In a six by eight foot jail cell there’s barely room for a bunk, a seatless toilet, and a postage-sized sink. The only other space you have in jail is in your head, and even that gets crowded with all the people you carry around in there who you resent for the things they did to you.
The world is pretty small when you’re locked up, especially if you’re a kid doing time with a healthy body that needs to move, energy sizzling through you like high tension wires, your emotions threatening to blow the power grid any second as you struggle with those nagging teenage questions, “Who am I?” “Why me?” It doesn’t help that the only answers you get come from walls and bars, gates and guards, and maybe that crowd of unreliable experts in your head.
Many of my jailhouse students lived that loneliness and isolation hour after hour, day after day, and for some, year after year until it was hard for them not to see the world as anything but confining, and brutally uncaring. It’s a vision that, as hard as they might work against it, too many of them carry throughout life.
Even though I taught high school in a county penitentiary for over 10 years and experienced in a minor way some of that same isolation and indifference I still know otherwise about the world: That there are people—teachers, social workers, clergy, parents, judges and lawyers—out there who care about real justice, not just for the “done to” but for the “doer” as well; who worry not only about “the system”—education, child welfare, juvenile and criminal justice—but about the kids, each individual kid, consigned to those systems.
But it’s hard a sell to young people whose world has taught them the opposite. Sometimes, listening to them talk about their lives, I feel as though they are living an alternative reality. Then again, maybe that is the reality of today’s America.
This summer I got to talk with various groups about these issues and met some people who could back me up on my view of the world. I just wish my students could’ve met them as well.
I’d like them to meet the 15 or so law students whom I met who were interning at the New York Center for Juvenile Justice (NYCJJ) in New York City, an organization working to ensure that kids in trouble are treated compassionately and fairly in the justice system. Even the toughest guys that I taught, and I’ve taught quite a few “thugs”—scarred, tattooed, hearts tough as stone (or so they’d like you to think)—would’ve had a hard time not being affected by the interns’ sensitivity to, genuine concern for, and insights into their lives and “the system” that had them (in so ways.) But my students were used to words—judge words, cop words, social worker words, even teacher words, so they would have been impressed by the students plans to establish juvenile justice chapters in their law schools and gotten a kick out of the fast-cut videos they made about laws that treat kids as adults when it comes to crime but not when it comes to voting or drinking or going to the movies.
And I wonder what they would’ve thought of the group of German juvenile justice professionals visiting the center. In halting English or through the slow process of translation, these professionals shared the same concerns about their criminal justice system that people in this country have about ours: a system that refuses to treat children as children; that refuses to look at the real reasons—poverty, discrimination, failing families, lack of money and resources for youth programs—that young people get drawn into crime.
At times the conversation in two languages was stumbling and drawn out. However, what translated fluently was the universality of the concern and compassion that is out there for the world’s young throwaways. It was moving to realize that there is a worldwide network of people just like me, just like the student interns and the staff at NYCJJ, just like the many other folks I know involved in this work. We may not be many but we’re out there, and, if you’re like me, it helps just knowing that.
Because the work never stops. As concerned as many of us from various nations are about the already bleak treatment young offenders—our students—receive, there are in some countries loud demands to make that treatment even harsher and more punishing. Canada for example “is planning to shift toward a jail-intensive approach” when dealing with its juveniles according to Toronto’s The Globe and Mail. And in the wake of Britain’s recent riots there are renewed calls for a retaliatory approach to young offenders rather than a rehabilitative one.
The global picture can be bleak. Nevertheless, that network of concerned and committed people is still out there. Despite everything, they keep doing what they can for the world’s locked up kids because no matter how much those kids might bad mouth their country, society, “The Man,” their own lives, they don’t give up hope. So, I ask you, how could any of us do otherwise?
Originally posted on Beacon Broadside