Soledad O’Brien: How to Curb Our Mass Incarceration Epidemic
The newswoman and CEO writes about what we can do to curb this vicious cycle of imprisonment. O’Brien’s doc Kids Behind Bars premieres April 12 on Al Jazeera America.
There is no mistaking the razor wire, locked rooms, and guards marching through sterile halls. The J. Paul Taylor Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is a prison.
But inside this juvenile detention center no one is using the word “inmates” to describe the 48 boys and young men, ages 12 to 21, who have committed a string of crimes ranging from the most petty to murder. They are “clients” and the administration says it’s dedicated to treating them that way. The approach is the result of a program that emphasizes reform over punishment and calls itself “Cambiar,” the Spanish word for change. It was chosen to indicate that the system is transforming itself and these juvenile offenders along with it.
Without this program, “I wouldn’t have anyone to help me calm down so I would have kept getting into trouble,” said Keith, one of the clients who asked that we only use his first name. Keith was sentenced for violating his probation by shoplifting after being convicted on a minor alcohol charge. He has major problems with anger. He’s been in just one fight in the last five months, a significant decline from his fighting days, and is studying college courses in hopes of becoming a mechanical engineer.
What made the difference, according to Sandra Stewart, director of Juvenile Justice Services in New Mexico, was the transformation of the Taylor Center—and other facilities serving a total of 204 juveniles—into a place that emphasizes learning, mental health counseling, and mentoring over lockdowns and punishments. “They changed to smaller units where the kids were in groups of 12 rather than in large pods. They worked toward regionalization to try to get the kids closer to their families so they could have support from their families,” Stewart said. “Positive peer culture is a big part of Cambiar—all of these things are Cambiar—where the kids learn to do everything together in a unit. They start their day together; they finish their day together. They are instrumental in their own treatment plans and how they’re going to proceed. And the staff started being trained to be more along the lines of mentors and team leaders and coaches rather than correctional officers.”
I got to see this transformation in action while producing the documentary Kids Behind Bars for Al Jazeera America, which gives an exclusive look at the lives of three incarcerated juveniles, including Keith, who teeter between reformation and rage as they experience the results of Cambiar. In a way, their success is our success; an intangible, but deeply important measure of whether our country’s juvenile lockups can resurrect young criminals or simply perpetuate a system of punitive mass incarceration of minorities with ample failures of reform.
There are 60,000 kids under the age of 21 locked up around the country. They are 86 percent male, and for every 100,000 non-Hispanic/black juveniles living in the U.S., 521 were in a residential placement facility in 2011. For Hispanics, 202 juveniles out 100,000 were in a facility. For non-Hispanic whites it was 112. Minority youth commit a higher percentage of all felony offenses except sexual assaults. Not reforming how our prisons mete out justice means abandoning hope for an alarming number of minority youth.
Keith sees the harm done in his own community where he has seen youths, including his own brother, cycle in and out of the system. “A lot of older kids who have been in places like this, the younger kids look up to them and think, ‘I should do that too,’” he said.
Minority youth are overrepresented at every level of the criminal justice system. African Americans, for example, are 16 percent of the U.S. population but 38 percent of all young people in juvenile facilities and 58 percent of the juvenile population in adult prisons.
The New Mexico movement to reform, and that of many other states, is modeled after Missouri’s juvenile justice system. Missouri has most of its juvenile offenders in prison schools or work programs, with access to family therapy. A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates 75 percent of Missouri’s youthful offenders get a year of education each year they are incarcerated—three times the national average. The result is that 65 percent of offenders in that system are not rearrested within three years of release. There are no comparable recidivism rates for other states, but by their own measuring systems the number of rearrests are much higher in the rest of the U.S.
The Casey Foundation believes the juvenile system can save between $3 million and $6 million if they can keep just one kid from returning to a life of crime. That has won their program bipartisan support in a state where the parties agree on little else. Moreover, the foundation found the Missouri model to be more humane than other states’ programs, and a big step ahead of the antiquated schools for delinquents from 30 years ago that were rife with suicides.
To me, a glimpse of what humanity can look like came by way of another young man at the J. Paul Taylor Center named Vincente whose quick smile and love of music belies a criminal record of violence and gangs. We agreed to withhold his last name for safety reasons, but the criminal record that landed him here makes him look more like the safety risk. He set fire to a car and blew it up, which landed him in a facility for a year. But then he tripled his time by jumping a fellow inmate with a soap bar stuffed in a sock.
Yet the Vincente I met, who was two years into the program, sat and played me lovely songs on a piano that has become his touchstone to finding peace. “I can honestly say I woke up one day like ‘Oohh, I don't want to do this no more,’” said Vincente, who gives himself more credit than he gives the program. “I learned how to reason before I do my actions. I learned how to control anger a little bit. I learned a little education.”
“What made you realize it was fun to learn?” I asked him.
“Honestly, like, I've always liked to learn. It was always there but I never actually took the time to sit down. I never had the will. I never had someone to push me and when I came here, like I said, some staff here helped me out with that,” he said. Since I interviewed him, he got out and has completed a 90-day probationary period.
The staff here mentors students, teaches real high school classes, provides a clear system of rewards and punishments that excludes extreme approaches like solitary confinement—all tactics that resulted from a 2006 agreement with the ACLU that sheds light on systematic abuses endemic in juvenile systems. The ACLU had accused New Mexico of physically and psychologically abusing juveniles, of running dangerous facilities that overused solitary confinement, and of failing to provide an adequate education or mental health programs.
“It was bad,” Stewart acknowledged. “There was a lot of concern about excessive use of force, concern about isolation and separation, concern about inadequately trained staff.”
At first, there was resistance to Cambiar as a solution to the juvenile system’s woes. “Initially it was very poorly accepted. Even down to detention facilities, no one really understood why the change. I think there was a lot of skepticism about whether or not it would work,” said Stewart. “Certainly the people in the facilities who are overseeing the kids, or clients as we call them, they didn’t get into it. We still today have problems with buy-in, but I think as recidivism rates have begun to go down, certainly the number of kids that are incarcerated has gone down in New Mexico, then people began to say, ‘OK, maybe there’s something to this.’”
The third youth in my documentary, Keidrik, has not wanted to buy in. He is 15, and was sent to J. Paul Taylor for striking a police officer while on probation. “Honestly, I think this place has just made me a better criminal,” he said. He does not see himself as a client, but as an inmate.
Stewart acknowledges there is some degree of truth to Keidrik’s sense that he is an inmate. “We do still control their movement. I mean, they don’t get to say, ‘I want to go shopping today.’ They don’t get to say, ‘I want spaghetti instead of what's on my plate,’” she said. “So, to a degree they are still certainly in an environment that we are in control of and they’re not, and that probably feels like prison.”
“And you have barbed wire,” I asked.“Yes.”“And doors that lock.”“Yes.”
But what matters, said Stewart, is that the facility be more humane and more thoughtful in its attempts to reform teenagers and young men. There is some proof that the revolving door of the criminal justice system is slowing. According to the Office of U.S. Justice Programs, the number of youthful offenders in residential programs like this one fell from around 108,000 in 1997 to 60,000 this year. The answer to whether these programs—or outside forces—made those statistics come to life is elusive. Either way, Keith would like to see the day where his community doesn’t have so many kids in jail, and where people see more to him—and other minority youth—than criminality.
“Other people, they just look down on us, and we are here to change that point of view,” he said, declaring he will never again be a client of the system.
With Rose Marie Arce, Executive Producer of SMG.
Soledad O’Brien is founder and CEO of Starfish Media Group. She contributes to HBO Real Sports, National Geographic and Al Jazeera America. Her documentary "Kids Behind Bars" airs Sunday, April 12 at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT on Al Jazeera America. Follow her on Twitter: @soledadobrien