When you’re in a hole, stop digging

Advice to today’s kids in the jungle of inner city DC

This is the first in a periodic series of interviews conducted by Pam Bailey, Rob Barton’s editor/collaborator, with recently released mentors from D.C. Jail’s Young Men Emerging program. Like Rob, they were incarcerated as a teenager for violent crimes and were released under D.C.’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA).

This series was inspired when Pam observed to Rob that his mom had tried almost everything she could to steer him away from trouble. “What would you say to, or do with, a kid like you today, to try to divert him from your path?” I asked. “What works?” We decided to ask others as well, and we start with Roy Middleton, who was released last year and soon will begin work as a fellow with the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings.

Roy (left), after release, with Marc Howard of the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program

What age is the most effective time to intervene?

I’d say about probably 11 or 12 years old, that phase when kids are transitioning from elementary to junior high school. By 14, I wouldn’t say you’re already “lost,” but by then there is a view of the world that defines your self-worth, in a sense. I won’t say it’s an impossible task to impose something else at that age, but … I know that in my case, it was around that age when I was beginning to see the world in a certain way, based on what the world had shown me. I no longer had the naivete a child has.

I knew what I was told in school that I could achieve, but I didn’t see those principles in action around me; nobody else was doing it.

That age is when I also began to understand the way I’m depicted in society. I began to see myself in the images projected onto me, the statistics and the criminality. Up until that point, I kind of bought into the whole “what-do-you- want-to-be-when-you-grow-up-you-could-be-anything” narrative.

My father raised me, and I had supervision: I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t be out after a specific time, etc., and none of my friends had that. I got straight As in school even. But at some point, my trajectory became my friends’. Maybe it was the coolness factor. Maybe it was familiarity. Maybe it was just the need to belong.

There’s also the physical location… Where I lived, I walked out the door and everything else seemed so farfetched. I saw people get shot, I saw drug dealing, I saw police harassing people. That was the reality that superseded everything else. As Rob wrote in his last post, acting normal in an abnormal environment is abnormal. If you behave in a fashion that’s not in synch with where you are, you’re begging for trouble. You’re begging not to survive, in a sense.

Plus, you know, at that age, if it’s between immediate and long-term rewards, the immediate always wins out. You can tell me about the benefits of going to school and getting a degree, and all these other things that have all these long-term implications, but I’m hungry today; I’m under pressure from peers today. Truth be told, at that point you can’t necessarily envision a future.

What is the attraction of the streets?

For me, it wasn’t the money. I know a lot of people who got into the game, and they’re thinking, “I’m going to get me hundred thousand dollars, I’m gonna make a million.” I never really thought about it. For me, the allure was the perceived freedom of the life — no supervision, no curfew, no structure.

It wasn’t like I was out to hurt people. But those were the rules you played to be in the game: You get shot. You get killed. You woke up in the game and this is how the game is. If I say, “Well, I want that freedom. I want to be looked at like this. I want to be able to move around the hood and not be victimized.” Then you play by the rules.

What would you do or say to 12-year-olds in your neighborhood today?

Kids think the game is the thing that gives them their swagger, their coolness.

But at the end of the day, it isn’t. That’s not making you what you are, you’re doing that. I want to tell them, “Look: I don’t sell drugs, I don’t walk around with guns, I’m not out drinking. I’m not out doing any of that stuff, but the respect, the coolness if you want to say that, the swag, I still have it minus the danger of getting killed.”

I read something about how men attach actions to their manhood. This is why, for example, someone shoots someone just for looking at him crazy. He’s attaching the act, this act of disrespect, to his manhood. He thinks he is not a man if he allows that, which is the furthest thing from the truth. Most kids and young adults can’t disassociate actions from who they are as a person. You’re a man, period. No set of actions can take that away from you. If a dude looks at you crazy, it’s not an assault on your manhood.

You know, when you first come to prison, you may do something to somebody because if you don’t, he’ll try it on you. At that stage in your life, it’s worth it. Because maybe striking first prevents being victimized, establishes your reputation. After all, this is where you’re going to live. People need to know you won’t put up with anything.

But when you get older and you’re faced with the same situation, the cost of stirring up trouble doesn’t seem worth the benefit. So, for kids, we need to give them the tools to objectively weigh situations. Lay it out, both pros and cons, and allow them to see objectively what they’re facing, what it will cost them, what they’ll gain.

We have to credibly show them the fruits or the benefits of forgoing the fun, the freedom they think they have on the streets. The thing is, they’ll still have to sacrifice, they’ll still have to work toward whatever the goal is. They’ve got to buy into the narrative that it’s going to be worth it.

One way to do that, at least partially, is by having individuals like them, like Rob and me, show them the costs and benefits of different choices. It can’t be someone who is an anomaly to them, not some Big Brother from Harvard, who’s never been to prison, who’s never had to prevail over the situations faced by inner city youth. Look, these kids will try to discredit anyone playing that role, so the individual has to have credibility with them.

What would I say? “This is where I came from, this is what happened with me, this is what I’ve experienced and this is where I’m at now. You’re essentially being given the opportunity to skip being shot, stabbed, robbed and incarcerated for 25 years. I can be your bridge over that, so you can go straight from this to what I have today, without losing any of the swag.” Truth be told, most of these kids would make more money if they had a good job than on the streets, without the police breathing down their necks.

Rob and I have the idea that people like you and him could take these kids on a tour of their neighborhood, then on a tour of another, very different one, to really illustrate their choices.

Yeah! I think that would be good, because it’s visual. For some reason, most kids in D.C. don’t experience anything else. D.C. is their whole world, and we need to broaden it. It’s like when you enter federal prison for the first time. When dudes live in D.C. their whole life, then end up in the jail with all the other D.C. dudes, it’s a constant reaffirmation of that subculture. Then you get sent out into the federal system, prisons all across the country, and suddenly you’re meeting all types of people.

It broadens you. Yes, it’s in a negative context, but it does broaden your perspective on people, because stereotypes only exist if you don’t actually know anyone from the “other.” We need to do the same thing, but in a positive context.

You hadn’t learned all these lessons when you first entered prison. What helped you finally change your outlook?

I had to reject the behaviors that enabled me to survive in my neighborhood, and — frankly — survive in prison: quick to be violent, without feelings or empathy. I finally rejected them five years after entering prison, at the age of 21, because the same things that enabled me to survive became the things that would keep me in prison. I was fighting the guards, ending up in long-term segregation, shackled, you name it. And I just kind of woke up one day fed up with it all.

I had an epiphany: It had taken me 21 years on this earth to get me right here. So, I said, “If I start walking in a different direction, in 21years I should be at a completely different destination. I was 42 when I was released.

“One of lessons I shared with my mentees at the D.C. jail is this: ‘When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging.’ ”

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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