Walk with the young, America;
be young, again, America,
among the defiant and awake,
solid in their dreams.
Be the revolution in the marrow
where passions, ideals, fervors,
purpose and courage,
are not just qualities
people had in history books,
but what we have to possess everyday,
any time repression, injustice,
fear, and greed
gather like night riders
preparing to gallop
through our living rooms.
For over 35 years, I’ve done talks, readings, and/or writing and healing workshops in prisons and juvenile lockups throughout the country. In California I’ve been to juvenile halls and probations camps up and down the state as well as adult prisons like San Quentin, Soledad, Folsom, Lancaster, and Chino. These are some of my best audiences, with powerful insights, poetry, and stories arising from men and women whom most of society has written off.
I can’t and won’t dismiss any prisoner’s capacity to dream, to renew themselves, to restore and transform their lives and that of their communities. Every human being needs to be given a chance to live, to grow, providing they are armed with adequate tools, education, drug and mental treatment, and other resources. Providing they enter a space that embraces this and their personal gifts. Only recently has rehabilitation become an integral part of prison life. For decades it was not. And even now it’s not enough.
Across the past decades, I witnessed the increasing inhumanity of courts handing out longer and longer sentences, the enactment of three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws, gang and gun enhancements, gang injunctions, and removing indeterminate sentences.
As we added more laws, we made more lawlessness.
In the early 1970s, California had some 15,000 prisoners in 15 prisons. Now with 34 prisons, at its height the population went upwards of 175,000. The current state prison budget of $10.5 billion is more than the state's share of the University of California system's budget.
Under the political climate of “tough on crime,” I saw viable programs get eliminated all over the United States, including educational ones. My oldest son Ramiro was one of those who suffered for such cuts when he served almost 15 years in Illinois prisons (he’s now been out for six years and is nonetheless gang-free, and drug-free—mostly due to his own heroic efforts).
Still, one of the most detrimental of such laws has been the trying of youth as adults, even children as young as 10.
Not long ago, I took part in a poetry reading at the Barry Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, five minutes from my home and now the largest juvenile lockup in North America. I was invited to speak, sponsored by the Inside Out writing program. Many juvenile wards read their poetry, including a baby-faced Mexican-Guatemalan of 14 years. His mother and grandmother were in the audience, pride on their faces.
Although I never ask why these youth are behind bars, in this instance a staff member wanted me to know—this particular young man was facing 135 years in prison. This to me, in the so-called free and democratic United States of America, is unacceptable.
Here or anywhere.
A new book I’ve recently “blurbed” for publication later this year is a meticulously researched argument against such laws and practices. Written by prison drama facilitator Jean Trounstine, Boy with a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice (IG Publications, New York), retells the harrowing true story of a poor white youth, Karter Kane Reed, who at 16 was arrested for murder. Tried as an adult, he received a life sentence, with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Reed, after 20 years behind bars, became one of a few who sued the Massachusetts Parole Board to win his freedom.
This fall, in California, there may be more than one initiative to reform the state’s bloated and largely failed prison system. Governor Jerry Brown has proposed an initiative to end determinate sentences, something he championed in his first round of governor during the 1970s. The Governor now recognizes the danger of such sentences that don’t allow for early release due to good behavior or proven rehabilitation. Nonviolent felons will now have the possibility of parole hearings and early releases. I support any such changes, anything that begins to tear away at the punishment-driven mass incarceration of mostly poor and working class people, disproportionately from communities of color.
We must also do all we can to reverse adult sentences for youth criminals. Why do we treat youths as adults in crimes when they are not treated that way in anything else? In every young person, even with horrendous mistakes, is the seed of a new world, of the future, as we often point out, but mostly fail to live up to.
Every mistake can be a new style; every trouble can make for a healthy and whole life. Instead of “scared straight,” we should try cared straight.
Trounstine points out that every year in the U.S. around a quarter of a million youth are tried, sentenced, or imprisoned as adults. I also witnessed the increasing number of troubled youth being thrown away, abused, and in too many cases, prepared as higher-end criminals, all at taxpayers’ expense. Read Trounstine’s book and take action.
Anybody can change. Anybody can be saved. It’s time our laws and justice systems aligned to this moral and biological fact.