Features

Literacy and Resistance to the School-To-Prison Pipeline by richard ross

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"Teaching writing to students of high need in an urban school is simultaneously pedagogical, curricular, and political. Students labeled “at-risk” for school failure often have lowered expectations placed upon them from without that impact how they feel within. Compounding this problem of perception is the real issue of heightened surveillance on these students, including the disturbing trend of involving the police when students break the rules of the school; in addition, their own history of juvenile incarceration often exacerbates their school failure. This article addresses these issues in an urban context, as well as provides insight into literacy teaching that assists students in the acquisition of knowledge, literacy, and expression. "

Abstract: Martin, Jennifer L. and Jane A. Beese. "Talking Back at School: Using the Literacy Classroom as a Site for Resistance to the School-To-Prison Pipeline and Recognition of Students Labeled “At-Risk”." Urban Education, vol. 52, no. 10, Dec. 2017, pp. 1204-1232.

Photo Credit: Richard Ross, Juvenile-in-Justice. The Multnomah County Department of Community Justice Detention Facility, Multnomah County, Oregon.

Graham v. Florida (revisited) by richard ross

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Terrance Graham beams with his radiant smile and perfect teeth. That’s the memory I hold of visiting him last year. Today, a year later, I think of Terrance on the anniversary of Graham v. Florida—the Supreme Court Ruling that said you cannot sentence kids to die in prison for non-capitol crimes.

Terrence grew up in Jacksonville. In spite of “The Sunshine State” license plate motto, Florida can be brutal. It is a balkanized population of wealthy retirees, sophisticated yet hedonistic tourists, a northern part of the state, which thinks very southern, and a southern portion of the state with somewhat northern values. Amidst this place that is very urban, very rural, very Cuban, very Dominican, very Haitian are pockets of extreme poverty primarily populated by people of color.

Jacksonville—the hub of northeast Florida—has a major locus of poverty: it is here that Terrence lived with his Mother Mary. Mary and her husband would host crack parties on the regular. “I would put down a plate of food and feed the youngest, then it would go up to the next child, then Terrance, then Michael the oldest. If there was anything left on the plate, I would eat it. Yeah, we weren’t the Brady Bunch.”

The geography of poverty within this environment may be useful in understanding why a 17-year old boy was arrested outside a convenience store with three friends. Terrence hit the owner with a small baseball bat as they were fleeing the store with loot in hands. Although no one was knocked unconscious, and no one was killed, a young boy, barely a teen, committed a non-capitol offense and he received a life sentence.

May 17th 2010—(seven years past) The Supreme Court said this practice would stop.

May 21, 2026 is the tentative release date for Terrence who was incarcerated in 2004. After twenty-two years for a mistake he made as a teenager, he will be 41. His incarceration will have cost the State of Florida more than a million dollars.

His last disciplinary report was coincidentally right after I visited a year ago. He was put in the hole for two months where he lost 20 pounds. This is Florida State Prison in Starke.

Relieving Terrance from the hopelessness of life without parole is a first step. Offering rehabilitation, better resources for family, schools, and children to prevent these environments from breeding little more than despair still remains a dream.

Brian Gowdy argued his first Supreme Court case seven years ago and succeeded. Bryan Stevenson made the second big step with Miller v Alabama and juvenile Capitol cases. We have so much farther to go on this road to treat people fairly—to simply treat them as human beings. But take a moment and remember this is the seventh anniversary of Graham v. Florida, an important step toward treating all people, especially children, with a degree of common sense.

-May 23rd, 2017 "I'm just trying to tell somebody, everybody, INMATES LIVES MATTER"

"I pray I live long enough to have kids and grandkids..." by richard ross

Dear Richard 5-16-17

Hello, how are you doing? I pray that this letter finds your family doing well and in the best of health. I received your note and picture today. I enjoy looking at the pictures they look so real! Thank you for checking up on me. It’s always nice to hear from a friend every now and then. I have been OK. Just trying to stay positive through my time of incarceration. I can get out before nine years as long as I stay out of trouble. My earliest release date is 3-2-2025. My lawyer, Bran Gowdy is putting in a motion for me to go back in front of the judge to get resentenced or get a parole date. I will keep you informed on how that turns out for me. I know you are excited about your grandchild=) I pray I live long enough to have kids and grandkids. Well, it was good hearing from you. Take care until pen meets paper again.

Your friend, Terrence Graham

"In the south, it was nothing for a black man robbing a white establishment to get life." by richard ross

“My name is Lee Albert Ansley and I’m sixty-five years old. I’m from Jacksonville Florida. I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve been an addict; I’ve been a fool. I’m here for a parole violation, but I’ve done a total of 38 years.

I was raised by my mom and my big momma-my Grandmomma. There were only two adults in the house. The only time I saw my father was when he came to beat me. My momma would call my daddy when I would do something wrong and I would see him then. Basically that is all I saw of him at a very young age. My mother was fifteen years old when she had me. She already had a son before me—my oldest brother who is a year older than I am. Then she had two more. Three boys and one girl. She was a child with children.

Growing up I lived in a predominantly segregated neighborhood. All my friends were black because I lived in a black neighborhood. The only interaction I had with people outside my neighborhood was school, and it was totally black. Everything was black. The first encounter I had with people of a different origin was a negative experience. Some white guys jumped on me for walking down the street. That was shocking. Other than I was in the segregated south in 1950.

I don’t know when my grandmomma had my momma. She only had two kids, my uncle and my mom. I would assume that she was in her twenties. She came from a large family. Her family was a large family. Her daddy, Mr. Mathis, had about 13 or 14 kids. They were out there in the country and I don’t know exactly how that impacted her relationships with guys—I don’t know too much about my big mommas upbringing.

My mommma had me, my oldest brother, and my younger brother, but she gave him up to go and list with his grandmomma, and so my grandmomma raised him. Then she had my sister, who was baby girl—now that I think of it, my sister had her first kid when she was in high school. There goes that aspect of them being children raising children again.

When I first got charged I was seventeen years old. I was influenced by my peers who said, “Let’s go rob somebody.” I said, “OK.” As simple as that. I got arrested a day after my eighteenth birthday, but all the crimes I committed were when I was 17 years old. All of the crimes were robbery, but on one of the incidents, the guy in the store got shot. He stayed in the hospital for three hours and then released him because it was just a flesh wound. On one of the other charges, although I did not molest her, there was a girl and I looked down her dress. So…there were aggravating factors that resulted in me getting a life sentence.

The night I got arrested, the police officers interrogated me. I didn’t know that juveniles in custody have the right to refrain from talking until they contact our peoples, attorney and all that stuff. Anyways, the guy that I had caught the robbery charge with, said that I was with him during other robberies. They fooled me into saying that yea we did it. I stayed in jailed nine months, then my momma convinced me to plead guilty to the robbery charges. She had gotten a long distance attorney, who years later became known as a “hanging judge” because he was hard on crime in Jacksonville, and he had told her to tell me to plead guilty. Anyway, I listened to my momma, she said, “go ahead and plead guilty. Let’s get out of this fighting…give me some kind of relief.” So I plead guilty for those two robbery charges—they gave me life. I have the documents to prove it.

In the south, it was nothing for a black man robbing a white establishment to get life. As far as I was concerned, I saw a lot of that going on. It was 1969, the judge was white, the prosecutor was white, my attorney was white.

I was eligible for parole, after ten years, and was released in ’79. In 1983 I got 75 years for a robbery, in ’85 I went back to court and got exonerated. In 85’ they reinstated my parole. I caught a new charge and went back in in 1990. I was released again in ’99, and came back in 2001. I’ve been back ever since. “

Everglades Correctional Institution

Date of Receipt: August 1969

SENTENCED TO LIFE

"Societies has to give opportunities" by richard ross

“ I’m 40 years old.

I didn’t know what was going on. I was never there at the scene of the crime, but for some particular reason, they used an eyewitness and believed her testimony. I accumulated over 5000 days for good behavior, with the amount of time that I have already served, which is 22 years. Anything that’s available, or anybody wouldn’t give me a chance...

I believe that society has to be forgiving.

Societies has to give opportunities”

Dade Correctional Institution. Florida City, Florida

Date of Receipt: August 1996

SENTENCED TO LIFE

"It was never easy being a kid and going straight to prison..." by richard ross

"My age is 41. I was charged in 1990. I was fifteen years old when I got charged with murder. I did not have anything around me, any support system, anything to look up to. It is very easy to get into things and not know the consequences to things. At fifteen I did not know the consequences of a murder.

I grew up in Florida city. My mother was a single mother. She was a drug addict (god bless her soul). She had been to prison already something like three times. My grandparents tried to raise me and do things for me that my parents could not do for me. They had already raised their kids, so they were of older age.

I lost so much. I lost my mom. I have never seen my father in my life. I don’t even know what he looks like. Everybody has a story to tell. I lost everything. I lost everybody that I have ever had in my life, except my grandparents. They are 87 years old and they still stick with me. That’s who I have in my life. That’s my support system.

I am way better now than when I came in. I had to grow up in here because of all the violence that takes place in here. It was never easy being a kid and going straight to prison, having never been inside of juvenile facility. I felt like I was sent here to die. I was so young. I didn’t know anything about this other side of life..."

Dade Correctional Institution. Dade, Florida

Date of Receipt: November 1991

SENTENCED TO LIFE

"It goes on and on and on until somebody stands up.." by richard ross

"Right now I’m forty-five…

My mom worked all the time and she was unconcerned with me. Then crack epidemic came and blew the doors off of our whole house. My real father wasn’t around and I did not meet him until I was much older. For some reason, I think I was just pissed off because I did not have my biological father there. I wanted him to be there, I wanted to be like everybody else who had their father’s there. I wanted attention and I couldn’t get it, so I started doing things that most kids wouldn’t do. It started with fighting in school and then I graduated to crime. First it was petty crime and then as time went on I progressed.

Being poor, and being around your classmates when you don’t have much, when they have parents, and they have clothes, and they are clean, and they’re this and they’re that, and you don’t have that, you have to resort to the only thing that’s there—and there aint a lot there. When you are young like that, you are limited to what you can and can’t do.

While I’m sitting here my children have suffered years of neglect and they are making some really really poor choices. My daughter has been incarcerated. She was fifteen when she got incarcerated. She’s off of it now, but she went to prison for a violent crime. Actually, she got kids and she got out. They are just babies right now. My grandchildren will probably suffer as well. It’s generational. It goes on and on and on until somebody stands up and stops it.

When you are poor, you can’t afford lawyers or expert witnesses. They tend to trump up charges against you and throw you away. I wrote to every innocence project in the united states, but most of the time what I get is that they are limited in what they can do. Their funds are short. They’ll put you on a waiting list—I’ve been on a waiting list for at least four years. But I aint giving up hope though, by a long shot. I’m not giving up at all. I’ve been fighting all these years and I’m not going to stop. I have to do half of the fifty years, and once I do half, then ill come up for parole. But in 25 years there’s no guarantee that I'll make parole"

Stiles Unit. Beaumont, TX

Date of Receipt: January 1991

SENTENCED TO 50 YEARS

"This is slavery." by richard ross

I went to Juvie when I was 12-13 for 11 months. Since then, I’ve been incarcerated for 43 years. I was incarcerated on my 16th Birthday. I was given Life and 20. I was convicted of a Rape and Abduction when I was 15 years old. Since 1971 I have been on the street for a total of 11 months. (on the outside)  

My last visitor was in 1989. I was from a good family. No abuse. I never wanted for anything.

FORTY THREE YEARS that I have never seen my family.

Parole-- The parole board interviews me by phone.

They said I had a history of violence and I was a risk to the community and they had new evidence. It has been 43 years and I have been convicted. What new evidence could exist and what could that mean? I’m not coming back to that community so how am I a risk to that community?

I have a parole release date but it means nothing.

They ask what programs I have taken. They say I need programs to be released. They offer no programs. How does this make sense?

This is Florida. Florida is a slave state. This is slavery

Just give me the death penalty.

I am never getting out of prison.

I am going to die here in prison.

Columbia Correctional Institution

Date of Receipt: May 1996

SENTENCED TO LIFE

Graham v. Florida by richard ross

By Richard Ross “I miss you like a prison mom.”

Mary Graham has missed her son for the past thirteen years. Since he was sixteen, Terrence has been incarcerated. He was sentenced to die in prison. Terrence grew up with two crack-addicted parents. School was a series of sixteen different institutions as evictions created dislocation and disruption. Classes were special ed for Terrence and his three brothers. School represented food and nutrition. Without the breakfasts and lunches, one brother, Tavaris would get a bag of Doritos and parse it out as a meal to the four boys.

Mary remembers the fridge being adequate. “We grew up country. My Mama used to say if you had bread and potatoes in the house you could always make a meal. It was hard. My kids might have some bread and jelly, but they never went to bed hungry.” Terrence remembers other parts of that narrative. “There would be spoiled milk or government cheese in the refrigerator.”

“We were poor. I would cook one plate of food and put it in front of Diante. He would eat his fill and move the plate to Terrence. Terrence would eat and then move it to Michael, and then to Tavaris. After all the boys ate from the same plate…if there was anything left over I would eat. It was hard. We weren’t the Brady Bunch.”

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Mary has met God.

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It happened on day on December 14th. She had smoked crack incessantly in the six years prior. On the 14th, she prayed and stopped completely.

The six years of parties and a house full of addicts stopped. Prayer had replaced the emptiness and silence of the apartment. Mary apologized to her four boys, the youngest of which still kicked in her womb at the time, and she began her life again. “Mom has been sick for a long time,” she would tell them. But the lives of her boys were already in tatters. All had been incarcerated. Sixteen schools, sometimes no food, crack cocaine parties with an endless parade of strangers for more than six years.

This narrative is an American story. Not the Norman Rockwell, but the alternative, yet no less true. Mary grew up with her grandmother in rural Jacksonville. There were sixteen children served by pigs, chickens and goats. The family went well beyond the sixteen children and two adults—there were cousins and aunts—and the house kept on being built out to shelter them all. Mary and her sister slept in the bed with her grandmother. “Lots of people. Lots of kids. It was hard but we made it. Drugs were not in fashion back then.”

“Then we moved into central Jacksonville and my parents separated. My mother got a job at Milligan’s and tried to take care of the four of us. She was making $2.35/hour. It was hard. It got too hard for my mom so she let my dad take us. When I was 15 I started to party. I was new to the game but I enjoyed the life of the city. I met Harry when I was 20. He was a Vietnam vet 11 years older than me.”

Three children later, they were in a whirlwind of crack and abuse—“we were kicked out of the house and we weren’t let in. We stayed in the street while the party went on.”

Section 8 evictions, drugs, violence—where was Family Services? Mary explains, “there are two kinds of addicts…I was an ‘in-control’ addict. When they would come because of complaints, I would be able to put on a controlled face. They would come, because Michael was out of control a lot. He was what you call ADD. He would do things like try to set an apartment building on fire. They came to look at my apartment and I would always have it neat. I kept a neat house.”

_____

Bryan Gowdy doesn’t like the reference to Atticus Finch, although he is tall, lanky, soft-spoken, and works out of a modest two story building in Jacksonville. “I was working a lot of appellate corporate law and I thought this would be an interesting, individual case. I certainly didn’t expect to be arguing in front of the Supreme Court.”

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"There was a surprise ruling by the Florida Supreme Court last week. They overturned sentences of life with the possibility of parole that had been doled out, citing that they were counter to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Graham v. Florida. The majority argument was that because a defunct Florida parole system had not granted parole to a single person sentenced to life in prison, the state could not continue to sentence juveniles to life with the possibility of parole. In fact, as the state evaluates parole, the fact that the inmate was a juvenile at the time of a crime counts against them.

This is counter to Supreme Court decisions that have determined the adolescent brain to be still developing, giving children the unique possibility of reform and rehabilitation. The practice of the parole system in Florida is so counter to this information, that the Supreme Court here has ruled life with parole effectively is still a death sentence for a child in Florida.”

“Effectively I am a small business with my partner. I have a family to support so I can’t take all the cases I would like to take. But I am going to take a new case that relates to this. Too much is a stake for these kids.”

“When Terrence was first sentenced, the authorities had somehow painted the family as being nuclear, well cared for with nurtured, loved children. The judge was influenced by the discordant actions of a teen who would turn his back on this perfect home. When the case was returned from the Supreme Court for resentencing, the judge looked at a more detailed, revealing and demining picture of Terrence’s environment and the mitigating factors contributing to his delinquency. It was the polar opposite of what was presented in the original sentencing. Realistically when you argue for them you have to prepare as if each case is a death penalty case…effectively they are. When there are determinate sentences that are 50, 60, 70 years and the parole system is so hostile, they are death sentences.”

Meanwhile in Starke, Florida, Terrence is in the Main Unit West. He helps clean and cook for the Close Managed section that houses the behavioral problems and the sixty-six inmates of death row. Soft-spoken, Terrence explains ‘When I came into the system and looked at my EOS (End of Sentence) date it said ’99-99-9999.’ That meant I was never getting out. Now I look at it and I figure I served 13 years now and have a 25 year sentence. I have some time earned for behavior so I have about eight years left. I get out sometime around 2025. It’s a real date.’”

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Joseph Ligon by richard ross

By Richard Ross

“I may be released before you get here…”

These are the optimistic words of Joseph Ligon.

Joe was incarcerated when he was 15 after a one-day trial for a murder he denies committing. He is in Pennsylvania—one of the three major states (Michigan and Louisiana) that required a subsequent Supreme Court ruling to allow juveniles committed to life imprisonment to have reconsideration. Joe went in when Eisenhower was in his first term, the Korean War was in full swing and the Dodgers (Brooklyn) were playing the Yankees in the World Series.

The images you see are of Ligon during his incarceration. These three states do now allow any photographs of these people with varying excuses that range from victim’s rights to Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Barbara Walters. Regardless of the excuse‚ the result is to keep these people faceless and without voice.

These wordless images should speak volumes about the inhumanity of the juvenile justice system even though they are punctuated by an image of a quiet, humble almost 80-year-old prisoner.

Let facilities take root in our neighborhoods by richard ross

A version of this article was originally published by the NY Daily News.

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At age 15, I was arrested for stealing a car and was sentenced to juvenile prison until my 21st birthday. In mid-90s Illinois, the sole female juvenile prison was located in a Chicago suburb, five hours north of my rural town. Visitations were held weekly, but without public transit options, my single mother — who bicycled to work — was unable to come.

In the two decades since, several states have shifted from warehousing delinquents in remote prisons to localizing them in treatment centers that address their psychological needs. In 2012, Gov. Cuomo approved the Close To Home initiative, which relocates young offenders nearer to their communities, where they can restoratively transition back home.

The idea is sound and progressive: Being within MetroCard proximity to their families allows kids to stay in touch with their support networks while receiving transferable school credits, reducing both dropout and re-entry rates. Close to Home facilities offer enhanced counseling services, too.

But not everyone believes in the project — especially not when it’s in their backyard. On Tuesday, residents of South Ozone Park celebrated the city controller’s decision to reject a contract to operate a facility putting up to 18 teenagers in their neighborhood. This comes after months of heated protests and a civil suit filed against the children’s service agency, which locals claim was trying to turn their neighborhood into a dumping ground.

After hearing plans to build a treatment center in Queens Village, neighbors there erupted into their own revolt, vowing to follow South Ozone’s example.

Opponents say they have safety concerns. It can appear they are more motivated by fear of diminished property values. Neither reason justifies blocking the program.

Kids eligible for it are either non-violent offenders like me or do not pose a clear or present danger. They’re just young people in need of a second chance.

If, that is, they’re anything like me. My delinquency started when I was 13, after my parents divorced and my siblings fanned out among friends. I went from a crowded bedroom to an empty trailer and was left confused and angry. I didn’t understand my mother’s need to work 16-hour shifts and sleep during her time off.

I began running away, committing petty crimes and using various substances to numb my sense of loss. By the time I was arrested, I knew that being taken off the streets probably saved my life.

During the first year, letters home were frequent. I sent, “Miss you,” crayoned with blue bubble letters, followed by, “Please send a photo, I’m afraid I’ll forget your face.” Correspondence rapidly dwindled, and in a final note, I wrote, “Sorry for the pain I caused, wish I could have gotten it together sooner.”

I got used to the locking of steel doors, barbed-wire fences and caged windows. Stifled cries echoing down the hall as I tossed in my sleep became home.

After two years, I was paroled for good behavior to a group home in a small town, still out of my mother’s reach. My progression into independent living was hinged upon finding a job — but the revelation of my facility’s address sabotaged employment opportunities. The resentment among the locals in Illinois mirrored the current climate in Queens. My existence had pockmarked their town.

New laws bumped my release date to age 19, but I couldn’t celebrate; I wasn’t really ready to be freed.

Landing in a battered women’s shelter and acquiring a mentor was my turning point. Through her nurturing, I was able to find something positive within myself and walk a different path.

I’m now a 33-year-old college grad who lives near South Ozone with my husband. I’ve been in the city for almost a decade, and as I witness these protests, I’m reminded of how it felt to be loathed by people who didn’t understand my predicament.

If they keep juvenile facilities out of their neighborhood, NIMBY opponents may win a small victory. But it will pose a larger, lasting threat to the city’s future.

Blanchard is a writer and teacher.

"I lost my freedom in detention!" by richard ross

This week, Juvenile In Justice concludes the features on two adults who spent much of their childhood lives in detention.
Jose Vidrio shares his experience of being in and out of the juvenile justice system and the conditions of confinement, and touches on his achievements as an adult now.
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by Jose Vidrio I was physically abused by my father. When I was young, my sister and I were always afraid of my father because we didn't know what mood he was going to come in. My Dad was this big macho guy that didn't like hugs and or kisses for his birthday or Father’s Day, especially coming from me. He thought that it was a gay gesture and if I attempted to do so, he would hit me of course. I can say that alcohol did play a big factor here; when my father was drinking his mood was unpredictable.

I started to get into trouble when I was 10 years of age. I did three months then because of tagging and refusing to give my name. I guess when my mother left my father I kinda took advantage and would leave the house a lot. When I was 12, I was arrested for armed robbery and did almost 2 years in Juvi. When I was 15, I was sentenced to 10 years and did 5 and 1/2. I came out when I was 21 years of age.

When I was in CYA, I was in isolation from 6AM to 10PM. They put me in a "cold room" with just my boxers on—there was no mattress, no sheets. All day I walked around the 8’x10’ room and did random workouts because the room was so cold. By the time that they put me back in my cell I was so tired that I just wanted to go to sleep. Sometimes the staff members would go inside when I was asleep and they would beat me before putting me in the cold room. Sometimes the staff members would put me with other rival gang members to fight in the rec room.

Sometimes the staff members would go inside when I was asleep and they would beat me before putting me in the cold room. Sometimes the staff members would put me with other rival gang members to fight in the rec room.

I guess that I can say that there was no love at home. My mother was always yelling and screaming at us. We didn't understand and take into consideration that she was going through a hard time divorcing my dad and she hid us while doing it for a while.

I lost my freedom in detention! I have learned that it is easier to mess up your background than it is to restore it. I also gained some knowledge about my history, family, and also graduated high school in there as well as doing my first communion. As far as the food, if we ever had meat, it didn’t taste like meat. We called it mystery meat because it tasted funny. We joked and said that maybe it was gopher meat because they had a big problem in the yard.

I lost my freedom in detention! I have learned that it is easier to mess up your background than it is to restore it.

I was just approved for a Certificate of Rehabilitation on Oct 8th and I am very excited about that. I currently work for a radiology company processing insurance claims and reconciliation from complicated claims. In April 2016, I will be graduating with my Bachelors of Business in Health Care Management.

I talk to all of my family, including my father and we talk good. I am not going to say that we have the best relationship but he is in our lives. I talk to family that I have never spoke to before. I am married and have been with my wife for 13, going on 14 years. I have 5 children that keep me busy and love them to death. And yes, I give them all kisses and hugs, both my boys and my girls.

—Jose Vidrio

"I am very happy with my life now." by richard ross

Over the next few weeks, Juvenile In Justice will feature the stories of two adults who spent much of their childhood lives in detention.

This week, Amy Stephens-Vang shares her story of resilience and recovery.

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by Amy Stephens-Vang

I moved to California when I was six years old. My parents are both alcoholics and drug addicts. My Dad was in and out of youth authorities and boy’s camps. My Mom was a run away from a very young age because she had an abusive father. I have an older brother and a younger brother and sister who are twins.

After we moved to California, my parents became very bad in their addictions and they started fighting a lot. They neglected us and I started being Mommy to my siblings. I missed a lot of school and there was so much drugs and violence around us. In July 1993 we went into foster care. At first, all of my siblings and I were together, but eventually we all got split up and my younger brother and sister were adopted.

Amy Lynn Stephens-Vang 2

Amy Lynn Stephens-Vang 2

I moved to Redding, CA when I was 14 years old. Within six months I had attempted suicide and was arrested for 1st degree murder, 2nd degree robbery and false imprisonment and conspiracy to commit murder. I was running around with people much older than me and I got with a guy who ended up killing someone. I was in juvie for 15 months fighting my case. This was April 1998. I was tried as a juvenile but was found guilty of all four charges. I was sent to Ventura Youth Correctional Facility when I was 15, in July 1999.

When I got there, the parole board gave me seven years. I felt like I was so alone and that I was never going to get out. I had no outside support because my parents were still in their addiction and in and out of prison. My older brother wanted nothing to do with me because I was an embarrassment. I was involved in many physical altercations and I was put on suicide watch many times. I was medicated so heavily during my stay there that there are periods of months that I can't even remember anything. I got involved with many intimate relationships with other girls there and I clinged to those relationships because it's the only love I could get.

I had many horrible counselors and I had many wonderful counselors. The food in there was not the best but I've had worse. I was put in isolation many times and it was one of the worst things. During the day, they would take our mattresses away so we couldn't sleep and they wouldn't give us a spork to eat with. I saw a girl go schizophrenic in there and they would mock her and experiment psych meds on her instead of sending her to a mental hospital. She wasn't faking and is still schizophrenic now.

I used to pray every night to God that he would let me die in my sleep so I wouldn't feel any type of pain anymore. Emotional pain. The whole time I was locked up I got 3 visits from my family. I rarely got any mail so while the night officer slid mail through our doors at 4 or 5 in the morning I always knew he would be skipping my door... No one wrote me after my 5th or 6th year there... I would just lay there and cry and wish I had died in my sleep.

I graduated high school in there and took some college units. When I got out nine and a half years later, I didn't know how to do anything as an adult. I had no work experience. I didn't even know how to get my identification card. The only program that really helped me in there was fire camp. It showed me how to set goals and work harder mentally and physically. I completed every program they had to offer. I still have nightmares to this day that I am back in there and I wake up sobbing.

Amy Lynn Stephens-Vang

Amy Lynn Stephens-Vang

Today I am married to a wonderful man and we have two beautiful children together. The worst thing I have done since I was released eight years ago is I got a speeding ticket. I am a law abiding citizen and have a house and a couple vehicles. My brothers and sister are back in my life. We all found each other again. I see my Mom almost everyday and my father passed away a couple years after I got out. I am very happy with my life now.

—Amy Stephens-Vang

Tribal Justice by richard ross

By Richard Ross

I offer condolences this Thanksgiving—sending a note to the chief judge of the Yurok tribe.  The Yuroks are the largest tribe in California. 6500 people whose traditional lands are along the Klamath River. Many of the Yurok have no running water nor electricity. Roadside deer are not road kill, rather they are “harvest.” These are people who have survived by being invisible and hiding from the devastation of whites, but it may not serve them well moving forward.

I visited the week prior, meeting families in a half dozen homes. There was a common thread… rather a common frayed thread. While there was a certain guilelessness about the households—when I would enter a house, no one objected, welcomed, or even really noticed. People and animals walked in and out at will. If you were in the house, you were supposed to be there, among the multiple generations who shared space. Rooms were often chaotic with grocery bags, popcorn, and clothes stacked in corners. Pots on the stove, dishes in the sink, and garbage overflowing.

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yurok-9799

In my conversation with Judge Abby Abinanti, with as much deference as I could summon and a true sense of curiosity, I asked about this common scene.

“First my people were massacred, then we were enslaved—it was an indentured servant program—but it was slavery, then our children were taken away to mission schools. The links of some families were broken at many instances and at many levels. This is not something you can go in and repair in a blunt manner. It takes time. These links were broken as each person was removed from a chain and it will only be repaired one person at a time. We are a strong people, united by culture, dance, singing. We can do it, but it will take time. We are not filthy. We are a River people. We bathed regularly. It was the Whites that were filthy, who came and did not have bathing as a common practice. They came and took the fish, the logging and gold. The only way we could survive was to fade into the land. This is a difficult time for us but we will survive. These links were broken as each person was removed from a chain and it will only be repaired one person at a time...We can do it, but it will take time."—Judge Abinanti

Driving across the Yurok nation from Eureka to Crescent City and beyond to the north, the 101 becomes a two lane tunnel encapsulated by the towering redwoods and punctuated with roadside elk. This is a different country. Counter point to the natural beauty are the marks of poverty, with ramshackle housing competing with newer structures built by the Tribe. Financially, the Yurok depend upon governmental support and grant writing. Tribal court officers explain that Native Americans have the highest degree of truancy of any demographic in California. “If you can’t get kids into their seats in class, you can’t teach them.” The one school on the western end of the reservation, Margaret Keating School, is limited to kids in K-6. Older students are bussed to Crescent City. In keeping with tribal custom, there is a dance circle and a sweat lodge on campus.”

The industry on the reservation is the reservation itself. There is little outside employment beyond working for the Tribe. The Tribe repairs and builds new housing and maintains a small casino next to the Holiday Inn Express in Klamath. It’s right across the street from the Klamath Country Club, which is a dark bar, pool table and grill, which closes at 7:30 every night. Smoking is allowed, a true anomaly. Meth and alcohol use are pervasive.  They become part of a life that has kids and adults embroiled in the legal system. California is one of 9 states that is subject to a federal law which transfers enforcement of certain federal laws to state law enforcement agencies. In many cases, this means the involvement of the state in handling enforcement and adjudication, where tribal law can often resolve cases alone. In the context of juvenile justice, rather than implementing tribal/restorative justice—which the Yurok prefer for their youth—the kids are brought into detention in a county facility, where they are disproportionately represented among the youth there. According to the judge, “We believe in having everyone in the room, and trying to come to a solution. I know every one of the families of this Tribe, and each person is important, they are not numbers they are relatives. The idea of justice by strangers is foreign to us. It is hurtful. We want Yurok justice that helps the child, the family, the community.

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"We believe in having everyone in the room, and trying to come to a solution. I know every one of the families of this Tribe, and each person is important, they are not numbers they are relatives."—Judge Abinanti"

In correspondence with Judge Abinanti, she graciously responded to my query with the words “May we all go forward together in respect and peace… to live in community, responsible for each and all.” A wonderful thought for the day, season and a way of life.

Alabama: A Different Approach by richard ross

By Richard Ross Cathy Woods is the assistant director of one of the more progressive juvenile detention centers in the United States: Tuscaloosa County Juvenile Detention Center in Alabama. Tuscaloosa isn’t just the home of the Crimson Tide or where George Wallace stood on the schoolhouse steps trying to thwart desegregation; it’s the location of a reasonably progressive, private juvenile hall.

The director’s corner office at the facility is decorated with Alabama pennants, “Roll Tide” accomplishments, autographs and bobbleheads of Bear Bryant. Through some unusual series of events, the day-to-day operation has defaulted to Woods, the assistant director, and her cadre of retired female schoolteachers.

Far from perfect, Tuscaloosa still shackles its children as they are transported from the hall to the enclosed family court next door and takes mattresses from the youth kept in solitary—of which there are too many. Their practices are outdated and this can’t be overlooked, but there’s something about the approach to rehabilitation here that it is unexpected.

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Let me explain: across the country the majority of juvenile detention administrators and staff come from mixed backgrounds, often from local law enforcement or military posts. While the traditional tenets of juvenile justice have been rehabilitation, deterrence, and punishment, the rigid and militaristic approach staff bring from their previous professions makes punishment the default. Here in the heart of Alabama, there is a focus on nurturing and rehabilitation.

In the family courtroom next door, Woods sits in on every hearing. She takes the time to drive a girl who was in custody for sex trafficking to a shelter she found for her in Birmingham, and assists her in getting a job at Subway. The detention center is regularly visited by a goat, pig, pony, sheep and a chicken—hardened kids from the inner city are exposed to lives that need them and don’t prejudge them. The kids are forced to step outside of their comfort zones and are encouraged with praise when they are successful with new experiences. It is tempting to attribute this contrast in treatment to the female leadership of the facility, but to credit gender alone would prevent us from getting to the heart of what is so different about this approach.

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There is financial support from the community to assist with materials and equipment that couldn’t otherwise be obtained. The effort is spearheaded by Woods, who wears the hat of a smart politician and a development officer along with her official title of assistant director. Emotional support comes from staff within the facility as well as community members surrounding it, both providing attention and patience. There is so much going on here, all with the goal of nurturing the kids rather than punishing.

What they are still lacking and hoping to create is a shelter for kids that acts as an alternative to the detention center. Woods and the family court judge (also female) are adamant as to the need for this. There is only so much that can be done to enhance what a juvenile hall offers. The lack of a non-secure shelter is what all agree is a critical shortcoming. These women don’t want to create more punitive policy, they want to build a space where their kids can feel safe and protected.

Why is it that when searching for people to run juvenile detention facilities, we favor people with military backgrounds to those with teaching or counseling backgrounds? Is it such a radical idea that we hand over leadership of our juvenile detention facilities, perhaps even all detention and corrections facilities, to those who nurture and support rather than discipline and dismiss?

I wonder.

Children of the Abyss by richard ross

By Jason Sexton

It was the end of an era. But one that must be told.

I watched it growing up in Tracy, a California prison town. Older guys would leave for prison. Bay Area rappers spoke of being brought up middle-class yet catching cases, doing “lock-down” in Preston. Fast juvenile crime and doing time earned stripes and cred for a meaningful street economics.

Racist social injustice yielded police brutality that swelled into events like the Rodney King riots. I was expelled from high school that year, my freshman year; a big gang fight.

The wider scenario everyone knew of but didn’t speak much about—someone [anyone!] would sort this out. Lock ‘em all up.

The scenario, especially in the slowly burning-over suburbs, was fueled by transient youth moving around with their families into more affordable living situations, hoping for a better life. Kids need identity, and often found it in gangs and crime. This was the tempest fueling mass juvenile incarceration during California’s 80s and 90s. CYA held over ten thousand in 1996, when I was there. Conservatively, that’s 135% capacity.

But it’s over now. Closing eleven of fifteen prisons in the past twelve years, it’s over. Kids are not held in cages, raped and abused, made to fight to survive in our prisons. Growing research continues arguing that juvenile incarceration doesn’t work. We’ve climbed out of the abyss.

 

I’m confronted with it as my children get older. They often wonder about my childhood, where I grew up, where my tattoos came from, what constituted my friendships, how I grew up.

A lot goes unspoken, but they wonder and appreciate a warm friendship I maintain with one of my former cell-mates. What is this profound friendship, easily quickened and rekindled with the depth of familial blood, or more?

Their eyes were opened December 2012. Living in England on a Cambridge postdoc, we travelled home to California for Christmas. We spent the holiday with my grandmother in Reno.

She asked if I wanted to visit the downtown art gallery and insisted I go. It was on juveniles in prison. She didn’t realize what she was asking. It’s not easy staring back into the abyss that was one’s former dwelling. But I obliged.

The gallery was more important for my own healing than I realized at the time, for which I’m profoundly grateful to Richard Ross. I took my kids, pointing out places I lived (Ventura, &c.). I wept once or twice. The gallery took me back where I hadn’t been in fourteen years. My children didn’t have words, and I had few to give them.

In my mind I go back more frequently now, teaching university courses on U.S. Institutions and Values, focusing on the prison. I teach an intensive Whittier College course on prison religion. Sometimes I write about prison.

I’ve recently been involved in discussions about the redevelopment of the oldest California juvenile prison, in Whittier, named after eugenicist Fred Nelles. I’ve taken students to it, always with a deep sour feeling in my chest, wishing I didn’t have to.

After a talk Miroslava Chavez-Garcia gave recently, a heated discussion about Nelles transpired. A former Nelles guard was asked pointedly by another audience member if he’d confirm that juveniles were abused there. Hesitating, he responded, “Not on my watch; and when I was there I didn’t tolerate it.” Then, in a flash of foolish honesty, “Nothing happened to them that they didn’t already have coming and didn’t deserve!”

My undergraduate students heard it, and were stunned. The state archivist was shocked. I wasn’t.

I recently took my twelve year old son to Whittier City Planning Commission discussions about the Nelles redevelopment. He was bored, but still wonders. He feels things about the prison, but has few words for it now. Yet his favorite author is Luis J. Rodriguez. I wonder how he will read the era of mass juvenile incarceration.

As they voted 3-2 to develop the Nelles site, one commissioner urged the acknowledgement of those who went through the system and made something of their lives. Nice idea. But we don’t know who these are. There remains a shame and stigma accompanying those who served time as juveniles, especially in their own minds, and in their families, and cities. They don’t want to be known.

We did time for things still difficult to make sense of and speak of. The number of exploding plea bargains must have been obscene (I’d love to know the number), generating endless lambs for the abattoir. This isn’t France, where once a carceral sentence is served nobody dares speak of it. Nosy Americans want to know. “What did you do?” “What were you in for?” Admitting one was incarcerated is not easy, and risky. The abyss is real. Americans love its utilitarian function for dealing with the “other.” But in this moment, should the tens of thousands of formerly incarcerated youth from the era of mass incarceration dare look? Should they come out? Perhaps they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. But they’ve been damned before.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve really climbed out of the dark era of U.S. juvenile mass incarceration. Perhaps it’s still trivial for some, perhaps for politicians, who likely won’t bring any lasting change. I worried about this recently as did someone serving life from a juvenile sentence.

The mass youth incarceration era in California has ended, they proclaim. Or at least it’s on its way out with currently under a cool thousand in the state system. After being closed a decade, the forthcoming development of Whittier’s Nelles property signals the era’s final blow. (The ballooning county juvenile carceral situation is another story.)

Hopefully the ultimate end of the juvenile prison will come sooner rather than later. Those who endured its violent clutches continue trying to make sense of it, eager to make meaningful lives after such a destructive era. And we still struggle for words to speak to our children about it.

Jason Sexton is Lecturer in the Honors Program at California State University, Fullerton. He's writing two books on the prison, one introducing the subject of the prison to an evangelical Christian audience and the other giving an interdisciplinary theological account of the incarcerated church. He can be contacted at jsexton@fullerton.edu and his other work is found here: https://fullerton.academia.edu/JasonSexton

Finally by richard ross

By Richard Ross “I was in Isolation – the longest stretch was 80 days.”, said my friend Ronald Franklin, who was held for seven years and released about six weeks ago. His call came the same day as the passage of California SB 124, a bill that finally prevents kids in detention from being held in isolation for punishment. After numerous failures the legislature passed it. Ronald was held in Florida where, as in most states, “iso” is a normal form of discipline.

During a visit last year in Santa Barbara—my hometown—I watched a girl get into a dramatic shouting match with a guard. “I don’t care—I know I’m going to do my 72 anyway. I ain’t afraid of you.” She referred to the default procedure of three days in solitary. The policy around the country can vary. It is usually dealt as 23 hours in a closed cell, without a mattress, books or any diversion. It varies. Often kids are let out for one hour of “large muscle movement.” There are few states where this is law, but it has become customary.

I experienced the mind numbing boredom of 24 hours in an isolation cell in a Midwestern detention center. It was a limited time commitment and experience. It has to drive you crazy. The noise, the concrete walls the color of spit, the smell and the harshness. Yet a few weeks ago Contra Costa County in California passed a county ordinance ending isolation, and the state passed a broader ruling. Are we at a tipping point?

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Perhaps there is a caution or a cynicism that warns me, “Will the same people running these places rename isolation to “administrative segregation?” Will there be the same practice under a different name?

Some small part of me believes that I witnessed the nadir of what we do to children who are in our care, and this is another sign of the path to better and more humane treatment of kids.

Take teenagers—who you must look at through the lens of trauma and deprivation—and when they act out lock them in a closet for hours, days or weeks. Who came up with that idea as productive treatment?

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Ronald is out. He did his time and is now enrolled in a computer technical school.

“What was that 80 days in iso like Ronald?” The normally loquacious 20-year-old went silent for a long period. “Terrible.” was the terse, concise response. He then repeated, “Terrible.” He couldn’t talk about it further. It had done too much damage.

We have damaged our children and ourselves too much by using this practice.

June 2nd, 2015 is the day that legislature was passed. Now it is critical that administrators of juvenile institutions “buy into” the idea that we can and should do better. The institutions have to be accountable, and there has to be people monitoring behavior of not only the children, but the custodians responsible for them. There will be a formal system in place. But, there also must be the will to understand that this is the current law of the land in California and it is going to be enacted in other states. Although an already sun-parched state, this is a lovely ray of sunshine in California.

Too many girls are locked up to keep them 'safe’ by richard ross

This story is also featured on the San Francisco Chronicle

 

By Richard Ross

There is a growing problem of girls and law enforcement. The problem is not the violent catastrophic deaths that have captured the news. It is the slower escalation in how we treat the girls — no less life threatening and just as destructive. This is the world of institutional destruction of girls.

We have begun to recognize that juvenile detention institutions are no place for kids. There has been real progress made in reducing the number of children held in the system. Yet the population of girls is growing. Twenty years ago, the percentage of girls in the juvenile system was about 20 percent. Today, we are closer to 30 percent. We know the way to change this equation, but we need the resolve to do so.

These girls have to be looked at through the lens of trauma and exploitation. Nothing is accomplished by putting them in hard detention units and further traumatizing a very vulnerable, already damaged, population of kids. Many of these girls come from homes of neglect and abuse. More than three-quarters of them are in need of mental health services.

I watched a well-informed attorney discussing with a dedicated Alameda County Family Law Court judge discuss the practice of putting girls involved in sex trafficking and survival sex into detention. The attorney said there was a bright line — no child involved in sexual trafficking should be in detention. The response from the judge was that she had no other place to put the girl where she would be safe. The judge didn’t want her out on the streets and at risk in her environment.

Yet, if we lock up these kids for days, weeks or months, do we have a better solution for them when they exit? The damage done to kids in these institutions is statistically documented and overwhelming. Due to higher rates of exposure to trauma among girls, post-traumatic stress symptoms can worsen as a result of juvenile justice system involvement.

I am optimistic enough to believe that if we asked ourselves as a society, “Do we want to keep girls in an unhealthy environment where they experience abuse, violence and deprivation?” our answer would be a resounding, “no.”

What should we do if we know that the support for a child for one year in California public school is approximately $8,700 while the equivalent cost of a juvenile hall bed is about $150,000?

What if the solution were pointed to as better resources in the community and the costs were shown to be equal or less? Wouldn’t we be overjoyed? And would we really want to take kids from neighborhoods with the least resources and the least political power and harm them further? I can’t imagine this is who we are.

Isn’t it time we end this cycle and begin reallocating budgets from incarceration to resources in the communities where these kids stand at least a chance of success? We are doing this wrong, and there is a way to fix it. We can and must do better.