The morning I was arrested, the Washington Post ran a story about President Clinton’s then chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta. A dozen years later, I sat on the main stage at the University of Maryland’s graduation with now Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta two seats away from me. That night he would be called on to give the main address to the 2009 graduating class; I would have the honor of giving the student commencement speech moments before his address. Though I did not know Mr. Panetta that night, and do not know him still, I know what a rarity it is to share a stage with someone that accomplished. I understand why no one expected me to make it to that stage from the cells I called home, and that hard settled truth is why I now maintain that a prison cell must always be a last resort.
It has been 15 years since I awakened a man asleep in his car with the tap of a pistol. Fifteen years since handcuffs were first placed around my wrists and I pled guilty, at 16 years old, to the terrible offense. It has been six years since I was released from prison. When I walked out of a prison cell for the final time I knew that I’d wasted my youth, knew that I’d been confined for a third of my young life. I am familiar with handcuffs, have been familiar with them since before I was old enough to vote. This is what I’m an expert in. And yet, truly, my familiarity is such a common occurrence that now Baltimore proposes to build a $100-million jail for juveniles who are only charged (not convicted) as adults.
Most people look with surprise and concern when they learn that youth are sent to adult prisons. My arrest was shocking to my family, but more shocking was my transfer to the county jail, an adult facility. They were devastated, and in that devastation learned that there exists a contingent of families, a group of people who live in a parallel universe where every decision seems to defy logic.
What followed my arrest was what can, in many cases, be expected. There were the nine days I spent in solitary confinement as they waited for a cell to open on the juvenile wing; they released me to the adult population when it no longer made sense to the powers that be to maintain a juvenile wing. It was difficult for me to resolve myself to follow rules that made little sense, and there was an inability to deal with the anger that comes from spending hours locked in a cell. As the story goes, I ended up in solitary confinement. Not one time, not two times, but three times within my first three years of incarceration. Twice for six month stretches. I had no champions. I was 16 years old, surrounded by men with sentences ranging from a few months to a lifetime.
I had no champions inside the system because, apparently, it is easier to imagine that a young person can never change. And a prison creates conditions that make it easier for us to believe this. Ask most of the guards, wardens, and other administrative staff of any prison I served time in and they likely would have had little positive to say about me. Circumstance allowed them to see me in only one way.
When you build a prison for young people, reasons are found to lock young people up there—and once a young person is in prison the labeling begins. Some mornings I look into the mirror and wonder if I am that different from the 16-year-old kid who went to prison. I realize that the reason few expected success from me was both because my crime showed me grossly incapable of making the proper decisions and the place where I served my time, those prisons, were not designed to encourage hope.
The citizens of Baltimore should ask themselves exactly what it means to build another jail. The jail is a monument to failure, and I can’t imagine how anyone would not want to strongly consider if this is the appropriate move, especially given that it would be designed for juveniles. This isn’t about me advocating for the coddling of young people who commit crimes, heinous or otherwise. I hold no illusions—I know that my crime warranted punishment. Yet, many years ago Frederick Douglass wrote, “It’s easier to raise strong children than to repair broken men.” Once you place a juvenile in prison, the only guarantee is that they will be broken, and that breaking will never serve Baltimore’s youth well.