We parked our car in the dark of winter. Swaying trees created gloomy shadows from the light of the moon on the windshield.
Inside for the first time, we relinquished our car keys along with our freedom, if only for a few hours. Locked in, we wait. Soon, 12 boys all in bright red (the color used to help spot a potential runaway), enter the auditorium flanked by two correction officers tasked with keeping them from hurting each other. Hurt boys hurt other boys.
On Tuesday, May 9 the City of Kingston police arrested two juveniles responsible for the 18-second, brutal, life-altering attack on another child. It is unknown whether the victim will sustain irreversible damage. The perpetrators will likely be locked up. Then what happens?
During the six years I taught Alvin Ailey style dance to incarcerated boys, only one insisted on telling me his crime — a violent crime against his younger sister.
“I can never go home again since my victim is in the house,” he told me. He was 14. I remember him for his sweetness, his utter willingness to succeed and the way he put his hands on his heart when he answered a question during a post performance Q&A.
That was 21 years ago. He recently found me on Facebook. It’s been a hard journey for him. He wound up serving time in adult correctional facilities.
He said, “Most of us go back because we get released to the same environment. It is difficult to succeed given poverty, joblessness, bad associations from the past, and hopelessness.”
He spent the years from 14 to 16 at the Highland Division for Youth Correctional Facility, where we met. I asked him if anyone cared about him among the staff and he answered a resounding, “Everyone cared about me!”
I was surprised. I brought my astonishment and my questions to my friend who, for the last 20 years, has taught theater to incarcerated boys.
Here is what she told me.
“It’s complicated. For many young men who are homeless or suffer within their families, do not have enough food or health care and often quit school, jail can be life saving, if only for a while.
One student who was happy to be locked up for the second time said, ’I’m back!’ He called joyfully to me when he came to class. He was 12 years old, in prison again. Who knows what sufferings he encountered on the outside.
One of my students in a max facility told me his grandmother was thrilled he was in prison because he’d be safer in there than in his community.
A homeless, mentally retarded 14 year old was placed in a youth facility because there was no alternative placement.
Eighty-five percent of youth offenders will recidivate irrespective of their initial ‘crime.’ Recidivism is extremely high, despite highly trained and caring staff and research-based programming, including positive male role models among the staff. No matter the quality of programming, once inside, a child who becomes involved in the system is likely doomed.”
One of my students who attended Yale University after his imprisonment told me, “I hate when people call me ‘exceptional’. They find it comforting to assume if I succeeded that means anyone can. Given the corrupt racism in the prison system, which is in many ways a new form of slavery, it’s a matter of luck to somehow avoid a complex stacked against you from your first breath.”
Not every person in a juvenile prison comes from a disadvantaged background. We are apt to make sweeping general suppositions that fit congruently into our political belief system rather than grapple with how confusing the realities are, how difficult it is to imagine alternatives which include those individuals who are a danger to society, are born with advantages, and those who are victims of gross injustices in our system.
Because they are teenagers, we do not know to which of these groups the two perpetrators in the Kingston High School vicious attack committed against another young man belong. We do know they need to be prevented from another act of violence.
What is the common denominator that is true for all prisoners no matter their circumstances and backgrounds? What will provide for all, no matter how challenging, a path to get out and stay out?
Since I do not have the answer, I looked on the Facebook profile of the tenderhearted 14 year old I remembered, now a 34-year-old man.
He posted two quotes on the masthead of his page. Both celebrate the power we have to alter outcomes through personal effort.
“I survived because the fire inside me burns brighter than the fire around me.”
“No one is going to save you. Get up. Become your own hero.”
The precursor to both those passionate adages is first to see your predicament, take responsibility and rise.