If anyone doubts that the young people locked up in our jails are children they should spend some time in one of those prisons around holiday time.
I did just that for the 10 years I taught high school students, some as young as 15, in an adult county jail, and every year it got tougher to deny the impact being locked up for the holidays had on these teens.
Jail’s a pretty isolating place. That’s one of the ideas. But in lockup they watched a lot of TV — that great purveyor of culture — and so despite all that concrete and steel and lack of freedom the holidays still seeped in. Christmas carols. Happy families. Cozy couples in front of the fire. Children happier than any of my students had ever been. Promises of peace and joy. And of course, the must-have merchandise. The holiday message blared out day and night on the blocks. Even the din of 40 teenage boys in an overcrowded dorm shouting, rapping, arguing, cursing; of correctional staff barking out orders; of the PA system announcing clinic, lockdown, lights out couldn’t compete with it. Christmas just wouldn’t leave you alone.
So day by day I watched as the holiday spirit got to these young guys. Of course they would never say out loud that it was hard being locked up for Christmas. After all they were tough and had been around more than the block. But like many troubled teens they had their own language of grief. As the weeks of cheery ads piled up, as the carols grew louder, and the TV images of happiness became more insistent, life in lockup became more tense and violent. Food trays got thrown. Noses broken. Food extorted. Threats made and followed through. Codes were called and the emergency response team, sinister black-clad, helmeted Santas, ran down the halls to haul off kid after kid to long days of 23-hour isolation in disciplinary lockdown.
“Home for the holidays” held no magic for my jailhouse students. For most of them there wasn’t much out there. Many had long been abandoned or thrown out by whatever remnant of family they had left. Like Ray who was taken from his mother at five. “She was really messed up on drugs, and my pops was doin’ his first long bid up in Attica,” he explained to me with a fierce family loyalty I couldn’t quite understand. But he didn’t defend his Aunt Sally. She took him out of foster care when he was a little older (“She needed the money”) and locked him up at night with a bucket to pee in. Then one year just a few days before Christmas, she kicked him out into the streets. But she didn’t dump him completely. She kept getting and cashing his SSI checks. I taught a lot of Rays over my 10 holidays in the county lockup.
My first Christmas in jail I brought all my students small gifts, mostly car, sports or music magazines, colored pencils, favorite candy bars, just something they could open Christmas morning. I managed to do it somehow; I wasn’t aware that I had broken procedure. But I heard about it soon enough from the warden who gave me a thorough dressing down for “bringing in contraband.” Luckily I kept the job, but more importantly I’ve kept the construction paper “Thank you” card the guys contrived to make and sign for me. After that, Christmases became even more bleak and barren.
While I was writing my book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, my working title was Children of Disappointment. The more I got to know these young throw-aways, the more I heard their stories of struggle from an early age, the more I realized how all the adults in their young lives had dismally failed them — families, schools, churches, communities, the child welfare system, the very nation that claimed children as a cherished and protected resource. This time round I was the slow learner. My students, still so much the children they had always been, had gotten the lesson years ago and had been living with these disappointments most of their lives. It took me awhile but I finally understood.
Nevertheless it is still the season of hope and light, of rebirth and possibilities. I’d like to think that we as communities and a country can do what must be done so that the lives of other at-risk children are shaped not by the cold, recurring reality of poverty, neglect and disappointment but by the compassion and good will we all hope to feel at this time of year.
This piece originally appeared on Beacon Broadside