Sep 26 2010

Send Me To Prison…Just Get Me Out of Here…

In 2007, a young man from my neighborhood who I had become friendly with was arrested at 17 years old on felony drug charges. But that is jumping ahead.

Jamal* was 15 when we met. He had attended a youth-led speakout event that I co-sponsored in my community. He was brilliant and funny. He had a lot to say at the forum. We became friends. I would see him standing in front of the EL station on my way to work in the mornings and suggest that he should be in school. He would tell me that standing in front of the EL was much more educational than school and that by the way, he hated reading.

After two weeks of hearing this consistent line, I bought him a copy of a book called “Makes Me Wanna Holler” by Nathan McCall. It’s a book that I had assigned as part of a class I taught to college students. The cover of the book has a picture of a black man striking a “cool pose.” I think that Jamal was intrigued by the photograph. I gave him the book and said: “Give it a chance and tell me what you think. If you read it, lunch will be on me. We can discuss it together.”

As fate would have it, I needed to drive to work for the next three days. I didn’t see Jamal again for that time. When I returned to the EL, I found Jamal standing there, he was reading the book that I gave him and was 3/4 of the way through it. He saw me, smiled, and said, “You know what Ms. K, this book is on the nickel.” [That means GREAT, by the way, for those who like myself are 2005 slang challenged.]

The next Monday, he asked me for other titles that I could recommend. He said that he would look for the books at our local library. He cautioned: “Don’t try to give me any boring school books, though.”

I was so excited that I came back the next day with a list of books that I thought might interest him. I am a voracious consumer of young adult fiction and non-fiction. I find that it helps me connect to the young people that I work with. The following were some of Jamal’s favorites. I did not include the ones that he classified as “Garbage” and admonished me to never recommend to anyone else.

Buffalo Tree, by Adam Rapp. HarperTempest, c1997. While serving a six-month sentence at a juvenile detention center, thirteen-year-old Sura struggles to survive the experience with his spirit intact.

Hole in my Life, by Jack Gantos. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, c2002. The author relates how, as a young adult, he became a drug user and smuggler, was arrested, did time in prison, and eventually got out and went to college, all the while hoping to become a writer.

A Life for a Life, by Ernest Hill. Simon & Shuster, c1998. Fifteen-year old D’Ray is growing up in rural Louisiana when someone threatens to kill his little brother if he doesn’t come up with $100 in an hour. D’Ray robs a convenience store, and when it goes awry, we watch D’Ray struggle with a life of crime, juvenile arrests and the prospect of turning it all around.

Makes Me Wanna Holler, by Nathan McCall. Vintage Books, c1994. McCall’s autobiography traces his life, from the streets of Portsmouth, Va., to prison, to the Washington Post.

Monster, by Walter Dean Myers. HarperCollins, c1999. While on trial as an accomplice to a murder, sixteen-year old Steve Harmon records his experiences in prison and in the courtroom in the form of a film script as he tries to come to terms with the course his life has taken.

Soulfire, by Lorri Hewett. Dutton Children’s Books, c1996. A rift develops in the closeness shared by Todd and Ezekiel, two African-American cousins, when Ezekiel single-handedly tries to end the problem of gang violence in his Denver neighborhood.

Getting back to Jamal’s arrest. So two years went by, with Jamal sometimes hanging out at my place on Sundays just so he could read new books that I would get for him. We would talk about those books. He is brilliant.

Then Jamal got himself into some trouble. The reasons for it were complex and I won’t break confidence to explain. Suffice it to say, that circumstances made it important for Jamal to start making a lot more money than he had been while selling dime bags.

All of a sudden, in 2007, I didn’t see or hear from Jamal for a month. That was unusual. I asked some of his friends in the neighborhood where he was and what had happened to him. There was a wall of silence. Finally one evening in October, I got a phone call from Jamal. He was at Cook County Jail and he needed my help. “What can I do,” I asked. “Do you need a private lawyer, I have friends who could help? Money for items from the commissary…” I was going on and on and he finally stopped me when he could get a word in. “Ms. K he said, please tell them to send me to prison now…just get me out of here.”

I am recounting this story because I just read an article about the fact that Cook County Jail is at critical mass. It triggered the recollection above and brings back memories of so many people who I know who have been at the jail and have characterized it as hell on earth.

From the article:

Cook County jail costs was one item discussed. An estimated $117.30 of taxpayer funds is spent per detainee per day in Cook County facilities. There are 102 counties in Illinois, and Cook County has the largest daily jail population in the state and the third largest in the U.S., trailing only L.A. and New York.

The inmate population is reaching critical mass. There are 9,548 inmates and capacity at Cook County jail is 9,838. The most common crime arrest category amongst inmates is drug related violations. National arrests in 2009 for drug abuse violations comprised 13 percent of total arrests (estimated at 1.6 milliion), according to an F.B.I. report. The most common offense was possession of marijuana.

Drug arrests have sharply increased over the last 20 years. In 1987 drug arrests only accounted for 7.4 percent. Commissioner Tony Peraica stated his concern of the high costs of prosecuting and detaining drug abusers.

Cook County Jail is overpopulated with people who do not need to be incarcerated. In addition, the jail has been investigated for its horrible treatment of its population.

In 2008 the U.S. Justice Department completed an investigation of the Cook County jail. The report found numerous violations including excessive use of force. In one instance a mentally ill inmate was restrained with handcuffs and beaten. The inmate was transported to an outside hospital for severe head trauma.

* In order to keep his identity confidential I assigned Jamal a pseudonym.