Ten years ago on a lazy Saturday morning in my Southern California home, I read in the newspaper that a 19-year-old man had murdered two teens in Washington, D.C. A chill passed over me as I recognized the name of the alleged killer: a former middle school student of mine--one of the brighter, more promising and charismatic kids I taught at my beleaguered urban school. He had earned the opportunity to attend one of D.C.'s best public high schools. He never graduated.
I do not know what happened in the space between Carlton, goofy 8th grader I knew, and Carlton, convicted murderer whose crime was cited in the "National News" section of my local paper.
But to a certain extent I felt that I'd come of age as a teacher that day. I had only seven years of teaching under my belt, and I came to terms with the fact that there was an escalator representing my career--an ascension of students through my life, up and beyond my science and humanities and English classes, into the unknown.
Ten more years later, and I've known former students to bear children, hit bottom, die, become famous and infamous, commit crimes, be victims themselves, marry and divorce, reinvent themselves, change the world. And I can say I knew them "when." For a brief shining moment.
Yesterday I accompanied a group of students to a correctional facility to participate in a program in which convicts "reach out" to youth by taking responsibility for their crimes, connecting their own fates to decisions made at a tender age, and advising audience members to make wiser choices.
Most of the inmates in the program were convicted murders. Half of them were lifers. I knew this going in. I knew very little else.
I've always wanted to visit prison. Part of that desire was natural curiosity; part was a sense that I had a lot to learn and many suspicions to confirm: among them, that there's humanity in prison. I grew up listening to Joan Baez trilling "There But for Fortune": Show me a prisoner... and I'll show you a young man with so many reasons why. Could be you, or I.
I hoped to be appropriately horrified and reassured.
I felt, mostly, awe. I was in a house that was not mine. I entered a foreign land within my own country, with unfamiliar rules and customs. Don't wear blue, or dark green. Don't share personal information. Don't buy food and share it. This was a reaching out program with a lot of holding back.
The physical boundaries were apparent: barren landscapes, razorwire, barbed wire, electric fences, buzzing gates and doors, cinderblock walls, metal detectors, signs prohibiting entrance and exit, warnings, ubiquitous memos posted, enumerating new policies. Dress restrictions designed to distinguish visitors from inmates.
But when the door to the dayroom opened and I walked through first, the inmates were our hosts, in charge. Tim greeted me and smiled and asked my name, printed it neatly on a tag. Mike directed me to a table for the adults in the back of the room.
And so began a day of listening. The only talking we did was asking. Our students were grouped at tables with individual inmates, who began to share their stories. One felon acknowledged that for us this was a field trip, like to the zoo, and he was like an animal, a specimen we came to examine.
Chris told our students that as with G.I. Joes and Barbies, they'd outgrow their attitude of "I have to be cool." Lee added that "problems don't wait for you to be mature enough to handle them." David pointed out that when you choose a lifestyle, you're choosing the consequences that go with it. We heard that gateway drugs aren't just gateways to worse drugs; they're gateways to bad decisions. Silvestre urged our kids to identify the reasons they're doing what they're doing. And talk to someone about it. David wished there were warning labels on the bad things he did.
Howard, 62 years old and sentenced to the remainder of his life in prison for a third-strike offense, put it bluntly: "Your parents didn't raise you so you could show your anus to a cop."
The inmates described the loneliness of youth, the bad influences of so-called friends, the fears of being teased and ostracized, the drinking and drugs, the stupid acts which ultimately led to mayhem and murder. Tim described how he used and abused--raped--the girls in his neighborhood. "How can boys respect you, girls," he asked the smattering of female participants, "when they don't even respect themselves?"
Students who were disrespectful or showed signs of apathy were taken outside for individual counsel. Parents who escorted their children to the prison stood up and explained what family turmoil brought them there.
We heard descriptions of the convicts' gang murders, drunk driving deaths, robbery homicides, drug deals gone bad, third strikes.
What the inmates had in common with one another were years of incarceration, a focus on "programs" versus "prison politics," and a willingness to talk about the effects of their crimes on their families, friends, and selves. These men had spent years, in effect, working on themselves, many with no hope, ever, of release. I heard ruefulness but not bitterness. I heard regrets and apologies. I heard a few excuses, but not many. I heard hope. Particularly on behalf of our kids, not winding up where the convicts were.
"I had to kill someone with my car and my addictions in order to develop a positive relationship with my parents," Mike admitted. In the meantime, he noted, his victim's family has no such opportunity to grow with their son. Chris, also serving for second-degree murder in conjunction with an accident he caused drunk driving, took responsibility for his crimes as well as for teaching his younger brother to drink. "Take your parents' keys when they shouldn't be driving," he included pointedly.
The convicts running the program meet weekly to critique one another's testimonials and plan their biweekly program. A correctional counselor oversees their work, but it's clear that the commitment of these inmates to their mission and individual messages sustains the program's effectiveness and success.
At some point, through the cheerful willingness of the inmates to answer our many questions, the respectful and honest repartee between our students and their hosts, and the clear affection the inmates exhibited for one another (deference they can't demonstrate outside the program, where racial segregation rules), I found what I expected to discover: real people, serving real time.
I've always believed in the importance of judging a person more by his present than his past. Prisoners have choices in correctional facilities: hang on the yard, do drugs, and fight; or get jobs, stay straight, and go to meetings. As I heard the men describe their lives in prison and advise our students to stay away from gangs, drugs, and bad influences, I recognized those good choices are still a daily undertaking in prison. If you're in prison for life, why bother being good, anyway?
Some kind of dignity drove these individuals, and I respected it. I was even a little inspired.
None of my family members nor I are victims of violent crime. There but for fortune go I. So I submit the following with an acknowledgment that I view our penal system from a luxuriously objective perspective.
It's clear for every inmate reaching inward and reaching outward, there are more who don't care. For every convict with hope for himself, there are more criminals waiting to be caught or to make that fateful lapse in judgment.
I believe one can't work with teens and not believe in second chances. In prison I met grown adults who have served 36 years of 25-to-life sentences in overcrowded institutions for crimes they committed in their teens. They're now adults who have built meaningful lives for themselves--and even others--in a bleak environment. They're not perfect, but they're trying. Maybe harder than the system is trying to rehabilitate them. Upon release, they're willing to work whatever jobs we make available to ex-convicts in our society.
At school we tell our students no one moment should define them, unless they allow it. It's not what you did then, we say; it's what you do now that matters. Take responsibility, accept your consequences, make amends, and move forward.
Show us, we say. Show us you understand.
Note: For another view of Robert J. Donovan Correctional Facility, read this public radio producer's report.