For several years, I have been advocating for social justice, criminal justice, and juvenile justice reform. Even in the midst of retaliation and blatant oppression, I have decided to rise up and speak up! I have spent most of my life in what many call the system … and what I call a broken system that steals children and robs them of their innocence and joy.
Before Prison Bars
At the age of 8, I was placed in Child Protective Services. I was promised that I would be taken care of and that I would have a better life. I was told that I would not be like the other people in my community who had succumbed to violence and criminal activity. I was assured that I would receive help for my past hurt and the abuse I had suffered. Nevertheless, these promises and assurances were broken when the people who were supposed to love me turned into my abusers, and the people who had made the promises began to ignore my cries for help and allowed the abuse to take place. It was during those times when I first found myself as a victim of the system.
Within a year, I had gone through more than fifteen placements and experienced a lifestyle that no child should be exposed to. I began acting out and experiencing mental health issues. I can remember my foster parents locking me in the basement and kicking me out of the house when they felt they could not deal with me, and also instructing their own children to stay away from me. Eventually, I was sent to psychiatrists who gave me several diagnoses and prescribed me with medication that carried significant side effects, including damage to my kidneys. I recall my father once demanding that I be taken off the medication when I was unresponsive in his presence and constantly drooling. I learned very early in this system that psychotropic medication is often given to children as a way of controlling and silencing them.
At the age of 16, I was moved to another section of the system, the section I call Modern Day Slavery. I was sentenced to thirty years as an adult and sent to a New Jersey adult prison, where I have been housed with violent adult offenders and treated like an adult. Being young made me a target for gangs looking to recruit youth as well as correctional officers looking to abuse youth.
What I Have Learned
During my incarceration, I have discovered that this broken system is a vicious cycle of youth being moved from foster homes, to juvenile justice programs, and then to adult prison with serious sentences. Some of these youth were as young as fifteen years old and deeply involved with gangs; when in prison, the only thing some of them seemed to be doing was improving their criminal skills; prison has become “higher education” for criminals. There were no programs made for youth, and the adult programs consisted of instructors just pushing the inmates through, without making sure they really received and understood the program.
Within two months of my incarceration I was subjected to solitary confinement. During my stay in solitary, I made the choice to begin transforming myself. I decided that I could promise myself everything Child Protective Services had promised me, and I could undertake my own rehabilitation.
As I began attempting to raise awareness, I realized that I was not just advocating for myself, I was speaking for others who could not properly speak up for themselves. I quickly learned that the system had very little sympathy or compassion for youth and could really care less about their childhood trauma and mental health history.
Today, I am 22 years old and have been subjected to solitary confinement for advocating. The same system that is supposed to correct me and my behavior has participated in misconduct and retaliation against me. I have been placed in a special cell that was built with steel plates on the door to prevent me from communicating with others. I have been placed on a status where I am prohibited from talking to any staff without the presence of a custody supervisor.
I have been told that no one cares about what is happening in these prisons and that nothing will be done. I was once told by an older prisoner: “You are not just fighting a broken system … you are fighting a system that was built to work against you.” Many times I have wondered: what if this system is purposely ignoring the abuse and mistreatment of those within? What if this system is actually made to have high recidivism rates?
Today I speak from my heart and to all those who breathe the same air I breathe. This system is doing everything but correcting individuals who are committed to its custody. This system is oppressing and retaliating against individuals who stand up and speak up. This system is destroying lives, homes, communities, and youth. This system is creating its own monsters and releasing them back into communities, knowing they are not stable or prepared for release. Who is left footing the bill? Taxpayers and the victims of the crimes being committed!
Speaking as an advocate, I don’t know how many more killings, shootings, and acts of violence it will take for the public to realize that this system is failing us. There is a mentality instilled in correctional officers when they are being trained: of “us vs. them.” It is this mentality that allows officers to knock teeth out of an inmate’s mouth and not be punished. It is this mentality that allows officers to sexually assault inmates. It is this mentality that allows prison officials to sanction me to more than six hundred days of solitary confinement and to act in ways that can only be compared to slavery. It is time for the public to get concerned, because this mentality is now spreading to the youth, who look at all law enforcement with this same idea of “us vs. them.” I beg, I cry, that you speak up!