Juvenile Incarceration in America: Pt. 1

What were you doing when you were 17?
How about when you were 18? 19? 20? 21?

Well, if you can answer these questions with some answer jumbled between college, and late nights doing a few of the possible things young adults do, then this article is about to hit you real hard.

This article is about life behind bars for a young man who I’ll call Andre. Now, you might be asking yourself, what in the world would a young woman know about jail? That is a great question. What I know and would like to explain over a series of articles about what it means to be behind bars as a juvenile in America.

I’ve spent the last few months and a few sit-down sessions with Andre discussing the implications of his incarceration. You see, in America, the land of opportunity, on any given day, there are 10, 000 juveniles housed in adult prisons or jails and for people like Andre who is currently 18 and sentenced as an adult for his crime a year ago. He now faces five more years in prison until the prospect of parole.

Remember the question I asked at the beginning of this article? Well, for Andre those years, he’ll know exactly where he was in life and what he was doing. Sitting in a prison cell.

There is much to be said here about the human-side to those who are incarcerated, especially when those people are still in the beginning phase of their lives and more often than not they have seen and lived through more than the average person who’s twice their age has experienced.

When I met Andre in the prison cafeteria, we shook hands and sat down across from one another. Andre is younger than I am by a few years. He came to me wearing his prison uniform. But, despite the uniform, he was wearing a pair of tan sunglasses, and he wore his silver cross displaying the crucifixion around his neck. Andre is Hispanic, and he comes from a lower-middle class home. His father works a minimum wage job, from what I could discern, yet he never described his mother. However, Andre is a family-oriented young man. He holds his family, his brothers and his sisters in high regard. He constantly reminded me that he would do anything to protect them. So, here is a young Hispanic man, without a high-school diploma, and a felony on his record. For Andre, the imprisonment he now faced was a result of “doing what ya gotta do.” What this phrase means is more than simply what may come off in the black and white on this page. Andre was a part of a gang. Andre was told to do something which ended up leaving him on the wrong side of the law and now behind bars.

Before I walked into the prison, before I knew who Andre was, I thought that what these incarcerated persons did was a result of their decision making alone. Boy, was I wrong!

The prison system is meant to represent, the maladies of decisions deemed punishable. But, you cannot deny that 10,000 young people in this country, on any given day, have made the decisions they made, did what they have to because our country has failed them.

Yes, we have failed our young people.

Yes, we need to understand their stories, empathize, in order to craft solutions as to how to change this endemic of violence and the permanent scar incarceration lashes on these individuals for life.

But back to Andre, while sitting across from him in that prison cafeteria, as we spoke about various topics, the environment we were in almost seemed out-of-place for the intelligent individual I was talking to. Andre has seen a lot in his life for an eighteen-year-old. Andre was raised with his peers and the prospect of either a gang lifestyle or a struggling existence navigating a public schooling system that he now yearns to be a part of. Yet, as I tell you about this human-side of incarcerated persons, about Andre, you might think to yourself that this is not as unique a story as I might make it seem. Well, congratulations, that is the point. Andre and the failings of the system he was a part of both academically and socially has failed many young Americans, leaving them in a system of incarceration that leads to a sickening cycle of recidivism.

There is a human side to an incarcerated person. Today you learned a little more about Andre. Naturally, Andre’s story is unique and yet it shares experiences many incarcerated juveniles will never be asked to tell. So, the next time someone asks you what you did when you were younger you should thank your stars a cement cell and iron bars were not a part of that equation.

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