Stephen Reba is currently the Director of Appeal for Youth Clinic with Emory University’s Barton Center. He previously served as a staff attorney for the Supreme Court of Georgia Committee on Justice for Children.
One of the first children—pardon me, one of the first thirteen-year-old adults—that Georgia automatically transferred to the criminal justice system has spent more than half of his seventeen years in the hole.
His knuckles bear the scars of an antipathy to abusive power and injustice, as does his disciplinary record. And while his moral compass is quite in line with what passes for heroism on the outside, on the inside, such defense of principle usually leaves you bantering with desolation’s four walls. There was the correctional officer who took a stack of his neatly written letters asking for legal assistance that the boy was planning to send once he could afford postage. After tossing them on the ground, the officer urinated on the pleas for help in front of the seventeen-year-old. Or, there was the klansman correctional officer at Alto who constantly referred to him as “nigger slave.” As you’ve likely deduced, his response to both resulted in injury to the officers, years in solitary, and retributive cruelty from the friends of those he beat, which kept the cycle spinning. His are the kind of prison offenses that make parole difficult. In a history-written-by-those-who-conquer situation, facts of these incidents are generally not included in the summaries supplied to the parole board.
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.
Like many foster kids, he lost his property somewhere along the way. The blanket that smelled like mom, the sneakers that his brother gave him, the piece of pottery where he kept his coins. Although he begged, his caseworker couldn’t find the time to drive back to placement number four simply to get his childish things that were easily replaced at number five. And so, a petrified six-year-old bounced around the system less a few items he once cherished, items that connected him to where he wanted to be.
The boy grew older and moved around the state from group home to mental health facility. He developed a close relationship with other boys in one home and became involved in a gang. That involvement led to an armed robbery at fourteen, and that armed robbery resulted in a twenty-year prison sentence. I met him more than a year ago, well past the point of challenging his conviction and sentence. Since then, we have communicated frequently. The primary goal of my representation is to make sure the awful things that happened to him in the first five years of prison happen far less frequently or not at all in the remaining twelve.
Our visits generally involved him telling me about what has happened since we last met.
He patrolled the school halls, proudly donning his pull-over uniform vest. It was an honor given to top students in the fifth grade class, and he gladly accepted. Authoritarian, responsible, and trustworthy, he was a hall monitor.
In just three years, however, the hall monitor would be convicted of four gang-related murders and sentenced to a string of consecutive life sentences.
How? Like all youthful offenders, there was a transformation point. For this kid, it happened in the sixth grade, his life unraveling in the span of a single year.
For reasons unknown to the boy, he was forced out of his father’s stable home. From there, he and his older brother went to live with their mother and her boyfriend. Addicted to crack, mother and boyfriend spent their income supporting that habit, thrusting the family into extreme poverty. They moved from apartment to apartment, finally ending up in a home with no heat, no drywall on wood skeleton frames, and virtually no provisions.
The boys, twelve and thirteen, began hanging out with guys in their new neighborhood, working as low level street dealers for a local drug operation. The gig paid only fifty dollars a week, but the kids were also allowed to pick out a new outfit and new pair of shoes every Sunday. (A perk, he noted, that saved him from wearing the same clothes to school each day, an embarrassment he initially suffered after moving in with his mother.)
After living in the quasi-abandoned apartment for a few months, child protective services removed the boys, placing them in a group home nearby. Physically abused by group home staff, the boy and his brother ran. They returned to their mother’s neighborhood, and within a few weeks the boy was back in juvenile court on delinquency charges.
After serving nearly a year at a youth detention center, the boy again returned to the neighborhood. The thirteen-year-old arrived back home to find his brother associated with a gang that didn’t want the boy. Feeling betrayed, he turned to a rival gang and was taken under the wing of an older gangster.
Not long after that, the boy was ordered to do an armed robbery. Things did not go as planned, and people died. On the run, intra-gang issues flared, and more people died. He pled guilty and was given multiple life terms.
I met him ten years later and listened to his story. Unwilling to blame his current situation on any one childhood moment, he rejected the notion of a transformative event, instead insisting that it was all just life.
However, I could clearly hear an intonation of pride in his voice, and perhaps see a small smile on his tattooed face, when he told me that he was the fifth grade hall monitor. As if to say, while I refute the suggestion that one person or thing is responsible for my situation, I was in fact good once.
What is irrefutable is the fact that no one preserved that goodness. No one fought for this kid. No one that should have intervened intervened. No teacher, no social worker, no juvenile justice worker, no one did anything. Instead, we let this kid, who desperately wanted guidance, choose among the pool of mentors available to him.
Where was this kid’s hall monitor? ____________________
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
Without automobile, telephone, or literacy, it was the first contact with her son in more than half a decade. Occurring just outside the courtroom, after a little cajoling to let him out of the holding cell, the moment transcended confinement, distance, and silence. The thought of my twenty-four-year-old client crying, tears streaming down his face to his tattooed neck, was unimaginable. That there was anything but calloused, deep emptiness left in him seemed unlikely. Locked up since fourteen, those emotions began to fade in youth detention centers, then eviscerated by violence and abuse, both given and taken, in prison. There was always the hope that this capacity to feel could come back with liberty and its services, that intensive therapy could somehow resuscitate what was present before his incarceration. But, this kid was pretty far gone. They saw each other when he came through the courtroom door. He fell to his knees, shackled and crying. His mother grabbed his head and brought it into her body, “my baby, my baby.” The embrace lasted for well over a minute, reaching back to the place of forced separation, belying the notion that such a bond could be destroyed by anything other than them.
The thirteen-year-old sat at the defense table with his mother. The school principal, serving as prosecutor and the district’s sole witness, occupied the table to their left. Three administrators from other district schools stared down from their elevated bench. Sitting with the tribunal, indistinguishable in both presence and role, was the hearing officer. When the boy’s mother attempted to ask the principal a question, he would invoke his role as prosecutor. When the inquiry was directed at the hearing officer, he would explain that he was not a witness.
Of all my cases, his is far and away the most unjust, living in the fracture just out of the reach of Graham. I met him among the ragged novels in the prison library, a small table between us. I began the conversation as I begin every first conversation, “Tell me about your life before the alleged offense and prison.” Nervousness paralyzed his words, which I attributed to the natural reaction that unsounded desperation has when presented with a modicum of hope. His story was sadly common. Siblings defaulted to the role of parent while a mother worked three jobs. A father would show up occasionally, deliver a beating, and vanish. He knew precisely how many times he had seen the man. The last time, particularly memorable, involved a blow that left the boy disabled. The transitory family moved from government-subsidized housing to mobile home parks in the small North Georgia town. Some residences theirs, some the homes of kind neighbors who let them stay for awhile.
For more than an hour, I sat in an interview room waiting for the prison guards to bring him up from solitary. In a place where anything can be fashioned into a weapon, time is no exception. Tired of staring at the large metal door, I pulled a manila folder labeled “Letters” from my case file and began reading. Sent in roughly four-week intervals, each letter was a plea in the same format. Part one, the abuse. Part two, imploring me for help. Part three, thanking me profusely. As I reached the end of last month’s letter, I heard the faint sound of ankle chains hitting the ground.
We opened case log after case log; some on shelves, some piled in columns, askew on the damp floor. In the process, century-old dust resting on the massive books had awoken, making it increasingly difficult to see anything in the room. When we first began to search the poorly lit space in the catacombs of the ancient building, the court clerk found a reference to what we were looking for. But, in the five hours since that find there had been nothing. It wasn’t here. He had been trying to track it down for half of his life. And my trip down these pecan-tree-lined roads to this decaying courthouse in southern Georgia had been just as futile as the countless letters he had sent to the court from prison over the last sixteen years. On my way out of town, I made a left on a road I recognized from the police report. Just beyond a mobile home park was a vacant storefront with a grassy lot of long-abandoned cars at the rear.
With the confederate battle flag high atop a pole in the foreground, he trudged up the courthouse steps. It was a toss-up as to what made it more difficult for him to move, the oversized jumpsuit hanging off his thin frame or the shackles running from wrist to wrist and ankle to ankle. His mother looked at him, then at his juvenile correction officer escort, then at me. She was crying. The officer let mother and child speak for a moment. They moved off to the side, and we asked the officer why our small, gaunt client still had clothes that were three sizes too big. His answer was something to the effect of he’s so much smaller than the other residents, and the facility doesn’t stock jumpsuits that size. Sensing his answer to be inadequate, he jumped into a monologue on the facility where he currently worked, the facility he worked at previously, and his retirement that was days away. He spoke with the boldness that comes with leaving something entirely. He chastised the system, its failures, its apathy, its infectious numbness. His discontent waned and he directed his attention back to the youth in chains, summoning him into the courthouse. Mother hugged son. Son, unable to separate his arms to complete the action, leaned into his mother’s grasp. I sat in the hallway outside the courtroom jotting down some final notes before the hearing. There was no holding cell, so the officer sat in the opposite corner of the hallway next to the youth who was despondently swatting at flies circling his head with both hands. After a few swats, each one a little less enthusiastic than the last, he gave up and put his head in his bound hands.