I was raised on these blocks
Glocks always cocked
Running from cops and slanging these rocks…
Livin’ it fast gettin’ killed young
That’s how it is when you pick up that gun.
-- "Vago” from Bernalillo County, New Mexico
in The Beat Within
Sometimes I forget not everybody's visited a prison. So let me fill you in: My friend Duc has been transferred to a particular prison in California’s Central Valley. Eleven years ago, when he was sixteen, Duc was unexpectedly caught up in an incident during which a gun was fired--not by him. No one was hit; no one injured. Duc--who had never before been in trouble with the police--was arrested, tried as an adult, and sentenced 35 years to life.
I'd never wanted to have anything to do with prisons or prisoners, but Duc was the friend of a friend and before I knew it I was writing to him and then visiting.
Now assuming his building isn’t on lockdown or under quarantine for swine flu or–as it recently was, for rhinovirus, which last time I checked was the common cold, visiting is permitted from 8:30 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays only, and it’s advisable to make an appointment which you do by requesting it two weeks in advance by calling long-distance during phone hours which are 11:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m., Monday-Wednesday. I begin to dial Monday at 11:00. Busy. I dial again. After an hour, I begin to wonder how many phone lines they’ve got for more than 5,000 inmates. I dial again. At 1:00, I think how lucky I am to be self-employed so I can actually sit at the phone for two hours straight. I dial for two hours on Tuesday. When a friendly voice answers at noon on Wednesday, I'm momentarily speechless with surprise. “All appointments are already taken,” says the voice.
I know how much a visit means to Duc and I know that one of the major factors that prevents recidivism is for a prisoner to retain family and community ties. So I set the alarm and get up early and out of the house by 5:00 a.m. to drive the three hours up the Central Valley so that I can be one of the first non-appointment visitors milling around waiting to be called. It’s been snowing. It’s cold, and I remember before he was transferred to this prison, he was in another that didn’t allow visitors to wear coats so I dress as warm as I can without a coat and take along a book to read while I'm waiting. I'm one of the first to arrive and I wait outside shivering for more than an hour, hands too cold to turn the pages of my book, until a guard comes out and hands me a numbered pass. But what’s this? There are sixty people ahead of me?
Sixty families—mostly women with babies and young children—arrived outside the prison gates at 1:00 a.m. They slept out there, in the cold, by the side of the road, bundled in blankets while traffic whooshed past. At 7:30 in the morning, a guard distributed passes. I didn’t see them when I arrived because they’d all driven the five miles to the nearest McDonald’s to wash up and brush their teeth. Now they begin to show up. A woman with a baby says she does this every weekend.
People with appointments will be let into the building at 15-minute intervals until 10:00. It’s pretty clear I won’t be called till 11:00 at the earliest so I do the logical thing: walk back to the parking lot to wait in the car. A woman stops me. If I'm caught in my car instead of outside in the cold, I will lose visiting privileges. So it's back to the crowd milling around outside, stamping feet to keep the circulation going, holding babies wrapped in blankets, keeping their toddlers and children close because any child wandering away from Mom is grounds for termination of the visit.
There's a woman who’s brought her three children to see their Daddy. She’s driven four hours and now she’s turning around to go back. The guard says she can only go inside with two and she can’t leave the third unaccompanied. No visit.
There's a woman who used to come every weekend but now it’s once a month because she can’t afford the gas.
There's a woman and her high school daughter who hopes her uncle will be out in time to see her graduate.
There's a woman who works in a hospital and can rarely get a day off on a weekend.
And I realize all the visitors are what would ordinarily be considered Good People. Please note: Convicted felons aren’t allowed to visit. These are all Good People.
At last, I'm inside, asked to sign a document stating I'm not sneezing or coughing or running a fever. I’ve brought quarters, which is all you’re allowed to bring inside for the vending machines. I’ve also brought four single dollar bills, which is the only way you’re allowed to pay for the two photographs I plan to get of me with Duc but the woman ahead of me was told she’d only be allowed to carry quarters. She doesn’t have the paper currency she needs to get a photo with her husband, so I give her two of my dollars.
I stand in line, waiting to hand over my pass. The guards behind the counter wander around. One changes money for another. They look at photos in a wallet. They talk on the phone. They don't look at me.
Finally they take my pass and tell me to wait.
When my name is called, I approach the counter. Shoes and eyeglasses and the Ziplock bag with my ID and quarters go into a bin. I go through the metal detector. My hand is stamped. I go out into the yard and stand by the control fence.
The gate opens and I walk to the building that holds my friend. I hand in the pass. I wait.
At 11:30, I'm inside the visiting room, at a table. I wait for the guards to bring him to me and I think about how many years he has been waiting for freedom. My wait is nothing.
At 12:30 he walks in. We both talk fast. We get our picture taken. A little before 3:00, they make me leave and it’s just begun to dawn on me it’s a holiday weekend. I think about traffic and I wonder how many hours it will take to get home.
As I leave the visiting room, I need to use the bathroom. It’s locked.
I’ll have to wait.
When I was a teenager, one night I and a few friends got drunk and broke into our high school. We forced open a window and the boys boosted the girls up and in. We made fabulous towers and castles by piling tables and chairs up to the ceiling of the cafeteria. We drank bottles of Beaujolais from our place on the heights. The final act of defiance was to enter the hated principal's office and steal the school's State charter off the wall.
I was known as a brain, a goody-two-shoes, the straitlaced valedictorian-to-be, and breaking the law wasn't merely fun, it was a way of proving there was more to me that that. One of the friends I broke in with had been arrested as a juvenile. His punishment consisted of visiting a probation officer from time to time who would ask him how often he masturbated. Now, decades later, we are not in touch but I understand he grew up to make a success of himself in the field of international finance (which suggests he is still a criminal).
The first time I met Duc, he expressed thanks and amazement that someone who'd never even known him before had come to his defense. Then he looked at me in bewilderment. "I'll bet you've never broken the law."
I told him about the cafeteria break-in I'd all but forgotten.
He shook his head: "I would never have had the nerve to do something like that."
For a while, I accumulated statistics: 88,137 juveniles in facilities for “delinquency,” fewer then ¼ of these cases made it onto the Violent Crime Index. The same year, 4,717 minors were committed for “status offenses.” You can skip this section if you want. blah blah blah.
Duc is Vietnamese American, the child of refugees and he grew up in poverty. My high school friends and I were white and middle class. And we did our acting out years before zero-tolerance policies and the trend of trying kids--especially kids of color--as adults. Our troublemaking, which was a normal part of adolescence, of exploring identity and growing up, could today channel us directly into the criminal justice system and a life without opportunity or hope. Or, given racial disparity, maybe not. I talk to Michael who is lightskinned and mixed: Mexican and Anglo. He tells me when he's walking down the street with white friends, there's no issue. When he's with Latino friends, they get hassled by the police.
At seventeen, a year older than Duc when he was arrested, I, too was in a car when something happened. The boy in the seat beside me rolled down the window and hollered curses and threats at a passing patrol car. The police made a U-turn and chased us down. The boy was pulled out of the car and patted down and hollered at. Me, I didn't know who made me angrier, the cops who were pigs or the boy who was an idiot. The boy--not a matter within my control--didn't have a gun.
More numbers: About two-thirds of the nation’s juvenile inmates have been diagnosed with mental illness. Might it make sense to offer them therapy instead of punishment? 200,000 American kids are prosecuted as adults every year, most of them black. A study by the Justice Department showed that 77 percent of kids sent to adult prisons were minorities. If you're white, you're more likely to be released pre-trial.
Blah blah blah.
One out of every four incarcerated Latino children is held in an adult prison or jail where they are in danger of rape, and where suicide rates for kids are much higher than in youth facilities -- for obvious reasons.
In a recent United Nations survey of 120 major cities, New York was ranked ninth most unequal in the world while some other US cities were on a par with Nairobi, Kenya and Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
I turn on the TV and hear that there are more than 250 million guns in circulation in the US, with a new gun manufactured every 10 seconds
I could repeat all the latest scientific findings about the adolescent brain.
I could tell you about the prison budget and the cuts to education and social services. About the lack of any sort of rehabilitation services behind bars--with even the free, volunteer-staffed programs being abolished. But really, I don't want to talk numbers. I want to tell you about people.
They told me Alex was illiterate.
Novelist Delauné Michel's program, Spoken Interludes Next, had sent me to lead a writing workshop for young gangbangers who'd been released from juvenile hall downtown for an alternative sentence in a therapeutic placement facility. Alex kept his head down and didn’t make eye contact. Some of the kids connected with me right away, but I couldn’t get through to Alex at all. At the end of the class, though, he suddenly looked up and said, “I wish I could talk to God.”
This kind of conversation is out of my depth, what with being an atheist, but I asked Alex what he wanted to say to God.
“I’d ask, Why did you put me here on earth?”
My heart almost stopped. It almost broke. I didn’t know what to say until I thought to ask Alex to imagine what God might say to him but his head was down again and he didn’t respond.
The next week and the next, same disconnect. He wasn’t writing anything. OK, he couldn’t write, but he wasn’t even raising his head. Then I saw his hand moving. He was drawing quick sketches and they were pretty good so I asked him to illustrate the stories the other boys were writing. His face lit up immediately and he got to work.
A friend suggested I take my laptop to Alex and ask him questions, interview him so I could type up his life story and print it out for him. He would see that he and his reality mattered and he would get to see his own story written out in words. I started with basic questions: Where was he born? Did he have brothers and sisters? Where did he live? What does he like best about himself? What would he change? How do people see you? "That I do bad, he said. "I'm a tweaker." What would he like people to say about him? "That someday I'll be a great artist like Picasso."
Wow. But it turned out Alex had never seen any of Picasso's work, even in reproductions. He only knew the man was supposed to be great.
I typed up Alex's story and brought it to him along with a book of Picasso reproductions. His turn to say Wow. As he studied a picture, his eyes wide, another boy came up behind him. "Aw, that don't even look like a person," and Alex, very excited now, began to explain the principles of cubism which I could not have done to save my life.
A couple of weeks later, Alex said he wanted to write but he didn't know how. We hit on this method: I’d ask him a question and he’d answer and repeat the answer until he had it memorized and then he’d slowly, painstakingly write it down. I didn’t care how long this took. I didn't care if the spelling and grammar were wrong. I wanted him to discover he could move words from his head to a page. He managed a paragraph.
But the last session of our program, he came running over. “God spoke to me!” and he handed me two whole pages he’d written himself, in rhyme, about being arrested and in Juvenile Hall and everything that had happened to him. His poem ends with Jesus telling him “Son, I know you made a mistake, but everyone makes mistakes, and now you’re going to be all right.”
I hope so. We live in a society that's worried about child abuse. I wasn't allowed to keep in touch with him or know his whereabouts once he was released--back to the same dangerous streets he'd come from. Back to the world of gangs, including the gang in uniform.
“Juvenile injustice,” says Kim McGill. “Let’s call it by its right name. Can I have a volunteer?”
Kim speaks to middle class audiences throughout Southern California as a lead organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition, a grassroots organization with membership and leadership drawn from young people who've been directly impacted by the criminal justice system because they or their parents or a sibling has been locked up. Now housed in a large warehouse space in Inglewood, CA, on the border with South Los Angeles (which used to be called South Central till the name was abbreviated to change--i.e., improve--the neighborhood's image), they offer their space free of charge to local organizations and schools for meetings, gallery shows, and other events. They are very visible at courthouse demonstrations but what the public rarely sees is the rest of the work: policy papers with thorough analysis and recommendations; outreach to youth through arts and recreation programs; a program of restorative justice; meetings with the Probation department and school boards; outreach to the community. Not only that. The YJC succeeded in getting a charter to run their own high school for young people ages 15-24 who'd dropped out--or been pushed out--of the regular public school system. YJC hired credentialed teachers and helped create a curriculum of standard academic subjects plus classes on social justice and community organizing.
Kim, who always seems to wear her gray zippered hoodie, waits until a neatly dressed woman comes to the front of the room. “You’ll have to excuse some of my language,” she says. “I want to make this realistic.
“Against the wall!” she shouts at the volunteer. She kicks at the woman’s ankles and shins while ordering “Spread your legs. Where’s your ID? You’re not carrying ID? Empty your pockets.” The questions and orders come rapid-fire. “Your name. What are you doing here?”
“I’m walking home,” says the woman.
“Yeah? What’s your address?”
“Burbank? You gotta be kidding me. Listen up, Burbank, what’s the address? You fucking with me? What are you doing here? I said, what the fuck are you doing here on this block?”
“I told you.”
“What’s your nickname? Your street name? Who are your friends? Pull up your shirt. Turn around.”
Kim pretends to take photographs of the woman’s back, her stomach, her arms.
“I asked your nickname. What do they call you? What do your homies call you? Are you going to answer me or are you obstructing justice?”
Kim is relentless. The volunteer more and more confused.
“OK, thanks.” Now she asks the audience, “Where did I cross the line? What did I do that was illegal.”
The answers come immediately: You can’t stop someone without probable cause. You can’t kick her. People in the US aren’t required to carry ID. You can’t search her pockets without a warrant. You can’t just start taking pictures.
Kim shakes her head. “Everything I did was entirely legal. You don’t need probable cause to stop someone on the street. What you just saw happens to kids in certain neighborhoods maybe ten times a week, just going to and from school. When the officer fills out a field interview card, that kid is automatically considered a gang member. Based on what? The clothes he wears, his race, the neighborhood he lives in. And that means, whenever there’s a crime in the neighborhood, he’s a suspect. If he ever gets arrested, even for something minor, that card means he’ll face a stiffer sentence with a gang enhancement. Once you’re in the database – and you don’t even know and your parents don’t even know that you’re in it – if the information is wrong, if you’ve never been in a gang, if you've left the gang, you have no way to challenge it or correct it."
“They force you to plead,” says the mom who waits outside the Los Angeles courtroom. Her son, she explains, was just “standing there” when a bit of teenage mischief went down. The right to a speedy trial turns out to mean nothing when you’re a juvenile, even a juvenile being tried as an adult. After almost three years in lockup, with no trial scheduled, her son agreed to plead guilty to get it over with. “Even the judge couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘They gave you a strike and a felony for that?’”
The boy's guilty plea carries a possible sentence of 11 years.
Hired by the Creative Counseling Network, I'm leading a creative arts workshop for kids in the LA County foster-care system who've been diagnosed with severe psychological problems. A tall, lanky, illiterate African American teenager tells me he'll be in prison soon: he's racked up hundreds of dollars worth of "tickets" for being late to school and being truant. He can't pay the fines, so at age 18, these tickets will turn into a warrant for his arrest and a criminal record. When I mention this to middle class parents, they laugh. Their kids have ditched school to go to the beach. Tickets? No one has heard of these. Nothing has happened to their children. Because this young man's mental condition often keeps him from understanding what is happening to him and around him, I hold onto the hope that in this, too, he's simply wrong. But then I ask Kim McGill and learn it's true, he's right.
One of the first thing that's obvious when you meet Gloria is that she is really really smart. Well spoken, eminently presentable, a leader. She grew up in the barrio. went to a tough high school. One day a boy started to push, shove, hit her in the hallways, leaving her bleeding. They both ended up in the principal's office. That afternoon, angry, Gloria got together with friends. They started drinking and their tempers rose. They went out to the street looking for the boy who'd attacked her. As if that weren't stupid enough, they went stupid one better and jumped a kid at random, taking out their frustrations and rage on him. Gloria was deemed too dangerous to remain in school. She sat for weeks, warehoused, while the school district tried to figure out what to do with her. The kids locked up in this temporary placement did nothing all day but write over and over again that they would not repeat the offense that brought them there. Kids who were already at-risk lost weeks of education. When Gloria demanded access to lessons, she was given worksheets--several grades below her own.
Fifteen going on sixteen, the boy from Sacramento gets caught with stolen hubcaps in his school backpack. Now eighteen, he's in an adult prison starting a sentence of five years.
Bryan was writing a novel when I met him. And he was lucky. Instead of keeping him in Juvenile Hall or sending him into the adult system, the court placed him in a residential treatment center. His therapist didn't like the way he escaped into books, "isolating" himself from the gangbanger peers who surrounded him. He hid his manuscript. She confiscated his books.
OK, I'm biased. Putting words on the page has always helped me think. Writing helps thought get organized. For the stigmatized kids I work with, it's a chance to say who they are instead of being labeled by others. It helps a chaotic identity get organized. Instead of facing life behind bars, a person can learn to face life.
Flashback: I'm in the South Bronx, chatting with a drug-addicted woman at the HIV/AIDS prevention program where I work. Most of the sessions are led by the very charming and funny Carl Grimes and she smiles as she talks about him. Then: "But the best part is keeping the journal. I never did that before. Now I'm supposed to take time every day to be quiet and write down what I think and what I feel. I write about my life and my choices." I nod, impressed, but surprised. Then I'm stunned by her next words: "Even if I end up infected, I will always be grateful. Keeping the journal has changed me."
Esther Altshul Helfgott wrote In the Journal of Poetry Therapy (September 2005), that the act of writing itself is a “form of ritual…that fills up space that might have been occupied by…normal mourning.” By writing narratives, traumatized people not only tell their stories, but also create evidence of their losses so that they can finally, properly grieve.
The Youth Justice Coalition members have been to more funerals than to high school graduations.
At age 13, I was obsessed with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I wanted to grow up to be a spy. At school, I carried a revolver made of cardboard and brandished it frequently. My friends and I slunk around the hallways with our weapons. We learned the Russian alphabet and scrawled it on blackboards and passed each other messages in class written in code. Today, we'd be locked up for having imagination. But I don't feel as though I had a narrow escape from zero-tolerance policies. What I feel is embarrassment. How could I be that childish?! Me, the one who'd been told since age ten she was "a very mature young lady." Duh. I was a child.
At age 13, Sara Kruzan of Riverside, CA was raped by an older man who then put her out on the street as a prostitute. Three years later, when she conspired to kill him, she was arrested by the society that had failed to protect her. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"Friskie" was even younger--twelve--when she was raped by a gangbanger in the apartment building where her family lived. “Then it was like, I felt safer being outdoors than being inside walls.” Two months after the rape, Friskie was arrested for being out on the street a block from home after curfew. She entered the system.
The Supreme Court now says juveniles can't be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole--unless they've committed murder. At a lunch meeting, I ask Dawn S. Davison, now retired as warden of the California Institution for Women, what she thinks of any child--even one who has killed--being sent away for life. When she was still warden, Davison was not allowed to express an opinion. Now she says, "Go back and look at your own life and what you were at 15 or 16 or 17 and how different you are now. It's like night and day. To say a child who commits a crime at that age is not going to change is just ludicrous."
Several months after I first met Duc, I saw him on-screen, one of the juveniles featured in Leslie Neale's eye-opening documentary, Juvies, about kids tried as adults, including one little girl I can't get out of my mind.
Mayra was convicted of shooting her best friend in the back. "I was told to kill her and there was nothing else I could do." Her sentence is life plus 25 years. On-camera, the friend, paralyzed from the waist down, explains that Mayra did what she had to do. If she hadn't done what she did, "The homies would've come back to her and her family." The best friend shows her scars. She says, "I still love her like a sister."
All I want to do is to put my arms around both girls and take them away from the streets and let them experience a world different from the only one they've ever known, where the gang offers solidarity and respect and a strict code of behavior--no matter how twisted, while outside of the gang there's insignificance and chaos.
Tedi Snyder faces a mandatory sentence of 80-years-to-life which effectively equals a sentence of life without parole. He was convicted of attempted murder for a shooting incident, when he was 15, in which someone was wounded.
I don't think it's good to shoot people. I do think kids have always had their cliques and gangs. The difference now is guns, manufactured and sold, for great profit, by adults. On the streets of too many of our cities, there's very little difference between perpetrator and victim. In some of our neighborhoods, the kids have higher rates of PTSD than soldiers returning after multiple deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. They've been dodging bullets all their lives, they've buried murdered family members and friends.
Kim McGill says we need to look at violent youth as Child Soldiers.
Early in life, Tedi watched his best friend killed. He has held a friend in his arms as the boy bled out and died. Weeks before the incident for which he was convicted, Tedi was shot in the head. His life was saved but he was discharged from the hospital with a metal plate in his head. His first "confession" was thrown out because he was still recovering from another attack in which he took a bullet to his hand and was disoriented on painkillers when questioned. Now, if Tedi were seen as a Child Soldier, we would offer him rehabilitation and education and reintegration into society. Instead, he spent more than four years in lockup, no bail, awaiting trial, and now--though he is not the one who pulled the trigger--he's being sent away for good.
Tedi's father has been deeply involved in his son's life. In a letter, he wrote: "All youth must be recognized as victims of violence and neglect, before they ever practiced violence or neglected others. I believe that the boy who shot Tedi is also a victim of this same cycle. All youth deserve the consideration that who they were at 15 is not who they are at 19, and definitely not who they are at 30. I know you understand that people can change, that people can repair the harm they cause, and that everyone can give back to their communities."
The judge has impressed me as a thoughtful and decent man, but today, mandatory minimum sentences are set by statute. The judge isn't permitted to exercise, uh, judgment. Tedi is shackled; the judge's hands are tied.
A boy named Henry waits in the hall. He says he goes through life feeling like there's a target on his back and he's not referring to the gangs. It's Society he's afraid of. He's talking about extreme sentences like the one Tedi faces. He says, "It's like an excuse to kill the youth." When a generation has reason to believe society despises them and will show no mercy, when society metes out brutal treatment, it makes a kind of sense when kids become anti-social.
I watch Mr. Snyder in the hall outside the courtroom and don't have the heart to approach. He stands trying to be stoic, but at moments he's overcome and you can see him tremble with pain. He takes off his glasses to clean them and his hands are so shaky and awkward, he knocks one of the lenses out and scrambles to get it from the floor.
I'm on an airplane, sharing the last row with a couple from Australia who tell me they've been in the US to attend a church conference. Unexpectedly, they bring up the subject of juvenile justice and say how impressed they are with the US for recognizing that young people are fundamentally different from adults and creating a system that keeps children out of the adult corrections system. In Australia today, delinquent kids get mentoring and help, they tell me, and it works. "We learned it from you," says the woman and I have to respond that, unfortunately, it's no longer the American way.
In the 1990’s, influential sociologists stigmatized youthful offenders as remorseless, "feral, presocial...superpredators," and legislators around the country rushed to pass laws to make it easier to try minors as adults and to focus on punishment and removal from society rather than rehabilitation. Today, even the loudest voice demonizing youth -- John DiIulio -- has recanted. The media continues to focus on horror stories about youth: A teenage gang member fires into a home killing a six-year-old asleep in bed. A nine-year-old fires a gun at school. A fourteen-year-old guns down two people in a Taco Bell. An 11-year-old shoots and kills his father’s pregnant girlfriend before getting on the school bus as though nothing has happened. Stories like this make the news because they are unusual and shocking, not because this is the reality for most kids.
When you hear the words "gang member," given stories like these, it's only natural to picture a teenager. But most gang violence and gang criminal enterprises are carried out by adults.
Some people always looked past the scare tactics and the headlines. David Inocencio, a social worker with the public defender's office in San Francisco's Juvenile Hall and later with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, saw these young people in a different light and founded the nonprofit organization, The Beat Within. So I went to meet him--David, with his silvery ponytail and Los Lobos t-shirt that reads Peace, ese. He and his volunteers go into juvenile halls around California and in other locations around the country where they get to know kids who are hungry for positive relationships with adults and for the chance to reveal–at times to discover–their true identities through self-expression. Most are locked up for nonviolent offenses. If some are indeed “presocial” due to the harsh conditions of their lives, the folks at The Beat believe they can be awakened to empathy and responsibility. Mentors listen and let the kids know their words matter. Never minimizing the enormity of what some of the kids have done, The Beat works with them, hoping to see transformation and a hard won maturity. Instead of writing these children off, the program gets them to write.
David's grin doesn't quit even though he hears more terrible stories in a week that most people have to face in a lifetime. He's been on a treadmill for years: leading workshops, mentoring, raising funds, training people around the country in his methods, negotiating with probation departments and publishing a weekly magazine, The Beat Within, written by kids in lockup and edited mostly by former offenders.
There’s no censorship during the writing workshops and all poems and stories are handed in under pseudonyms so no one can get in trouble. Kids often remain silent in lockup because they may be punished for any words that aren’t “positive,” but with The Beat they feel free to write exactly what’s on their minds. Their essays and reminiscences may be violent though they understand there are strict rules about what actually gets into print. Gang references, threats, foul language are edited out. Every piece in the magazine gets a written response from The Beat--sometimes words of praise and encouragement, sometimes tough love challenges.
Every week, each juvenile writer receives the magazine which means David now has to manage a print run of over 1,000 copies. Through this ongoing communication, delinquent youth feel validated by seeing their words in print and can absorb criticism in private, without feeling dissed in front of peers. They see experiences similar to their own on the page and take in how their Beat mentors react. Sometimes, it’s just a nudge in the right direction, raising a question.
When “Shawny” in Solano wrote:
Everyday I’m in a huslas mode
tryna have me some money
that’s a husla’s goal
I stay true to the game cuz it made my life change
And I aint never gone change never gone change
Neva had a job neva worked a nine to five
Neva even had a paycheck a day in my whole life
Dirty money from the streets that’s how I survive.
The Beat responded: This is good writing, with details, rhythm and metaphor. We’re not sure whether you are happy with this life, though. The way you write it, we hear no joy, no love. What if you could have that in your life—things you really value and love and enjoy? Would you betray your heart and soul for a little dirty money? You are worth more than that, but you have to believe you can have a different life.
The responses are not one-time sermons. Each child takes part in a back-and-forth correspondence through the magazine that occurs weekly and may continue for years.
It was David Inocencio who introduced me to "Friskie"--first through her writing.
The pencil and the paper
Are my best-best friends
They will always be there until the very end
They never let me down
They are my comfort when I’m sad
And they will always love me
Even when I’m bad
The paper listens
To what I have to say
I’m so lost
Help me find my way.
Friskie was an anomaly in the system: she was white. According to David, she was a favorite of the Juvenile Hall staff, a vulnerable little girl with a wisp of a voice she could barely raise above a whisper.
I keep my lips shut, she wrote,
But still have a million things to say.
She served several months for the curfew violation. Out on parole, she was arrested again almost immediately when a dirty pee test showed she’d been smoking marijuana.
When I met her in San Francisco, she told me she used to let people walk all over her and then blame herself for the hurt. She was grateful to the counselor in Juvie who helped her feel and acknowledge her anger but, she admitted, “I got released before I learned about finding a positive outlet.” She’d been fired from her waitressing job following an argument with a customer. She gave up on college after fighting with a professor.
“I kind of liked it in Juvie,” she says. “It’s really bad when you first go in. The cell looks small but I can’t explain why but it gets bigger as days go by.”
Friskie’s eyebrows are carefully plucked and her hoop earrings so solid they don’t sway when she shakes her head. She’s not happy with her hair today so it’s on top of her head instead of in her usual ponytail. And she’s frazzled. She circles back to the window to check on the car she’s parked on the street. The window is broken which may be a bad sign: when Friskie is upset, she’s the first to admit that she likes to shatter glass.
“I’m glad I can actually be angry.” Even when she talks about anger, her face is impassive, her affect flat. When the people around her laugh, she follows suit and makes a laugh come out too.
“Maybe I’ve blocked a lot out,” she says as she searches for good memories of childhood. She remembers how she used to dream of being an interior decorator. She believes she would have been good at it. "Once, in Macy's, when I was about six, the sales guy actually listened to me and took my advice.” It was all I ever wanted. In lockup she gave up thinking about it, she says, by the time she was fourteen.
Friskie did her time not only in Juvenile Hall but in the California Youth Authority, the prison for youth that is ordinarily reserved for the most violent and dangerous young offenders. When a court ordered that nonviolent offenders be returned to Juvenile Hall, Friskie was among those sent back. It should have been better for her, but it wasn’t. “You get gate money when you get out of CYA,” she explains. “You don’t get anything when you leave Juvenile Hall." When she turned 18, "They just showed me the door.”
Whatever progress she'd made went for nothing. Her family didn’t want her back. Friskie had no job, not a penny in her pocket and no place to go. Within two days, she’d hooked up with a gang member and moved in with him. She looks down at her hands. “I’m prison bound. It’s kind of inevitable.” Then she goes to the window to check on the car. Turns out it isn’t precisely hers and while she does know the owner, he doesn’t precisely know she’s borrowed it.
Today, the girl I'm talking to in Juvenile Hall is vague and glassy-eyed. Is it that easy to smuggle in drugs? But then the meds cart is wheeled in and girls come out of the showers in their bathrobes, they come out of their cells, they get up from the table where we sit talking. They line up for their pills.
"I couldn't work in a place like this," says a visitor. "Eight hours a day under fluorescent lights?" Dim fluorescent lights. That seems like the least of it to me, but as the day goes on, my head aches. I feel submerged.
David Inocencio remembers visiting a CYA facility where to punish a kid, “they’d strip him naked and leave him in a cell with a hole in the ground for a toilet. He’d have to earn the privilege of clothing through good behavior, though I don’t know how you show good behavior when you’re left naked in an empty cell.” He hopes and believes conditions have improved, but even today something as basic as permission to use the bathroom can become an issue for kids who live in cells without toilets.
In a California juvenile hall, a young man tells me of his fear of being returned to the remote Fouts Springs boot camp. A county grand jury is required to visit that facility periodically to assess conditions. The 2004-2005 report made no mention of how the juveniles were treated but stressed it would be more economically viable for Fouts to house more of them. The grand jury urged the county to be more “proactive” in getting wards assigned there by the courts.
Juvie should be a safe place, an alternative to the world that did so much damage to Mayra and her best friend. Instead juvenile hall and probation camp too often end up being what Kruti Parekh of the Youth Justice Coalition describes as "an incubator of violence and racism that feeds back into the community."
From Connie Rice, the civil rights attorney at the Advancement Project and author of a major study on gang violence prevention and intervention, I heard about a boy in probation camp who was jumped--against his will--into a gang. When he was released back to his neighborhood, no one warned his parents. No one watched out for him. The gang ordered him to complete his initiation. He said no. He refused a second time. The third time he said no, the gang sent a message by putting a bullet in his little brother's head.
Sometimes the system works as it's supposed to.
“Juvie was one of the happiest times in my teenage life," a young man told me, successful now in the free world. "When I was on the street, I was so busy hustling, getting into trouble and fights, trying to make a name for myself I never had time to sit down and play checkers or play chess. I’m sorry to say that’s where I had a real childhood--in Juvie.”
In the high school cafeteria I felt so gloriously, blissfully high. There is pleasure in crime.
Allan, a former juvenile offender, is grateful to a program that took him on field trips to show him a world of possibilities undreamed of by him no matter how obvious they will seem to most. For the first time, he enjoyed camping, swimming, taking a girl to the movies. "You need programs that get you to feel comfortable about leaving the neighborhood, like it's OK to go out there."
I meet kids in LA who live 5-6 miles from the Pacific and have never seen the beach. They are considered sophisticated criminals when in fact they are sheltered--not from violence or substance abuse or poverty, but from what most Americans consider ordinary daily life.
Most of the kids locked up in the US today are where they are for nonviolent offenses. But there are others. I know the look in a troubled kid's eyes, all that vulnerability, that tentative hope. I melt, and then sometimes I freeze. It chills me to the bone when they tell me what they've done.
Today a few boys are complaining they won't be able to spend Christmas at home with their families. Derek, who's been bright and eager as a puppy dog, participating in class, turns quiet. "I did something really bad," he says. "I'll never spend Christmas with my family again."
Something really bad. Derek has probably killed someone. Or some ones.
One day I tell a classroom full of adjudicated gang members about an old friend of mine, a Vietnam vet, who receives VA disability checks due to his PTSD. He recently told me that his condition comes with another benefit: that he doesn't feel anything. Nothing reaches him, he has no feelings, but he added that he loves his wife. "How can you have no feelings and still love someone?" I asked.
For the first time, all the boys were anxious to participate. "Miss, I can explain that!" "Miss, I know!" "Miss, let me tell you!"
"After what I been through and what I seen," said one young man, "I don't feel nothing and I don't care about no one. But I love my mother."
When I repeat this to Connie Rice, she's not surprised. Their mother, she says, "is probably the only one who ever gave them unconditional love, and that bond happened before they were damaged."
A young man named Omar, who is trying to stay on the right path, says that rec halls and youth programs didn’t keep him out of trouble. “Someone’s always saying you can’t come in. You can’t dress like that.” Among his fondest childhood memories are the days he would go to a friend’s house. “His Mom was always there. Are you hungry? Let me fix you something. She didn’t care how you looked or how you dressed. You were welcome. That’s what you want. You want a home. To feel at home.”
When Donald Blevins accepted the position of chief of Los Angeles probation and came to town to reform a department infamous for abusing rather than serving the young people in its care, Connie Rice offered him heartfelt thanks--and condolences.
“Pure Dragon,” comes up the stairs to meet me, dressed in black slacks, a black dress shirt, and white silk tie. He’s a slender young man, neat short haircut and a sober demeanor that would make him look serious even in jeans. “I like to present myself as a professional, a businessman,” he says, “not like someone with no education.”
Years ago, he wrote:
There was a very good lil boy who came to the US with his mom at the age of seven.
Pure Dragon’s father, an American citizen as was his father before him, returned to China to find a bride. The marriage took place in Canton where the little dragon was born, but seven years passed before wife and child were granted entry into the US. The little boy who remembers you could not get into the schoolroom in China if you weren’t wearing your little red scarf arrived in San Francisco's Chinatown speaking no English except for some pop song lyrics he didn’t understand.
By the time he entered his teen years, he was angry at being shunned for his accent and broken English, at not having the shoes and clothes and toys that other kids had. Pure Dragon began to steal. He’d once loved school, but now he stopped going to class. “I got to middle school knowing I was different from other people. I talked different. It makes you feel that you can’t be part of it, part of the normal American lifestyle.” No one questioned his absence. No truant officer looked for him or spoke to his parents. “It should be their job to do that, to ask why isn’t this kid in school? I mean you see that happen in movies,” he says.
He hustled, selling drugs. He stayed out all night. He thought this was what Americans meant by "freedom." One day he got a scare: “I saw a close homeboy of mine die. He was shot in the arcade. I was in the bathroom. When I heard the shots I thought it was fireworks. Then somebody was knocking on the bathroom door telling me to come out. My homeboy was lying there in a puddle of blood.” At the funeral, when he saw the sad and broken parents, it woke him up to the reality of what he was doing and where he was headed. “There’s a saying in Chinese: You living the gang life, you already have one foot in jail and one foot in the grave.” For months, Pure Dragon stayed home and avoided the gang and criminal activity. But fear was a deterrent for only so long.
In 1998, the good little boy, now 16 years old, was present at a Chinatown shooting spree that left six teenagers wounded. “In the back of my head I kind of knew what was going to happen,” he told me quietly. “We didn’t expect it to happen, we didn’t plan it, but then Bam! It happened.” The incident outraged the community even more than usual because it took place in a playground. The shooter fled. Pure Dragon, his gang associate, was arrested at the scene.
He was lucky--unlike Duc, unlike Tedi. His case was kept in the juvenile, not adult, system. He was sentenced to eight years and served four, with time off for good behavior. He was paroled on February 2002 and unlike Friskie, he had somewhere to go.
His mother was there for him. Wanting him to feel like an independent adult, she rented him his own place until he could get on his feet.
Pure Dragon has not been in any trouble since his release in 2002. He severed all gang ties. The Beat gave him a paid internship where he worked at writing, editing, and facilitating workshops. At the same time, he graduated college and in addition took whatever low-paid temp jobs came his way. “I’ve been a pizza boy, I’ve been a valet. You name it.” Without an adult criminal record to haunt him and deter employers, he landed a fulltime position as Operations Agent for a global logistics company that does about $5.2 billion in business a year. He was soon promoted to Lead Operations Agent and proved himself so capable he was called on to rush down to Los Angeles to straighten things out when a problem arose. He was soon promoted again, to Air Export Operations Supervisor. So there he was, in front of me, smiling, confident, successful, responsible, a solid citizen planning his wedding--a small private ceremony in Lake Tahoe to be followed by a big Chinatown banquet.
I was happy for him.
Who were the people who decided I could not be happy like this for Tedi or for Duc?
(Legislators? District Attorneys? Journalists? Voters?)
Parole Board? Eighty years from now, when Tedi Synder is 100 years old and gets his first parole hearing, if the commissioners behave then as they do now, the best way to describe them is through the boilerplate language they use when they automatically say no: they lack insight, they express no remorse.
I go to a Beat Within writing workshop with another Kim I admire. This one is Kim Nelson, a program volunteer who has been developing a template that can be adapted for different sorts of therapeutic writing. She's also a published poet who's been working on a novel but for over a decade she’s been more interested in teaching young people than creating her own body of work. She also brings personal experience to her work with kids in lockup. She’s mindful of how suddenly and unexpectedly a young person can get in trouble with the law.
Almost twenty years ago, Kim had returned to her hometown of Santa Cruz, California after graduating college in New York City. Out late one night with a friend, he was pulling into her driveway when a police car approached and the officers ordered him out of the car. As a Columbia University graduate who knew her rights, Kim demanded to know what was going on.
The rookie cop mimicked her in falsetto, “I just want to know what’s going on.”
Apparently due only to the late hour, her friend was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, a charge that was proved false after a breathalyzer test. While he was handcuffed against the car, Kim tried to go to him and was immediately thrown to the ground. The two officers stood on her body, threatening to break her arms if she resisted. She was handcuffed and arrested too.
By the time she appeared in court, she’d been fired from her job because of the arrest. The District Attorney called her a menace to society and asked that she be sentenced to six months in a women’s prison. The judge shook his head. “So you’re a poet,” he said and sentenced her to 60 hours of community service teaching poetry in a local high school. As soon as she completed her sentence, the principal offered her a job. Through California Poets in the Schools and other organizations, Kim has been teaching ever since.
Every week, The Beat hands out a topic sheet with questions for group discussion before the kids start to write. This week, Kim hands out these suggestions:
What money can’t fix- We always read about chasing that paper, stacking your chips, getting your “chedda.” But are there things that money can’t fix? Like what? Even if you had all the money you thought you wanted or needed, would there still be things that aren’t working for you, that some other remedy is needed to fix? Tell The Beat some of the things that you believe money can’t fix. Are some of these things part of your life, and if so how are you planning to overcome them and put them behind you?
If you were your parent- At times, all of us get angry with our parents. But parenting is a hard job. So if you were your own parent, what would you do that’s different? How would you be a different kind of parent? Or, if you think your parent is doing just the right thing now, what makes that the right way? As your own parent, how would you deal with the person you are today to keep yourself safe and put you on the right path?
A very young curly-headed boy gets Kim’s full attention. He says he can’t sleep at night. He always feels watched. He’s always afraid. Whether in Juvie, or later when he gets out, he fears retribution for the crime that brought him here. He can’t think, he can’t imagine a future because, he says, he doesn’t think he has one. He is so young and so scared and he looks so much like her own nine-year-old son, Eli, Kim can’t leave his side.
Kim shows me a photo of her son. Yes, they could be brothers. They could almost be twins.
For Duc, the years go by. He's been beaten, stabbed, kept in mind-destroying solitary for a year basically for his own protection. He's been shackled to a hospital bed for months and suffered permanent damage from a disease contracted in the prison's unhealthy conditions.
The first time we met he said "If I ever get out of here, I don't want one of those welcome home parties. I'll go to the Buddhist temple for a cleansing ceremony."
A few years later, he said, "If I ever get out of here, I'm going to need therapy. You don't see the things I've seen without needing help." In a whisper, he told what haunted him most: trying to intervene, and failing, then watching as a teenager arrested for a minor drug offense was beaten unconscious and rolled under a bunk by other prisoners.
After ten years in prison, he said, "If I ever get out of here, I'm going to get into some kind of transitional housing." He has been behind bars since the age of sixteen. "I've never had to pay rent or utilities. Or go on job interviews. Or balance a checkbook. I've never lived in the world as an adult."
Kim Nelson takes her son Eli to basketball practice at a neighborhood church and today he asks if a friend can come along. She carries with her the week’s writing from her workshop so she can edit what the kids have given her before anything goes into print. In a little side room off the gym she reads the latest from “Stunkey.”
Why these fools trying to test me stress me to the point im homicidal
The word “homicidal” has to go.
don’t they recognize its nothing new when it comes to deafening my title. My block is what matters and my homeboys. Start disrespecting we having problems. What goes on in my town stays in my town. I’m from VACAVILLE it’s real out there. Crime scenes everyday. I’m going crazy in my mind think what da eff going on. I should be in my town riding around. Don’t like to mess around. You can talk the funk. But aint ready to chunk em. You can c me today tomorrow or next year but nothing changing with me. I don’t back down I stand tall. Never give up on my lifestyle. Diz iz what it was meant to be.
Dis is, she writes. By now, it’s as though she’s bilingual. Kim knows it’s a
gang thing to use z instead of s.
Don’t want nothing fancy. Just the homeboyz loyalty. No change just the same person since 7th grade. Aint in it for the fame, just who I am born and raised. You can send me to jail but I’m not going 2 frown. Proud to be who I am Hope my mama understands. Sent here to kill so u better chill. Say something to my homeboy better start running. Just giving you heads up. I’m about my stuff. I’m about to bounce. To all the homeboyz stand tall we never falling.
She looks at it again. A lot more has to go: eff, riding, homeboyz, sent here to kill so u better chill. Say something to my homeboy better start running. Just giving you heads up I’m about my stuff. Homeboyz. Oh, Stunkey, it’s the same old stuff. It’s like he want her to see, like he’s saying Try and stop me.
Once the practice drills end, she sits in the bleachers to watch the game.
Afterward, the coach tells Eli to run laps, a punishment for not paying attention. She feels a clutch in her heart as her son’s friend steps onto the court and runs alongside, just to keep him company. Loyalty is such a treasure. The kids in gangs are right to know its value, even though their loyalties are so misplaced.
The kids run around and around and she keeps thinking of Stunkey whose situation is circular too. He turns to the gang because his family gave up on him, but they gave up on him because of the gang. She writes back to him in words much like those she’s used so many times before.
When you say you hope your Mama understands what do you mean? Do you hope she understands that you have put your block before your own life, freedom, her needs and your future? How could she understand that? We don’t think she’d agree that you should give up everything for the block.
Eli has one more lap to go. Kim smiles encouragement as he comes around the gym toward her, his loyal friend keeping pace beside him.
Duc doesn't use profanity or prison slang. He tries to keep prison-thinking from taking hold in his mind so bad habits won't stand in his way if he ever gets out. He tells me, "In prison, you learn to be very polite. If someone bumps into you, or disrespects you, if they don't apologize right away, you know they're coming after you. You have to defend yourself. So some guys once they get out, they react as soon as someone cuts them off on the road, or anything. I just keep reminding myself you can't take it personally when people in the free world are rude."
When I was an adolescent, we didn't have guns. But we did have bullies. I know what it's like to walk to school afraid. I was never physically harmed, but I was terrified when boys followed me and threatened me. Can't we move to another neighborhood? I kept asking my parents. Can't I please please please go to a different school? There were the girls who kept beating up my friend, the only Filipina in an almost lily-white neighborhood. (The guidance counselor at school said it was a peer problem that we had to solve ourselves.) The same girl gang ambushed my best friend and tore up her books and homework. I would gladly have seen all these "bad" kids sent away for good.
One of the scariest girls, Mary, had a last name that started with an L and so one year in high school, in homeroom, she was assigned the seat behind mine. I kept expecting a knife in my back. But one day, the teacher gone, we started talking. She asked for help. She was supposed to hand in an essay and she had no idea how to go about writing it. She talked and I wrote down what she told me, about being expelled from Catholic school for her behavior, about trying to adjust to public school when everyone already knew she was bad, about how she wished things could be different. I handed her the page, she copied it over, and got in trouble for what the teacher determined immediately was not her work. When the teacher demanded to know who had helped her cheat, Mary didn't snitch.
I should have given myself up. I should have told that teacher that every word, every thought, every idea was Mary's and she deserved some credit for that. Maybe then she, like Alex, would have taken the next step and written her next essay on her own.
We built our forts and castles in the school cafeteria. Just wait till they come in tomorrow morning and see this! Now I realize they equaled the school custodian who was stuck with getting all the furniture back where it belonged before the bell.
Some of my high school friends were arrested for smoking pot, but the most violent boys were untouchable. One day on the bleachers, a gang of them beat a kid from my crowd unconscious and left him with severe internal injuries. They faced no consequences. I remember the adults who explained in rational tones that the attack was understandable because the victim appeared to be effeminate. He'd provoked the gang's hatred by wearing his hair long and carrying a daffodil to symbolize peace.
Those monsters. Though I knew nothing about them or about their lives, I wished them dead. Even prison was too good for them. At the very least, I thought, lock 'em up and throw away the key. As for the bigoted authorities who chose to look the other way? I seethed with the desire for revenge.
Those were the responses of a teenager. The thinking of an adolescent brain. Like the kids I'm writing about, I'm a different person now than I was then.
* * * * *
Update: As one of his last acts before leaving office, Arnold Schwarzenegger reduced Sara Kruzan's sentence so that instead of serving life without any possibility of parole, she will be eligible after 25 years. Based on past actions of the parole board, this does not mean she'll ever be free.