Saturday, March 28, 2009

Youth In Prison: The Waste of a Whole Generation

In shock and grief, Oakland faced the death of 4 police officers with 20,000 mourners at the Oakland Coliseum. The bagpipes mournful call with the view of 1000's of raised white gloved arms saluting the caskets was shocking as the four caskets were brought in with the families following each casket. Clearly these were fine irreplaceable officers, husbands, fathers and sons. Not two hours later, on talk radio 560, the savage voice raged that the fault of this whole incident lay at the hands of the liberals. He raged that shoot now, ask questions later should be the policy after these policeman were gunned down.

Today I sat with a very small group looking at the other victim of this carnage. The young man who with his 10th grade education in special education classes who had not met with his parole officer and was so desperate to avoid going back to the jail where he had spent 2-4 years that he shot the two officers who came to his car for a traffic stop, then blasted through a door with a AK47 two other officers. Waiting all week for this scheduled meeting this morning since it offered a discussion about youth in prison, the Books Not Bars meeting did connect with the most recent events.

In the room, there were young men on probation having found their way, there were mothers who had gone step by step through the process with their 16 year old, or their 12 year old through their prison experience. One woman said her son had spent the last seven months in solitary at the age of 17, then was released and soon had broken the rules of his probation again, and now at 25 was beginning to comprehend the tragedy of his situation. She expressed her strong belief that all youth should be tried as youth until the age of 25, and that being thrown into a cell the early part of their lives has the effect of being a person less able to function in the world once he gets out.  As one young man said-hey, I was in jail at 12 and when I got out at 19, I was still a twelve year old; he reflected the fact that once a youth is in the system, for every infraction:  wrong attitude, didn't pick up the tray quick enough or whatever, time can be added to the term of his sentence.  The guards do not as is the case with adult offenders have to get approval or bring recommendations to any other authority other than their own.  Add Ons-adding months or years on a sentence by a court to a youth offender,  as they are called keep youth in jail, untrained, unskilled and under their probation terms they cannot relate with others who have been in jail.  And guess what we're all paying for this laying to waste of young men, black, spanish or white, both the cost of their extended stays and for their return to society, untrained, unskilled - their young bodies and minds in holding pattern from which they have neither the experience or the expectation to be found or find their way the benefits of personhood.  Books not Bars is going to Sacramento in May to bring about a bill that will stop the unilateral  unstructured and often self perpetuating system that kills the body and the soul of youth in prison.  Many of those present were planning to go.

Here's what it was like for one of the moms present.  For Lynn, a phone call from the police that they had her 14 year old on a assault charge:  her son had taken a gun to school to deal with a bully and the gun went off grazing the boys thigh when he came after the kid.  Lynn's mother was the first black police woman in San Francisco, and she couldn't have been more taken by surprise.  She expressed it as - as a mom, you just do what you can do, everything you can think of doing to get to your child what you can to support them.  She got in there and presented herself to the guards and staff and did what it took to have a regularly pleasant interaction with them every time out so they knew her and they knew her son- that made a big difference.  She was invited to be part of the parents group and they actually together and presented some changes to  benefit the conditions of the prison.  She said as much as she invested in knowing what was happening for her son and other prisoners, they only knew about 20% of the actual experience for them. But out on parole is the most dangerous time, the mothers all agreed.  The meeting had skits to demonstrate how the mothers could assist their sons to stay within the guidelines and how to relate to the probation officers;  the ability to manage probation one mom said is basically by keeping them home and helping them get work. Keeping them out of trouble taking very seriously the parole officers authority and keeping the rules as the first priority is the task at hand.

But back to Lovelle Mixon, a man on parole who was so desperate not to go to jail or deal with his parole officer that he committed a murder suicide.  Really that's what it amounts to.  The tragedy of murder suicide is the muffled cry in the night in the wealthiest of suburbs , Cupertino, Fremont, San Francisco just in this year alone.  How is it that a job loss, a relationship betrayal or loss in the suburbs, and a desparate young man turn to guns and not other human beings? Guns are not the answer, Books not Bars is looking from all sides to see what is.  One young man at the meeting said that when his mother was killed by the police when he was ten, he was sent to a community house that everyone in the room recognized the name of and there were approving, "ohh, that was good" throughout the room.  "Yes," he said, "they just kept being nice to me, every day all day and I was angry every day, but they kept being nice to me and that helped me remember who I was."    


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