Four street poets speak out on the juvenile justice system
Should teens go to adult prison?

By Nicholas Williams, 17, Daniel Murphy HS
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Illustration by Shengul Bajrami, 15, University HS

A lot of people say when teens commit a crime, they know what they’re doing and so they should pay the same price as adult criminals. They say age has nothing to do with the seriousness of the crime. If you killed somebody, you killed somebody. I agree that people should pay the consequences for their actions. Being a teenager doesn’t mean you can’t think for yourself. But I also think there are a lot of reasons why kids commit crime. People need to pay more attention to these reasons.

Sadly, I have a relative behind bars, and he may never be able to live a successful life. My cousin’s neighborhood, South Central L.A, and his so-called friends gave him no signs of positive feedback. It was a dirty neighborhood— spray paint on walls, burned down buildings, nothing beautiful to look at. Many times, he witnessed gunplay on his street. When we were in elementary school, I can recall one guy who wanted to shoot the both of us because he wanted his money back for the chocolate candy we sold him. He didn’t like the taste. My cousin was never a troublemaker. He was a straight A student, he was even taking special courses at a USC program. Over the years however, the wrong things caught his attention. Many of his childhood friends lost their lives to street violence, and his life became colder. Though we were childhood buddies, one summer he went away to spend time with his father. When he returned, we didn’t see each other as much. Pretty soon, my mom and I were getting reports of him stealing. His mother couldn’t handle him, so she moved away, leaving him to fend for himself. He also had a child to take care of at the age of 17.

I remember the last night I saw him. He had on all new and expensive gear, and I noticed a large scar across his face. He didn’t say much to me because he was with his friends, so I figured he didn’t want to be bothered with his little cousin any more. He didn’t even introduce me to his friends who were sitting right next to him. But later, I found out that he didn’t push me away, it was because the crowd he was hanging with that night weren’t "good kids" and he didn’t want to involve me. I hadn’t heard from him in a long time, and the next thing I heard was that he was in jail. He was the first and only friend I had when I moved to Los Angeles. He was like a big brother to me, and when I heard he was behind bars, I felt I lost my other half.

It’s a shame people living no more than two miles apart can live in two totally different worlds. I think kids who commit crimes have to answer for themselves. But at the same time, the way our society deals with this problem is not right. As I look at the criminal justice system, I see that it’s set up only to put more people in jail. They set rules to make sure that if you mess up once, you mess up for life. It bothers me that the way we deal with crime is hurting youth, especially in minority communities. Youth don’t have enough education or opportunities, and when they mess up, they’re not given a second chance.

Now an initiative called Proposition 21, which will be on the ballot in March, would come down harder than ever on youth crime. Among other things, this initiative would make it easier to send kids as young as 14 to adult courts and prisons for violent crimes.

On the wrong side of the system

I wanted to go to the source and try to find out what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the system.

"I barely got past the sixth grade, time to get high, get laid … playing marbles in the dirt, now I’m doing the dirt, .38 special with hollow points and s*** hurts, this is my best friend, every day I wonder, is today the end. One day I said f*** this, it’s time for me to change, that’s when I walked outside to breathe the air, and I got shot by a rival gang."

I saw a young man shout these words in an Inglewood church auditorium one weekend when I was researching my story. He was part of a group of youth called Street Poets United who performed a skit about their life stories—much of it involving violence, gangs and incarceration.

Johnny Tremain, one of the poets, says in his performance, "I’ve been the target of betrayed plots, and the recipient of seven shots, can my destiny be so cold, I pray for hell to be my home. Picture me waking in cold sweats, at normal breath, and a barrel at my temple."

Keith Jones, another poet, talks about his dysfunctional relationship with his father. He says, "Our father, or at least mine, who is not at home, why did I get your name, the echo from abused wood just before it slams, it was caused me to rebel. The Bible says, send up a child in the way he or she may go, how many times have I seen you drink and smoke. Blessed is the child that has its own, oftentimes I wish I wasn’t born."

Their performance was very intense. These are the people who are usually seen as thugs. Only, I got a chance to find out more about them. I found them to be sensitive people who are trying to better themselves. Coming from difficult backgrounds, these young men had the mentality of violence. They carried loaded weapons and committed crimes such as car theft, armed robbery, assault, burglary and shoplifting.

This eventually landed them in Juvenile Hall. They told me that life in prison as a teenager can drive you crazy. You know how some people say that being in prison is a free ride with weightlifting, cable TV and not having to pay taxes or earn a living? Well, these former inmates told me it’s really about sitting in a 6 by 8 foot room alone for hours thinking about what’s going to happen to you; stripping down in front of guards; feeling sorry for yourself because you let your family down. Sometimes, the staff will misuse their power.

"They can do whatever they want to you," said Jorge Nuñez, 19. "If one person messes up the whole unit gets locked up. The staff where I was at, they would spray pepper spray under our door, because they knew we couldn’t breathe, so they could hear us throwing up and stuff."

Other times, some staff will be sneaky and let fights escalate so they can rough up inmates. Robert Lizana, 22, told me of one staff member who killed a boy by putting on a choke hold too tight.

As I spoke to the Street Poets, I think the most important question I asked them was, how did it feel to lose your freedom. This question exposed the vulnerability of each man there that day.

"The first time I went, I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect," Jorge said. "Right away, I was like, I’ma fight with whoever picks a fight with me. After I kept going back, I would just feel real depressed. I felt like damn, I’m going back to jail. And that’s how I felt to lose my freedom."

"Losing your freedom, it’s like death in a way," said Johnny, 20. "It starts when the police get you in the car. They pick you off the street, then they fingerprint you. You sit there for hours and hours. They take away everything from you that has to do with the outside."

Daniel Cacho, 19, said he went through phases. "You so mad, then you go through the phase that you wanna cry, man I’m losing my freedom. Then you go soft like you wanna suck up to the cops, or at least I did. It’s like having people own you, put it like that. Slavery in a way."

It’s do or die in adult prison

Losing your freedom in Juvenile Hall may be terrible, but it’s nothing compared to going to adult prison. What would have happened if Prop. 21 was in effect and they had gone to the pen?

"I would most likely commit suicide," Johnny said. "Guys are doing life in prison, they don’t care what happens to them, so they won’t be scared to attack me."

Kids can be in there with murderers, rapists and psychos doing hard time.

"In Juvenile Hall, they could kill you in there, but the most they’ll do is beat you up real bad where you go to the hospital," Jorge said. "If you go to prison, it ain’t little games no more, you know. In (L.A. County jail), it could be any age around you. The guards sleep. If you’re black you stick with the blacks, if you’re Mexican you stick with Mexicans. It’s all about respect. Somebody bumping into somebody could result in a murder."

Robert feels prison would warp a young person’s mind into the system. Mainly, having to need someone to tell you when to wake up, eat and sleep would make it hard to function on your own. Going into prison so young, you have to learn to survive, and that may be all you know how to do for the rest of your life.

"It’s a molding issue. You can mold a child, you can mold a teenager still. But who’s going to mold you as a man?" Daniel said. "If you put a teenager in an adult system, how are you going to mold him? You can’t. All he knows is how to live in an adult prison."

What happens to the teens who have not done a serious crime yet, but have been in and out of juvenile hall their teenage years? How will they find a job in the near future? Proposition 21 allows their records to be exposed to whoever wants to see them, such as employers and schools. So how will they survive, they can’t live at home with mom all their lives.

"You got to get money somehow. People won’t hire you because of your records, and then you’re going back into prison," said Jorge. And what skills could you have if you’ve been in prison since you were a teenager?

Something beautiful to look at

Unlike many youth who cause trouble, Johnny, Robert, Daniel and Jorge were able to realize that there’s something else out there besides incarceration. Kids in juvenile hall need more programs to give them hope like DreamYard, which is a nonprofit arts organization for at-risk youth that the Street Poets belong to.

Rehabilitation works. Put that in bold print: Rehabilitation works!

At a young age, there’s still room for change. Teens need to understand why they’re being punished and given options in life.

"If there was a program like DreamYard when I was first locked up, I would have never continued to go back to prison," said Daniel.

All the guys in DreamYard spent time in Camp Fred Miller, a detention facility after Juvenile Hall. There, it was more open like a boot camp rather than a jail. They got to go on hiking trips, which they’d never done before. They could work clearing trails and picking up trash. Robert remembered climbing a mountain for the first time and looking down on the clouds.

It’s showing that there’s more to the world than just their neighborhoods. It’s giving them something beautiful to look at. But with attitudes like those behind Prop. 21, the next thing to go could be the camps.

I asked the guys how their life is different now compared to five years ago.

"Back in school, when teachers asked where do I see myself in five years, I would say ‘dead,’" Johnny said. "But I’m here."

He now works with teens at DreamYard, in the same camp he went to as a juvenile. He also works as a production assistant for commercial tapings.
"My uncles were gang members, my dad, my mom and my cousins were gang members, and I was taught that everything is about revenge. My dad raised me up to be cold-hearted—don’t have no remorse, don’t let nobody in," said Jorge. "All the hate I felt years ago, it’s gone now."

Jorge’s answer really quieted the room. It was the first comment that showed the life some innocent and unmolded teens have to face, and what many other teens have to endure. For those people who always wonder, "why gang bang?", look into Jorge’s life.

Daniel said, "I have a lot more hope."

After Camp Miller, Robert joined the Navy, has three kids and is assistant director of DreamYard.
"The strongest thing I have to hold onto is remembering where I started from, ’cause I started from nowhere," Robert said. "Five years ago I sat in the classroom as a student. Now, I sit in the classroom as the teacher."

We need to fix what’s broken

Though dope programs like DreamYard have helped, many youth are still subjugated to a "black hole" because of the flaws in our society and justice system.

The way society treats youth just doesn’t make sense. You can’t drink alcohol until you’re 21, but at 18 you can go to war and kill somebody. You can’t vote until you’re 18, but you can do life in prison at 14. I think politicians never sat down and discussed the serious effects of the laws they made. It seems as if it only took them a few hours to establish a law, and they didn’t proofread it. Instead of minute rice, it’s "minute rights."

It is upsetting to know that 21 prisons have been built in California since 1984, and only one university, which isn’t even finished yet. Why have adults let things get so bad?

I couldn’t sleep one night because I was thinking about this situation. What if I was lying in a cell instead of in my own bed? I wish every kid could have loving parents, friends and positive influences. Unfortunately, there’s things like child abuse, depression, low self-esteem, poverty, neglect, bad neighborhoods, dysfunctional families, police harassment and unforgiving laws.

Have you heard of the saying, if it’s not broke don’t fix it? Well, everything’s broken, so we need to try to fix it as one community. WAKE UP! Too many lives are being wasted.

What Prop. 21 would do

Proposition 21, also known as the "Gang Violence and Youth Crime Prevention Act," will appear on the March 7 ballot. Here are some of the things the initiative would do:

• Take decision from judges and give prosecutors the power to decide if juveniles as young as 14 should be tried in the adult system.
• Allow the public, including schools and employers, to review juvenile court records by removing confidentiality rules.
• Allow wiretapping of youth suspected of being gang members.
• Make "conspiracy," or knowing a gang crime will be committed, a crime.
• Expand the "Three Strikes" law to make sentences much longer for youth.
• Provide no funding or support for prevention programs.