Archive for the ‘Urban Culture’ Category

In my years of teaching young men locked up in the county pen it was easy to see how the pressures of “being a man,” especially a man in the ‘hood, had devastating effects on these teens. In some cases the “man box”–the load of gender stereotypes that these young guys were born into–helped put these young offenders in jail.The lack of role models, mentors who could show them another way of navigating the world, just made it more difficult to do the right thing. I recommend checking out Amil Cook’s blog at  with an  interesting video of a talk done by Tony Porter addressing these issues from a very personal point of view. If you know any young men coming up in the world you might want to share it with them.

I’ve done a number of interviews since publishing I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, and I find, like many authors, that I’m often asked the same questions. “I can answer them in my sleep,” I heard one author grumble. I felt the same way until I started to really listen to the questions and give them deeper thought. After all they raised good points, and interviewers repeated them because they got to the core of both the book and the issue.

Why I wrote the book was one of those questions. Initially, I answered the same way because it was true. I wanted to put a face to the statistics that abound in juvenile justice circles. Although they are just numbers—on any given day there are 7000+ kids in US adult jails; African American youth are 5x more likely to be locked up than their white peers—they are powerful in their consequences, and I wanted to show just who we are talking about before important decisions and polices are made based on those numbers.

But I began to wonder if making those numbers real was my only reason for telling the stories of kids like Darquel with his life long scars from sexual abuse, or Ray who lived most of his life in group homes, juvenile centers, or homeless shelters.

Digging a bit more, I realized that I also was drawn to the idea of giving voice to the voiceless. Many young people are inarticulate. The teens I taught in the county jail, however, were at a greater disadvantage. They didn’t have the tools other teens have to express themselves nor the opportunities to do so. Besides, of all the lessons life posed for them the one they really got was that no one listened, so why bother.

But then I saw that I was wrong: They weren’t voiceless. They merely spoke a different language, the language of rage. They didn’t speak about their lives through words but through the things they did. Those acts of rage committed against society were their only way of accusing the world of the injustices they had lived with since childhood—violent, decaying neighborhoods; failing schools; families (when they had families) destroyed by poverty, disease and racism. But those acts of rage were also against themselves because on some level they knew that they would be caught and punished not only for the crimes they committed but for being the very failures we as a society have consigned them to.

Jason is a good example. At 17 he was addicted to every drug there was. He rarely went to school. He hung out on the streets. If there was a fight he was in the middle of it. He robbed the corner bodega; sold drugs; smashed car windows for the hell of it, and hung out with the neighborhood hookers. He loved provoking the cops and enjoyed the ensuing chase. Not surprisingly, he’d been in and out of jails where he was caught making hooch, smoking black market cigarettes, trading in girlie magazines, and starting fights even with guys he knew could beat the crap out of him.

When I met him he was in the county lockup waiting to go to state prison to do some serious time. But that didn’t bother Jason. He’d been there before. It was one more act of rage to endure, one that he would meet with his own acts of rage.

As painful as it was listening to Jason talk about his life, I found it hard to like him. His swagger, his defiance, his seeming indifference to everything most of us hold dear didn’t help. Until I remembered that standing in front of me was a 17 year old, a boy whose 15 year old mother had used crack, smack and booze while she carried him, and that his own addictions were all she left him when she disappeared; that the aunt he lived with, the only family he had, died of a heart attack on the living room floor because the ambulance never came; that he had seen friends and cousins, some younger than he, killed in the streets. Rage is a hard thing to be around. But it’s even harder to live with, and that, I saw, was what Jason’s life was all about. His life was one long, frustrated cry of rage and outrage.

Thinking about the many Jasons I had taught over my ten years in an adult county jail, I finally understood the deeper reason why I wrote I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine. I saw that my job was to translate this language of rage with the hope that people will hear and comprehend just what society’s young throw-aways have been trying to tell us all along.

Originally posted on Huffington Post

A repost from the Albany Times-Union blog by David Kaczynski, Director, New Yorkers For Alternatives to the Death Penality

“Nobody wants a life like mine.” I’ve occasionally said those words in sorrow and self-pity – particularly during the period between October 1995 and February 1998 when I lived through one crisis after another. After the burdens of that time were lifted, I resolved not to sweat the small stuff anymore. I had gained perspective on what really matters in life.

For 60 years, I’ve lived a privileged existence. I had two loving parents who provided for my care and education. I’ve enjoyed mental and physical health. I was sent to great schools where I formed deep and lasting friendships and encountered teachers who broadened my intellectual horizons. I took advantage of my American birthright to experiment with varying lifestyles in Montana, Iowa and Texas. Eventually, I married my soulmate: the woman I’d loved ever since high school.  Even after the Unabomber tragedy – in fact, because of it – I’ve had the opportunity to earn my living in ways that are healing and meaningful. This may not be the life I’d choose if I’d been able to plan it all in advance. I don’t imagine there are any young people dreaming about the future and thinking, “Gee, I want a life just like David Kaczynski’s.” But you better believe that I spend a lot of time marveling at my good fortune and counting my blessings.

I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine is the name of a new book written by David Chura (Beacon Press). The title is lifted from a comment by a young man incarcerated in one of New York’s secure facilities for juvenile offenders where the author taught GED courses for many years. In the context of the book, the comment sounds less self-pitying than factual – even altruistic in its hope that others not begin life with a stacked deck that might include being raised without hope or consistency by an unstable, drug-addicted single mother. If you are looking for life perspective, then this is one book you ought to read. If you are searching for clues to understand where civilization has gone astray, a trip behind these bars might be the place to begin. If you want to restore your faith in humanity, you will appreciate the way David Chura illuminates hope, connection and dignity enduring in the most unlikely of places.

The author finds the best in human beings by watching them closely, patiently and without judgment. In reading along, we realize that the guards are doing time along with the youthful inmates. In its many twists and turns, the book discovers in the prison labyrinth a metaphor of the confinements and refuges of the human spirit. In the face of every person he so carefully depicts, the author shows us a mirror.

Read this book. I imagine it will be an experience you’ll never forget.

“I won’t do it. I got a right to speak up when something is bullshit.”

Sunny didn’t have a problem firing those words across the principal’s desk when he demanded that she “come back and behave” after he had kicked her out of school (again). And it didn’t bother her that her father was sitting right there.

Sunny hated school. She always had. She felt dumb and out of place. Wise ass, a fighter from the beginning, she didn’t take anybody’s crap and was always in trouble.

So nobody who knew her from those days would be surprised to hear that she ended up in the San Francisco county lock up; that she’d been there for 20 years, and was still there.

But she didn’t get there the way you’d think.

She did it her way, the way she did everything.

Sunny Schwartz became a lawyer, and after doing a notable job working with inmates in the San Francisco Prisoner Legal Service Unit she was asked to head all prisoner programs in the San Francisco county jails. As top administrator, she would revamp a pretty moribund institution, change how things were done, and start new programs.

Dreams from the Monster Factory, Sunny’s book about her prison experiences, describes the successes and the (amazingly few) failures of that transformation and her own personal and professional journey.

Sunny hit one of those rare times in a penal system when a few administrators, in this case two men, are able to acknowledge the system’s breakdowns, and have a vision of how to fix and make it better.

It was a pretty heart-thumping vision at that, especially for those of us who have worked in jails: Change, any change there, is glacial. Nothing gets done, no matter who says they want it done. And even those officials who make modifications end up, in some perverse logic of corrections, sabotaging their own efforts.

But the vision was there in San Francisco in 1990 along with the will and determination to see it through.

“Pull the jail culture down…so it might actually help prisoners,” was the way the prison director put it to Sunny.

“We need someone with your courage to do this,” another corrections official said.

It was a daunting job, but they knew they had her. Only somebody as feisty as that teenager who spit those words across the principal’s desk would take on a challenge like that.

Sunny had always been an advocate for the underdog. But that didn’t make her an easy mark. Dreams From the Monster Factory is filled with stories of Sunny going toe to toe with the toughest thugs—thieves, wife beaters, gangbangers, murders; what she describes as the “scrap heap;” and what, in the jail where I worked, a warden called “human garbage.”

She confronted their behavior and demanded—that’s right, demanded—that they change, that they look at their actions, then take responsibility for them. And they did, because she gave them the message that they were capable of changing.

For some of these men, mean, hard-bitten and cynical, it was the first time anyone had shown that kind of faith in them. The jail culture didn’t believe that they could be any different. Society certainly didn’t. Their families and friends had long given up expecting anything good from them, if they ever had.

But Sunny and the rest of her staff didn’t just set out their demands. They gave inmates the tools they needed to meet them. During the day the TV was turned off (perhaps her most courageous act, considering that TV is the one drug inmates could still get—legitimately), and everybody was required to be in some sort of educational, vocational or therapeutic program. Over time jail life for both inmates and correctional staff improved.

But Sunny wasn’t satisfied. While she recognized that the men’s in-jail behavior had gotten better, she was disturbed by the violence of the inmates’ crimes. It was a violence that tore apart not only their victims’ lives, but also their own lives as well as the lives of the people they loved and the communities in which they lived.

In response to the vast net of suffering she saw, Sunny came up with her boldest plan of all: Put the most violent men in one dorm and start a violence prevention program. RSVP (Resolve to Stop the Violence Program) would be based on the tenets of restorative justice. Through a variety of groups, it would teach the men to forgive themselves for their crimes; to forgive others for the harm done to them (Sunny found that most of the men in RSVP had been victims of childhood trauma); and to seek forgiveness.

Dreams from the Monster Factory tells the heartbreaking, yet heartwarming struggles many of the men went through in RSVP.

One of the most affecting transformations was Ben, a tough, recalcitrant white supremacist/Neo-Nazi. He refused to participate in the program, to examine his hateful and violent behavior. Until finally, through the slow water-on-rock patience of the staff, the other inmates, and RSVP itself, he began to crack open and amend his ways. His final act of reconciliation, and it is a very moving one, came when he volunteered to speak about himself and the program to a synagogue congregation, some of whose members are Holocaust survivors.

What makes Dreams from the Monster Factory so engrossing, however, isn’t just watching a spirited reformer take on the criminal justice system. We are captivated by Sunny’s honesty. She doesn’t shy away from her own process of reconciliation and transformation. She’s right in there with the worst of the worst, grappling with her own monsters—inner and outer—as she learns to forgive herself and others. This combination of personal and public struggle is what gives this book its the strength and beauty.

Early in the book, teenaged Sunny warned that she didn’t put up with anybody’s bullshit—her own, the system’s or society’s. Dreams from the Monster Factory shows her true to her word.