By Terri Stewart
In my role as Head Chaplain of the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition, one of the programs I work with is called the Neighborhood Youth Mission Team (NYMT). At one particular NYMT gathering, we came together to do service work. We went to Rainier Beach United Methodist Church where they are installing a non-profit day-care to serve the local neighborhood.
The youth, all incarcerated, wanted to do a project together that meant something to their community. One of them even dreams of his own day-care someday; one that will be open late to serve the working people in this poverty-stricken area. The youth chose this day-care project. In particular, they worked on leveling the floor so better flooring could be installed. All day long they removed chipped tiles, filled it with putty, and smoothed it out-except for an extended break that we took for group formation.
We gathered in the sanctuary and one boy sat at the drums, one went to the piano, and one stood behind the pulpit. The fourth young man sat with me in the pews, along with the detention center staff that accompanied us. The boys jammed on the piano and drums (and no, they did not have “skill” but they were surely making a joyful noise!) while the “preacher” raised his hands and said, “Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here today to preach the news of…” and then he would dissolve into giggles. At one point, he was laughing so hard, he was on his knees! It was amazing to see these “street hardened” youth laughing and playing in a church sanctuary just like any young person anywhere.
I asked the preacher, “If you could tell people one thing about your neighborhood, what would you say?” He got serious. The room quieted. Everybody watched and listened. Then he preached, “You have to fix the economic opportunities that my people have! It is a never ending circle of poverty that spirals inward on itself and turns into violence. As soon as one of us has something, someone jumps on him because he has nothing. And people just continue to hurt each other.”
One of the other boys chimed in, “You have to learn to play the game to survive and it is hard.”
Unfortunately, this triggered a reaction in another boy. He exclaimed, “It ain’t no game.” I stepped in, hoping to quiet the emotions that were growing asking that we remember to not invalidate anybody’s experience. He said, “You don’t get it. We’re not talking about a board game. Game is what you do on the streets to hustle, to sell drugs, to survive. We don’t need game. Life is not game.”
What can you do? Inwardly sigh and hold the emotions in the room. The boys went back to working on the floor and we were all a little more thoughtful. The boys finished their work and went back to detention.
It is in these moments that I feel like shaking the world by its scruff! Unfortunately, that is not possible!
The four young men that I spent time with that day are all affected by incarceration, drug use, and poverty. The correlation of parental incarceration, drug use, poverty, and low education with incarceration is quite high. So we know, without a doubt, that by not having good school systems, we are sentencing children to jail. In fact, many states forecast their prison populations off of third grade reading levels. Instead of fixing the education, they negotiate favorable contracts with long-term planning. Infuriating.
What are some other things we know? Oh yeah! Jesus told his followers that they would be judged by their treatment of the hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned. As my teenage son would say, “fail.”
Another thing we know is that the solution to youth crime is not incarceration. A report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports:
- Youth prisons do not reduce recidivism
- Youth prisons waste taxpayer money
- Youth prisons expose youth to dangerous and abusive conditions
But, the good news:
- States have reduced their juvenile corrections populations
- There has been no corresponding increase in juvenile crimes or violence
In particular, King County is piloting a program for youth that diverts a large amount of youth before they become imprisoned. This has been done without an increase in crime rates, without an increase in staff, and without more money. However, the staff are certainly feeling fatigued by the increased work load.
The question is, “What are we, as people of faith, to do about kids in prison?” I will admit that I am saddened by our church’s response-especially the mainline and/or liberal churches. Of all the volunteers that I coordinate, there are about 4 mainline, liberal chaplain volunteers. So the people that offer a “God of Love” have abandoned the prison to the people that offer a “God of Judgment.” That just makes me mad.
I am also saddened by our societal response. Where is the march for full funding of education? Where is the push for more group homes and less incarceration? Where is the demand that job opportunities be a priority for those living in poverty? Where is the watchful eye over Olympia to ensure just and fair laws are created that lead to solutions rather than more incarceration? Where is it?
There is an action being considered in Olympia right now that would remove a judge’s discretion when sentencing youth who have been found with firearms. This may sound mild, but it would require all youth to be incarcerated for 10 days if they are convicted of having a firearm. Again, we know that incarceration increases recidivism and yet this bill is demanding certain incarceration. Also, it removes the judge’s discretion to make other decisions that may be in the best interest of the youth and the community. Stopping this law would be one step in the right direction.
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