OP-ED: Not Far from the High Stakes of the Kentucky Derby, Odds Favor Incarceration for Youth

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John Lash

The world’s eyes may be turned to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby this weekend, but our real attention should be on other parts of Louisville, Ky. Consider this prayer written by a 15-year-old resident of Beecher Terrace, a notorious housing complex less than five miles away from the famous race track.

“I pray to you God, just please help me. I don’t know who I am anymore. I need your help. I’m tired and I just want some rest. I just want to sleep. I’m just tired period. I’m ready to give my life up. I am ready to die. I want to do it myself. That’s why I need you, so I know where I belong.”

Three days after writing it she overdosed on pills stolen from her mother. Though she survived she still had a hard road to travel in front of her.

The author is Christel, a 15-year-old girl who is one of four subjects in “Prison State,” a recent documentary that aired on PBS’s Frontline. The film follows four residents of Beecher over the course of a year. All are involved with the justice system. One in six of their neighbors will be imprisoned this year.

The state spends $15 million annually to imprison residents of this complex and surrounding neighborhoods. Many of them are kids, each costing taxpayers $87,000 a year.

Kentucky was firmly caught up in the whirlwind of prison expansion that characterized the last several decades of U.S. criminal justice policy. The state experienced a 45 percent growth rate in prisoners over a 10-year period ending in 2009, and a concurrent 220 percent increase in spending. Though things have begun to turn around there is still a lot of work to be done to dismantle the system built around these people.

Hasan Davis, the commissioner of the state’s juvenile justice agency explains in the film how a whole population has been criminalized.

“Problems at home? Lock them up. Problems at school? Lock them up,” he said.

As Michelle Alexander says in the film, “Incarceration is normalized. The system operates from cradle to grave.” Parents are often in prison, and starting in school “small infractions are treated as criminal.” Eventually the message becomes internalized: “Whether you follow the rules or don’t, you are going to jail. … [It is] part of your destiny.”

Some 1,000 kids a year were in detention for truancy alone. Christel’s own father has been in and out of prison her whole life. So have many of her uncles, cousins and friends.

“I don’t like him. Every time he told me he was going to come back and be in my life he lied,” she said.

She started to get in trouble in elementary school, then more in middle school. By the time Christel reached high school she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

At the time of the filming she was skipping school frequently and in trouble for truancy. Her mother was afraid that she’d be charged herself for her daughter’s offenses, and decided to take out a “beyond control warrant.”

“She has been messing up,” Christel’s mother said. “I think she went to school Monday, and that’s the only day she went. There is nothing else I can do. I don’t know how to help my daughter.”

The other juvenile profiled is Demetria, whose story is even sadder. Her mother died when she was 9. At 14 she has already been to jail three times and faces 11 charges stemming from an assault on her aunt and other offenses.

Her aunt is also her guardian and is unwilling to take Demetria on passes or cooperate with efforts to send her home. The girl is medicated for anxiety and its effects on her are obvious as the film progresses.

“I don’t need nobody,” Demetria said. “Locked up does not make you say, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to do this again.’ It might make some people think that, but not me.”

With nowhere to go she is sent away for a year. Hasan Davis laments that a kid’s involvement with the system is seldom good.

“Once a child is involved with us it increases the likelihood of continued involvement.”

Being locked up, counted, given a number … all of these have an effect.

“How do you help but internalize that,” he goes on, “or not think it is my natural habitat”?

The film is disturbing to watch, and despite recent efforts at reform in Kentucky the task of addressing the massive poverty and inequality that really underlies the nation’s obsession with imprisonment seem more daunting than ever. There has been so much waste for so many years that the problems have become generational.

Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative explains the dynamics of a society that tries to incarcerate away its problems. We have invested massive resources in, “jails and prisons, not in schools” and other places where a difference could be made.

Fortunately, as Stevenson points out, “We’ve seen the national rate of incarceration begin to slow. The big question is can we sustain that. We can’t incarcerate ourselves out of these problems.” But a lot of harm has already been done, and for some it may be too late.

There is some hope in this film. It explores the role of judges and juvenile justice workers, and not all of the outcomes are bad. Still, it offers an uncompromising view of the national tragedy of mass incarceration. We’ll be a long time fixing the mess we’ve made.

By the end of the film Demetria has spent almost a year locked up. The unfairness of it all is apparent, and her response is an ever-increasing anger.

“I just don’t care no more. I just don’t care. I don’t give a fuck. Every time they catch me I’m going to keep running,” she said.

And run she did. She was released to her aunt earlier this year, but violated her probation and is now a fugitive. Who can blame her?

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