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Justice Denied: One Young Person's Story

January 4, 2016
D.M., age 20

philadelphia-mural_Flickr_Howard-StanburyAs a young child, I suffered physical and sexual abuse in my home and began to act out. I eventually entered the mental health and child welfare systems. I was in the child welfare system for an extensive period of time and was eventually sent to more than 20 different placements. I was placed in some of the worst foster homes and programs. Many of them didn’t care about my broken childhood or my mental health issues.  One of my foster fathers sexually abused me, but when I reported him to my case worker, I was told that if I got moved, I could be sent to a worse home.  Finally, after months of being sexually abused by my foster father, I killed him. I was only 16 years old. However, I’m not making excuses. I now realize the harm that I did to him and his family, and I recognize that I needed to be held accountable. I only wish that someone was there for me and provided the help and treatment that I needed.

Once I was arrested, I was forced and misled into a plea agreement that involved me being sentenced to 30 years -- almost double my life to that point -- in an adult prison in New Jersey. Prosecutors and law enforcement took advantage of the fact that I had no parental support or legal advisors to guide me through the justice system. I was told that “Your kind (African Americans) usually get life sentences or never make it out of the prison.” The truth is that the courts looked at me and my case as just another black teen who had murdered someone and did not deserve to be rehabilitated or to even live in society. I wish that the justice system had believed in my ability to be rehabilitated and sent me to the juvenile justice system, where I could have gotten the help that I needed. In the end I was denied the right to withdraw my plea, sentenced as an adult, and sent to the adult prison, where the abuse of juveniles is rampant. Once again, I became one of the forgotten children, thrown away this time into the adult prison system.

As crazy as it sounds, I was honestly under the impression that the 30 years behind bars would change me and make me a better person. I felt like I had caused so many hardships on myself and my family. Instead, what I found was shocking. It didn’t seem that our prison system wanted inmates to be rehabilitated or change. The abuse of force used by officers on inmates can be compared to the Baltimore incident involving Freddie Gray. It was said to me in a simple way when I first entered this system, “Since you’re an inmate and you wear prison colors, you‘re pathetic and will be treated like cattle.” While I have faced some very difficult times in my life, nothing compares to living in an adult correctional system as a kid. I have fought long and hard to not only correct my behavior, but also to not succumb to the negative life style that is ever-present in prison. I realize that the system I’m in does not care about rehabilitation, and would rather have us youth leave troubled and corrupt. These prisons are not focused on correcting individuals, but on warehousing inmates. There is very little rehabilitation available in prison and the programs that are made available to inmates are outdated and poorly run.

The sad truth is that I could honestly do this time and transform myself into a worse person than I was when I entered. I could honestly leave as a worse person, and the system would not care. I thank God that I have decided to change my ways and not become a statistic, or succumb to the negative vices that are very much present here 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 discovered that there are thousands of youth incarcerated as adults each year in our country, most of them coming from communities where poverty and crime are prevalent. Very little is being done to fix their communities and now the youth are paying the price. I have made a promise to myself, and that promise is that I will advocate every day of my life until I see real change and even when I see real change, I will still continue to advocate.

Many days I spend advocating for other kids who cannot do so for themselves, because they are illiterate or have other problems. It seems as if our society uses the correctional system to house those youth who are mentally ill. I really do feel like it is time to begin a major reform, not only to patch this broken system. Patch work to this system will block the chances of any real reform. The reform must start first with the way judges sentence individuals. All elements of a child’s life should be taken into consideration, including trauma, mental health disorders, family history and any attempts to change our circumstances. Their sentences should always be geared towards rehabilitation. Youth should never be incarcerated in the adult system. Reform should come into all prisons but must first start with retraining officers. I feel like it is time that correctional officers be trained correctly. All of the excessive force, beatings, and abuse that inmates receive from officers is learned behavior and should not be tolerated. Until major reforms happen, prisons will continue to be looked at as a place for people who do not belong in society, rather than a place where people go to get rehabilitated and pay their debt to society. The media and prison officials will continue to try and make the public believe that everyone in prison belongs there and is a violent menace to society. It is funny because I used to think the same thing until I found out that the majority of people in prison are not violent and are here for non-violent crimes.

Through my writings, I hope to clarify and reveal the effects of placing and warehousing juveniles in adult prisons with very few rehabilitation opportunities and very few programs. I have discovered the injustice and prejudice shown not only towards African American juveniles, but all African Americans. I have discovered that youth of color are not only treated differently than their white counterparts, but are also given harsher sentences even when the crimes are the same. My goal is to advocate for youth who have been sentenced to the adult prison system. My hope is that through public awareness, policy and prison reform, I and thousands of others will find long-awaited relief.   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 and giving them excessive and harsh sentences that involve no chance of rehabilitation is abuse. 

--D.M., age 20. He is a member of the New Jersey Parents Caucus's Youth Coalition, which, as part of the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition, is a member of NJJN. 

Photo: Flickr user Howard Stanbury 

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