The Complex Reality of Juveniles in Adult Prisons


by David Chura, author of I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup(Beacon Press, 2011), Winner of the 2010 PASS Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency

Reynaldo is surprised that he’s made it to another birthday. With so many of his friends killed by the streets, each new year startles him. But he’s not surprised to be locked up again. He’s spent every birthday since he was twelve with kids just like him—“punks,” “gangstas,” other children of disappointment. This time he’s been thrown into the harshest world of all, adult lockup.

Reynaldo is only one of the young people readers meet in I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. This behind-the-scenes look at kids in prison, an environment that the Verna Institute of Justice describes as “unsafe, unhealthy, unproductive, inhumane,” is a collection of sharply drawn portraits of minors serving time in an adult penitentiary.

The young men and women I met during my ten years of teaching high school in a New York county adult facility were some of the most vulnerable teens I had encountered in forty years of working with at-risk kids in psych hospitals, drug rehabs, and alternative schools. With lives shaped by societal forces beyond their control—poverty, racism, physical and sexual abuse, violence, AIDS/HIV—they were often rejected by fragmented families, inadequate schools, and the communities in which they lived. Even the child welfare system, the very system charged with their care, abandoned them.

Although these young people are over- and misrepresented in the media as “superpredators,” their personal stories are underrepresented in academic literature. I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine helps fill that gap and is an excellent addition to coursework in sociology, psychology, and related scholarly studies. It goes beyond the sound bites and stereotypes that define the public’s perceptions of youthful offenders. At the same time, it brings academic theories to life and puts a face to the statistics on which many child welfare and juvenile justice policies and laws are based. Likewise, the book gives students a knowledge of cultures, lifestyles, and family dynamics that otherwise might not be readily available to them but is essential for their studies and their work in the social sciences.

When I share this book in various academic settings, students are quickly engaged by the young people’s stories . Because it is rooted in the day-to-day details of prison life and the real people entangled in that culture, students are able to move easily from the particular moments depicted in these kids’ lives to the broader social issues of poverty, family, the streets, peer pressure, and the juvenile and criminal justice systems that have such a profound effect on those lives. After reading and discussing I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine, students come away with not only a deeper understanding of sociological concepts and principles but also a greater respect for the vulnerability and resilience of these teenagers who refuse to be beaten down.

David Chura has worked with at-risk teenagers for forty years. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and multiple literary journals and anthologies, and he is a frequent lecturer and advisor on incarcer­ated youth. Visit his website Kids in the System.

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