I have been told that writing this essay would be a waste of my time. I do not believe this; as an advocate and just a human, I believe that people must care about these issues. I can only ask that you read this essay in full.
I am currently twenty-four years young, and I was charged as an adult at the age of sixteen. I was misled into taking a deal that involved me spending the next 25 years of my life in prison. Today, I write on behalf of thousands of young people who have been sentenced as adults for crimes they committed when they were juveniles. I am writing this because of the recent bills being sponsored regarding juvenile justice.
I have been incarcerated for almost seven years now. But I am part of a terrible cycle within the foster care and prison systems that began long before that. At the age of 9, I was sent to Child Protective Services and eventually went through more than fifteen different foster homes and nine different residential programs, and I was hospitalized for mental health reasons. None of this was considered when I was charged and sentenced as an adult.
Today, I write on behalf of thousands of young people who have been sentenced as adults for crimes they committed when they were juveniles.
In the state of New Jersey, there are no second chances for people like me, adults who were juveniles at the time of their offenses. Lately, I have heard people beginning to talk about reducing incarceration rates and improving prison conditions, but I do not hear anyone talking about the fact that thousands of us are in the adult prison system, having been “waived up,” charged as adults when we were juveniles, and sentenced to state prison. The majority of those who have been treated this way are young people of color. I would like to bring this issue to the attention of legislators in the hopes that a panel or committee might be put together to come up with a solution.
In this essay, I would like to explore this issue in greater depth through both my own experience and the research I am aware of on the subject.
Foster Care To Prison Pipeline
When I entered prison in New Jersey, I saw many familiar faces: those of other youth who were in the same foster care programs and homes I was in as a child. When I see these youth, it is always the same story. The sad part is that no one else sees how the system is failing youth; the system assumes no responsibility.
In 1982, the New Jersey state legislature passed “waiver” laws that allowed juveniles to be charged in adult criminal court. The idea was to provide harsher penalties for juveniles who committed serious acts or were “repeat offenders.” As a result of this effort to be “tough on crime,” over 250,000 children per year were transferred into the adult system nationwide. The kids affected by these policies reflect the racial disparities inherent in the criminal justice system: almost 90% of youth prosecuted in New Jersey in 2016 were African American or Latino. Given these disparities, we must begin to create laws to reform our penal system, especially for those who are worthy of redemption.
Lack of Psychological Help in Prison for Those Suffering from Trauma
It is clear to me that prison today is not considered a place of rehabilitation. I was sixteen when I entered adult prison, and I am supposed to spend the next 25 years of my life here around negativity, abuse, and oppression. No matter what crime I committed, psychologically I was still a child when I came here. My mind had not finished developing; moreover, I was a child who had killed someone, which is never normal. There are still times when I have nightmares from the abuse I suffered in the foster care system and from the crime that I committed, and there are days when I yearn for help. But I have been told by the prison mental health staff that unless I want medication, there is nothing they can do for me. The only time they can help an inmate is when he is on psychotropic medication or when he is so mentally ill that he needs to be forcibly medicated. The staff realizes that this system is broken, but they have become comfortable with its results, and they do not have time for someone like me. I do not wish for anyone to feel bad for me; I just want help, and I do not think that medication is the answer to the trauma I have experienced.
Lack of Rehabilitation Within Prison
I have heard talk about the prison system and ways to lower recidivism and incarceration rates. I truly believe that, if more rehabilitation components were brought to prison, the recidivism rates would decline. Now, I know there are many people who think it is an individual’s fault for returning to prison, but the truth is that the Department of Corrections is releasing individuals without the proper tools needed to succeed in society. I have been in this system since I was sixteen years old, and I can say from experience that I know these prisons have become breeding grounds for more criminal behavior. Sadly, those who are juveniles and young are vulnerable to the negative environment within the system, and as a way to survive, they often hang around those who are embedded in the negative behavior. There is very little help for these young individuals because the system was not designed to house them, nor was it designed to be a corrective environment that releases people into society as upstanding members.
I will be in my forties when I am released, and during the 25 years I must spend here, there is very little that will help me when I am released. I just want a fair chance when I get out. I want to show people that I have changed and that I deserve a chance to live in society. I realize that I made a very big mistake, and I cannot change my past. But I believe that I can change my future, and that starts with my getting a high-quality education, getting the mental health help I need, and being rehabilitated.
But these things are not available in prison. The programs that exist are often out of date, and the curriculum is useless to young inmates. For example, one of my previous roommates was released, and although the Department of Corrections had taught him how to fill out a job application, it did not teach him how to use a computer. But now, all the job applications are on computers!
Lack of Special Education Services for Youth in Prison
Despite the situation I am in, I am determined to get a high-quality education. I have had to file a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections for failing to provide me with special education services pursuant to law. There are many youth coming to adult prison who are entitled to special education services, and the Department refuses to provide this, forcing them instead to sign out of the school program.
It has been hard to pursue my education and to change in a setting that is just not designed to help me. I know that I am locked up, and I understand that I was sent here to be away from society, but I was also sent here to have my behavior “corrected” and to be provided with treatment that would prepare me for reintegration into the community. I feel like this system that is supposed to correct me is failing me. When I have tried to advocate for a better education and better conditions, I have faced retaliation, and by the prison administrative staff I am looked at as a nuisance and as someone who creates too much paperwork for them. At times, prison officials have found it easier to move me around or even place me in solitary confinement than to provide me with the things I need to become a productive person.
Safer Prisons Create Safer Communities
It is important that you know my story is the same as many others. We have suffered at the hands of those who were supposed to protect us, and now we suffer at the hands of those who are supposed to correct us. I want the public to understand that when a child is placed in these adult facilities, he is treated like an adult, but he is not the same as an adult. Even the Supreme Court has recognized this:
Juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders because they are more capable of change than are adults, and their actions are less likely to be evidence of “irretrievable depraved character.” Moreover, adolescents are more likely to weigh positive experience more heavily and negative experiences less so than adults, leading them to be more likely to engage in risky activities
Sending youth to adult prisons and offering them few programs and rehabilitative services there is not justice, nor does it make our communities safer. In order for there to be safer communities, there MUST be safer prisons. Without an environment that encourages real change, there will be no way to help the young offenders who are being warehoused in the facilities and at times abused. Youth are being locked up and denied so many things, including but not limited to education and rehabilitation. Moreover, the youth who have received long stiff sentences are the ones who leave the institutions most compromised and headed on a road to failure.
The only way to achieve true reform is for the legislature to agree that juveniles are worthy of redemption and to treat them as people who deserve a chance. I do not want people to feel badly for me, and I do not try to justify what I did, but I want help! And I want people to come together and realize that it costs less to rehabilitate and educate me than it does to lock me away for the next 25 years. Trapped in the system, youth like me cost millions, millions that could go towards healing but do not; millions that could go towards educating me but do not; millions that go instead towards the solitary unit I was kept in, towards the officers who assaulted me, towards the system that refuses to correct me but will throw me back into society in 2037.
I can only ask that you consider what I have written and that you keep in mind that there are children like me, children who have been forgotten but who remain here inside New Jersey’s Adult Prison System, asking for your help.