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Three perspectives on incarceration, criminal justice, and the impact on society

In The Guardian this week, an article was published noting that there had been 994 mass shootings in 1004 days. The rhetoric spinning out from the tragedy has focused on mental health, residual commentary on gun violence, and security (with some going so far as to suggest that arming more people is a step toward preventing such a shooting from reoccurring). Below are three links — two documentary and one media commentary — that tangentially or directly address issues of gun violence, incarceration, criminal justice, and mental health in our country. There are more, and we’ll share them here as part of our ongoing efforts to inform ourselves and each other as we engage in debates about justice in the lives of youth. We encourage you to share additional pieces that you’d like to include in subsequent posts.

HBO’s VICE Special Report: Fixing the System
President Barack Obama sits down with Vice and prison inmates at the El Reno correctional facility to discuss a growing human rights crisis in the Vice on HBO Special Report: Fixing the System.

Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s Children
Presented by entrepreneur, music mogul and activist Russell Simmons and narrated by “Empire” actress Gabourey Sidibe, this hourlong documentary investigation, “Prison Kids,” is the result of Fusion’s work. It is a story about how to take children and ostracize them, derange them, outlaw them. It is the story of America’s crimes against children.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Mental Health
John Oliver explains how our national system of treating mental health works, or more often than not, how it doesn’t.

Love Letter, Part II: Reflections on Mentoring a Court-Involved Young Person

Because the Youth, Media & Educational Justice course is a year long, as opposed to a final paper, we were asked to bring an ‘artifact’ to the last class–something that represented where we were in our thinking about the course, the topics, the experiences, as we left for winter break. Below is my artifact: a “love letter” that I wrote for myself and to my classmates, reflecting on becoming a mentor for a court-involved young person.

* * *

Dear Youth, Media, and Educational Justice Fam,

It’s been nearly two months since my last love letter. To you. To us.

Like last time, it’s challenging to know exactly where to begin.

To reflect on and dissect and pinpoint and pull apart where we have been.

What we have done.

Who we continue to become as a collective. An entity. A family.

Since my last love letter, we have continued to work tirelessly and creatively to locate where exactly youth, media, and justice intersect and overlap; we’ve jumped head first into conversations about and experiences of realness, and messiness, and about possibilities.

…But since my last love letter, I’ve also seen the bruises on the pale, thin wrists of the young woman I mentor–painted on her by the handcuffs of a police officer who arrested her in her living room, in front of her 9-year-old brother and 10-month-old sister;

…bruises from handcuffs of police officers who were responding to a 911 call from her own mother who didn’t want her in the house.

What do I say to this 15-year-old girl as she shows me her bruises and shares her side of the story?

She speaks to me, a weak staccato quiver in her voice, and tells me about an altercation she had with a girl in the group home last night; about how she doesn’t feel safe here in the group home anymore.

What the hell do I say to her—as the scent of my perfume wafts up from the folds of my warm, knit sweater, and reminds me of my family, of summertime, of feeling free and warm and safe—as my mind darts from one image to another, trying to picture her living room, her mother, the journey from Brooklyn back to the group home in lower Manhattan, (in the back of a police car?)—as I unconsciously glance down at my watch: 7:00pm. We have another 30 minutes here. I’ll be home in time to walk the dog and stir the pulled pork brewing in the slow cooker before my sister gets home. Before I lock my door, turn off the lights, and curl up in my warm bed and drift into sleep stressed out about the readings I didn’t yet do for class tomorrow…

How do I listen to her and react to her when according to the “rules” for mentors I can only give this girl a “side-hug” for safety reasons?

What the hell do I say to her when with every passing moment I’m increasingly blinded by my own privilege? By the inarguable fact that I will never know what any of this actually feels like.

Cause like, all I wanna do right now is hug this girl and tell her it’s going to be alright. And tell her that she’s safe here. And ask her a million more questions about what this feels like and what the deal is with her father? And why it is that she is the only one out of the four children in her family who lives in a group home?

I rub her back quickly, a give her a side-hug, and all that comes out of my mouth is, “I’m sorry.”

And she looks at me, with glassy eyes, and the corners of her mouth pull down like she’s holding the other side of a magnet below in her hands, and she nods.

And my mouth takes a similar shape, and my heart gets heavy, and there’s a sharp zing that pierces my core as I take a deep breath in an effort to push the tears that are threatening to emerge back into my eyes.

I am not qualified for this shit.

The following Tuesday, I’m told she is AWOL.

And I wonder if I’ll get paired up with someone else.

I’m still there every Tuesday, collaging and laughing and spending time with the other young women. But the mentoring sessions at the group home feel different, they’ve lost a bit of meaning. They’ve started to feel like a Tuesday night chore, and I feel like an asshole for thinking that.

I don’t see my mentee for three weeks.

And then last week the mentoring supervisor tells me she’s back. That she doesn’t know where she’s been, but that it may not have been the safest situation, and there may be some trauma involved in the situation.

My stomach lurches at the news—I’m relieved that she’s safe, I’m excited to see her, but I’m also absolutely terrified to know where she was, what’s happened, and what the hell I’m going to say to her.

 I am not qualified for this shit.

The supervisor tells me that she almost cried when they told her that I’d been coming even while she was away. She couldn’t believe I’d still been there even when she was not. The weight of her decision to go AWOL took on a new meaning when she realized that there were other people involved and affected by her actions. They had her sign a commitment contract, binding her participation in the mentoring program. I don’t know what that means. I don’t necessarily understand the “procedural rationale”. But okay.

I see her from across the room. Her hair is straight, not braided in cornrows or tucked under a fitted as usual. She looks smaller than I remember.

We make eye contact and a big smile spreads across her face.

I stand up.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, with a familiar staccato quiver in her voice, “I missed you,” as she hands me a folded up piece of loose leaf paper, “I wrote you a letter…I’m sorry.”

She gives me a full-on hug. And I full-on hug her back. Screw it.

That night we play bingo. As we prepare our cards, she tells me bits and pieces about what happened at the group home that made her leave, and where she’s been since. We eat pizza, and laugh as B5 and G32 are called…I’m happy she’s back.

…This is not a success story. It’s not meant to depict an event in which all loose ends are gathered and re-tied tightly. There is still a lot of shit going on. She has had 3 altercations in the few days since her return. I still do not know what to say…

But that moment of reunion was one of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced. This is the work. This is why a course like “Youth, Media and Educational Justice” exists. This moment solidified for me why taking on a mentor role in the life of a court-involved young person could fundamentally change the game. How do we work to make invisible children—whose lives are silenced, disrupted, misunderstood—more visible?

I may not be qualified for this shit, but I’m learning and growing and humbled and terrified. And it is now more than ever clear that it’s worth it.

In love and gratitude,


home for the holidays.

home for the holidays.

there are songs about it.  hallmark makes a fortune selling cards either affirming the practice or lamenting ones ability to get there.  its something i look forward to with great anticipation.  however, this year, while i was sitting in my dad’s recliner that he never actually sits in when i’m home, eating a dinner lovingly and deliciously prepared by my mother, while enjoying silly conversation with my 6.5 year old niece and nephew, i thought back to the youth we have had the chance to talk about over the last semester.

what does it feel like to experience the holidays without a home? something i always take for granted.  something that seems to me to be as special a time in the year as any, that i have, for the first time stopped to think, that many do not enjoy.  learning too early that santa only brings presents to some people (perhaps not in the foster home or group home, certainly not in prison or juvenile detention centers).  or perhaps of being in a foster home, away from siblings, extended family and parents.  wishing you had such a luxury to go “home to the holidays”.  perhaps not even able to comprehend what that might look like.

and i enjoyed my time even more.  but with a hint of guilt, or sadness.  at the experiences, holidays being just one, that i have always known and take for granted which i am now keenly aware is not the case.  and i wonder what it is like to not be home for the holidays.  not have a home to go to, or even if you do, not be able to get there.

soon after the joy of christmas we welcome the new year.  hallmark sells more cards filling us with the rhetoric that it is a time of new chances, new opportunities, where anything we dream can be true.  yet, once again, that rhetoric is only true for a select few.  those who perhaps didn’t have many struggles in the previous year, or even if they did, were surrounded by the warmth of home, support and family needed to overcome.  but to add salt to a fresh wound, we celebrate new opportunities and new chances with people who have little to no control over their outcome.  who rely on other adults to make their future better and brighter.  and while the world celebrates opportunities and fresh starts, they are left with the same slate, the same past, the same obstacles as they had at 11:59.

happy holidays.

happy new year.

full of promise and opportunities and new beginnings.

for some.

The Lover and the Guilty

Where there is an issue, diverse actors are affected. How is the voice of the community valued? How do we consider and support members of family and friends? How can we value narratives behind the stigma?

The following powerful testimony is in the voice of a woman who regularly visits her husband in jail. Her narrative denounces the unfairness of policies; specifically, policies that generate structural violence that are deeply rooted in state institutions. When an institution is mostly responsible for stigma and stereotypes, what are the strategies to advocate for human rights and human dignity?

She exposes her feelings in terms of what it means to be a wife, what it means to love, what it means to love a criminal. She stands up and voices her concerns; how many families are experiencing stigmas because a family member is in jail? What kind of support can they find? 


The Lover and the Guilty

“Pilot-apartments” are set up in some jails so that prisoners can meet their family with intimacy… There must be only few in only two or three jails. The Centrale of Poissy is one of them, and I am interested because I am married since 1989 to a “perpète” (nick name for life-sentenced).

This project is justified by longer sentences with security measures. We do not question the heaviness of punishment, which becomes more and more heavy. All prisoners do not have access to family visit units (FVU) given the small number of units (two or three for three hundred prisoners in Poissy), where access is very rare for the largest number to benefit. Normal parloirs (visiting hours), will whereas, be very rigorously monitored with punishment for “indecent behavior”. Only a few privileged have regular access to FVU, from which is fostered shenanigans, haggling, and jealousy.

Where the shoe pinches for us, Parloirs’ women, is that softening the punishment seems so good to take … The leftist project now gained to security, and especially the arrival of a hyper-repressive right wing, however, should make us think, think to be wary. We are forced to cut us in two: the lover and the guilty.

We should now rightly fear the scarcity, or even the end, of conditional releases. By way of “half-liberty”, what it offers families is a half-detention. Opinions of Parloirs’ women are never asked: That’s why I give mine.

DUZSKA MAKSYMOWITZ, (translated into English) In Mazoyer, F. (2003). La fin de la vie privée. In Manière de voir 71. Le Monde Diplomatique, October-November 2003, p.45

Duzska Maksymowitz was married for twelve years to a “perpète” now free; she is the author of “Femme de Parloir”, L’esprit frappeur (editor), Paris, 2000.

Through her writing, Duzska Maksymowitz is an activist for women’s dignity and women’s rights. She voices the taboo of loving a prisoner. She voices the taboo of being a family member of a criminal; she voices the concerns, the challenge and the experiences that women, wives, mothers, sisters, or children are facing when a close person, family member, friend or lover is imprisoned.

A Strategy for a Strained System

NPR’s “All Things Considered” recently ran a feature story entitled “Strained Foster Care System: A ‘Meter of Our Social Programs.’” By interweaving the stories and commentaries of Claudia Felder, a 21-year-old young woman who spent over 10 years in the foster care system, Claudia’s adoptive parent and social worker Kim Felder, Chris Beam, author of The End of June, and Alex Morales, CEO of the Children’s Bureau of Southern California, Arun Rath creates a complex picture of a foster care system struggling to support the 400,000 kids in its care. That is equivalent, Beam reminds us, to the total number of students in all Chicago public schools—elementary, junior high, and high school combined.

While it is important to recognize that there are foster care stories with happy endings, as in the case of Claudia Felder who found a social worker who would listen and in her a mother to trust, Morales reminds us that others whose lives are mediated by the courts are not so lucky. In the LA foster care system, for example, there are only around 3,000 homes, a fifty percent decrease from five years ago. As Morales describes, “The children have no place to go when they come into the care of the government or courts,” so young people are shuttled to group homes, institutions often characterized by bleak conditions and overcrowding. Beam adds that for many older kids who don’t end up with families by the time that they are 12 or 13, adoption no longer seems like a viable or even appealing option. Instead, many decide to run out the clock and age-out of the system. But that, Beam argues and Claudia confirms, is a dangerous solution. Independence without family support is a challenging endeavor. “You need to have somebody in your life,” Claudia explains.

So what do we do? How do we repair a broken system representative of a broken society? While there is neither a silver bullet, nor single answer, Beam identifies the need for more outreach influenced by a redefinition of family.

“ …what we really need to be finding for them are families. And by family, I mean one person to say, you know what? I’m going to stick by you. I’m going to care about you. I’m going to love you for a long time”

Beam’s definition of family may seem simple, yet its essence is complex and compelling. Family need not be traditional. Family need not be biological. Family is connection, care, and consistency. All youth need a family.

For More Information:


In Hawaii: Building networks of support for foster youth

The informative blog kept up by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation (@NE_Children) recently shared a video produced by the Epic Ohana organization about initiatives being undertaken in Hawaii to support youth in their foster care system (watch film below).

The video centers on the idea of social capital, which has been illustrated in the form of four vignettes that correspond to each of the four colored puzzles pieces: Family, School, Community, and Peers.


Social capital is a concept that has its roots in social theory, largely associated  in social sciences with the musings and writings of Pierre Bourdieu, and plays on the economic definitions of capital, or simply: assets, wherein different assets can gain you varied access (and thus power) in a given situation or circumstance. Social capital, therefore, calls attention to the (varying) value embedded in the social networks with which we are associated. (And for those social capital scholars out there, this is, of course, a gross oversimplification.)

Epic Ohana’s short film highlights the importance of increasing and strengthening the social networks of foster youth so that their family, community, peer, and school networks are not waning but rather are robust and reliable sources of capital: human capital, cultural capital, etc.

What is always most compelling to me, however, is the simultaneous awareness of youth of the significance of the social networks they belong to for their own sense of self and the oftentimes inability to know how to leverage the tremendous assets found in those social networks to sustain their future trajectories. I suspect part of the reason for the latter is that for too long young people’s social networks have been vilified rather than seen as a source of strength or as rich wells of what Luis Moll, Norma Gonzalez, and others have long referred to as “funds of knowledge.”

But that’s enough chatter — you probably just want to watch the video (just over 9 minutes long, and full of young people’s voices — not one of those talking head films):



New reading

Look what we’re reading/watching this week:



  • Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling — by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer: An update of Mauer’s popular text about the exponential growth of the prison industry and the criminal justice system.
  • Le gamin au vélo (The kid with a bike): about a young boy whose father gives up his parental rights and who is taken into care by a local hairdresser; she becomes his family.
  • The Arrival — by Shaun Tan: A stunning, wordless graphic novel about a man’s journey to a new a land, full of the emotion of being lost, found, mis-read, welcomed, and seeking and finding home.



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