By now I thought the shocked reactions to the Department of Justice’s report on sexual abuse of juveniles in detention centers would’ve disappeared. But articles and editorials from across the country continue to appear as states grapple with shocking numbers that won’t go away. Will all this worry and lament translate into change? Who knows?
The one thing I’m pretty sure won’t change is America’s fear of these new barbarians marauding our streets in hordes (except today we call them “gangs.”) Because that fear seems ingrained in our culture, kids will continue to be shut away in the very horrible places we condemn.
But if you’re going to continue putting kids in some kind of detention I have a solution: boot camp.
For several years during my ten year tenure teaching high school kids at a New York county jail I had the privilege (strange as that sounds) of teaching in a boot camp for teenagers serving county time.
When I was first approached about the assignment I turned it down.
They had the wrong guy. After all, I’d been a conscientious objector during Vietnam, and to this day am a staunch pacifist. The military approach to anything is not one I can, or will ever be able to endorse. Young guys? put in a boot camp? to be screeched at? humiliated? all in the name of “helping” them?
I wanted nothing to do with it.
Until I finally gave in and visited the boot camp on which county corrections would model theirs.
What I saw knocked the protest sign out of this old pacifist’s fist.
The boot camp was set in the Catskill Mountains, as far away from Brooklyn (where most of the kids came from) as you can get. Spotlessly clean and well cared for, the place was in stark contrast to the dilapidated jail where I taught.
Equally striking were the teenage boys I saw there with shaved heads; pressed paramilitary green uniforms, and polished boots. They went about their business with an ease that kids doing time, or even kids free on the streets rarely have.
But most impressive, and downright disconcerting, was listening to what these young guys had to say about themselves. They talked candidly about their lives in the hood; the crimes they committed; their endless stints in group homes, detention centers and jails; and the world they were hoping to make for themselves once they were out.
They talked about “core values” and the creed they lived by: “There is nothing I cannot do if I set my heart and mind to it. I am willing to learn,” a creed that gave them hope and the courage to plan for the future.
And the fact that they even envisioned a future for themselves was astonishing enough. So many of the locked up guys I taught didn’t expect to live past 21. They’d seen too many of their fathers and brothers and uncles and friends killed in the streets. Why should their lives be any different?
These “cadets” did something else I never saw in the county jail. They respected themselves and other people; recognized their strengths, yet acknowledged their weaknesses; and took responsibility for their crimes. (It’s pretty common in prison to hear guys say, “I caught a charge,” as though crime was just an H1N1 variation.)
To help them make these leaps, kids in the boot camp had weekly counseling groups, individual sessions, family conferences, job training, school, and lots and lots of PT. The correctional staff that worked with them taught them how to move in their bodies, to stand straight, to walk. There was none of the usual gangsta swagger or jailhouse shuffle. They learned how to be at ease in their bodies instead of holding them like loaded guns ready to explode.
And when they left this greenhouse of recovery for the familiar and unchanged neighborhoods they came from, these young men and their families received intense follow-up services.
It was easy to see that this was not the “scream-in-your-face-you-piece-of-shit-tear-you-down-to-make-you-better” boot camp model I knew was used in rehab centers or in other jails, or had seen horrifyingly glorified in movies like Full Metal Jacket. Instead it was what I called the social work model, one based on compassion (as oxymoronic as that sounds) and not on the barely suppressed rage so many correctional institutions are fueled by.
Much to my surprise, when I returned to the jail I enlisted in the county boot camp which turned out to be a pretty close replica of what I had seen.
I don’t believe that kids should be locked up, not in large detention centers, and certainly not in adult prisons. But if they are going to be incarcerated (and I know they are) I think that every kid should be assigned to this type of humane “boot camp.”
Because every day that I taught there, I left the jail moved by what I saw: kids, no different from society’s young “thugs” locked up just down the hall in the regular jail blocks, struggling against the odds to become decent human beings.