Posts Tagged ‘recidivism’

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

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

Often when I give a talk I’m asked if I know what happened to any of the young people I knew and write about. I always feel badly and a little guilty at this point in my presentation because I have to confess that much too often when a kid left jail I lost track of him or her.

It wasn’t from a lack of trying. Like  all of the staff –teachers and social workers– in the jailhouse program where I taught, I made efforts to stay in touch with the students. And the students themselves seemed determined to maintain the relationships they had developed with all of us, since those relationships frequently were the healthiest ones they had ever had. But once “out in the world,” as my students would say, a world that had not changed while they had–same friends on the same streets waiting for you, same unemployment, same fractured families, same violent neighborhoods–it didn’t take long for them to get reabsorbed into that world and disappear, until that is the next time they were arrested and showed up in my classroom. Or until we heard that one of them had been shot dead in the street.

What happens to young offenders once they leave prison goes pretty much undocumented. That’s way a recent study by Northwestern University which followed for a period of 5 years (1993 to 1998) young people formerly incarcerated is an important window into a world not many Americans know, or seem to care about. It confirms the fate what many of us have known or suspected for a long time. Here’s just a sample:

Based on the study’s data, more than 80 percent of juveniles who enter the criminal justice system early in life have at some point belonged to a gang. Seventy percent of men and 40 percent of women have used a firearm. The average age of first gun use is 14. At any given time, 20 percent are incarcerated.

Unemployment is rampant: 71 percent of the men and 59 percent of the women are without jobs as adults. Of the 1,829 youths originally enrolled in the study, 119 have died, most of them violently — a death rate three to five times as high as the one for Cook County men in the same age group over all and four times as high as the one for women. In all, 130 have been shot, shot at, stabbed or otherwise violently attacked. As a group, they show high rates of post-traumatic stress, depression and other psychiatric disorders.

The study paints a bleak picture of the lives of these young people. But it’s a picture that must be looked at squarely before we can make significant changes to our broken criminal justice system.

“You don’t care about the victims. All you care about are those kids.”

It was a comment I’ve heard in one form or another at book events, at juvenile justice talks I’ve given, or in response to pieces I’d written about our national policy of retribution towards troubled kids. I have to admit, though, this guy was a bit more, shall I say, challenging, as he stood up after my reading and made his comment.

I’d read several advice articles for authors on giving readings which suggested that you have “pat answers” ready for the Q & A. It keeps things moving. It may be good advice, but I’ve found that it doesn’t work for me. Juvenile justice is too potent a topic be “pat answered” away. Besides, I wrote I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup about the young offenders I taught for ten years in the adult county prison to get people thinking about this much neglected issue. So I do my best to address each concern sincerely.

Fielding the man’s rather angry question, I talked about my belief that kids should indeed be held accountable for their actions; that they should learn that what they did affected not only their victims and their families and communities but also the young offenders themselves and their families and communities. What I couldn’t support was the punitive quality of that accountability as it is now practiced in our prison system.

I could tell that evening’s questioner was pretty disgusted. I was one more bleeding heart, one more knee jerk liberal, one more sucker taken in by “those kids.” He was gracious about it. He didn’t say any of that out loud. He didn’t have to. I’d heard it all before.

But his comment stayed with me long after the event: What did I feel about the victims?

I talk a lot about victims in my book. But the victims in this case are the locked up high school students I worked with for those ten years. In telling their stories—stories of childhood neglect and abandonment; of sexual abuse; of violence in the home and on the streets; of parental addiction and disease—I wanted readers to at least be aware of the fertile ground of mistreatment in which these children grew up. From my challenger’s point of view I’m sure I do go on too much about “those kids” and not about the people who suffered because of their crimes. (It’s important to note, however, that many of the teens I came across in jail—and this holds true for prisons nationally—were serving time for victimless, nonviolent offenses.) I was beginning to wonder if maybe the guy was right. Maybe I didn’t care about crime victims?

Like all good questions, this one stayed with me well afterwards. Yet despite the doubts he raised for me I knew that I did care deeply about the people hurt by crime; that, in an odd twist on the title of my book, “I don’t wish nobody” to have their lives damaged by the irresponsible acts of others, young or old. I turned the question over and over until finally I understood more clearly where I stood: the only way to truly protect society from youthful offenders and to prevent more crime was to protect the offenders themselves.

Study after study has shown that the harsh treatment of young people locked up in our nation’s jails has not only failed to reduce recidivism but has also created angrier, more bitter, more violent juvenile offenders. Lock a 14 or 15 year old up in an adult prison with its toxic environment of noise and dirt; of abuse, intimidation and paranoia; of violence and aggression, and that kid will not leave jail with a heightened sense of responsibility towards society, ready to re-examine and change his or her behavior.

I know that my reasoning wouldn’t convince those who feel that any punishment for criminal actions is not harsh enough to give victims the justice they seek. But the more I think about it the more convinced I am of the wisdom—and commonsense, which wisdom often is—behind it: if we truly care about victims, if we want to shield people from the hurt of crime we must look at and change the way we bring juvenile offenders—all offenders, really—to true justice. During my tenure as a jailhouse teacher and while I was writing my book  I always thought of the kids I taught as children of disappointment, children let down time and time again by the world of adults—parents, teachers, clergy, neighbors. Prison breeds disappointment, and as I did my own ten year jail bid I watched many of my students come in as children of disappointment and leave young adults of disappointment.

That’s a transformation that no one truly wants and that protects no one.

Originally posted on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange