Watching Children Grow Up in Prison

The youngest juvenile offender I’ve ever known was 14 years old (see Wrongful Convictions). Sadly his is a story of tragedy, but I’m happy to report all of them are not like this. I estimate that I’ve known around 300 incarcerated juveniles between the ages of 14 and 17, all of them tried as adults. From this group, I still know about a dozen of them to this day, adults now of course, most having served out lengthy sentences and returned to the free world. A few of them are still incarcerated. Those that are free have families of their own or are married and planning for one. I keep in contact with each and every one of them.

Unfortunately, that dozen is a minority. Many juvenile offenders will serve out their sentences, some upwards of 25 years, before being regurgitated back into society with no real life experience, all expected to somehow pick up and carry on without issue. Throw in a lack of family or community support, or a lack of real world job experience and skills, and you have a high probability of recidivism.

I used to believe that punishment was the key to handling crimes committed by juveniles. After more than two decades interacting with kids convicted as adults, I’m now convinced that I was wrong. It was a short-sighted and very uninformed view. Yet, this view is held by nearly half of all Americans. The other half contends that we cannot handle children the same as adults, as there are almost always mitigating circumstances in the child’s background that can be traced back to the offensive behavior. I fall more into this camp than the other, but I think both camps have valid arguments.

Sometimes we should punish adult behavior with adult time, but only after exhausting all other avenues and considering all other circumstances directly related to the individual’s age, mental state, and background. This means a careful examination of the child’s home life and family support, socio-economic situation, and past behavior amongst other things. Sadly, this is often lost in the heat of public anger on the heels of high profile crimes committed by these youth. Prosecutors are solely focused on obtaining convictions. It’s up to the juvenile’s counsel to present alternatives–and arguments for alternatives–to incarceration, and to offer evidence why this should be considered by a judge.

Herein lays another problem. Most of the juvenile offenders I’ve known came from poor or dysfunctional backgrounds. They were represented at trial by public defenders appointed to them by the courts, because they or their families could not afford an attorney. By their nature the offices of public defenders and those dedicated to the service carry very heavy caseloads. Resources are sparse and they are literally forced to choose which cases they will devote meaningful resources to. This is beyond the scope of today’s entry, but I discuss this disparity in Wrongful Convictions.

Before I continue I need to provide a little background. There are so many juveniles incarcerated in Ohio, that at my institution an entire cell block was once dedicated to housing them before the state scattered them throughout the system to save money. When the unit was fully housed there were 120 juvenile offenders. All of them were under the age of 18, most between the ages of 15 and 16. Within the unit was a unit manager who was tasked with overseeing the function of that unit, as well as 3 other units (approximately 480 offenders); one case manager who was tasked with handling juvenile case files and managing things like visitors lists and special needs related to one’s family or local institutional issues; one custody officer (here known as a “C.O.”) whose job entailed daily unit security and tasks; and one unit sergeant tasked with overseeing custody staff, unit security and disciplinary write ups against other things. Within this juvenile unit was a segregated area caged and secured, and used to house juveniles under disciplinary punishment for having violated institutional rules. A type of mini ‘hole.’

The juveniles interacted with adult inmates whenever they were outside of the housing unit: at recreation, education, medical, the chow hall, and on the yard. It was like this for years. And for years these children were preyed upon by adult offenders, extorted and assaulted, and treated as a means to an end by predators. The unofficial stance of the state of Ohio was ‘See no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil.’ Until one day, a gang of convicts seized control of the entire juvenile unit and set about methodically hunting and killing. By some miracle the loss of life was limited to one, and the state was no longer able to turn a blind eye. I knew every child in that unit. I also knew the child who was murdered, for I tutored him and a number of the other kids in their GED studies.

In the course of tutoring juveniles I found myself wanting to understand how and why some of them came to find themselves sitting in front of me. The more I got to know them, the more I became convinced that I was wrong that punishment alone was the key. Time and again I discovered there were mitigating factors behind each of their actions, nearly all of which could be traced back to lack of strong family structure or guidance. A disproportionate number of them came from the foster care system.

I’ve tutored many juveniles over the years. Oftentimes they lacked basic math or reading skills and I had to develop lessons that taught them while simultaneously keeping them engaged. It was no easy task.

My first eye-opening tutoring moment came when I tried teaching fractions. A number of the kids had difficulty understanding what 1/8 of something was, but if I framed it as a street question, “If you have a pound of marijuana and you divide it amongst eight friends, how much would each person receive?” my students got it. This may seem strange, but when you connect with the kids they become actively engaged. Once engaged you can steer them into constructive directions. I discovered that past drug abuse was often a factor in their lives, and I would always strive to take a negative like that and create a positive from it.

From tutoring I slowly transitioned into becoming a mentor. This of course isn’t a job here or something the corrections department mandated as part of tutoring. It’s a personal decision. Mentoring and tutoring are two distinctly different things. You can tutor and not get involved in the student’s personal life. When you mentor you are taking on an active and deliberate role in the individual’s life.

I remember clearly the moment I decided to become a mentor. I had a student named Alex that I’d tutored for a little more than a month in math and science. He was a quiet kid, but when he spoke his words came sharp and his tone was defiant. He hailed from the great foster care system of Ohio, and was 16 years old. He had one brother and one sister, both younger than him and both placed with foster families. His father had walked out of his life the day he was born, there just long enough to give him a name. His mother was a heroin addict (and thus his journey into foster care).

By the time he found himself sitting in front of me at a table in a prison cell block, he’d been passed between different foster families before being ensnared by the criminal justice system. At first glance, he looked like any other teen boy you might see at your local mall.

When I met him he was a sullen kid and often refused to participate in his studies. He didn’t see the point in it, he’d told me many times, so tell him why he should get a GED? This became a recurring conversation, and frankly, frequently pushed me to the edge of my patience. I had thought about quitting tutoring, that I didn’t need the stress. Those of us that tutored had volunteered for the job assignment.

In many ways I saw in him a reflection of myself when I was his age, and I think this is why I was unwilling to give up on him. I couldn’t have known then that 2 decades hence I’d become a father figure to him, and a driving force in his rehabilitation and successful reintegration back into society.

The first clue that there was more to this angry kid came when we weren’t in class. I was on the yard one summer afternoon walking the track by myself when Alex suddenly appeared at my side. A conversation ensued and this is how it went:

“Alex,” I said, “what brings you out here?” Until that moment I had never seen him on the yard.

“I don’t know,” he muttered, as if my question had taken him off guard.

“Okay, then.” I had been listening to music before he arrived and I had taken the headphones from my head. I now went to put them back on.



“You want to throw softball or something?” His voice was different. Gone were his sharp words and omniscient accusing tone.

I was momentarily taken aback. This was the last thing I thought I’d ever hear him say. I didn’t know what to say, so I said the first thing that came to my mind. “Um, okay; you go get the ball and gloves though.”

And so he went off into the distance, disappearing into the recreation building. When he returned he didn’t have any gloves or balls, but he had a frisbee. It was one of those red ring type frisbees with a big hole in the center.

“They wouldn’t give me two gloves, so I asked for a frisbee,” he said.

And I suddenly understood what was happening. This defiant kid had been tossed around the foster care system like inventory, placed in families with good intentions but vastly unprepared to handle his baggage; split from his siblings and mother and who never had a father; had been ensnared by a criminal justice system and tossed into an adult prison, further reinforcing in his mind that no one cared; had been rejected over and over again by the adults in his life he looked up to for guidance; and that he never really had the one thing he wanted: a father figure.

So, I threw the frisbee with him that afternoon and saw for the first time a kid that was, well, just a kid. That night I lay awake thinking of Alex’s situation. I didn’t sign up for this, I remember thinking. I don’t need this kids problems. I should quit tutoring now.

Yet, I showed up for class the following day. Alex arrived with a single sheet of paper and pencils (he never had them), and the first thing he said to me was, “Will you help me with my math?” Of course, I thought. “Of course I’ll help you. Sure.”

Six months later he took the pre-GED and then a month later passed the GED test. He was incredibly proud of this, and to be honest so was I. When Alex was 18 he left the juvenile unit and was transferred to another institution (as was the norm for kids turning 18). We kept in touch regularly by mail. Sometimes he asked for advice, other times our communication was about the future and what it held, but most of the time it was just random musings. He served a 15 year sentence and was released in 2012. He was married in 2016, and has reconnected with his sister and brother.

In 2010, two years before his release, his mother overdosed on heroin. Alex now works at a local drug rehabilitation center helping addicts find sobriety. We keep in contact to this day.