Posts Tagged ‘Minors’

I’m happy to share the following post by Griselda Cruz. Griselda is a seventeen-year-old high school student in Washington Heights who is studying health careers and sciences. She is also an intern at the New York Center for Juvenile Justice. Griselda says some very generous things about I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. Although it’s always nice to share those kinds of comments, I wanted to repost her review of the book because I was struck by the insights she has into these locked up young people and by her compassion for the lives they are forced to live. I’ve seen this reaction before in other young people who have read the book. The stories seem more real to them in ways that may not be so for older readers. In one way or another, young readers know firsthand—as friends, friends of friends, brothers, sisters, classmates—the kind of kids I write about. And because of that familiarity they have a greater understanding of our youth culture. You can check out more of Griselda’s writings on her blog at the New York Juvenile Justice Initiative website.

A Story that Caught My Eye by Griselda Cruz

Lately I’ve been reading a book that Yuval, my supervisor at the New York Center for Juvenile Justice, recommended to me. It’s called I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup by David Chura. The book is told through the eyes of David Chura, a high school teacher at an adult facility in Westchester County. Everything is exampled in details; kids come up to him sharing personal stories, real life events that you can’t even imagine. From young ages these kids have been struggling, abandoned, neglected by their drug abusive families. These are really tragic stories. They make you wish that these kids’ pasts could have been different, then they wouldn’t be where they are at now, facing serious time.

Like this young man named Ray: It was his 21st birthday and he really didn’t seem too happy. He tells us about how his mother was a drug abuser and that was what caused him to be taken away from her at 5. His father was no longer in the picture. He was in state prison. So Ray moved from home to home or lived in the streets. And to make matters worse he was raped at the age of eleven by a nineteen year old male. After that the suicide attempts began and he felt everybody thought he was a nobody because he didn’t have a family.

But one day his father came home and Ray lived with him for some time. With his father being around, his uncles, aunts, and cousins started to accept him again.  It seemed like he suddenly had a family. But he knew deep inside it was only like that while his father was there. Then his father disappeared again. He was allowed to live with his Aunt Sally for some time, but he thinks it’s only because his father left her money. The aunt would lock him up at night with a bucket to use for going to the bathroom and a pitcher of water to drink. Wow, his own family! Soon Ray was back where he started—in the streets. One day he thought things would turn around when this drug dealer took him in and treated him like his own family. But again that came to an end too. He got into some trouble that caused him to be facing time in jail.

None of these things would have happened if Ray had had a good early childhood. It’s like from a young age he was cursed to have a terrible future. But Ray also said that he blames nobody but himself. It takes a mature person to say that and really mean it! There are so many other powerful stories in this book. I’m half way through and I recommend this book to a lot of my peers because they think they have it hard, when others have had it worse!

The field of juvenile justice is a tough one. Anyone who works with at-risk young people as a teacher, social worker, lawyer, outreach worker, health care provider, probation officer, or correctional officer and really cares about kids bumps up against challenges and hurdles and just plain bad days all the time. The kids themselves sometimes don’t make it easy and certainly society and its institutions doesn’t. It’s the caring that carries you through.

I recently read an interview in The Root with Bryan Stevenson, executive director of Equal Justice Initiative and lawyer for the defendants in the Supreme Court hearing against mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders. Towards the end of the interview the interviewer asks Mr. Stevenson why he has devoted his life to defending juvenile offenders especially those guilty of violent crimes. I could tell you what he said but it’s worth reading the whole interview.

His final words should be the anthem for everyone who cares about at-risk kids. What he said still gives me the chills.

I’ve been speaking about juvenile  justice issues and discussing my book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Kids in Adult Lockup with a variety of audiences–churches, college classes, libraries, social service agencies, book clubs, teachers’ conventions and advocacy agencies. The questions that participants raise are as different as the settings I speak in.

But one comment and question that comes up over and over again is, “I didn’t know how bad things were. What can I do?” Behind that question is a lot of compassion for the kids trapped in the prison system,  a sense of responsibility for allowing these conditions to continue in one’s own state and nation,  a feeling of powerlessness in the face of our granite block criminal justice system, and finally, a desire do something.

That last is something I stress in my response, “a desire do something.” As I explain to my audiences, the laws that allow minors to be tried as adults and then sentenced to adult prisons were enacted  because we citizens in some way have given our lawmakers  the message  that juveniles should be treated this way; that we’re more interested in seeing  these young people punished then in seeing them rehabilitated.

It’s a harsh truth I dish up here. Many–if not most–if the people who come to hear me talk  are appalled by the conditions they are forced to live under in jail, and they’re deeply distressed by the hard and spirit-breaking lives these kids through no fault of their own have been forced to live. The unsaid hangs in the air,  “Of course, we wouldn’t wish this on them! We just didn’t know.”

And that’s the first thing that I tell people they can do: keep yourself informed. So many of these young people come from fractured families and communities. They have no one to speak up for them. They are truly disenfranchised. Any of us can be their voice just by knowing what is going on in regards to criminal justice trends in our state and nation and by speaking up about it to other citizens and to our public officials.

Unfortunately, the voices that are loudest and most often heard by those legislators are the voices of people who are ill-informed, who believe every stereotype about kids in trouble that is  broadcast on their local evening news. Too often these people react out of fear and a sense of danger and demand that lawmakers “do something.” And so 14, 15, 16, 17 year olds are imprisoned with little or no understanding of the consequences to them or to our society.

Luckily, none of us have to do this on our own. There are many advocacy groups on the local, state and federal level who are concerned about what happens to these throwaway kids. In my own state of Massachusetts a group that is working hard to improve the lives of young people is  Citizens for Juvenile Justice.

CfJJ, based in Boston,  is a small organization, but you could never tell that from the active agenda they are pursing on behalf of young offenders. I’m embarrassed to say that Massachusetts  is among the states that still  tries and sentences minors (in this case 17 years old and above) as adults. Citizens for Juvenile Justice is working to change that by supporting bill H. 450; S. 64 which raises the age to 18. They are also an excellent source of data and other information about many juvenile justice issues. They’re pretty tireless in their efforts, but they’re not beaten down folks. They have energy and determination because they have seen all too well the impact of injustice on kids’ lives.

The kids I taught in the adult county jail never gave up hope. As damaged, as bad, as dead-end as their lives seemed, they believed that things can get better. For those of us who really care about these issues it can seem pretty hopeless. But if we allow that despair and that feeling of impotence to win out we’re just being, as my students would say, “a bunch of wooses.” Groups like Citizens for Juvenile Justice are there to help kids and to help us help them. In turn they need our help. It sounds like a win-win situation.



Sometimes the words of young people who have actually lived through, and survived the juvenile justice system speak more powerfully and elegantly than those of us who get to go home at night after our 8 hours behind bars.  R.Dwayne Betts, a spokesperson for Campaign for Youth Justice tells about some of his experiences in a broken down, destructive criminal justice system on You have to admire someone–anyone of these kids–who can change that negative experience into energy for reform.

There are 109 inmates serving life sentences without parole for non-homicide crimes they committed when they were 18 or younger. Some, put behind bars when they were 13 or 14, have been locked up for twenty or thirty years.

Those 109– minors then, adults now in their prime, or at least they should be, if they weren’t facing a slow, cruel death in jail– are a part of something that is uniquely American. According to Amnesty International, the United States is the only country that imprisons children for life (the same country, the PEW Charitable Trust reported in 2008, that now incarcerates one out of every one hundred of its citizens).

This year the United States Supreme Court has agreed to consider two of those 109 cases. One involves a man who, at the age of 13, robbed and raped an elderly woman in 1989; the other was 16 when he took part in two break-ins in 2005. Each was sentenced by a Florida court to life without parole. The high court must decide whether such life imprisonment is “cruel and unusual punishment.”

There are over 50 groups filing in support of these two inmates. It’s a roll call of religious, legal, correctional, educational, medical and psychological professionals. As varied as the groups are, there’s not much difference in their reasoning. All the briefs, whether based on spiritual belief or scientific research, come down to the same thing, to something that seems obvious to me: children change, develop, are redeemable; children are vulnerable to immense forces in their lives, forces that they can’t control but sometimes act out of.

It seems like a lot of effort for two people (or 109, depending upon how you look at it) who, when they were young, did some pretty terrible things. But those hundreds of professionals and concerned citizens know that if we don’t stop it now, there’ll be a lot more than 109 kids facing the same fate, given the country’s mood when it comes to kids and crime. It is a mood that was set into motion in the mid-1990s when some political scientists warned the public of the impending threat of young “super-predators,” and so the jihad on juvenile crime began.

Despite the juvenile justice system’s earlier, fundamental belief that youthful offenders can and should be rehabilitated, today’s laws are more about retribution and revenge. These draconian laws seem written for monsters, and it’s not surprising, when you consider the hype surrounding youth culture today and the media-fed images of teenagers as ruthless street thugs.

I don’t know any of the 109 inmates living out their own death penalties, but over my ten years of teaching high school kids serving time in an adult lockup I’ve met my own 109+ young men and women. The teens I worked with weren’t serving life sentences without parole, but they very well could have been if, as they would say, they “were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

These locked up youngsters had been a part of the system– family court, foster care, group homes– for most of their short lives. They didn’t sign up for it; they got put there one way or another, by the actions of a neglectful mother, an alcoholic father, a teenage girl who didn’t find it fun anymore to take care of a baby. Kids like Donald, a student of mine, whose mother sent him out to the streets at 11 years old to sell drugs to support her crack habit, and where he eventually found his own habit; or Warren, whose 16 year old mother practically pickled him in alcohol while she was pregnant, and who was walking proof of the damage done.

These kids didn’t volunteer for a life spent among strangers in every variety of state childcare institution. They were there until they got tired of it, as many battered and abused kids eventually will, and started making their own choices– the wrong choices, but when I heard what limited resources they had to work with I wondered, “How could it be otherwise?” Choices that led them to juvenile detention, maybe drug rehab or a psych hospital, then back on the streets to set the whole cycle spinning again. Until finally the cops got involved. Suddenly, they weren’t seen as kids anymore (although they were), and they landed in the county lockup.

The kids I taught weren’t locked up for life like the 109, but they might just as well have been, because no matter how long a kid spends in prison, it’s a life sentence. Get put in jail and the door shuts on your life, on Life, and, just so you don’t forget it, all day long you hear cell doors, hallway doors, bullpen doors slamming, clanking, shuttering shut. No child (take a long, hard look sometime at a 15 year old boy you know and tell me he’s not a child) should be sentenced to live in the squalor only a prison can manufacture: the constant noise; the rancid smells; the aimless violence; the fear of always watching your back; the boredom of endless hours of Jerry Springer.

It’s almost commonplace these days to say that if you lock kids up all they learn is more ways to do crime. But I don’t think that’s the worst of it. Lock kids up and they come out of prison carrying things even I, with my ten years of daily jail life, can’t imagine. I’m not so much worried about what new criminal activity they might learn. What I worry about is all the new reasons they garner for doing more crime– the renewed rage at themselves for being what they are and what they failed to be; at the families, communities, schools, churches, the country for letting them down and reinforcing their sense of worthlessness.

But shouldn’t those 109 be held accountable? Shouldn’t any criminal be made to take responsibility? Indeed. Ask any of my jailhouse students the same question and most would agree. But accountability doesn’t mean punishment; it never has, except in the parlance of today’s criminal justice system. It means not turning away from what you did and the consequences of your actions, but looking at it square on and learning a better way of living.

There are many ways to do this in jail. Restorative justice programs are one very effective approach, tough love so tough that not many adults I know outside of prison could stand up against that personal scrutiny. Sunny Schwartz shows that in her spunky, powerful book, Dreams from the Monster Factory, which describes her restorative justice work with long-term California inmates. In the county jail where I worked some of my students went through a similar victims’ awareness program, and even the most hard-edged guys who swore nothing would ever or could ever touch them were moved.

Because accountability is based on the premise that people can and do evolve. One of the most moving of the legal briefs in support of the petitioners in the upcoming Supreme Court hearing was filed by eight “former juvenile offenders” whose life stories argue for not shutting off the possibility of such transformation.

Some had been convicted of very serious crimes that could have resulted in sentencings similar to the 109 had circumstances been different. Instead, they were given the opportunity to amend their lives and consequently made “significant contributions to their communities.” The eight include a Broadway actor; a former United States senator; a Latino poet and community activist; a defense attorney; a software executive; and a UNICEF children’s advocate.

The changes made by the young men I worked with might not seem as noteworthy, but to them they were seismic. Anthony, while serving time for a robbery, got his GED. When he was released he started slowly to turn his life around with the help of our school social worker. He got a menial job, then went to college part time. Eventually, supporting himself the whole time, living in SROs in the Bronx, he received his social work degree and now works with “at-risk” kids.

For Alex, the process was more difficult. After multiple arrests he knew he had to do something different or he would end up a lifer or dead on the street. He made the toughest decision of his 17 years: to leave the only neighborhood he’d ever known for a lonely, anonymous life (or so he felt) on the West Coast with an uncle he barely knew. He made the move, got a hospital custodial job and then started to work towards his dream of being a marine biologist. For many of my other students the changes were smaller– the decision to join Job Corps; to get into rehab; to contact a father not spoken to for years. Nevertheless they were still positive steps.

Each of these stories is a rebuke to laws that would lock kids up for life without parole. It’s vital that accounts like these be heard so that the American people realize that the “super-predators” they’ve been taught to fear are first and foremost children; and so that the nine justices see to it that no more children are denied the right to change and are protected against the “cruel and unusual punishment” of a slow death in prison.

This post originally appeared at Beacon Broadside