Boys Growing Up to be Boys: Mandatory Minimums and Teens in Adult Prisons

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For teens sentenced as adults under Georgia’s SB 400, a paucity of resources create reentry challenges (and increased likelihood of recidivism) upon release

ATLANTA––In the best of situations, teen boys struggle with growing into good men. The challenge becomes enormous for Georgia teens convicted in adult court of certain violent crimes—the so-called Seven Deadly Sins—and subsequently locked away in adult prisons.

In 1994, responding to rising juvenile crime rates and fears of a generation of teen “super-predators,” Georgia passed legislation requiring any kid age 13 to 17 accused of committing one of seven serious, violent crimes be transferred out of the juvenile system to face an adult court. Conviction meant a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years with no parole. With few positive role models and few opportunities for education while inside the prison walls, many former inmates convicted under the law say they are ill-prepared for life on the outside—a life requiring Social Security numbers, credit scores, balanced checkbooks and an entirely different set of interpersonal skills than those they’d learned in prison. Without support, advocates say, a large number will eventually find their way back to prison, often for life.

Levi’s Story Part One: Typical ‘Teenage Rambunctiousness’

Levi Hodnett can’t point to one place and call it home. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he grew up in prison. He was born in California but his mother was, in his words, “nomadic.” She was also addicted to crack. Hodnett and his mother moved all over the country, from Albuquerque to Oklahoma to Denver. He says he never knew his father, who died when Hodnett was a young boy.

Hodnett was in and out of juvenile detention centers throughout his youth. The crimes were petty, a result of typical “teenage rambunctiousness,” as he puts it. Juvie became his “Cheers,” where everybody knew his name, he says. Each time he found himself heading back to the detention center,  he was coming home to his friends.

When he was 15, Hodnett, who says he never saw eye-to-eye with his mother, decided to leave home. He sold nearly everything he owned, bought a bus ticket and headed east. He finally landed in Georgia, finding a place to stay with an old friend and his parents.

“It was somebody to run the streets with,” Hodnett said of his friend. He was just 16 years old but in less than a month he would be locked away in an adult prison.

Levi’s Story Part Two: Running the Streets

Hodnett hit the first store around noon on a spring day in 1996. He was with a couple of friends. The store was managed by some “Chinese people,” but other than that, Hodnett won’t say much about what went down.

But court records tell the story.

His friend and 16-year-old roommate, DeWayne Jackson, entered the Fame Beauty Supply store, in DeKalb County, in suburban Atlanta, first. Jackson began to complain loudly that one of the items was too expensive. John Kim, who was working at the store that day, walked over to help but as he approached, Jackson told him, “Open up the register, this is a robbery.” Kim turned around and saw Hodnett pointing a gun at another store employee near the door. Kim emptied the register, giving all the money to Jackson. Cash in hand, Jackson and Hodnett left the store.

The pair’s second attempt at a robbery later that same day took four minutes in total. Just as he had during the day’s first robbery, Jackson walked in to the convenience store first. Security footage from that evening showed that 25 seconds later Levi Hodnett and a third man, Michael Murray, followed Jackson in. Once again, Hodnett held the gun.

For a few moments, Jackson browsed the Lotto & Grocery Store in Stone Mountain, Ga., 20 minutes east of Atlanta. He eventually picked up a bag of chips and a soda. At the register, he tried to pay with food stamps but the clerk, Ray Charles, told Jackson the store didn’t accept them. Jackson pulled out cash and paid for the items.

But after paying for his purchase, Jackson didn’t leave. According to testimony by Charles, he was “just standing there” by the counter.

While Jackson stood rooted in place, Hodnett and Murray began arguing with Charles’ mother, Anjula, a part owner of the store, because she refused to sell cigarettes to the two minors. It is unclear from court records whether Hodnett and Jackson had planned to rob the store or if Hodnett simply lost his temper, but it was then that he pulled out his gun and yelled at the mother and son, “Give us the money.” Anjula Charles screamed and told her son to press the alarm. According to Jackson’s testimony, as Ray Charles reached under the counter Murray yelled at his friends, “They fixing to pull out a gun!” All three young men bolted for the door and ran off into the night.

Two weeks later, John Kim identified Jackson in a photographic lineup. When the police came knocking at Jackson’s mother’s house they found Jackson. They also found Hodnett, who was staying there with his friend.

“We got lucky,” one of the police officers told Hodnett. “We didn’t know who you were.”

For his role in the robberies, Hodnett was charged with 15 counts each of armed robbery and aggravated assault, forcing him into the adult system. According to Hodnett, his court-appointed attorney advised him against taking the case to trial.

“He said the district attorney was asking for life and 40 years,” Hodnett said. After the district attorney showed him security footage of Hodnett holding a gun during one of the robberies, Hodnett knew it was over for him. Instead of taking his case to trial, he pled guilty to two counts each of armed robbery and aggravated assault with a 15-year sentence. The DA decided not to prosecute the other 13 counts.

Because Hodnett was still 16, he was placed in a special segregated section of the adult prison. He knew many of the kids there from his days in juvenile detention centers.

“It was like summer camp for me,” he said.

But when Hodnett’s 17th birthday rolled around, he was forced to take the longest short walk of his life, crossing the prison’s recreation yard that physically separates the teens from the adults and symbolically separates the men from the boys. Only hours into his 17th year, Hodnett was very much still a boy.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh shit!’” he said. “How hard am I going to have to fight? How often am I going to have to fight?”

SB 440 and Georgia’s Seven Deadly Sins

After a spike in juvenile crime in the early 1990s, states began passing tougher laws meant to appease a public convinced that the juvenile justice system, with its focus on rehabilitation, was too lenient.

In Georgia, state legislators passed The Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1994, commonly known as SB 440. It mandated the automatic transfer to (adult) Superior Court of any child aged 13 to 17 who committed one of seven crimes: murder, rape, armed robbery (with a firearm), aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery and voluntary manslaughter. They became known as the “Seven Deadly Sins.” Once in Superior Court, the judge has the discretion to send the child to juvenile court.

Should the youth be convicted of one of the seven crimes, a second law, SB 441, immediately takes effect, applying a minimum 10-year sentence with no possibility of parole. Second offenses of any of the “Seven Deadly Sins” can lead to life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The 10-year minimum sentence leads to the unusual situation in which a teenager with virtually no life experience grows up in prison. Upon release the young man may have no idea how to live on the outside and few resources to change that. To begin with, they have no Social Security number and no idea how to get one; no job because they don’t have a Social Security number; no bank account because they have no money to deposit; no credit and no concept of how to build it; and no driver’s license to help them get to a job, the bank, or the Social Security office.

“It’s like being dropped on a deserted island and there’s a hurricane coming,” said Bruce Hodge, a former inmate who served 18 years for murder, beginning when he was 18. “There’s no support.”

Hodge said that during his incarceration, when adult prisons in Georgia housed youth ages 16 to 22 in separate facilities, no programs were in place to provide the younger inmates with guidance or mentoring. The facilities were “basically like concentration camps where you had the blind leading the blind,” he said. “So we didn’t have any guidance until we shipped from there to places that had an older population.”

But lessons from more experienced inmates were not often positive, Hodge said.

“You have a situation where they [young inmates] were taken advantage of, and misguided and mis-educated on what it is to be a man,” he said. “They are blind.” Instead, the kids are taught how to be better criminals.

Without the life skills to cope with the stresses of a new life on the outside, former inmates often resort to crime, Hodge says. Without adequate education and training in prison that will benefit inmates when they get out, you have a recipe for recidivism.

“If you don’t have a stable support system [upon release] you could easily re-offend because you become angry at your lack of knowledge. You don’t want to seem idiotic for asking a question that most people take for granted. When I got out, I couldn’t even put gas in my car because I didn’t know how the pumps worked.”

While prisons do offer some training, it is often reserved for the inmates who are closest to release, not long-term prisoners like Hodge. But he was fortunate, he says. While still incarcerated, Hodge says he convinced prison administrators to let him into training classes well ahead of his release date. As a result he left prison employable, with the skills and experience to earn a decent living. Even so, when money was tight early on following his release in 2009, Hodge said he was tempted to “take the easy way out” and steal what he needed. But he resisted, and support from his family helped him get on his feet. Today, he says, he is successful and independent with a job driving a forklift – a skill he learned in prison.

David’s Story: The Prison Ripple Effect

In total, David Wilhite spent nine years of a mandatory 10-year sentence for armed robbery in northeast Georgia’s Arrendale State Prison, commonly known by the name of the closest town, Alto. For the first few months, just like Levi Hodnett, he was housed in the juvenile dorm of the maximum-security prison. But in February 1997, Wilhite turned 17 and he too made the disquieting walk across the yard to join the adult inmates. He was still a boy unprepared.

“I was terrified really,” Wilhite said. “For a couple of years I didn’t think I’d live through it.”

He didn’t see the first fight coming.

The fight was “about brushing my teeth and spitting in the sink,” Wilhite said. “The guy said something to me about it and I just brushed it off like, ‘whateva nigga.’”

But the other guy didn’t take it quite so lightly, Wilhite said. He went back to his bunk and began to lace up his boots, a sign that he was ready to fight. The guy was ready to fight over how I brushed my teeth, Wilhite thought.

“They’re serious in here,” he realized, matter-of-factly.

After serving his 10-year sentence, Wilhite returned home to a world that was at once exactly as he left it and entirely different. His parents’ house was like a photograph taken 10 years before – the details are the same but the colors have faded. The once-pristine linoleum kitchen floor was peeling at the edges. The hardwood floors were dingy. The walls were scuffed. His father was drinking heavily and diabetic. And then, three months after Wilhite’s release, his father suffered a heart attack.

“All he did [after I came home from prison] was sit in his chair and drink all day,” Wilhite said, shaking his head. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Life behind bars had been difficult for Wilhite, but his absence from the lives of his family – invisible to him for 10 years – was nearly as hard on them.

“It’s like a ripple effect,” he said. “My life would have come out totally different if I would have done 90-days in boot camp or something instead of 10 years in prison. [And] not just my life would have changed, but my whole family’s. If you think about the number of lives that could have been changed, it’s really dramatic.”

Today, Wilhite is once again serving time following a rape conviction in April 2012. Because it was the second time he had been convicted of committing one of the “Seven Deadly Sins,” he was given a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

Levi’s Story Part Three: The Scars of Prison Codependency

Levi Hodnett would spend 13 years locked up. While in prison he earned his G.E.D. and hoped to attend school for graphic design upon release. But with little family support, Hodnett is struggling.

He is now 33 years old, still baby faced with a thin scruff of beard; not the image of a hardened criminal. With his round features, he doesn’t even look 33. Clearly not proud of his past, he is quiet and reserved. He is trying to make the best of it, but there is a hint of general frustration with the world – of resignation in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Prison left its scar on him.

At a popular chicken-sausage stand in Atlanta, Levi sat hunched over a picnic table on the patio and talked about his experience between mouthfuls of his lunch. The noisy buses and trucks rumbling along busy Moreland Avenue often smothered his soft words, and for just a moment, Hodnett would lift his head a little higher and straighten his back, making a physical effort to be heard over the din. Then, just as quickly, he would shrink back over his plate.

Living on the outside has been a big adjustment, he said. The world has changed dramatically since he went to prison and now he is trying to catch up on the last 13 years of news, culture and technology. There is a gulf, he says, between himself and those who’ve never been to prison — and it’s not just that he doesn’t understand the pop culture references. He is isolated and unsure of himself. Prison changed him, he says. He looks at the world differently now, much differently than many people his age. They can’t understand because they weren’t there.

In prison he was “co-dependent,” he said. “Now I have to be independent. It sounds crazy, but [in jail] I was sheltered. I had three meals; I didn’t know what the world was really like.”

Now Hodnett stays with his aunt, working the odd construction job and temping at a large hotel doing whatever is needed. He’s been back to jail once, briefly, for stealing copper and is now on probation. It’s interrupted his plan of going to college, but he is still hopeful.

When he finished eating, Hodnett immediately cleared the table, putting his tray away and dumping the garbage.

“In prison we had to take our trays up when we were done,” he said.

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