“Not only am I the law and order candidate,” Donald Trump said in July 2016, “but I’m also the candidate of compassion, believe it.”
Most of us did not believe it.
And neither did investors. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the stock market boom that followed last November’s national calamity was the private prison industry. Within a matter of hours, shares for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Geo Group—by far, the two largest private prison companies in the country—rose by 43% and 21% respectively.
It was an ominous sign of what’s to come—not merely the disenfranchising, the stigmatizing, the confining, the torturing, the rending of families and the deporting, but the reemergence of a backwards value system that generations of educators, organizers, activists and other people of conscience have been assiduously trying to sweep into the dustbin of history.
In recent years, a majority of Americans had seemed ready to begin the task of dismantling our massive prison industrial complex. Ready to say no more to slave labor, no more criminalizing drug addiction, no more to normalized torture through solitary confinement, and no more to the draconian practice rooted in classism, racism, corruption—and the one percent’s mortal dread of those wretched offspring of the poor—juvenile incarceration.
Many of us who have had any kind of exposure to this harmful, traumatic, criminogenic practice—a practice that separates young people from their loved ones at the precise moment at which they need them most—come to define ourselves at abolitionists. We believe that nothing short of the permanent shuttering all juvenile detention centers will rectify the problems they create. We see restorative justice and multi-systemic therapy as logical alternatives to a practice that, from its inception, has scarred and stigmatized victims of institutional racism and classism. And this view does not feel at all controversial or extreme. What feels extreme to us are the institutions themselves.
And we know this is going to get worse, unless we do something about it now.
Here are five reasons to begin working with incarcerated youth today:
Get on the right side of history. 100 years from now, if human civilization has managed to prevent an environmental catastrophe and the United States hasn’t plunged into full-blown autocracy, Americans will look back on the practice of locking up children, and—much the same way we now wonder about slavery—puzzle over how people could ever have tolerated such an appalling practice. By working with incarcerated youth, you will be one of those people who recognized a systemic evil and refused to tolerate it.
Bear witness. If we’re ever going to dismantle the prison industrial complex and reimagine the way we view crime and punishment, we must reckon with the inequitable system in which we live. Time spent with incarcerated youth illuminates the nebulous line that exists between the inside and outside world and exposes us to an incontrovertible truth—the vast majority of these kids are just like everyone else. It’s time that we recognize the humanity in those whom we are taught to “other.” The more you work with these kids, the more you will recognize the state’s misdirection, their contemptible effort to dehumanize children—who are in desperate need of love and support—in order to convince you that your safety and the policing of the poor are in some way connected. They aren’t. Not one bit. In fact, in a myriad of ways, it’s just the opposite.
Ford the chasm. To the detainees, juvenile detention centers might as well be space stations. Their walls put impossible distances between those held behind them and the outside world. Bring the outside world into them. Talk to them about the news—something that, at least in the facility in which I work, they are prevented access to. Bring them books—most incarcerated youth, at least those who expect to spend more than a few days in the hall, become avid readers. Expose them to a voice and a perspective that might resonate with them and encourage them to think critically about their situation.
Connect. The most reliable indicator for whether an adult will serve time in one of our nation’s many prisons or jails is whether that person was incarcerated as a youth. To contend with statistics, incarcerated youth need connection. They need a person who might write a letter to a judge, show up for a court date, be a consistent presence in their lives. While there are some great organizations, designed to help youths re-assimilate, a friend who’s down to have the occasional lunch, help them hone their résumé, and maybe even connect them to possible employers is an invaluable asset. Most of all, remind them what it’s like to speak to people who are interested in what they’re really feeling, as opposed to those who expect or demand the banal clichés that they’re taught to recite to judges, probation officers, et al.
Find something in them that you admire and let them know about it. While incarcerated, youth are frequently reminded of two things: the darkest moments of their lives and their inherent criminality. It’s not surprising that they brighten when praised. Find qualities in them that you admire. Read their writing and help them recognize the way in which their voice is powerful and wholly their own. Convince them, through your consistent presence and compassion, that these qualities they possess are more apparent than that part of them that they are taught is broken or bad.
We live in a punitive society, one that removes those deemed “criminals” from their homes and communities and places them in institutions that purport to rehabilitate. The institutions charged with this task are failing—or, depending on your perspective, they are functioning precisely as they were designed to function: creating jobs for a workforce abandoned by the manufacturing base, decimating communities of color, and conscripting tens of thousands of poor people to a life of actual slavery.
Therefore, as long as juvenile detention centers impart to our most vulnerable and marginalized youth the message that they are criminals, we must be working inside those walls, offering those youths the opportunity to discover that they are so much more.
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