Invest in youth offenders

A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

Community support invited for mentors and youth at Lino Lakes

I am incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Lino Lakes where the Department of Corrections holds the Y.O.s (youth offenders) — inmates who were certified while they were juveniles to serve prison sentences as adults.

I was certified as an adult when I was 17 years old and have been locked up for the last 15 years. When I was going through the certification process in 2001, adult prison time tended to be the only option when the charges were serious enough to have presumptive sentences of double digits in years.

Nowadays, some of these young men are coming into prison serving double-digit sentences in mere months. I can speak with conviction from my own experience to the fact that this change in the way we criminalize our youth and the punitive responses do not serve the interest of children, as should be the case.

When developed, the original role of the juvenile courts was not to determine innocence or guilt. They were designed to diagnose the conditions which led to the delinquent behavior and then act in the best interest of the child to alleviate those conditions.

This role is not accurately depicted by the experiences our inner-city youth face while they are processed through the juvenile justice system today. Instead, many punitive practices were put in place like zero tolerance policies that have led, in part, to the school-to-prison-pipeline.

This phenomenon does nothing to address the underlying conditions that afflict our youth. To the contrary, these types of policies have exacerbated those conditions. This trend by our juvenile courts begs the question, “Whose best interests are addressed by the current practices and policies?”

With the many social injustices experienced in our communities being recently brought to the political forefront, one of the main issues discussed and criticized has been mass incarceration. However, when this topic comes up it is mostly talked about from the perspective of the current state of our adult prison system while the issue of juvenile justice reform goes largely overlooked or unstated.

We need to put pressure on the officials responsible for enacting these punitive policies in efforts to see status offences committed by youth decriminalized. We need policies put in their place that can effectively and positively intervene in the trajectory kids are on when they enter the Juvenile Detention Center.

Only then can we hope to find lasting solutions that concentrate on the underlying conditions that force our youth into these circumstances to begin with. Only then can the juvenile justice system say they are exploring options to tackle the issue of juvenile delinquency with the best interest of the youth in the mind.

I must give the Department of Corrections administration here at Lino Lakes credit for allowing the inmates to establish a youth mentor program, which began a couple of months ago. This was made possible by the platform presented by the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), a Christian-based reentry program sponsored by Prison Fellowship. Myself, a few other members of B.R.I.D.G.E., and a group of other men enrolled in the IFI program now have the opportunity to meet a few times a week with the group of Y.O.s here at the facility.

However, we can only give them so much through words and advice. It all means nothing if not made real once released, and it can only be made real when they come home through support from the communities they are coming home to.

They need to be embraced and given a chance to continue to build on an alternative sense of belonging and identity from the one they developed in the streets. This is only possible through the communities’ support and tangible opportunities being made available to them.

This article is a plea on behalf of myself, the other mentors, B.R.I.D.G.E. and, most importantly, the youth offenders in the mentoring program for the communities’ involvement in this program. By request, the administration has been receptive to having outside guests come inside to interact with the mentors and young men here at the facility.

Whether your message is from the church, motivational, a basketball coach to spend some time with the kids in the gym, etc. — whatever it may be, your involvement and support would be greatly appreciated!

 

For more information or to participate, contact Cody Wilde, IFI program manager, or Angela Halseth, youth offender case manager, at MCF-Lino Lakes, 612-717-6100.

Robert Ives is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.