Friday, August 21, 2009

Some initial thoughts after hearing R. Dwayne Betts read from A Question of Freedom

Reginald Dwayne Betts came to Dearborn yesterday to read at Border’s. He was reading from his memoir: A Question of Freedom, recently published by Avery.

If nothing else about Dwayne’s work, I’ve learned that I generally come away from hearing him with a new direction in my thinking. There is always some assumption I realize I had, some foggy generalization that Dwayne calls into question. He always gives me stuff to think about.

Here are a couple thoughts I wanted to share, and welcome feedback.

One (Elements of Humanity)

I found the way he discussed survival in prison pretty powerful. And one of the things struck me pretty hard. To paraphrase, he said: People think there is only the viciousness in prison, but if there were no humanity in prison, I could not have gone in at 16 and come out at 25.

In that moment, I realized my own assumptions about what prison must be. I think I have always assumed that people must get used to that viciousness he talked about, and that was the only way to navigate it.

I have wondered though, where the nature of the viciousness lay. Considering nobody goes to prison just to fuck with people, I’ve often wondered if everyone is so deathly afraid of prison, there must be a lot of folks in the population who really don't want to fuck with anybody. Just want to do their time and get out. There must be more to the aggression than just bullying.

And that made me think about a lot of other things, particularly how I have had to try to explain growing up in Detroit. It’s an awful conversation to have with people, really. Because at some point I find myself frustrated by all their misgivings and misunderstanding. On one hand, I want to be clear that growing up on the east side of Detroit was no fucking picnic. On the other hand, I want to be clear that it wasn’t a nightmare 24/7 – even though it was – kinda’…at times…but it wasn’t. I think – I just don’t want people to make assumptions about how I grew up, what I went through. But then at other times, I get upset when people ask me dumb questions like: You didn’t read Alighieri in high school?? Ultimately, I think I just wish people understood. And they don’t. It’s too much to ask. It really is a whole other world.

But in listening to Dwayne talk about his experience in prison (and yes, I guess I’m comfortable making the comparison just right now), I found something of what I want people to get about living in the hood: it’s still human territory. There is humanity there. And all the complexities that go along with that.

Two (Trying Children as Adults)

I’ve been thinking a lot about childhood sentencing lately. How our nation qualifies crime and what reasons we give for how we punish those crimes.

Rehabilitation is hardly ever a question of budget or economy or tax dollars, or any of that stuff. People in this country (maybe others) view education as a privilege. Some may not be willing to admit that. But people who oppose rehabilitation don't think 'criminals' deserve to grow. Isolated incidents do define people in our society's eyes. And a felon is not worthy of certain status, or progress, in this country. "You don't get to take someone's life and get a college education for it" is what that sort of talk sounds like. Even though everyone knows prisons are not filled with murderers and rapists, largely. They are disproportionately filled with poor folks with insufficient education, mental illness and drug addictions.

So, the idea of tossing kids into this pot, frankly, sickens me. Children being tried as adults seems horrifying to me philosophically.

And here’s the thing. I’m not a lawyer, so maybe someone can explain to me how it’s even constitutional, considering the following:

A- I don't understand how you can put someone on trial and charge them as something they are not. For example, no one would ever try an adult as a juvenile. And you may try an adult as someone with a mental illness, but then there is a necessity during the trial to prove to the court that the insanity actually exists. You would never charge someone with “acting like a sociopath”. You would not try a person as an alien, or as a German (and I’m not referring to immigration status here, I’m referring to identity and legal status), even if they built a new Gestapo in their own neighborhood. You could only base your trial on their actual identity, which would be based on their physical state of being. Kids are not adults, by any other legal definition. What’s with the situational convenience?

Dwayne said the judge who sentenced him said, during the sentencing: "I am aware that I am not sending you anywhere that will help you." which says a lot, and doesn't really speak to the facility, as much as it speaks to how we view punitive justice.

B- I’m not really clear on how you can charge someone who does not have the agency to defend themselves. Consider the comments of the father of a 14-year-old Liberian refugee in Arizona, who is being tried as an adult for participating in the gang rape of an 8-year-old-girl (also a refugee):

“[My son] does not even understand the people he’s talking to…he does not speak English very well…he did not go to school. He started going to school when he came to the United States. And so we deduce that he cannot really understand what is going on right now. And so everything that has been said to him, he has no choice but yes, to accept it. Even though he did not understand.”

Kyra Phillips, of CNN, said as a follow-up to the father’s statement, that she spoke to “sources close to the investigation, sources that have spoken with this young boy and we are being told that he does speak English. So we want to make that clear.”

But the father’s concern is the concern that any parent would have about their children dealing with the legal system. His father isn’t saying he doesn’t speak English, he’s saying that the child feels lost, particularly since English is not his first language. This is the most basic argument against trying children as adults. They don’t understand their rights. They are impressionable and may be much more likely to yield even the rights they think they have to figures of authority.

How can you sentence someone with an adult sentence who cannot fairly represent themselves and has so little chance of understanding how to defend themselves against their charges? How is that legal?

I guess I have as many questions as I had revelations.

1 comment:

Velia said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the event with R. Dwayne Betts. My son, Efrén Paredes, Jr., coordinated his book signing at EVERYbody Reads in Lansing yesterday as well. It is important to point out the things you did about juvenile justice. Too often people are afraid to express themselves or oppose the inhumanity of sentencing children to die in our prisons.

Our family knows the painful reality of what you wrote. Efrén has been in prison for 20 years since the age of 15 for a crime he did not commit and we are fighting for his freedom every waking day. You can learn more about Efrén's struggle at:

Sharing Dwayne's story helps people see that children's lives are not dispensable. They are an integral part of our lives and we must work to rescue them from policies that seek to throw the key away on their lives and future.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.