Breaking the Cycle: Teaching kids the skills they need to stay out of prison
by Nicolas Miller Kauffman
As people concerned with the academic field of Peace Studies, we often focus our attention on wars overseas, or perhaps on our own militaristic structures that often lead us to pursue these wars. But there is so much more work for us to do than just stopping war: in our own cities, teenagers who have never learned how to write a check earn their money by selling drugs. Children whose parents are in and out of prison join gangs to get the consistency they never had at home. Nine-year-olds carry handguns in subdivisions where a dead body in the woods is only news for a week or so. Minors who commit murder are released into the streets without the guidance they need to get their life on track, while students locked up for skipping school who react badly to incarceration are held for years before being set free on the verge of adulthood, without any education or experience to prepare them for the real world. These true situations are among the startling realities that I faced last summer in my internship at Aftercare for Indiana through Mentoring (AIM) in Indianapolis.
The inner city was never somewhere I saw myself working. Though I can’t in all honesty claim Goshen, Indiana to be a small town, growing up there certainly does not make one a city slicker, and I’ve always found places like New York and Chicago to be grittily urban and generally unhappy. I am not comfortable in such places, and for exactly that reason I decided to pursue an internship through the Indianapolis Peace Institute. Peace Studies, I knew, is not limited to matters of war, but involves a commitment to confronting issues of structural violence across all levels: local, state and international. And since the United States’ cities are an excellent starting place to explore the roots of such violence, I headed three hours down the road to the thirteenth largest one in the country.
After being arrested for civil disobedience in 2007 and having the opportunity to talk with other inmates in the Allen County Jail, I found myself intensely interested in peace work in our criminal justice system. I expressed this interest during the placement process and was quickly connected to Aftercare for Indiana through Mentoring (AIM), a juvenile re-entry and mentoring program that works with incarcerated and recently released juvenile offenders with the goal of preventing recidivism. Once again, I was stepping outside of my comfort zone—I have never considered myself particularly good with kids of any age, but if we are to make any progress in building a peaceful and just society, we must work with our youth.
Funded almost entirely by grants (some from the government and some from the private sector), with some per-student support from the state, AIM makes one-on-one mentoring its primary mission. This choice is based on statistics that consistently show juvenile offenders who are connected with an adult in a mentoring relationship are far more likely to stay out of jail, find good jobs, and go to college. Though it is a private not-for-profit, AIM functions as part of Marion County’s Community Transition Program, providing mentors and life skills classes to the youth. The youth are also placed with case managers and home-based therapists in an intensive effort to create the kind of support system that will help them to be successful.
Since my limited time with the organization precluded me from actually being a mentor, I mostly worked with Stacy, the woman who coordinates AIM’s life skills academy. While AIM’s students work with their one-on-one mentors, therapists and probation managers for a period of months (or longer), Academy is a ten-day class that all students must go through immediately upon their release from a correctional facility. Each day is an intensive lesson in a topic such as finance, healthy relationships, employment, stress management, decision making, or education (most of AIM’s students are encouraged to pursue a GED, since they are often far behind on their high school credits due to incarceration).
My job, to use a massive understatement, was challenging. Sometimes we were almost grateful if a student was sending text messages during class, because it meant he wasn’t throwing things or disrupting the lesson with loud comments. Any change in events or dynamics—a substitute teacher, a new rule, or a harsh reprimand—was met with open hostility. While some students seemed to defer to me, perhaps due to my height and multiple piercings, others tried to establish dominance by making direct physical threats.
Yet while some days were nightmares, others brought feelings of hope, or even success. Two of our students got jobs at places we took them to apply—an especially crucial step, since a consistent response by those having difficulty finding work was “I’ll just go back to making money the way I know how” (dealing). Once, a student opened up to us about the trouble he was having relating to his parents, who I’d met and knew to be earnestly trying to make things work out for him. Stacy and I gave him suggestions for how to talk to them, and he seemed to take them to heart. One of my former students, who I re-met while I was tagging along with a home-based therapist one day, even commented that he missed Academy because at least it was something to do.
And then there were the days that just felt like failures. One of our students was re-arrested just a few days shy of finishing Academy. Another—the same one who had so encouraged us just by asking our advice—stole a car and went on the run, and I never heard news of him again. Even when students were disruptive and disrespectful, at least they were in the program; it was the ones we never saw again that made us realize that, for them, we had failed our goal of keeping them out of prison. And so I learned an important aspect of peacebuilding that I never really wanted to learn: the ability to distance myself from the day-to-day realities of my work.
My work at AIM always carried a sense of urgency, and even emergency. AIM’s simple goal to keep kids out of jail is urgent because most of the youth who come through Academy are sixteen or seventeen years old: one more misstep and they’ll probably be waived to the adult courts, which, for some of their crimes, will put them behind bars for several years and set them up for what will essentially amount to a lifetime of incarceration. Every student we dealt with was walking the line between recovering from a mistake or letting it set the stage for their entire future.
It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of the work that AIM and other non-profit and government organizations do with adolescents. The big flaw in the juvenile justice system is that it pulls adolescents out of society and locks them in a different world for what, at their age, is a damaging amount of time (one of my students, originally jailed for truancy, ended up serving three years because of continuing bad behavior in the facility). They spend a significant portion of their formative years locked up, and as a consequence are far behind their expected level in everything from reading and writing to social skills. This is exacerbated by the fact that most of them have (often undiagnosed) mental disorders of varying severities. They come out knowing nothing about balancing checkbooks, getting jobs or even interacting with girls, and yet they are expected to mesh seamlessly into unfamiliar social expectations. When the world as they understand it clashes with the world as the law understands it, they end up right back in prison, infusing the adult criminal justice system with a supply of ready-made convicts.
What these youth need is education. They need to be taught the things that people are going to assume they already know. They need to be taught how to fill out a job application, how to plan for the future. Those things were my role in their lives. And then they need the support and consistency offered to them by an adult role model: consistency, the home-based therapist I tagged along with told me, is the greatest unfulfilled need that juvenile offenders have. We can give them that, if we move from castigation to correction and really devote our resources to helping them to survive in society.
The government knows this, which is why things like the Community Transition Program (a part of the Indiana Department of Corrections) exist. But these programs are almost as a rule understaffed and underfunded, so we need non-profit organizations to fill the gap. And we as citizens need to show our support for expanding and improving programs like this, both for youth and for adults, which can ultimately reduce crime and make our cities a safer place.
Our cities are starving for nonviolence work. While living in Indianapolis for two months, I heard reports of more murders than I can remember from a lifetime of living in Goshen. One shooting happened just blocks from my residence at the Indianapolis Peace House, and another occurred close to AIM’s headquarters.
Peace and nonviolence work is not limited to holding protests and stopping wars. We must confront the explosive violence in our inner cities, and the structural violence that allows it to breed. We need to push for prison reform. We need to confront the still-present issue of racism. We need to provide better support for families in our cities and youth in our schools. These are not the arbitrary ramblings of a liberal arts student: these are things I saw directly, intrinsically connected to crime in Indianapolis.
If we are serious about peace and justice, serious about ending the pools of broken relationships in which violence breeds, then one of the most important areas in which we can focus our work is that of juvenile corrections. We have a limited period of time to teach these students before they go out into the world. Let’s make sure we teach them well.
Nick Miller Kauffman graduated fromManchester in 2009 with a B.A. in Peace Studies, emphasis in Community and Social Relations. Over the summer he worked teaching life skills to juvenile offenders in Indianapolis. He is passionate about social justice issues, and about living in an environmentally conscious manner. This fall he began attending Bethany Theological Seminary for an M.A. in Theology with an emphasis in Peace Studies.