Sep 08, 12
Read from September 02 to 06, 2012
Jerome Gold worked for fifteen years as a counselor in a juvenile detention facility in Washington State, from 1991 to 2005, and this is his day-to-day journal. It’s a gripping read, and the reader soon begins to care as much about some of these kids as the author does himself.
The first thing that strikes you is the terrible histories of these kids, and the fact that each was once a victim of a violent crime or abuse at an appalling young age. Many, but not all, of the kids are gang members or have older siblings or fathers who were involved in gangs. Gold was working at a time when the crack cocaine epidemic was taking its worst toll on impoverished communities, and he spent much of his time trying to teach these kids how to resist drugs and gang culture.
But violence isn’t solely the province of gang activity; poverty and isolation are also big factors. Most of these kids were trying to make the best choices they could when their options were severely limited. In most of their families, violence and sexual abuse was passed down through generations. And Gold and his colleagues do their best to break the cycle. But the author also makes it clear that they’re trying to counteract the effects of a racist and dysfunctional system.
About halfway through the book the author describes a conversation with a friend, who’s a parole officer: “I deal with a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic kids—disproportionate to their numbers in society—whose families are impoverished, who almost always come from single-parent families, whose mom or dad or both have a drug or alcohol problem, whose mom or dad themselves may have served time or are serving time. So let’s face it: society doesn’t love these kids and wants them exactly where they are: in prison. And I am society’s representative. I am the father society wants them to have, even though I despise society for all the reasons the best of my generation despises society. So, however I want to see myself, I do represent oppression.”
He describes the inherent conflict in trying to teach kids to follow the rules of the system—go to school, get a job, live by society’s standards—but at the same time he has to teach them how to question the authority of gang leaders, abusive parents, and criminal justice authorities who don’t treat them fairly.
And this is where Gold’s book really shines. He doesn’t just talk about the children in the facility, he also illuminates how these facilities are run, by whom, and for what objectives. And like any institution, some employees are good at their jobs, and some are terrible. Meanwhile, the administrators have no clue what it’s like to work directly with the kids, and sometimes they make terrible decisions. Some psychiatrists are good, but others are wedded to a treatment agenda that won’t work for every kid, and they refuse to adapt accordingly. Adequate funding is always a problem. And beneath it all is a persistent struggle by staff to avoid burnout and to see each new kid in the system as someone who can be rescued and rehabilitated.
This book should be required reading for politicians and public policy makers. But everyone can benefit from a better understanding of why kids commit crimes and how hard it is to piece together a normal life once a child has been abused, acts out, and then is incarcerated.