Psychologists say that when you go to prison at that age, you suffer from "arrested development." You stay in that teenaged state; you don't gain the responsibilities and experiences needed to transition to adulthood. My mentee has had some difficulties maturing - desperate to attain some of the laughter and sense of belonging that comes from being a reckless teen. And a part of him is still a 22-year-old guy, prone to making foolish decisions for the sake of peer approval, or for the sake of just feeling alive. The problem is he has less leeway than his peers who might have generous parents or good lawyers who bail them out of tight spots. One slip up with parole can completely throw him off course.
But his challenges run deeper than that. He comes from a family with criminal records; his brothers taught him to be vengeful; his father questioned his manhood when he wasn't willing to participate in his schemes. His mother scoffed at his choice to go to college when he was released. He inspired me at the way he rose above all this - getting a job, enrolling in school, fighting to see his daughter, taking an active role in his niece's and his sister's lives.
A few days ago, he was thrown back into the system - a mere three weeks before his two year anniversary of "getting out." His mother called me, left a message to call her back. I immediately worried about two possibilities: he was dead, or he had been re-incarcerated. It's unsettling that my mind jumped to these worries. Why should those be the potential outcomes for someone? Why is this a cyclical, acknowledged fate for young people living in poverty?
I guess part of me was prepared for this possibility. Sometimes I saw him spiraling. I knew he violated parole from time to time - drinking with his brothers, staying out past nine. But as a mentor, I can only point out his options and act as a guide. I can't steer him or make choices for him. I couldn't find him the healthy relationships he needed to thrive, nor could I snap my fingers and create a safer community for him to live in.
I am cognizant of the statistics: 70% of offenders will end up back in prison within three years of release, and these are largely due to parole violations. But I didn't think my mentee would become part of this stat. The odds were stacked against him, but he was one semester away from earning his Associate's Degree in Counseling. He had held a job down for a straight year, despite a horrendous commute and the fact that it completely bored him. He was gentle, smart, driven, compassionate, and would give the shirt off his back to a stranger on the street.
He was caught for drunk driving - not just a crime but a violation of his parole. He was sentenced to nine months. (He is 100% responsible for his poor choices, but just consider...how many people do you know who have had DUIs and gotten off with a mere fine? More than I can count). This is just before the end of his semester. Just before his summer internship. Just in time to alter his future in a big way. I don't think prison is the right answer for him right now; another spot on his record will make it even more difficult for him to find his way. The systems in place do not rehabilitate, and he will be even less prepared for the world when he gets out. Some say prison is good at creating better criminals, not better citizens. I hope that's not true for my mentee, but I know that the situation is grim.
I don't know what alternatives our society could create to make stories like this have a happy ending. I guess that's why I'm trying to get my Master's in Criminal Justice. For now, though, I just need to share this story so people can get a glimpse into this reality and realize it is the reality of many. If there were some way to change it, why wouldn't we?