I was watching the news this morning when I saw a story about Rashaun Weaver, the 14-year-old child charged as an adult for the stabbing death of New York student Tessa Majors. According to the account, Rashaun and two friends tried to rob the young woman and when she refused to give up her mobile phone, the boy stabbed her in the chest.
There’s no doubt about it: This is a tragedy. My heart bleeds for Tessa’s family. As I internalized the story, I realized how easy it is to sympathize with the victim. Very few will think twice about what will happen next to Rashaun. If they do, it will only be to think, “What a little monster! He deserves whatever he gets and more!”
This realization made me reflect on my experience as a child (I was barely 16) charged with murder. It’s been decades since I entered “the system” and the treatment of juveniles has improved. But from what I hear and know, many aspects are depressingly unchanged. Regardless of how troubled he may be today and how reprehensible his actions were, Rashaun still is a child whose brain development is still in flux. Science shows he can “age out” of any tendency toward criminality and thus, he is not irredeemable. Most importantly, one day he will be released back into society and for public safety, we should all want him whole when he is.
For that reason, I sincerely hope he is not treated as I was. The memory comes back to me now:
As the door to the prison’s juvenile block — my new “home” — swung open, a wave of sound crashed over me: crazed voices screaming, “ice cream,” “shoes,” “pancakes,” “waffles,” “hot dogs,” “cakes!” My eyes darted to the C.O. What the hell was going on? He made an evil smirk and laughed. It wouldn’t be long before I realized I was the butt of a joke. Whomever screamed a particular item that I would receie in the future laid claim to it. It was referred to as “calling your tray” — and, of course, when I woke up in the morning, my whole tray had been “called.” I would have to fight to eat. Of course, I fought. But over time, I witnessed several guys who didn’t fight back, and they went weeks eating nothing more than few leftovers — if that. My first lesson in jail was that violence was a means of survival.
We were 18 traumatized, hormone-addled juveniles, still trying to hold on to whatever pride the streets had given us, locked into a cramped tier all day with only one TV and two telephones for distraction. We had nothing else to do but fight over who was going to control the phone and what we were going to watch. What did the wardens, judges and prosecutors expect to happen? For us to reform ourselves without any support? We didn’t go to school or have access to educational materials. We did not have access to books, unless our families — mostly poor — mailed them to us. We weren’t allowed to attend religious services. We were lucky if we were allowed outside once a week for the recreation we were supposed to get daily. The only times we were freed from the tier on which we lived was when we had a visitor (permitted twice a week) or were allowed to play basketball in the tiny gym.
What was the result? We became worse. We were being warehoused, not rehabilitated. Nobody seemed to think about or care how this experience would affect us — and thus our families and others in our communities — for years to come. To the criminal justice system (and to many in the broader community), we were “super predators” (a term Hillary Clinton used in 1996 to identify juveniles who were irredeemable, morally corrupt criminals/killers). Instead of attempting to help us, they became complicit in our further decline. That becomes particularly tragic, for everyone, in light of the fact that some of these juveniles went on to be found not guilty of their charges or to accept plea deals that released them into society not long afterward. However, the trauma behind bars had left its imprint.
All over the country, in both state and federal prisons, people are being warehoused in uniquely brutal ways. Some prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for years at a time without any opportunities to better themselves or exposure to human contact. Entire prisons are locked down for months at a time, in response to isolated incidents that involve only a few. In fact, the average penitentiary is now locked down for over half of each year. Such treatment is supposedly justified by a need for “security.” But I have to ask: Whose security? At what cost? How is this conducive to rehabilitation?
I believe preparation for re-entry should begin the first day of imprisonment, not after years of warehousing. This is why I hope Rashaun Weaver is treated humanely and given the tools and opportunities to mature into a productive adult. I believe that if we want an effective justice system that promotes public safety, we must recognize and respect the inherent dignity and potential of every human being, including the incarcerated. That means creating an environment that is conducive to positive change and rehabilitation. As one day, these people will be released back into society.
A note about how this blog is possible: Incarcerated people have no access to the internet. Thus, I am partnering with journalist/storyteller Pam Bailey, who acts as my editor when needed and posts all of my updates. You may contact her at email@example.com.