My brother was once a repeat offender who was in and out of prison like there was a revolving door. He started going to jail when he was about 13 years old, when he was arrested for a series of petty crimes like stealing cars and joy riding.
I asked him why he never learned his lessons as a juvenile, when he spent time in Oak Hill Correctional Facility and Cedar Knoll. He said, “Doing time as a juvenile only prepared me for adult prison. There was no rehabilitation or programming taking place. It was just survival of the fittest. If you were weak you would fall prey to the advantage takers, or you’d end up in solitary confinement out of fear for your life. I remember the weak dudes used to wash up in the sink while the dudes considered more thorough and tough had the liberty to take showers.”
When I asked what the staff would do if someone was threatened or assaulted, he replied, “Most of the guards were drug addicts from the same neighborhoods where we grew up. They had the same mentality as the inmates. They didn’t care about reform, or self-development, and they surely didn’t care if you were safe, or not. It was crazy.”
It seems to me that even still, he would have gotten out and been resigned not to return. But he said when he was released he never had positive support systems. The only people there to assist him were his childhood friends who had become drug dealers and criminals. “The only hand stretched out toward me was a hand holding crack whenever I got out, so I always ended up doing the same thing… selling drugs and going back to jail. I got my first adult job selling 58 bags of crack, and I got caught. I was 20 years old. By then I had become accustomed to being locked up. It was my home away from home. I was greeted with familiarity and respect when I arrived.
I always looked young for my age, so I was like a kid caged up with overgrown men when I did my first bid as an adult. ”He shook his head and said, “I still remember the shock and embarrassment I felt when I went to an adult prison for the first time and I was told to ‘squat and bend over’ to spread my butt cheeks for a contraband search. That was the most humiliating thing ever. That’s when I knew it wasn’t a game anymore.
As a juvenile I took the system for a joke. It was just a place to go where I didn’t have to be responsible, go to school, or listen to mom. But when I did that first 20 months in an adult prison, I knew I had stepped into the big leagues.
I’m just glad all of that is behind me now, and even though I see how difficult it is out here to find work and afford the cost of living, I pray that I will never go back to that place. Just thinking about it makes me realize I need some therapy. It’s crazy.”