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Pen Pals

Prison Sentences and Solitary Confinement Can Ruin Kids' Lives

I’ve met too many dudes in jail who’ve been locked up their entire lives. Once you get in trouble as a kid you get put in the system and end up in group homes and other tough places where you just learn how to do more bad shit—it's a tough cycle to...

by Bert Burykill
Dec 13 2013, 5:30pm

Back in 2009, a couple of judges in Pennsylvania were found guilty of one of the most reprehensible schemes I’ve ever heard of: they were paid bribes—a total of $2 million over four years—in exchange for sending kids to newly built detention facilities for relatively petty crimes. When news of their evil shit came out, it was a huge scandal, since the two judges, Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan, had sentenced over 1,500 kids to hard time, many for utter poppycock. Thankfully, Ciavarella got 28 years, meaning he’ll probably die in prison, while Conahan got 17. It’s fair and just that these scum-sucking fuckballs will get a taste of some of that pain they so nonchalantly doled out.

I remembered this ‘cause of Robert May’s documentary about the affair, aptly titled Kids For Cash—the trailer (above) came out this week and according to an early review it’s pretty good. The film isn’t just about Ciavarella and Conahan—it looks into how, after the Columbine shooting, youth in America have been increasingly treated like criminals by law enforcement and the judicial system. It opens with the shocking detail that the US, Somalia, and South Sudan are the only three countries in the United Nations not to ratify the Convention on the Rights of a Child, basically because that would mean the system in the US wouldn’t be able to sentence a minor to death or life in prison.

The good news is that America is actually putting fewer kids behind bars than ever before, but we’ve still got a long way to go to catch up with Western European countries, and poor minority kids in public schools continue to get fucked over by “Zero Tolerance” policies, which put disruptive children on a clear path to jail that includes stopovers at group homes and remedial trade schools for trouble-makers, where they often adopt even more unbonerable behaviors.

I can relate, ‘cause I had a high school experience that kind of set the stage for the years to come. One day I was high as hell doing some creative writing during study hall and ended up coming up with something in which I commanded my imaginary subjects to perish at the merciful anus of the "Lord’s Anal Prophet." It was clearly a stoned joke and I showed it to just a handful of friends who would get that kind of ludicrous humor, but one guy in particular found it really funny and forwarded it to a lot of kids. Long story short, some chick saw it, got scared, and told the dean of students, who then barked on me half-heartedly and asked for an apology in writing to the students who might have been alarmed by my salvo, which I did. This was in mid-April, 1999—the shooting at Columbine happened on the 20th. All of a sudden my harmless gross-out screed was dangerous. Three days after I wrote the apology I was being accused of making death threats and I was banned from the campus for the last month of school, though they still gave me my diploma. Admittedly, I was a brazen drug dealer at that school and everyone knew, so really I had just gave them an excuse to eliminate a problem. Still, that shows just how scary shit got right after Columbine hit, and how once you start fucking up it’s hard to stop. Just look at me—a decade and a half later, I’m still on parole.

I’ve met too many dudes in jail who’ve been locked up their entire lives. It’s a tough cycle to break. I was lucky enough to have graduated from college before I did any significant time, and I’ve still been completely fucked up and self-sabotaging for the past ten years. It’s sad as shit, yo. I was a late maturer so at times I’ve felt that all I’ve really accomplished is prison-related bullshit, lo mein? It’s become my life, and I was lucky to have a good upbringing and came from a family that wasn’t broke all the time. Imagine if I got thrown into that system was I was young and didn’t have an identity outside of it. Man...

What makes things even worse for juveniles is that in some places they're automatically put in isolation. For whatever reason, in jails and prison it’s always the younger kids always start the most trouble and often get locked down as a result. Apparently some assholes who run prison want to skip a step and just toss minors in “protective custody” before they even screw up. “Protective custody” is a nice euphemism for dickin’ kids over by completely isolating them from human contact—this article and accompanying video from Reason are an excellent exploration of why this is so fucked up, and I think this kind of treatment should be considered torture.

Throwing young people in prison can have huge effects on their lives. In 2004 I was a first-time offender, a nonviolent small-time drug fondler, but I got handed a three to nine year sentence when I was 23. That was a huge weight I got hit with, and I’m just one of the thousands who got served up by those ball-washing bastards. There were a ton of small-timers like me going upstate with football numbers back then. It was truly disgusting, and those fuckers never even looked me in the eye.

Imagine those asshole judges who sent kids to prison for money. Ruining a child’s life, his parents crying themselves to sleep every night, and catatonic with fear for their child—all so Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan could line their pockets?

It’s fucked, but so is the idea of tossing kids in the box until they lose their minds. The most frustrating part is that in many cases it would be cheaper to send the kid to a good school than to put him in prison in a solitary confinement unit, but that’s just not the way of the world yet... Maybe someday.

Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here.

Previously: Prison Gerrymandering Is Absolute Bullshit

solitary confinement
Kids for Cash
Mark Ciavarella Jr.
kids in prison
Michael Conahan
Robert May