Prison is a world I have a hard time understanding. As a society we make a lot of assumptions about prison, prisoners and anything having to do with those that are incarcerated. It may surprise you to know but most of those assumptions are dead wrong!
I am the mother of a son who has spent more of the last decade behind bars than in society. My son, Corey, is 25 years old. He is currently serving a 12-year sentence for armed robbery in Maryland. In reading the last two sentences you have likely already made assumptions about my son. You probably believe he is violent offender and that he is a “career criminal”. You would be wrong on both accounts. He plead guilty to armed robbery with a BB gun with no ammunition and my son injured no one in the robbery. Did he commit a crime? Yes. Does he owe a debt to our society for that crime? Yes. Shouldn’t he pay? Yes, but under our current judicial and corrections systems he may be serving time but you, taxpayer, are paying for his crime. Sadly, if current policy and practice doesn’t change you may pay for my son for the rest of his life.
As a tax payer you should be asking what you get for that money that doesn’t go to roads, infrastructure, schools, after school programming, elderly services…
Shortly after Corey was sentenced to 12 years in Maryland Department of Corrections, he was transferred from the county facility to the state facility where he will likely serve out the rest of his sentence. If you live in Maryland, it may interest you to know that the state facility is one of four in Hagerstown, MD. Now, please pay close attention to the math here: Four facilities, 2,068 inmates and a budget of $66+ million dollars per year. $66 million. That is $31,914 per person per year being spent out of your tax dollars. If you aren’t from Maryland, I bet you will find a similar situation in your own state. As a tax payer you should be asking what you get for that money that doesn’t go to roads, infrastructure, schools, after school programming, elderly services, libraries, recreational programs, economic development, etc.… I think you get the picture. It’s really simple, mass incarceration is robbing this country blind and sadly, you as the taxpayer do not end up with the public safety all of your politicians who are spouting “tough on crime” rhetoric promise in their speeches.
When you go into prison you experience a power struggle. Each new person shifts the power structure in the prison environment. My son is one of the lucky ones, if there can be such a thing in 2012’s mass incarceration environment. Remember, there are nearly 1.6 million people behind bars in this country and another 4.9 million on some form of probation or parole. My son has access to money and his family stands behind him, with him and provides for his needs as best we can. We send money so he can buy food and hygiene items through the prison commissary to supplement the meager prison staples. We send money so he can call us because the prison offers him little in the way of earning any money. We pay so the prison can collect exorbitant profits on the phone system. Exorbitant? Yes, I believe that is the word when I pay $9.99 for 9 minutes for what would be a free call otherwise.
It takes time for me, as a mother, to understand that what he really means is either I stand or I get beat down or raped.
Another person incarcerated with my son stole $20.00 from him. My son kept trying to find a peaceful solution to the problem but the other individual would not pay him back no matter how many options my son offered. This transpired over a two-month period of time. All the while, I discussed this with my son, on our expensive phone calls, trying to find ways to resolve this without violence. I kept trying to tell him $20.00 dollars isn’t worth fighting over. He finally said, “Mom, it isn’t about the $20.00, it’s about if I will be taken advantage of in here or if I will stand up when I am threatened.” It takes time for me, as a mother, to understand that what he really means is either I stand or I get beat down or raped. As his mother, I have a hard time accepting that this is what my son faces. A young man who cares deeply for others, a boy who once returned a found wallet, to a neighbor, with his entire paycheck in it without ever telling us, a boy who would give you the shirt off his back, a boy who took care of his grandfather when he was dying.
In January of 2012, my son does engage in a fight with the man who has taken his money. In less than 2 minutes it is over. Both men covered in pepper spray burning their faces, bodies and genitals, despite the fact neither man was still fighting after being told to stop by prison guards. If you have never experienced pepper spray or mace consider yourself lucky. It burns for days until you are able to wash it off and when you step into the water it feels as if you have just been sprayed. Although my son was sent to the infirmary because he took a hard hit to his head on the metal stairs the nurse could only allow him to wash his face in a little bowl, not his whole body. For that he would have to wait until the 72-hour policy dictated a shower. He was taken to solitary confinement where he would spend the next 60 days and where he would lose 90 days of his good time. He was allowed one phone call in those 60 days for which he had to give up his right to have his ticket reviewed.
36 hours after he was taken to solitary a new set of guards came on duty. They are all white guards as are many who work inside this particular facility. They offer my son to take a shower even though the 72 hours are not up. Given that my son has spent more years in the last decade behind bars than in society, he is very familiar with prison policies and practices. As a boy of 13, inside of what the “New York Times” labeled as “one of the worst juvenile prisons in the country” my son has seen horror and been the subject of abuse it is hard for me to speak of. He does not cry. He does not whine about his situation or blame others for his prison sentence. This is the ONLY time I have ever heard him express concern for himself though over the years he has asked me to do things to help others on the inside.
How he hangs on to his humanity in such brutal surroundings is beyond me. Yet, he does it day after day.
During our first visit after this incident, I saw my son break down while I sat on the other side of the glass and wished with all of my heart that I could hug him. He said, “Momma, they offered me to take a shower. I was so happy because all I had done was burn for the last 36 hours. Everything but my face was on fire. My genitals burned like they were soaking in hot oil. I had been sitting on the edge of my cot with a wet towel held in front of the fan to try and ease the burning.” As he stepped out of solitary and was headed down the hall to the showers he saw the guy he had fought with doing the same thing. So he asked the guards, “Is he coming?” “No,” they said, “let the n-word burn.” As I watched, my son broke into tears that heaved through his whole body. When he looked up he said, “I wanted to say, “F- you and go back to my cell and but I couldn’t take it any more.” He who has no power what so ever felt bad that he took a shower and didn’t take a stand for a man who he felt had even less power than he did. How he hangs on to his humanity in such brutal surroundings is beyond me. Yet, he does it day after day. Why do we think this kind of treatment would get us anywhere?
We have an education system that treats poor children like criminals. We have a juvenile justice system that actually increases the odds a child will end up in the adult system. We have an adult system that does not provide much in the way of rehabilitation. We have a probation system that is essentially a loop right back to prison. We have a dysfunctional system all the way around and then we wonder why it doesn’t work to drive down crime. Perhaps if we stopped being tough on crime we could be smart on crime and save ourselves a whole lot of money in the process!
Grace Bauer is a mother and the co-director of Justice For Families a national alliance of local organizations working to end our nation’s youth incarceration epidemic. Learn more at: http://www.justice4families.org/file/Home.html
If you are a family with a child in the system and you are seeking advice or assistance, please get in contact with Justice For Families, They can be reached via email at zachary AT justice4families DOT org or via phone at (510) 268 6941. Justice For Families is a national alliance of local organizations that can provide emotional and logistical support for court hearings, advocacy support to enable families to obtain the best services for their loved ones, and engage families in policy campaigns to change systemic failures in the juvenile justice system. Another excellent resource is the Campaign for Youth Justice’s Family Resource Center, which offers guidance, valuable information, and opportunities for advocacy.
If you are a family that would like to share your story with us, please email us at: info AT juvenile-in-justice.com