Steve Reba: Return of Silence

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There was no banner, no cake, and nobody waiting to cheer when he walked in the door. He simply entered the sparsely furnished, one-room apartment and placed his duffle bag on the bed. He rested his head on the mattress and felt pleasantly alone in the silence.

The small studio apartment above the back garage of this neighborhood home was arranged by a volunteer who fundamentally changed his course in prison. In year four of thirteen, after spending over nine months in the hole, she came to him. Upon first seeing her, the illiterate and frustrated eighteen-year-old told her to get the “f___ out of his face,” and that he didn’t need help from “some old white b____.” But she kept coming back. And once unreadable letters turned into words, desolation into hope, and slowly his perspective of all relationships being exploitative lifted.

He was extremely fortunate to have found her. Only able to work in a handful of prisons, she funds her own curriculum focused on teaching youthful offenders strategies on how to cope and stay positive. Without that relationship, his reentry would surely go the way of the vast majority of youthful offenders. They come back to our communities, having received no reentry or youth-specific services of any kind on the inside or out, only quickly to reoffend and return to the system.

Like his fellow youthful offenders, he was raised in a prison world where violence was the only way to avoid victimization and ensure survival. Where one is forced to see and do horrific things (i.e., sidestepping the entrails of a buddy whose abdomen had been slit horizontally from behind while waiting in line). One cannot magically leave that world, come to this one, and carry on.

While a job and a place to stay are great and themselves hard to find, they are not curative. Without therapy to address the significant mental trauma and to provide assimilation skills, he will fold under the everyday demands of an unstructured world. The story has been repeated over and over again.

The lack of a non-violent social skill will produce an altercation at work, subsequent job loss, and a resulting inability to pay for housing. This will breed fear of more failure and reversion to prison lethargy. Homeless and without an address, he’ll violate his probation and his time on the street will almost certainly lead to a new offense.

If his support team has anything to say about it, this won’t be his reentry story. With a job, a place to stay, a loving mentor, intensive therapy, and legal guidance, he just might pull through.

For the first time in his memory, he is surrounded by silence. For now, the prison world in which he was raised has retreated to a non-beckoning corner of his mind. The nearly impossible trick will be keeping it there.

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Steve Reba is an attorney at Emory Law School’s Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic where he directs an Equal Justice Works project called Appeal for Youth.  The project, sponsored by Ford & Harrison LLP, provides holistic appellate representation to youthful offenders in Georgia’s juvenile and criminal justice systems.  This blog follows the clients Appeal for Youth represents, hoping to present a genuine look into a system that is largely unknown or misunderstood by the public

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