Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Youth Defy the Stigma of Incarceration

Photo by: Richard Ross

By Adwoa Masozi 

Four men were on the panel. Three of them were young, in either their late teens or freshly 20s, with faces that gave little hint of the stony roads they’ve traveled. The fourth man was the moderator; he, too, was young, but new-age young, you know, mid to upper 30s. Educated, credentialed, possessing a polished tongue and natural wit with the audience. All these men were African American, and playing out before me was the “nearly 1 in 3 Black men will spend time in prison in their lifetime” statistic referenced in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. I cringed at the realization, but more so at knowing it doesn’t have to -- and shouldn’t be this way.

“I didn’t know difference between my needs and my wants …” Michael Kemp, one of the youth presenters, said this of his mind set prior to the arrest that led to him being placed in an adult facility in the Midwest, further estranging him from his family and community. Of that experience he said, “…Coming out of prison leaves you feeling like you need to protect yourself. It puts you in a survival mode instead of getting yourself together.” The expressions of the other young men grew more solemn and they gave nods to Michael as he spoke. I think this is a truth that they all shared.

The panel took place during the First Annual Justice for Youth Summit, a conference organized by the Campaign for Youth Justice. The panel, “Straight from Us,” was aimed to give the three young men a platform to speak about their experience in the District of Columbia's juvenile justice system.  Since that experience, each of speakers have been able to turn their lives around through finding employment, and becoming peer-mentors and youth leaders in Free Minds Book Club and the FREE project, which offers tools to help justice-involved youth begin to understand and grow from their experience even before they leave prison. Michael and the two other youth presenters have made it their goal to inspire others to stay focused and commit to achieving their dreams in spite of the post-incarceration stigmas they bear in our society.

This was a great opportunity for those of us wanting to hear first-hand accounts from youth who have been directly involved with the justice system. The reactive and highly punitive system doesn’t work, because it is incapable to responding to the complex set of needs (mental, emotional, developmental) of the children involved in it. It absolves us from our responsibility to ensuring the collective wellness of all the children in our society. If we can have community co-ops, civic associations to make sure potholes are filled and that there are enough parks, dog parks, and petition for bicycle lanes and have bike shares, then why not also take proactive responsibility for making sure all of our kids are safe and have a chance to live their lives in freedom and productively?

Today marks the end of October's National Youth Justice Awareness month but our work continues raising public awareness and understanding of the issues facing youth involved in the criminal justice system. In November the Justice Policy Institute will release its fourth and last report in a D.C.-focused series examining education, employment, mental health and child welfare.

Adwoa Masozi is the Communications Associate for JPI.

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