An excellent visual analysis of what is wrong with our juvenile justice system and how to make it right from Youth Transition Funders Group.
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.
Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Suggest that the way to end recidivism is to reform the prison system, and you might be accused of caring more about criminals than the crimes they commit. It’s happened to me. Often when I write or give a talk about my work with minors in adult prison, I describe the deplorable conditions in which inmates live, and advocate for reform of those conditions. Inevitably someone comments (and not always politely) that I’m “soft on crime,” that I don’t care about victims. But this is how I see it.
Given our present prison system with its emphasis on punishment and retribution, everybody suffers. Inmates, correctional officers, victims, the average citizen and taxpayer.
Prisons are violent, toxic places. They are often overcrowded and smelly with the soup of open toilets, the effluence of crammed together bodies under stress with little or no physical or personal space. The noise is deafening. TVs blare (in English and Spanish); metal gates clang; the overused PA system squawks, and inmates and correctional staff shout over it all trying to be heard.
There’s no trust in a prison, no safety, just the constant threat of violence, intimidation, the need to never let your guard down, to “give as good as you get.” If an inmate wants to survive in prison that’s the way he or she must act. If they can’t, they find themselves in protective custody which translates as months of numbing isolation in solitary confinement.
When you look at these conditions honestly, without the filter of righteousness—“that’s what they get for breaking the law”—how could you not see that the present system (the very thing people insist will deter crime) only breeds anger and resentment, hostility and hopelessness in offenders, and finally leads to more crime?
And more crime means that victims are not only not served by the system but are further threatened by it, and that their suffering reverberates into their families and communities. More crime means that other citizens become victims until nobody feels safe, and the whole cycle starts all over again. A simple statistic: Kids handled in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend and their behavior to more quickly escalate into violence than those young people who remain in the juvenile system.
But there are other “victims” of the prison system and its harsh, dangerous, and degrading environment. Correctional officers operate under the same conditions as those locked up, many times for up to 16 hours a day as they choose or are pressed into working overtime. That point came home to me at the end of one school year. As temperatures soared, the heat in the hallways and cell blocks of the older buildings of the prison where I taught (luckily with an air conditioner supplied by the school program) was insufferable. Huge floor fans only moved the suffocating air around, offering no relief, and only adding to the noise. That’s when it first hit me that the COs I interacted with every day were as trapped in the same punishing conditions as the young offenders I worked with.
But it goes beyond the everyday level of physical discomfort for COs. The need to be hyper-vigilant, the defensive stance engendered by the institutionalized hostility of the prison power structure—“us” and “them”; the keepers and the kept—takes its toll not only on COs, but also on their families. Studies have shown that 31% of correctional officers meet “the criteria for full PTSD” (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder); that the average life expectancy is 58 years old, and that correctional officers have a 39% higher suicide rate than any other occupation.
Even those of us who are not personally caught in the web of incarceration are affected by the prison system. Our tax money is spent building and maintaining these institutions and supporting what goes on inside them. In many states these funds are diverted from basic, essential services such as education. For example California spends on average $47,421 per inmate a year while the average spent per student a year is only $11,420. (A telling tweet is going around Twitter that sums it up for many states, “The people of CA are tired of Cadillac prisons & jalopy schools.”)
So when I find myself labeled as “soft on crime” I have an old jail comeback: “Don’t take my kindness for softness.” Restructuring a broken prison system so that it protects and respects all citizens while holding offenders accountable is not “soft” but commonsense. We need to create prison conditions, both physical and psychological, that encourage cooperation on all sides and that supports change as opposed to conflict and calcification of negative behavior. Programs must be developed that challenge offenders to change their counterproductive behavior. Training in real employable occupations is essential. And support services must be established that help ex-offenders meet the demands of “going straight.”
Of course, the economic watchdogs will howl. But the human costs—to inmates, correctional officers, victims and society in general—are too high to be ignored. Reforming is better than warehousing people in prison for years, leaving them to await the next dead-end. You can call it soft. I call it the only way.
Originally appeared in Gandhi’s Be Magazine
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.”
Numbers are tricky. Studies are done. Reports are written. Statistics released. And then people take the numbers and run with them, waving them like protest placards claiming how the numbers prove or disprove some long held “truth.” The Right does it. The Left does it. We all do it. Maybe there’s a tiny toggle in the human genome that manipulates us to manipulate the numbers. That’s why I’ve never liked numbers, never trusted them.
I saw this all play out in a recent Boston Globe OpEd piece about the high rates of recidivism in US prisons. Using the most recent data from the Bureau of Statistics, the numbers roll out: Within six months of being freed 28% of former prisoners were arrested for a new crime; three years, 68%; five years, 77%. 29% of the returnees had been arrested for violent offenses; 38% for property crimes; 39% for drug offenses; 58% for public order crimes. I think everyone would agree that the numbers paint a pretty bleak picture.
But this is where the numbers get tricky. The article insists that these statistics prove that efforts at prison reform and rehabilitation don’t work. Criminal justice experts have been searching for the “holy grail of rehabilitation” for years—40 according to one expert quoted—and nothing has worked. The article then goes on to suggest that since this holy grail is so elusive, since so many criminals leave prison “only too ready to offend again,” we have no option but to continue our present practice of mass incarceration, thus maintaining the US’s global position of locking up 25% of the world’s prison population while being only 5% of its general population.
This is why I don’t trust numbers. In these studies and reports people are treated as mere chits in the final count. No one notices that each one of those hatch marks is an individual, a real person—prisoner, inmate, offender, criminal, con, whatever you want to call them—living a life behind bars that few of us can imagine. That is the real story behind those numbers: a man or a woman, young or old, trying to survive in a prison culture that is designed—in the name of justice—not to nurture change but to demean; a system that punishes by deprivation: lack of proper nutrition; of adequate medical and mental health care; of physical, sexual and psychological safety; of meaningful work and education.
So where’s the mystery to recidivism? It is obvious—basic Social Science 101, basic parenting or human interaction. How you treat people is how they will act. Living under present day prison conditions, day after day, for years, can only foster more bitterness, anger, and despair; can only result in more crime fueled by vengeful feelings upon release.
And that “release” is another crushing blow to the ex-offender’s chances of making it. Many find themselves barred from public housing, food stamps, certain jobs and the right to vote. In some cases Federal education loans are denied for certain crimes. None of these punitive restrictions are an incentive to becoming a productive member of society.
There’s not much forgiveness in American culture. It seems that ex-offenders can’t suffer enough or repent enough for our Puritan tastes. The shackles of restrictions and prejudices that they as “free” men and women drag around may be silent compared to the ones they wore in prison, but those chains still rattle loudly not only in their own ears but in the ears of the communities that continue to shun them.
The roots of recidivism are not that elusive and never have been. Things won’t change until we are willing to define our penal system not as a social solution but as a social problem, one that we tackle with the same determination and vigor as we do other social problems such as addiction, sexual and physical abuse, and inadequate education. What’s our choice: the sacrifice, cost and efforts of true prison reform or the continued warehousing of human beings and the waste of their potential? Look at the numbers.
Originally appeared on Huffington Post
Maybeth Zeman’s Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time demonstrates, through a series of heartwarming yet heartbreaking stories, what anyone who has worked with juvenile offenders knows: that the thousands of minors locked up in US prisons—at least 10,000 such kids held in adult correctional facilities on any given night—are just children.
The media makes it easy for Americans to ignore this obvious fact with its visual clips cycling through the Nightly News mill showing teenagers of color, usually in hoodies, being let away in cuffs to a police cruiser or a young African American boy in an orange jump suit and shackles shuffling into court. Too few people see the half-truths behind those images. But Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian won’t let you turn your back on what juvenile justice really means in this country or on the vulnerability of these young people’s lives.
Zeman doesn’t just tug at the heartstrings, though. She gives backbone and bite to these boys’ stories by effortlessly weaving into her narrative research about such crucial topics as the psychological and neurological development of children, the devastating effects of poverty and racism on personality development, the high rates of juvenile recidivism. These studies challenge the reader to examine the laws governing how youth are handled in the legal system and the impact of prison culture on young offenders once they disappear behind the walls and razor wires into a world where the retribution trumps rehabilitation.
Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian would be an important book if it just stopped there. But it doesn’t. There’s another tale to tell. Although Zeman is a transitional counselor for a prison high school program, she is also a trained librarian. When she realizes that there isn’t a lending library for her students she does what any librarian would do. She gets a book cart and loads it up with all sorts of fiction and nonfiction including comic books.
There are no pretentions to her library on wheels. She is delightfully unconcerned with Core Curriculum, mandated standards, “the canon” of literature. A firm believer in the power of story and books to open up people’s lives, especially the lives of locked up kids whose worlds are limited and narrow, Zeman sets out to peddle her wares—adventure and mystery; heroes, superheroes and villains; customs and people from other cultures. As she writes, “The great thing about reading books is that they change where we are, and how we are, for a few minutes or even a few hours every day.” And that momentary relief for a locked up kid can often be a life saver in the chaos of jail.
I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries and know the sound that a book cart makes with its squeaky wheels. As Zeman describes pushing her cart through the prison hallways from classroom to classroom I could easily imagine that squeak calling kids out of the harsh reality of prison into the safe world of words and graphics like the pull of a Good Humor truck’s bell.
And those orange clad boys are just as hungry for something to read as they might be for a “King Cone” or a “Candy Center Crunch.” The reader can’t help but laugh, and be moved by their eagerness, asking for a particular book or comic, barely able to cover up their disappointment if the “Green Lantern” comic they’ve been waiting for hasn’t come back yet. They keep track like the old fashion librarian of what’s out, what’s in, overdue, or lost. There’s a poignancy to these boys and their books as though they themselves know what they missed as children and are now trying to make up for lost time and innocence.
Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time opens up to the reader—like the books that Zeman peddles to her students—a stark and punishing world that so few people know about, yet a world that is created and maintained in each of our names as citizens of this country. But she is a gentle alchemist. She mixes the harsh realities of prison life with just enough facts and a good bit of heart as she walks us through the same dark places into which so many of our children are sent every day.
Most of us know at least a few young teens—15, 16, 17 year olds. A son or daughter. A niece or nephew. A neighbor or a friend’s grandchild. We see them around, waiting for the school bus, surfing the sidewalk on a skate board, hanging out at the mall. Despite what they insist, teens are only on the cusp of adulthood, and most of us will do whatever we can to help them make it in the world.
Until, that is, one of those youths gets arrested. Then all that good will disappears. At least that’s the case in over half the states which have yet to change their laws prosecuting young teenagers (under the age of 18) as adults and, if convicted, sending them to adult correctional facilities. Suddenly that young person becomes an exile to all the protections and decencies that communities work hard to provide their children, and she or he enters a world that is blind to the needs and vulnerabilities of every developing adolescent. (This disenfranchisement is made starkly clear by the fact that in some states the parents of those teens are not notified when their children are arrested.)There is nothing nice about a kid in an adult prison or jail—nothing any of us would wish on the young teens that we know.
There are lots of numbers to tell us why these laws are wrong. As the Campaign for Youth Justice states in the conclusion of its report on state-by-state juvenile justice reform, about 250,000 juvenile offenders are tried in adult courts annually and nearly 100,000 youths are placed in adult jails and prisons each year. Yet, as Jessica Sandoval, deputy director of CFYJ, told the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, 95 percent of minors tried in adult courts nationwide are non-violent offenders, a fact that much of the public is not aware of.
Even more shocking, CFYJ reports in its “Key Facts: Youth in the Justice System” that young people housed in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those housed in juvenile detention facilities. Likewise inmates under eighteen make up only one percent of the prison population yet are victims in 21 percent of prison rapes. These grim statistics alone should have all caring adults voicing support for the efforts of child advocacy groups working to amend the laws in the remaining states that treat minors as adults in the criminal justice system.
But even if kids serving time in an adult facility somehow manage to keep themselves physically and sexually safe, the world of adult prison will still harm and harden them. While teaching high school students locked up in an adult correctional facility I saw what prison culture does to teenagers. The constant threat of violence and intimidation; the noise, foul smells and unhealthy food; the chaos and overcrowding; the isolation from family and positive role models; the lack of mental health services. All these factors create an environment that can, and does damage the sturdiest of adults. What kind of harm, then, do those conditions have on a young person still developing physically, emotionally, cognitively, psychologically, and spiritually?
But shouldn’t these kids be held responsible for breaking the law? Yes. That is exactly why those who support changing these laws want to keep younger teens in the juvenile justice system. The adult prison system, the way it is now structured, is more about retribution than rehabilitation. The juvenile system, on the other hand, is designed to help children change behavior and provides them with vital services such as school and substance abuse treatment which support that change. When we lock up minors in adult prisons the inevitable focus of incarceration becomes that of survival and of bitter resentment and retaliation for mistreatment by the criminal justice system. The research supports that conclusion. Kids handled in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend and their behavior to more quickly escalate into violence than those young people who remain in the juvenile system.
Think of all the teenagers you know or see around you. What wouldn’t you do to help them, to point them in the right direction, to shield them from harm? Think of all the benefits we heap on our children, the advantages we say they all should, must have. Why does all that disappear when a kid makes a mistake and gets arrested? Why suddenly are they any less deserving of our personal and national compassion? The least any of us can do is to support those advocacy groups working for juvenile justice reform and to urge legislators to support laws that save young offenders from growing up in adult prisons.
Originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange