Criminology Mixology

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F-House at Stateville Correctional Center, the last panopticon-style prison building in the U.S., seen in October 2018

Criminalization, abolition, and prison reform have long been third-rail issues in America. The only benefit to this impasse of ideologies is the mountain of research that has been collected in the interim.

Those of us in camp reality, camp humanity, have long known the roots of these problems—and now we have the proof. A collection of federal studies has found that youth who witness or are direct victims of violence, are raised without the full support of both parents, or do not have access to quality education have a much higher risk of justice-system involvement later in life. The inverse is also true.

I was raised in Chi-raq. My school had metal detectors and armed security. My parents were immigrants and we lived third-world poor in the planet’s richest country. When I was six, I was awakened to a shotgun blast as my father was caught unprepared by a burglar in our house. Jump ahead two years: I am walking home with my mother and sister when we are violently assaulted at knifepoint. (I am still haunted by my mother’s high-pitched scream and can still feel how tightly she squeezed my tiny hand.) Then, at ten, playing at the park with my best friend Hector, a car pulls up and a tattooed teenager leans out the window and throws up a gang sign. Hector and I don’t know how to react, so we simply sprint off as gunshots ring out over our heads. By junior high I was constantly getting my brains beat in by the local gang my mother refused to let me join. My freshman year in high school I watched my cousin’s head get split open in a car-jacking gone wrong. (And most people in prison consider my upbringing tame.)

We know that trauma can rewire a young child’s mind. Humans are built to store painful memories as a survival mechanism, like the hard lessons our ancestors learned on the savannah. It is why I remember each of the gut-wrenching slices of my life with crystal clarity, but not one birthday cake. It is also why children can often develop mental health issues like PTSD and disassociation.

Prison is a den of fatherless boys raised by their mothers. In my experience, most inmates were raised in an unstable environment. Single mothers, even those with the best intentions, have no other recourse but to leave their children at the mercy of the streets in order to put food on the table. (Spoiler alert: the streets have no mercy.) Studies have long shown the importance of a stable environment, especially a strong two-parent upbringing as protection against the likelihood of future violent offenses. Do all single parents living in the hood raise future delinquents? Of course not, but far too many do. And the worst part, the inevitable irony, is that prisons perpetuate the issue of more children being raised in a broken home.

Education, or the lack thereof, is also an important factor. There is a direct association between the level of education attained and the risk of offending behavior. (In prisons, recidivism rates have been shown to decrease as the level of education achieved while incarcerated increases.) Education is critical during a young person’s life to avoid future court involvement. It also plays a part in developing safe, healthy psychological habits. Quality higher education has been shown to drastically improve the odds for youth who have been witnesses to or subjects of violence or raised in a broken home to stay out of the criminal justice system, regardless of race or social status.

Ideally every child in America would be raised in a stable, loving home, in a safe neighborhood, and receive a quality education. Ideally.

So how do we fix it? How do we force parents to stay together and be good loving stewards to their children? How do we convert a gang-controlled, drug-infested war zone into a utopia where young people are encouraged and supported? Sweeping prison reform? Defunding the police? Abolition? How do we erase centuries of American culture, and political, social, and racial repression? If it were easy I’d like to believe we would already be doing it. Don’t worry, gentle reader, I do offer an avenue to explore.

Mentorship. Yes, mentorship. Mentorship as a large-scale strategic approach has not received the attention it deserves—even as all the studies clearly demonstrate its potential. I know it is not as sexy as other reform movements with their made-for-social-media catch phrases, but it has a lot of promise for preventing adverse outcomes and promoting resilience among at-risk youth. Mentors vary, ranging from adult volunteers and paid staff to students at higher grade levels. Some programs’ focus may promote mental health, others academic achievement. Some simply help kids stay off the streets. All of them have shown some positive results as a viable approach for preventing and reducing delinquent behavior across all races, genders, and ages.

There is an array of mentorship programs nationwide going well beyond the traditional Big Brothers or Boys and Girls Clubs of America model. Reading For Life, a group mentoring program that uses works of literature to facilitate moral development and character education, has found a statistically significant decline in adverse outcomes for their participants. (The program was offered in high-risk neighborhoods.) The Eisenhower Foundation’s Quantum Opportunities is an intensive year-round, multicomponent intervention program for high-risk minority high-school students from inner-city neighborhoods. Youth receive both individual and group mentoring from the paid staff. Participants have had significantly higher GPAs. high school graduation rates, and college acceptance rates. For example, 76 percent of program youth graduated from high school, compared to 40 percent of the control group. Experts believe the program’s success is due, in part, to the extensive interpersonal mentoring that goes beyond the focus on education. The mentors are trained to serve as advocates for the youth, including visiting their homes to discuss problems and find solutions, attending parent-teacher conferences, and standing in for parents when needed. On the whole, the findings provide intriguing preliminary evidence that mentoring received through a program during childhood or adolescence can indeed foster improved functioning into and through adulthood.

In recent years, similar programs have been implemented in prison settings—their early results show promise.

America’s criminal justice system is broken, and we are at a critical junction where we can either push towards creating a better, more humane, fair system, or lower our sights and continue to compromise our humanity and fall deeper into the darkness. For all of our faults, I do not believe we as a nation should ever compromise or settle for anything less than our full potential. Investing in these types of large-scale mentorship programs may not be the most expected path, nor will it be the easiest or cheapest: some pain is to be expected. But not all pain is bad—freedom can be found through pain.

Leo Cardez, a pseudonym, is an inmate at Statesville Correctional Center outside Chicago. His previous work appeared in the May 2022 Public i.

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