Last week, the John Howard Association, Illinois' only nonpartisan prison watchdog and justice reform advocate, released “In Their Own Words,” a report that chronicles the journey of six young serious offenders through Illinois’ criminal justice system, from arrest to incarceration.
Below is Jordan’s story (his name is changed to protect his privacy). I think this is one of the most moving, heartbreaking and profound accounts I’ve read of what it’s like to be a kid in the criminal justice system. I hope you’ll agree.
Jordan, an African-American male in his mid-20s at the time of the interview, grew up in Chicago for the first 11 years of his life. He was the middle child, with one older brother and one younger sister. They lived with their parents. Jordan’s father grew up in gangs and was in prison much of his life. Jordan never had a good relationship with him.
He recalled: "It was rough. He beat the hell out of us."
When Jordan was about 9, his father abandoned the family. Jordan’s mother decided the best thing would be to move the kids to the suburbs so they could grow up in a safer neighborhood. Jordan was glad to leave the city, and wanted to move as soon as possible.
The move was good for the whole family and for Jordan in particular. Unlike the city neighborhood Jordan grew up in, the suburbs seemed less callous and hardcore, and Jordan felt more at home and respected and liked for who he was.
Jordan’s mother tried to make up for the past and turn her life around by becoming a strict Christian. She tried to cater to and baby Jordan, but this made things worse because he felt a lot of anger and aggression inside. Still, life in the suburbs was much better than in the city.
Looking back, Jordan believed that moving to the suburbs was critical because it allowed him to let down his guard and develop into a more perceptive and sensitive person who was conscious of people’s emotions.
At age 14, Jordan began hanging out the wrong crowd, who were older guys in neighborhood gangs. As Jordan described himself at that time: "I was just a kid who reacted, but not in an intelligent fashion."
When Jordan’s best friend died, he pulled back from the streets and stopped hanging out with the gang. People who used to be his friends started to bully him. At one point, three guys he used to hang out with jumped him and gave him a beating.
At 15, Jordan’s life changed forever when he was charged with first-degree murder after he and an older boy, who was Jordan’s friend, got into a violent fight. The friend began chasing Jordan around the neighborhood. Jordan called his mother on his cellphone to ask for help, but the friend caught up and pulled a knife. During the struggle, Jordan stabbed his friend.
Immediately after the incident, Jordan’s mother called the police and took him to the police station to explain what happened. He was at the station for hours. While he was there, his friend died in the hospital. At that point, Jordan was charged as an adult with first-degree murder.
Jordan recalled: "It was unreal, like watching a movie. I felt numb. For all the animosity, he was still my friend. I was godfather to his child." The only thing that made Jordan feel better was that his mother understood he acted in self-defense and did not mean to kill anyone.
During the pretrial period, Jordan was first sent to the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC), where he stayed for about a year and half. He had some missteps at first. He was jumped by some kids and didn’t retaliate the first time.
He learned from that experience that you have to respond if you are attacked or you will be victimized by bullies. Life in the juvenile detention center ultimately was fairly easy to navigate because he was the biggest kid there. Also, unlike adult facilities, there wasn’t much gangbanging going on.
At 17, Jordan was transferred to Cook County Jail. Young and old inmates were together, and life was very different. Gangbanging was everywhere.
Jordan had been scared to be transferred to adult jail and mixed with older offenders. However, the thing that frightened him most was not the people, but himself. He worried that he would lose hope, lose his identity and not be the same person after going to adult jail.
Jordan’s mother was able to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who was a friend of the family to represent him. The attorney tried to persuade the prosecutor to allow Jordan to plead to a lesser charge, but the prosecutor refused.
Jordan was tried as an adult for first-degree murder, although he was only 15 at the time of the offense. At a jury trial, he asserted self-defense, but was found guilty of first-degree murder.
The judge sentenced him to the minimum of 20 years' imprisonment at 100 percent time. Jordan recalled that the judge seemed indifferent to the entire proceeding.
Jordan’s takeaway from his court experience was: "The whole justice system was just about efficiency, and had nothing to do with people." He observed that since society forgets about the people it incarcerates and the focus was solely on locking people up, the prisons were now bursting at the seams.
Jordan said it was human nature to forget, and he did not expect anyone to care what happened to a 15-year-old black kid who had been convicted of murder because it was a matter of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. He said the public had a short attention span even with the most sympathetic people, like the girl who was raped by football players in Steubenville, Ohio, and they stopped even caring about that girl after one news cycle.
After his conviction, Jordan was sent to an adult correctional facility. There, he learned that to survive he had to adapt and show no weakness.
Jordan reflected: "You learn that what makes you respected in here does not make you a good person out there. You learn that the things that make you a good person on the outside, like forgiveness and mercy, will get you killed in here. You either have to play the game in here or you will be played by it."
At one point, Jordan got into a fistfight with an older inmate. While a correctional officer was trying to break up the fight, Jordan hit the officer and was sent to a maximum-security, long-term segregation unit as a result.
There, he experienced and saw others experience suffering in ways that he never imagined. He witnessed men in long-term isolation lose their minds, and degenerate, screaming, mutilating themselves and smearing their own feces on the wall.
Jordan said of the experience: "Those guys are lost and they are not coming back. Even if they get out and go home, a piece of them is gone, and it’s never coming back." Jordan struggled to keep his own sanity during this time by thinking to himself: "What if my mom was watching me? What would she think if she saw me losing it and acting like that?"
To survive prison and solitary confinement, Jordan learned to look inside himself and cultivate a strong conviction in his own humanity as a sustaining force.
Jordan explained: "A lot of guys go from being leaders to being followers. They have no identity and are misled by the prison system about what they will accept in their lives and they let it build their character. But never let the system change you. You have to adapt because prison is a totally unnatural environment that produces unnatural behavior. But you have to remember and know in yourself that you remain inside a gentle person with a heart. God will not give you more than you can bear."
Jordan reflected on his experiences in adult prison and in long-term isolation in particular, saying: "The public does not see or understand this kind of suffering. It’s torture. Better to just kill people than allow this kind of needless suffering. If I was president, I’d do that instead of destroying all these people slowly. Maybe everyone should have someone in their family locked up so they can understand.
"Before I came here, I didn’t understand. I thought, well, they’re all murderers and rapists. There is no other side of the fence when you are on the outside, so you don’t know and you tend to have extreme views.
"But it’s not true. Yes, there are some bad apples. But there are also a lot of guys in here who have changed completely and had deep transformations who would be an asset on the outside. Prisoners are human beings. And whether they are wrongly or rightly convicted, we all have a spiritual obligation to care for other human beings. You can’t judge people just by your own standards.
"And you can’t expect the next man to be the same as you — his tolerance may not be as great as yours and he may be in a much worse situation. You need some humanity. People are born to be perceptive and to communicate with each other. All people have a right to empathy and consideration."
When asked what should happen to young people who commit serious offenses, Jordan responded: "People make mistakes when they are young. You are conscious, but you are not intelligent. America is supposed to be all about second chances. But when you tell a child it’s all over with and you can never live a normal life, it goes against that.
"Young people grow and change. Everything does. Even the grass grows. But you should not lock kids away in prisons. If they were messed up before, they will be even worse when they get out."
Jordan concluded: "Kids need a place and an outlet to cultivate their intelligence and substance, and develop a sense of self and heritage and culture. Minority kids in particular are susceptible to the disease of nothingness. The world is a five-block radius, there is nothing else outside of it, and they feel explosive. Life is so degraded and devalued.
"You just want instant gratification, what you want, when you want it. And that leads to bad choices. But the rebellion of youth is just a season, not a whole life. Kids have emotional outbursts that lead to horrible situations. But we’re not plotting to do bad things.
"Don’t get me wrong, some 16- and 17-year-olds are stone cold killers. If someone is sadistic, then don’t give him a second chance. Give that guy the death penalty. But most guys are not like that. Most kids should be given a second chance and an opportunity to start over while they are still young. They don’t even know who they are. They can be rehabilitated, but not with years and years in prison."
In his own case, Jordan believed that he should be punished and have to answer for what he did in his youth. At the same time, he was skeptical that getting out at age 35 after being imprisoned for 20 years would help anyone. He wished instead that he had been given a sentence of five to 10 years in prison, or alternatively, sentenced as a juvenile to a life sentence, which would have meant he would have been released at age 21.
When asked what advice he had for other kids entering the criminal justice system, Jordan said they should concentrate not just on educating themselves in school, but on understanding themselves and their own minds and emotions. Jordan remembered that a critical moment for him occurred when he happened to pick up a book on psychology in the library at the JTDC and started reading. It was the first time he began to try to understand himself and other people.
Since entering prison, Jordan learned that he had an 8-year-old daughter in Iowa whom he fathered with a 16-year-old girl when he was 14. He was slowly working on establishing a healthy relationship with the child’s mother so that he could see his daughter when he was released. Still, Jordan understood why the mother didn’t want him involved in his daughter’s life when he was younger: "I was a jerk. What was I going to do as a dad at 14?"
Jordan was anxious to be out of prison because he wanted to help raise his daughter and ensure that his mistakes were not passed on to her. He admitted he was acting like a “control freak,” but he found it incredibly hard to be locked in prison, unable to assist in his daughter’s daily upbringing.
He believed the most important things he could give to his daughter were education, strong family support and an appreciation for spiritual belief, cultural values, and heritage. Jordan concluded: "You can love someone with all your heart but kids need more than that. They need substance, not just love."
Jordan's story and five other youths' experiences can be read in the report “In Their Own Words” by the John Howard Association.
John Maki is the executive director of the John Howard Association, Illinois' only juvenile and adult prison watchdog.