In Prisons, Youth are Prey

I should know—I spent 27 years in Texas prisons. Adult lockups are too horrifying for teens.

I was in prison at 20, on a “gladiator farm” in East Texas, a prison unit without education or vocational classes, with little hope or desire to learn anything but to plan for the next fight.

I was in prison at 30, in the midst of a dreary, ongoing gang war, with a prison-earned Alcoholics Anonymous certificate and a creative-writing workshop under my belt, teaching other Chicanos their history and doing my best to calm bitter racial turmoil.

Prison is a place of violence, and the will and discipline needed to fend off gang overtures and sexual predators are not qualities many teenagers have.

I was in prison at 40, with a prison-earned bachelor’s in psychology that introduced me to Immanuel Kant and Aristotle, to friends and mentors who led me into my next life as a graduate student at the University of Texas School of Social Work.

I served my time for armed robbery. I still go into prisons, four years after leaving for good, but now I am invited to lead workshops for teenagers serving adult time.

I supplement the meager programs that Texas legislators have left to the adult prison system as it struggles to educate and rehabilitate youth who should not be incarcerated in institutions designed to punish adult criminals. The agency lacks the resources to help traumatized youngsters navigate early adulthood—encased not in hope but in iron, surrounded by the screeches of institutional despair.

Between 2005 and 2011, Texas certified as adults 1,292 teens as young as 14, sending them to adult jails and prisons. Their crimes were no more severe, Michele Deitch’s pioneering research has found, than those committed by the 865 youth who were first sent to the juvenile system.

The teens sent to the adult system have been cast adrift, labeled “career criminals,” as if a 15-year-old child with a still-developing brain can have embarked on premeditated evil—rather than being governed by impulse and driven by the violence he or she has seen daily.

There is nothing rehabilitative about adult prisons, especially not Texas prisons, with their educational system gutted by legislative cuts that left the in-prison school system in 2011 with 16,000 fewer school desks. There are 114 prison units in Texas, and the college programs that flourished in the ’80s and ’90s have been slashed, as have the vocational courses that at least offered a ray of hope to inmates wanting a trade, a future other than the streets.

Prison is a place of violence, and the will and discipline needed to fend off gang overtures and sexual predators are not qualities many teenagers have. They are prey, desperate for approval, willing to succumb to peer pressure to be accepted into the only culture they now know.

I graduated with my master’s of social work in August. For two years, I’ve volunteered with Save Our Youth, a South Austin organization that goes into the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center and facilitates creative workshops for the kids there. I’m also part of Sending Solidarity, a two-person grassroots organization that ventures into the Clemens and Hilltop Units, where youth certified as adults are imprisoned. We send books to and offer workshops for the inmates in the Youthful Offender Program, the bare-bones program to inculcate into these youngsters a sense of self and direction before sending them among adult offenders.

In both programs, I use creative writing, specifically poetry, to let these teens understand that they can re-frame their histories, that they can reject the labels of “delinquent” or “loser” or “gangbanger” or “outcast.” They can reject the damning, prophecy-fulfilling boxes into which they have been thrust.

It is impossible to overstate the trauma prison afflicts on an individual. The effect it has on kids is even more horrifying. Youthful brains lack the ability to regulate their emotions. They are still undergoing changes to their brain structure and neural circuits. The stress and trauma of prison cause huge disconnects between what young people think and what they feel. While the cognitive functioning of teenagers is similar to adults, their emotional development is entirely different, resulting in impulsive actions rather than rational behavior.

Budgetary necessities have left Texas prisons with an educational system unworthy of the name. Adult brains, bodies, and support systems may be able to navigate that system and emerge with a semblance of hope. Very few kids can.

Read how UT and a key juvenile-justice reformer on its faculty are working to keep teens out of adult prisons in the story “Kids in Cages.”

Photo by Steve Liss.


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