At the age of 16, I was sentenced to 30 years in the adult penal system. I am now 22 years old, and I have been advocating for justice from behind these walls for several years. My story is one that is all too common.
At 8, I was placed in foster care after years of abuse at home. I went through more than twenty different foster homes. In many of my placements, children were treated horribly, and when I asked my case worker why we kept being abused, she told me that placing a black teenager in a good home was hard, and that the good homes often wanted white kids with blue eyes. In the foster care system, I lost everything: my mother, my innocence, my dignity. I had my first run-in with the law at age 13 for having a pocket knife.
What I Believe
I believe that the foster care system is a pipeline to prison. Children are being taken from their parents and placed into a system full of abuse. The trauma many children endure in the foster care system is usually overlooked, and youth of color who suffer from it and act out are often sent to prison before their mental health or special education needs are ever discovered. The justice system does not consider this, and many judges take the easy way out in these young people’s cases, giving lengthy or even life sentences and throwing youth away into a system that is producing its own monsters. Once in prison, many youth are denied education and left to idle in their cells.
I was on New York’s Rikers Island Prison as a 16-year-old. I found myself having to fight to not become a gang member. When I was moved to prison in New Jersey, I quickly learned that youth are oppressed and abused by correctional officers. The mentality of “us vs. them” allows officers to beat, rape, and abuse inmates in a system that in its cruelty can only be compared to slavery. No child deserves to be in an adult prison.
I have faced some very difficult times in my life, but nothing compares to living in an adult correctional facility as a kid. I understand that I have made mistakes in my life and that there is a price to pay. However, I do not believe that I should be treated as less than a human being. These prisons are not focused on rehabilitating individuals, but on warehousing inmates, and they would rather have us youth leave troubled and corrupt. The sad truth is that I could serve my sentence and transform myself into a worse person than I was when I entered. The system would not care. To the system, I am a number, and once my sentence is done, I no longer count.
Treat Youth As Youth
I thank God that I’ve decided not to become another statistic or succumb to the negative influences that are ever-present in adult correctional facilities. Instead, I spend my time reading, writing, and educating myself on criminal law, business management, and social economics. By doing this, I have learned that there are thousands of young people incarcerated as adults each year in our country, and most of them come from communities where poverty and crime are prevalent. Very little is being done to fix their communities, and youth like me are paying the price. I have discovered the injustice and prejudice shown not only towards African American juveniles, but all African Americans. Youth of color are not only treated differently than their white counterparts, but are given harsher sentences even when the crimes are the same. It also seems that our society uses the correctional system to house those youth who are mentally ill. Many days I spend advocating for other kids who cannot do so for themselves because they are illiterate or have other problems.
Nelson Mandela said: “Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future. Those who abuse them tear at the fabric of our society and weaken our nation.”
Sending juveniles to adult facilities in a broken and violent system – especially to serve excessively long sentences – is simply abuse. Youth should never be incarcerated in the adult system. We should be treated as youth.