Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Burning Down The House

Burning Down The House

Adult nonfiction
Trigger warning: if you have a medical condition like high
blood pressure that would be dangerously exacerbated by reading about
children being kept under truly horrific conditions DO NOT READ THIS
"Mass-circulation news magazines upped the ante by illustrating
stories on the super-predator 'phenomenon' with images of glowering
black teenagers. Politicians hopped on the bandwagon, passing
legislation that increased penalties in juvenile court or that allowed
or demanded that growing numbers of youth be transferred to adult
court, where longer sentences and harsher penalties were readily
dispensed. The public ate it up, and what would later be revealed as
myth quickly became a movement--one that has resulted in an amping up
of our response to juvenile crime that spans the spectrum from
kindergarteners hauled off in handcuffs for school yard scraps to
twelve-year-olds sentenced to spend their lives in prison."
An alarm was sounded in the 1990s. An army of ruthless,
vicious, remorseless 'super-predators' was about to burst on the
American scene. The public needed to take any actions necessary to
protect us from them. Media and politicians did all they could to
inspire fear. Unfortunately when the army failed to materialize and
violent juvenile crime actually went down the measures were not
rescinded. This nation was further than ever down the path that
presented young people caught in the justice system as degraded beings
beyond all help who needed to be kept away from the rest of us rather
than children with the potential for redemption and rehabilitation.
In Burning Down The House: The End Of Juvenile Prison, Nell Bernstein
discusses the consequences of this paradigm shift.
Bernstein contends that, although juvenile prisons were
originally meant to save children from adult prisons with an eye
toward their rehabilitation, in practice they were not all that benign.
"The House of Refuge, in other words--like every manifestation
of the juvenile prison to follow--came to function as a mechanism for
gaining control over the children of the poor, depriving them of their
liberty in the name of their own best interest while skirting the
burdensome requirements of due process. The civic leaders who
comprised the society had little compunction about placing the cart
ahead of the horse, granting themselves control over any child they
deemed at risk of delinquency well before the law gave them license to
do so."
It's not all that clear that the movers and shapers of this
movement had the best interests of the children in mind. It sounds
more like then, as now, their selection of at risk kids to lock up
reflected societal prejudice and fear. Racial profiling was part and
parcel of the selection process. Immigrants, especially those from
Ireland, were seen as having the potential to overthrow the
established social order. Agents were allowed to walk through their
neighborhoods, picking up any children they selected. To fund the new
institutions children were put to work under contracts and punished
severely if they didn't get with the program.
Fast forward to today. Children who are black or Hispanic are
much more likely to be put into the system than white peers who commit
the same offenses. According to Bernstein the vast majority of people
commit at least one act during their youths that could have had them
put away but for the luck of skin color. I have memories of underage
drinking in public while many of my peers smoked grass in broad
daylight in the environs of Harvard Square. Kids today are no
different. The brain centers that govern decision making are works in
progress until the mid twenties. Color and nationality play a major
role in determining which youths must pay a draconian price. Believe
me--they pay a draconian price. Even regular readers of that master
of horror Stephen King will be shocked by the narratives of
Bernstein's subjects.
Quoting Tolstoy ("When will justice come? When those who are
not injured are as indignant as those who are."), Bernstein urges us
to demand for other people's children no less than than we would for
our own:
"Now picture your child, the child you love, being called to
account for what he has done. Do you see him kneeling, cuffed, in a
pool of his own urine, denied all but one meal a day and a few hours
of sleep? Does the picture include your child being raped or beaten---
perhaps both--by the very staff entrusted with her rehabilitation?
Can you hold this image as day after day passes? Can you live with it
for years?
How would your child respond to those conditions? Might she
break down and cry out that death would be better? Picture her, in
that case, tossed into solitary; this is where those who speak of
suicide are often sent. See her alone in a windowless cell, with a
bare cement bunk and a cold metal toilet, huddling naked beneath a
single rough blanket.
[The United Nations, by the way, has designated solitary as
unacceptable cruelty in regard to ADULT enemy combatants.]
Might he get into a fight soon after arrival, trying to prove
that he is not an easy mark? Imagine him, then, in this same bare
cell, not huddling but screaming, unanswered cries of raw and helpless
pain (he's been sprayed in the eyes with Mace and then dispatched to
solitary without medical care or so much as a shower)."
The legions of kids who undergo those traumatic experiences are
someone's children. If we ignore Bernstein's clarion call on their
behalf, may God have mercy on our souls!
On a personal note, Wilson Center Wednesdays started up again. We had
a wonderful chili, garlic bread, and salad meal. Then we did an
active listening experience. We paired up. Each person told a
personal story. Then, back in the circle, we told each other's
stories as our own. Talk about powerful and moving!
A great big shout out goes out to my Wilson Center family.
jules hathaway

Sent from my iPod

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