Growing up in the impoverished streets of Los Angeles, gang banging was normal, crime was essential to gaining financial stability and burnishing reputation, and encounters with the untrusted Los Angeles Police Department was typical.
Living in the midst of these wars as a kid, predictably, I was incarcerated as a teen. And in California, incarceration is no solution to helping youth changing their lives for the better.
“Closer to the Cuts” is a poetry video that reflects the sad truths about California’s juvenile justice system through the lens of my friend Susy Sobel. She’s a law student who previously taught creative writing to minors inside Los Angeles County’s juvenile facilities through a nonprofit organization called InsideOUT Writers (IOW).
Last summer, fellow IOW alums, Anti-Recidivism Coalition members and I came together to star in the video as once-incarcerated juveniles who are now free, living positive and productive lives.
“My students are just closer to the cuts, so their wounds carries the most potent antidotes. So it’s time we toss our morphine-induced numbness and band-aided solutions, and empower their medicine,” Sobel recites in her poem.
While teaching inside juvenile halls for a few years, Susy learned that all her students were brilliant and all were black and brown. The only difference between her and her students was her white skin and thus her privileged life. Her students were just misguided kids whose writings mirrored their hope to overcome despite their predicaments.
And although many of them may have been guilty of their particular crimes, their young lives were being thrown away within a system that does not care that they made mistakes.
I can speak for those students because I sat in those same writing classes in juvenile hall for almost two years. I know what it’s like to live a life of illusion while young and in the streets but a life of hardcore reality while young and facing life in prison, in my case for a crime I was not involved in.
The United States is the only country that sentences children to die in prison. Our nation makes up only 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. In California, it costs quintuple the price to lock someone up for one year than it costs to send them to college. Since 1980, California has built 20 prisons and only one college.
These facts show the injustice of how youth, particularly black and brown ones, are treated in our juvenile and criminal justice systems.
The entire cast of the video have all been involved in the juvenile justice system at some point. When I was on the inside, I felt as if the courts saw me only as a number instead of by my name and face. I felt as if I had no voice.
Only through writing was my voice validated. The hour or two I sat in these classes were the only times I felt free while locked up. It was empowering to be among other kids who shared the same struggles and were eager to prosper regardless of the obstacles set up against us. Writing was key to freedom of spirit.
Because of our resilience, which allowed us to transform, we all are now free and fighting for just policies and laws in our juvenile and criminal justice systems in our own different ways. Because of the unconditional love we continuously received from people like Susy, we were given opportunities to change the trajectory of our lives from negative to positive.
I believe that the real experts in a field are those who have personally lived those experiences. We are best equipped to solve the problem because we know what works and what doesn’t.
I hope this video sparks interest in every viewer to join the movement to reform our justice system in any way possible, no matter how small or big. Thanks to our video, the voiceless have been given a platform to express our trials and tribulations, through our troubled pasts and toward our new destinies. We all were once the poster children for prison but are now the faces of freedom.
Alton Pitre is a 24-year-old native of Los Angeles. He is a juvenile justice ambassador, serves on the Member Board for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and is a sociology major at Morehouse College.
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