Reading about the suicide of Kalief Browder is heartbreaking.
His story is one of many tragedies that moved me to drive to Albany last week, to stand with legislators like Assemblyman Michael Blake in demanding that New York ‘Raise the Age’ at which youth are charged as adults in our courts. In New York State, a 16-year-old who is arrested for any crime, even a misdemeanor, is automatically charged as an adult. This means they aren’t able to contact their parents in many cases and they are locked up alongside adults in detention facilities. Kalief spent over three years on Rikers Island and he never even saw a trial. He arrived a friendly sixteen-year-old from a loving home and departed a haunted, troubled 20-year-old with a dark cloud over his future. Although his body was released from prison, Kalief never returned home.
When I entered prison on a seven-year sentence for a crime I didn’t commit, I was a mature 21, having been exposed to much at a young age and having the benefit of older, experienced mentors in my corner. Still, at 21 and older, I witnessed horrors that will stay with me for the rest of my life–random acts of extreme violence on a daily basis, with no regard for human life. I saw men spit feces out of their mouths at other inmates and officers. Prison is hell on earth.
Teenagers in prison are targeted for abuse. They are beaten, they are manipulated. Some are raped. Given the chance they cling to whatever older figure will offer them a little protection, listening to their every word–without understanding that everything has consequences. In Kalief’s case, he was strong enough to stick up for himself and began a cycle of stints in solitary confinement that stretched into years. Solitary is where many youth in adult facilities end up for their own protection–for periods of time that would drive grown men insane.
Now, I’m the father of a teenage son, and I can see exactly how cruel this practice is. When I get frustrated with my son, I have to recall being a teenager in order to relate to him. Recently my son experienced his first love, followed by the all-too-expected first heartbreak. I tried to warn him that it was coming, but he didn’t listen. Then I started thinking back on my first love. I was so head-over-heels infatuated, I felt certain that this feeling was the feeling, this girl must be the one. My mother tried to warn me. I got my heart broken, and quickly learned how to keep my head in relationships.
Children make mistakes on their way to becoming adults, because they don’t fully understand how the world works yet. They need people around them trying to steer them right, and they need the space to make better decisions after they make mistakes and learn their lesson. Just like teenagers do not yet understand love, they certainly cannot understand the hell that is prison. They get hurt, point-blank period.
It’s barbaric. Children should not be tried and jailed with adults who can easily manipulate them, abuse them and destroy them mentally and physically. Exposed to inhumane acts, young people adapt to this way of life, believing that it is normal behavior. When they are released, they find themselves institutionalized–the world doesn’t make sense to them the way prison life does. I’ve personally seen young kids become career criminals because of their early incarceration. Kalief’s own words were, “I feel like I’ve been robbed of my happiness.” He lived in constant fear of cops and people in positions of authority–a fear his doctors termed “paranoia” despite his experiences of severe physical abuse by those sworn to protect him.
New York is only one of two states in the entire nation that treats teenagers with so little regard for their safety and well-being. We might lead the nation in many areas, but it is shocking that we are still in the dark ages when it comes to juvenile justice. We should be talking about how we can expand the availability of community-based alternatives for teenagers, like the CASES program or LIFE Camp, Inc. or numerous others in NYC, that pair youth offenders with counselors and involve them in programs that help them develop and gain skills that ultimately lead to better life outcomes. Instead, we are fighting just to “raise the age” of criminal responsibility to 18, to get them out of prison with adult offenders, where they will be hurt and end up back in the system, or dead. It’s shameful that the leaders of our state are comfortable with destroying young lives in the worst way.
Mysonne Linen is a hip-hop artist and a member of Justice League NYC. You can follow him on Twitter @mysonne and Instagram @mysonnenygeneral