Imprisoned as Teens, Speaking Out as Free Men for Change in Juvenile System

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WASHINGTON — Incarceration can be difficult for mature adults, but it can be irreversibly traumatic for adolescents. Two men who entered the Washington criminal justice system as boys, now free, promote rehabilitating youth through physical and educational programs, rather than incarceration in prisonlike facilities.

“You’re making it worse by [sending] a juvenile to a prison system or a lockup, instead of sending them to a decent, strict learning center,” Varvie Daughtry said. “Behind bars, the thought of being locked up, it destroys a child’s dreams.”

He and Terrell Branham, both former inmates and dedicated members of the Free Minds Book Club, are part of the October campaign of The Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ). The organization has asked justice-involved people to take action by sharing their stories so that others can understand the importance of juvenile justice issues. Free Minds Book Club is a program that uses reading, creative writing and peer support to help incarcerated youth in Washington reach their full potential as adults.

Shared stories

Branham, a 22-year-old looking for work, is a new poet ambassador, which are experienced Free Minds members who lead group writing sessions and mentor younger members. He was incarcerated for being party to grand theft auto at age 16 and served more than six years. He began regularly attending Free Minds Book Club meetings while in the juvenile block of Washington’s Central Detention Facility and found solace and inspiration from writing poetry.

It was a shock when he entered the adult system at 18, but the books Free Minds kept sending him helped him get through the rest of his time.

Now free four months, he said kids relate to his story and learn from his experiences because he gives them a different perspective from other people in their lives, like parents or teachers. “It’s all about giving them something that they can relate to,” Branham said.

Both men grew up in Washington and are members of Free Minds’ reentry program. They will be graduating from the program today.

Their stories are indicative of the issues facing the juvenile justice reform community, such as the negative effects of peer pressure, the ongoing mental development of young adults and the psychological consequences of solitary confinement.

Peer pressure or adult support

Peer pressure was partially the reason they were involved in crime, both men said. Branham said his parents didn’t have much time for him, so he took to the streets and learned through his friends.

“I got arrested for carjacking,” he said. “The funny part about that charge is I didn’t even commit that crime. It was my peers. When you’re with your peers, I guess you have to put up a façade. Even if you don’t really want to do what you’re doing, when it comes to them or whatever they are into, you don’t want to be looked at like you’re in the out-crowd.”

A recent study released by America’s Promise Alliance, “Who’s Minding the Neighborhood,” supports the idea that children being overly influenced by fellow youth, rather than adults, can lead to unruly or even unlawful behavior. The research found that for every seven more adults living in a community, one less student would drop out of high school, showing the importance of having a mature neighborhood support system for kids, regardless of the adults’ educational or economic background.

Jonathan Zaff

Jonathan Zaff

“For us, that’s a big deal,” said the study’s author, Jonathan Zaff. “This is distinct from the type of support that’s being given, the quality of those relationships. It’s just their presence matters, this idea that the capacity of the community really does seem to matter.”

But when youth take the place of parents and other adults, behavioral problems can occur. The teenaged mind is still developing and behavioral habits are being established. Within adolescents’ brains, cognitive and emotional abilities are still forming, which Zaff said could hinder decision-making.

“So, you end up making not so great decisions a lot, not because you’re a bad person, but because you are an adolescent, and it doesn’t matter what kind of neighborhood you come from,” he said. “If you have a whole lot of young people without that counterbalance of adults who can help monitor and restrain some of those behaviors, inevitably the literature would suggest there is more chance of negative behaviors occurring.”

Developing minds in scarring settings

Daughtry questions why people who commit crimes as juveniles should be punished in an environment that often is not a place for healthy growth and learning. Both men believe juveniles should only be placed in learning programs, with an educational emphasis over punishment and physical activities to release energy. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, the human mind does not reach full maturity until approximately age 25.

The men agree that placing an adolescent behind bars, while their sense of identity is taking shape, could have lasting negative effects on their mental health, as well as harm their employment opportunities when they get out.

Daughtry said he was rejected by dozens of employers before he eventually found full-time maintenance work with the D.C. Downtown Business Improvement District, as well as part-time employment with Free Minds’ Outreach Program and at University of Maryland sporting events. Though many of his earlier job interviews seemed to go well, he was often rejected after the criminal record check, he said.

“I understand as a juvenile you make mistakes,” Daughtry said. “But, they [incarcerate] you so early … they make you a menace to society, instead of actually putting [you] in … learning programs.”

Branham said he didn’t need more than half a decade to learn the error of his ways, and could have been a contributing member of society much sooner, had he been given the opportunity.

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“I’m a quick learner, you know,” he said. “I know for a fact that I didn’t need six years to get it right. It could have been any [punishment] other than just sending me straight to jail for a mistake I made as a child.”

Research supports Branham and Daughtry’s thoughts on the juvenile justice system. According to the National Academies of Science’s National Research Council, many of the punishment systems of the late 20th century are often excessively severe and unfair to young offenders. These methods, such as incarceration, are likely to increase recidivism and the chances that they will grow up to be a threat to public safety, according to the Council.

CFYJ is working to expand the use of community-based alternatives to imprisonment, which would supervise youth outside detention facilities and allow them to stay with their families. Possible alternatives include evening reporting centers, home detention and short-term shelter care.

Solitary confinement

Neither Branham nor Daughtry were placed in solitary confinement as juveniles, but in adult prison Daughtry spent 9½ months alone in a small cell, with nothing to do but exercise and read. While incarcerated, he read James Allen’s “As a Man Thinketh” and used his words as inspiration to stay strong.

Although he said he learned a lot about his personal fortitude in solitary, many people, especially kids, are not able to mentally handle claustrophobic reactions to being held in a small cell. According to a 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health, those detained in solitary confinement in New York City jails were almost seven times more likely to harm themselves than prisoners in the general population. This effect is more severe among juveniles and those with mental disabilities.

President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system early this year, following a report by the U.S. Justice Department that found the punishment was widely overused. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Obama wrote that research suggests solitary confinement has the potential to lead to lasting psychological consequences, such as depression, alienation, withdrawal, violent behavior and suicidal thoughts.

According to the Lowenstein Center for Public Interest’s national jurisdictional survey published in July, 29 states prohibit the use of solitary confinement in juvenile correctional facilities by law or practice, 15 other states impose time limits on solitary confinement meant to punish and seven states don’t limit how long a juvenile can remain in solitary or allow extensions to be administered indefinitely.

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