beaten by three other residents. Face swollen and deformed, pacing, hating every tear that falls, vacant eyes.
And moments I struggled to put into words:
KJ—the smile on his face and the twinkle in those deep eyes as he left the building today (after 12+ months). What are you going to do when you get out? “Gonna have a mother’s day. Spend some quality time with my Moms.” Bittersweet—wanting to cry both for all the awesome potential and my own deep concern for his safety. Saying good-by. How proud I am of him. How badly I want him to know his worth. Don’t know how to communicate this to him.
Collecting these moments has kept me in the present over and over again, as well as helped me realize two important truths that I’d failed to see earlier.
First, as their Nurse Practitioner, I’m granted the privilege and responsibility of partnering with my boys in caring for their health, physical well-being, and hearts. I had spent so much time lamenting what I couldn’t change for them that I had missed the tremendous progress we were already making together on these issues. By turning my attention towards a “better” tomorrow, I wasn’t present to the moments already woven into the rich and complex fabric of daily life at the facility—a youth detention center, yes, but for some, the safest, most consistent “home” they’ve known. As I began to change my thinking from “not enough” to the “time is now,” I saw that the most powerful way to make the difference I am committed to making with these boys is to show up and be present, day after day, moment after moment—and I do.
I also saw that my desire to rewrite the past—in an attempt to orient our youth towards a different future—was well-meaning, but it missed the mark. While I still ask the questions—“How do we move forward, and what’s going to make THE difference?”— I now look for the answers in a different place. The answers don’t exist in their past, their stories about themselves, their home lives, or their rap sheets, but in who they are, right here and right now—beautiful, resilient, wise, courageous young men.
As a healthcare provider, I have the opportunity to create a space for my patients in which they get to show up larger than they ever thought they could be. These kids light up my world on a daily basis, and I feel that the least I can do is offer them a place to “arrive,” a place that we create together, moment by moment, where they get to show up as perfect—exactly as they are and as they are not—and so recognize their own light, the one that’s blazing brightly, “the one that’s been there all along.”
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