Authors: Nell Bernstein
BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
ALSO BY NELL BERNSTEIN
All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated
Â© 2014 by Nell Bernstein
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Published in the United States by The New Press, New York, 2014
Distributed by Perseus Distribution
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING
Burning down the house : the end of juvenile prison / Nell Bernstein.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 978-1-59558-966-8 (e-book)
Juvenile justice, Administration ofâUnited States.
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Juvenile delinquencyâUnited States.
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Juvenile courtsâUnited States.
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Composition by dix!
This book was set in Fournier MT
For Ri'Chard, who knew freedom
For Ruby, Nick, and Tim, who tether my heart to the world
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Most of the stories in this book, as well as the direct quotations, are drawn from interviews I conducted with young people in and out of locked facilities in various states between 2010 and 2013. A few of the interviews were conducted at earlier points during the many years I have spent working with and writing about young people and the multiple public systems with which they collide. Will Roy conducted crucial interviews in New York, Massachusetts, and California. Carolyn Goosen contributed two interviews from Southern California. All interviews were taped and transcribed, unless they were conducted in a facility that did not allow recording equipment. On those few occasions, quotations are drawn from my handwritten notes. Some of the quotations from adult experts come from presentations they made at public events and conferences, including two organized or co-organized by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which provided support for this book. The rest of this book comes from long friendships with young people caught up in the juvenile justice systemâstories they told me and experiences that I witnessed or shared. For a number of reasonsâmost pressingly, the deep, and deeply wrongheaded, stigma that is attached to incarceration in this countryâI have chosen to use pseudonyms in writing about people who are or have been incarcerated.
When speaking in general terms, I use both the masculine and feminine universal pronoun. In this book, I have used the masculine more frequently simply because there are many more boys behind bars than there are girls. I use the term “juvenile prison” more consistently than the various official euphemisms (training school, reform school, and the like) simply because it is more accurate.
BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
T WAS TEN P.M
. and I was half-asleep when my cell phone began dancing on the bedside table. The texts were coming in rapid fire, too fast for me to read one through, much less to respond, before the next announced its arrival.
When I was locked up, I could talk to high school kids who came in with the “scared straight” programs. Now that I'm out, I can't get clearance to go into the high schools to speak because I'm a felon.
It took me a moment to recognize the cadence, and, with it, the sender.
I've known Jared for nearly twenty years. We met when I was the editor of a San Francisco youth newspaper and he was just emerging from a long sojourn within the correctional circuit, which had taken him from juvenile hall through state juvenile lockup and finally to San Quentin State Prison, where he'd been sent at sixteen on a gun charge.
We can save lives inside as earthquake relief and firefighters but outside the prison walls we're a bunch of filthy ex-cons.
When I first met him, Jared was a heavily muscled young man who favored dark clothing with oversized hoods, his face set in the emotionless mask of the prison yard. His writing, though, crackled with emotion and
furious intellect: page after page of cramped longhand, as if there were not paper enough in the world for all he had to say.
While his first text jolted me out of half sleep into confusion, as the next few came in and I started waking up, I began to catch on. Something had inspired Jared to pick up a thread in a running conversation, neglecting the formality of a transition or hello.
NELL the time is at hand and we must do our part.
Just don't play with this shit cuz I am serious about it.
Jared knew I was in the thick of writing this book. He had been generous with his time and insight when I'd asked to interview him.
Don't get sidetracked sista!
No matter how many years had passed since his incarceration, the urgency had not faded for Jared. Nor had the pressure lifted.
You keep pushing and pushing until you DIE!
Jared had been in trouble with the law since fourth grade. That was when his mother's addiction finally overwhelmed her capacity to care for him. Cast out on his own, the nine-year-old quickly allied himself with a troupe of other children who were “living Life solo.” By day, they ran errands for drug dealers. At night, they pooled their earnings and piled into a shared room in a single-room occupancy hotel in San Francisco's Tenderloin District.
Jared was done with all that now, working a steady job, engaged to be married, and a devoted father to his two children. He'd been keeping his head up, but he still had two strikes on his record under California's notorious three strikes law. A single misstep could send him back to prison for good.
I TRUST YOU.
And “Trust” for me is hard.
Just write the TRUTH.
Jared had struggled in the years since his release. His ex-offender status had stymied his efforts to find work and housing and get onto his feet, and a lifetime of trauma had set his temperament at a low boil. But now he was doing well. A kid who had lived out his teenage years under the motto
I don't give a fuck
(an existential cry I would hear many times as I spoke with others who had been locked up as kids), he had grown into a man with something to live for: people he loved and could count on, who loved and relied on him in turn.
Do what's right and I gotcha back bud. Know that I am living IT.
Jared was acutely aware of how vulnerable his closest relationships left him. the connections that sustained him held the potential to shatter him, should that third strike fall. The intensity of his drive to see genuine transformation in our nation's merciless justice systemâto close down the brutal institutions where he had come of ageâcame from a sense of personal jeopardy as well as collective injustice.
He had paid his own debt many times over. The time, as he put it, was at hand. He was ready to be free.