Sonia Sanchez "drenches her words in honey goodness so they sound like the sweetest thang you've ever heard," The Root gushes in this feature interview, where the poet discusses what she's reading and the future of African-American literature.
Chalk the union of one man and one woman up to the good influence of their gay friends: it took a lesbian wedding for Jeremy Adam Smith to understand the importance of marriage.
David Chura has worked with at-risk teenagers for forty years. His book, I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine, documents the lives of children in adult lockups and how we as individuals and as a society have ultimately failed them. The following article was written to draw attention to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that is slowly making its way through Congress.
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 (for instance, on any given day there are 7000+ kids in US adult jails, or 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.
David Chura has worked with at-risk teenagers for forty years. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and multiple literary journals and anthologies, and he is a frequent lecturer and advisor on incarcerated youth. His book, I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine, documents the lives of children in adult lockups and how we as individuals and as a society have ultimately failed them. The following article was written to draw attention to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that is slowly making its way through Congress.
When you go to jail, you feel like everybody's in your business but nobody cares. You get cuffed, and shoved into the back of a squad car. The police blotter broadcasts to the world what you did. You get booked, fingerprinted, photographed, and everything about you is fed into "The Man's" hungry computer. You're watched by correctional officers, wardens, nurses, and other inmates; even the kitchen workers warily scope you out. There are bars instead of doors.
At least that is how you feel if you're a kid doing time in an adult county prison like the teenagers I taught for ten years.
I never expected to learn much about hope during the ten years I taught kids locked up in an adult county prison. After all, jail's a pretty dead-end place. Turns out I was wrong.
I learned a lot about optimism and resilience from some unlikely teachers—my jailhouse students. There was Ray who told me, "I've only lived in the world, free, not locked up somewhere, for a total of 6 years and 4 months," but who firmly believed that God would put a light at the end of his own dark tunnel; or Dario who despite living in shelters, on the streets, or in jails completed his high school diploma; or Wade who was looking at state prison, yet planning how he'd help his little brother when he got out.
Still, I'm a slow learner. In spite of the Obama optimism, I don't easily see much hope in our nation. It's hard to look past the bully culture fostered by Tea Party narcissism and conservative righteousness; by laws that require police to suspect, stop and question anyone whose skin is darker than theirs or whose name hints of Latino origins; by churches that kick children out of their schools because of their parents' sexual orientation.
That's why I was pleased, relieved, and frankly startled when the Supreme Court, an institution which in my opinion hasn't been this country's greatest source of hope lately, ruled recently that it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles who have not committed homicide to life behind bars without the possibility of parole.
Book signings are great for stories, as every author knows. Everybody has one they want to tell you.
I've had my share as I've done readings for I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine. There was the teenaged woman who lived on the streets, but finally got a job and a room for "me and my baby." The grandmother who lost a son and daughter to crime. The Viet Nam vet who did lots of drugs until Jesus found him.
At one recent reading, I couldn't help noticing the woman, last in line, staring down, clutching my book. When she got to me I wasn't sure she'd give it up to be signed.
"I'm almost afraid to read your book," she winced. "I have two boys locked up. I hear bad things happen in prison."
That's all she said. Then she asked me to sign her book, took it back and left.
It costs a lot to lock people up (by some estimates $32 billion annually). You have to house them, feed them, give them basic medical care.
It costs a lot, even if you cut corners. Overpack a dorm or double-bunk (as dangerous as that practice is). Serve cheap food—unrecognizable, processed meats; overripe, almost rotted fruit; white bread that wads up to the touch. Save on health care by not giving any. In the county jail where I taught high school for ten years I'd seen young guys with cheeks ballooned out from abscessed molars told to wait two weeks for the next dentist visit; or students go without their essential medications because they supposedly filled out the wrong forms which would eventually get "lost" anyway in the great paper-shredder of jailhouse bureaucracy. One male warden on the women's unit even decided to save money by rationing toilet paper and tampons.
Today, some states such as Virginia, Utah, Missouri, Arizona, New York, New Jersey and Iowa have a new, more direct approach: charge locked up men and women fees for room and board.
By now I thought the shocked reactions to the Department of Justice's report on sexual abuse of juveniles in detention centers would've disappeared. But articles and editorials from across the country continue to appear as states grapple with shocking numbers that won't go away. Will all this worry and lament translate into change? Who knows?
The one thing I'm pretty sure won't change is America's fear of these new barbarians marauding our streets in hordes (except today we call them "gangs.") Because that fear seems ingrained in our culture, kids will continue to be shut away in the very horrible places we condemn.
But if you're going to continue putting kids in some kind of detention I have a solution: boot camp.
For several years during my ten year tenure teaching high school kids at a New York county jail I had the privilege (strange as that sounds) of teaching in a boot camp for teenagers serving county time.
When I was first approached about the assignment I turned it down.
They had the wrong guy. After all, I'd been a conscientious objector during Vietnam, and to this day am a staunch pacifist. The military approach to anything is not one I can, or will ever be able to endorse. Young guys? Put in a boot camp? To be screeched at? Humiliated? All in the name of "helping" them?
I wanted nothing to do with it.
Until I finally gave in and visited the boot camp on which county corrections would model theirs.
What I saw knocked the protest sign out of this old pacifist's fist.
We Americans don't know much about how our criminal justice system works. We have the basics down. "Commit the crime, do the time!" as the pop cliché has it.
If only it were that simple.
Most Americans know that if you get arrested and post bail you're released from custody while your case grinds through an overburdened court system.
That is, if you're lucky enough to be able to post bail-- which means you're white enough; rich enough; well connected enough. But if you can't get bail-- which means you're poor; probably a minority; you’ve burned bridges, are alone-- you go to jail. Even though you've not been judged guilty. Even though the state has yet to prove that you did the crime you're accused of. Even though you're innocent until proven otherwise. Still you stay locked up in jail, not some special holding place, until your trial. You live with convicted criminals in the same conditions that society has set up to punish (because that's what jails do) these wrongdoers.
That's the way it is for two-thirds of the people in U.S. jails according to a recent series on NPR; more than a half million inmates locked up because they can’t get the money to post bail.
"Zero tolerance." It sounds like a good idea: "Put your foot down." "Get tough." "We're not taking it anymore."
The American public, worried about the purported drug and gun wars being fought in our cities in the 1990s, grabbed onto this concept. In turn, a number of states and municipalities adopted "zero tolerance" laws.
Since then "zero tolerance" has pervaded our culture.
The numbers are disturbing. During 2008 through 2009, 12 percent or 3,220 of the kids locked up in state or privately run juvenile detention centers reported that they had been sexually victimized by another kid or by facility staff.
Even more disturbing is that 10.3 percent stated they had had sexual contact with an adult staff member. Of that number, 1,150 kids said that sex or sexual contact was forced on them. All this according to the recently released National Survey of Youth in Custody (NSYC) report mandated by the Department of Justice as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Statistics have an odd way of getting to us.
On one hand, they're just numbers; cut and dry; lifeless; boring to read; easy to lose track of. Yet they’re potent, almost like talismans that draw our attention to the truth beneath them.
"We are either going to spend the money now and provide the services that our children require or we are going to pay a big price at a later date when these children are part of the adult criminal justice system."
That's how Judge Edwina Richardson Mendelson, a New York family court judge, put it to NBC New York, commenting on a story about the need to help kids mired in the juvenile justice system.
Certainly other experts would agree. The lack of damage control for harm already done to these children along with the damage the juvenile justice system inflicts on them can only make things worse for our society as time goes on.
But as sound as that reasoning is both from an economic point of view as well as a humane one, treatment and care for troubled young people doesn't happen much in this country. We spend more money locking kids up, punishing them-- in many cases for the failures of their fathers and their mothers, their neighborhoods and their communities, their churches and their schools--than getting them the help they need to pull themselves up out of the sinkhole of the streets.
In March 2007, the nonprofit Disability Law Center sued the state of Massachusetts over its treatment of hundreds of mentally ill inmates. Prisoners with emotional problems who are unruly in some way are kept in 23 hour solitary confinement, which, according to a November 10 Boston Globe article, has "led to self-mutilations, swallowing of razor blades, and numerous suicides."
In response to these grave concerns the Patrick administration, in an out-of-court negotiation, proposed building special treatment units for mentally disturbed inmates. Now, that proposal is off the table; citing the budget crisis, those units will not be built. So it's back to court in an effort to force the state to give its incarcerated citizens their constitutional protection against "cruel and unusual punishment."
Massachusetts isn't alone in facing the problem of caring for mentally ill inmates. Every state has had to confront this growing trend which started in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1980s, when the system of large state psychiatric hospitals was shut down even though, as Oliver Sacks states in his bittersweet eulogy to these former mental hospitals ("The Lost Virtues of the Asylum" New York Review of Books, 9-24-2009), it was obvious that these closings created "as many problems as they solved." Communities weren't prepared, and still aren't prepared, to absorb and meet the needs of what he calls "sidewalk psychotics."
With these closings, along with the current "tough on crime" policies, it shouldn't surprise anyone, then, that these same people-- alone, unsupported, often self-medicated with drugs and alcohol-- increasingly end up behind bars, despite the fact that jails aren't set up to help people deal with emotional problems, problems that confuse their judgments and impel them to destructive actions
No doubt these are hard choices in hard economic times for any state. Yet, once again, as municipalities struggle to come up with innovative ways to deal with the money crunch, the one formula that never gets recalibrated is that the people with the greatest need and the least resources take the biggest hit.
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.
In the years after World War II, California’s prisons were seen as being some of the most progressive correctional institutions in America. They were generally well funded, and the officials in charge of the system had a real interest in utilizing new rehabilitation tools within their facilities. In the late 1960s and 1970s, a wave of prison riots and rebellions put the skids on reform-based strategies. By the 1980s, when the first waves of the nationwide tough-on-crime, tough-on-criminals movement washed ashore, conditions in the prisons were deteriorating fast.
As the courts sent evermore prisoners into the prison system, even the massive prison-building spree California embarked on couldn’t keep up with the numbers. The prisons got more and more crowded, gyms were converted into dorms, access to medical, mental health, drug treatment, education, and job training services and programs declined. By the 1990s, the state prison system was being rocked by a series of scandals – guards beating inmates, seriously mentally ill inmates being placed in solitary, prisoners dying because they were denied adequate medical care.
A couple years back, the federal courts got so frustrated with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s inability to deliver basic healthcare to the state’s 170,000 inmates that they hired an independent receiver to push through change. The receiver, Bob Sillen, used his office to force prisons to invest more in basic items, such as specialized vans to take sick prisoners to hospitals; and he also promoted more systemic changes – higher pay for prison doctors and nurses, the investment of tens of millions of dollars in on-site medical facilities.