I was recently asked questions from one of my many connections in schools. Here are my answers -- it's about a new way of seeing work with gangs, incarcerated youth, and the loss of meaning in our time.
What do you believe is/are the main cause/s of youth violence?
There are historical, social and personal traumas in the lives of our youth. Also our culture is becoming devoid of meaning. Presently everything is in crisis -- including politics, the economy, and even spiritual matters. The disconnections are deep. Many youth feel numb, but others lash out (both are aspects of enragement). Parenting is losing its potency as well as schooling, mentoring and elders. We have to renew ways to see and respond to young people – with respect, meaning, and teachings, to reconnect in deep and powerful ways. Youth violence by the way is less than adult violence. How do young people learn their violence? Mostly from adults. The same government that wants to control assault weapons has drones killing civilians (and directed at us). There wouldn’t be assault weapons in our streets if not for government and business complicity somewhere along the line.The hypocrisies are increasing as the wellbeing of most people decline.
Do you feel there is a correlation between class and youth violence? What about race and youth violence?
Poverty is one of the biggest factors of trauma and neglect that also begets violence. Poverty itself is violence against people who have little or no power, against the working classes and the disenfranchised. Poverty numbs and enrages. Many youth may not know this intellectually but they feel the class differences. They know some people are rich and powerful, and they are not. They know most of this is due to injustice– social resources are not distributed equitably, and not because the rich and powerful are more valuable or more deserving. Of course well-off youth are also neglected, fed material things, and many times dispirited. This is why many go crazy in their gated community -- while the poor waste their lives in real prisons. Race is the historical means to control and disunite the working class in the U.S. and now most of the world. The violence of poverty strikes people of color particularly hard, linked to race or migration status. Racism is also violence.
When talking with incarcerated juveniles, what is the main message you aim to give them?
My main aim is to provide both the social and personal aspects of their liberation – even behind actual bars, but also in the metaphoric prisons of living this society. These liberations are linked to imagination, creativity, the arts. When young people find their own authority –their own passions, capacities, dreams, and story – they can begin to challenge with all their faculties the chains that have bound them to an archaic capitalist economic social order not of their making. Everything should be questioned, challenged, and/or renewed by every new generation. Being properly independent and authoritative means they are also properly interdependent and connected. Both are necessary. The “prisons” of their lives also include addictions, compulsions, rages, fears,and violence. They are wrapped up in the web of “the crazy life.” They need to start learning to own their own life – and not turn it over to others, to gangs, to drugs, to destructive impulses. I do much of this by telling my story.
In your experience, are most convicted juveniles willing to give up violence and be rehabilitated/helped? Are there resources available for them?
The vast majority of young prisoners can and will change their lives, but there are little or no resources or rehabilitation for this in most institutions. This is no accident. There are vested economic interests to keep youth lost, angry, criminal, and caged. When properly guided, mentored, taught, and trained (including to deal with their most destructive webs) they can become the next generation of peace warriors. This is the work I’ve done and witnessed for forty years. Late teens and early to mid-twenties is a major threshold time in anyone’s life – doors appear to open and possibilities open up. In particular the brain finally finds its shape by the late 20s. This is called attunement, a time to “tune” the harp of a person’s body. All society, all institutions, all therapies, and programs should be geared to this attunement process. While anyone can change anytime in their lives (indeed changes occur constantly even if imperceptibly), the “threshold times” (there are five major ones in a person's life) are key.
What kind of conditions do juveniles have to face inside the juvenile facilities and adult facilities?
Mostly I see institutional abuse, isolation being one ofthem. Another being placing blame on the perpetrators (when they are also victims). And the rest of us not taking responsibility for how a young person ended up in such places in the first place – ended up with a gun in their hand, with drugs in their system, and fodder for any kind of war, including in gangs. Most of this is environmental, interacting negatively with the biological (the complex interaction of nature and nurture are constant in all development). Beyond that I’ve seen or known of actual physical, sexual, mental, and spiritual abuse in such institutions. Youth are vulnerable and we make them more vulnerable, more accessible to other perpetrators and abuse. Punishment to remove the perfectly legitimate responses to an abusing, violent, narrow-ended world does not work. It becomes abuse on top of abuse.
Knowing you are against the sentencing of juveniles toLife Without Parole, could you explain your thoughts on the subject and most important reasons for being so?
No life should be wasted, pushed out or forgotten. LWOP is another death sentence – only the slow and grating one. Those with LWOP are removed from contribution, from full love, from family, from children, from the beauties of the world. This is another kind of death. Healing needs to be the key aspect of institutionalizing anyone, not pushing them into deeper folds of inhumanity. LWOP should be declared unconstitutional – a cruel and unusual punishment.
What alternatives are there to juveniles and LWOP? What do you believe works best?
The vast majority of troubled youth can be removed for a short time – perhaps three years for most major crimes and no longer than seven years for the worse. This is of course assuming real resources/rehabilitation are brought to bear. Youth don’t need arbitrary long sentences, but “enough” time to gather themselves, get attuned, get reconnected, and set on a path of their passions. Use these experiences as real initiations that in turn lead to fuller lives and a restoring of their place in family, community, work, art,and life.
How did your experience through the juvenile justice system effect you long term? To who and/or what do you credit your life turnaround?
I was detained since age 13 for fighting, disturbing the peace, and stealing. I ended up in various jails in the greater East L.A. area– the East L.A. sheriff’s substation, the Monterey Park jail, the San Gabriel jail, the Norwalk sheriff’s substation, and others. At 15, I was held for stabbing someone but released when the person stabbed (he lived) refused to identify me. At 16 I was placed in the adult section of murderer’s row in the old Hall of Justice Jail in downtown L.A. I had a cell next to Charles Manson. They were threatening to charge five of us “cholo” gang members for the murders of three people during a major riot. Even though I was lost there for five days and nights, they eventually let me go without charges. I was in juvenile hall twice for arrests, but never adjudicated, although once at 17 for attempted murder when four people were shot (again, the victims refused to identify me). These experiences only taught me to be a better criminal and addict, more violent and “untouchable” (how fear turns into stone). Then at age18, I got jumped by police and sent to the county jail, facing a minimum of six years in the state pen for fighting with police officers. This time I faced a crossroads. I was hooked on heroin, 25 of my friends had been killed by then,and I had no family or homies visiting. The only person who showed up was a youth counselor/activist who became my guide and mentor. Prior to this, however, I had begun to paint murals, go back for schooling, and become active in social change. This mentor got people to write letters on my behalf and show up in court. This was largely unheard of. A judge then gave me a break – perhaps the biggest of my life. He refused to try me for the felonies (although police clamored for this) and gave me time served in the county jail for “drunk and disorderly” and “resisting arrest.” During my time in jail, I began my first heroin withdrawals and refused to get more active in the higher echelons of barrio gang life. I left those bars committed to social justice – and I’ve never done any more time for criminal acts. I have, however, gone to prisons throughout California, the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America, and Europe, for more than thirty years– my way of giving back by doing writing workshops, readings, and talks. I’ve been active in prison reform, gang peace, and prevention/intervention as well. Unfortunately, my oldest son got involved in gangs and ended up doing 15 years in state prisons, a way of how the madness called me back by claiming one of my own.
If you were to rework the juvenile justice system, what would be the first thing you would do?
The choices are not brutal punishment OR country clubs. People should see the juvenile justice system as an initiatory experience that can turn their life around – this should be difficult and require hard work. But the premise is: Every trouble and every lost road can be a doorway to more knowledge, more soul, and onto a hero’s journey. Use mythology, stories, song, dance, writing, theater, music, even digital arts, to draw from the inexhaustible and abundant reservoir of the imagination we all carry. To teach young people the direction and innate nature of their actions, decisions, and indecisions. Punishment is not even in the equation. Such institutions should be restorative and transformative. Change is one absolute aspect of human nature, yet we act as if things stand still. Being angry and hungry are natural to all of us. We just need to give it eyes, direction, and meaning so that the real angers and real hungers (not just of the body, but of the mind and spirit) can be taken to their completion. I call this process “Hearts & Hands,” not “scared straight” but “cared straight.” Using caring and proper emotional connection (the heart) from community along with skills, teachings, and "holding the ground" (the hands) to re-imagine and recreate even stronger community.