(featured image: Prison Bound by Thomas Hawk on Flickr.)

Kids make mistakes.  Spend some time around high schoolers, it’ll be readily apparent that their brains aren’t done cooking.  As far as impulse control goes, male brains don’t fully mature until they’re almost 25.

Car rental companies know this.  But our criminal justice system doesn’t.

dwayne-500x334Reginald Dwayne Betts, a Yale law student who currently serves on President Obama’s council for Juvenile Justice, was arrested for joyriding and tried as an adult at sixteen.  He served eight years in prison, some fraction of that in mind-numbing, soul-killing, de-humanizing solitary confinement.

Betts’s recent poetry collection, Bastards of the Reagan Era, conveys the stark poverty of that experience.  The lexicon he uses is intentionally minute: in the opening poem, “Elegy with a City in It,” he uses a small set of words over and over in as many contexts as possible, like “men awed / by blood, lost in the black / of all that is awful:” followed by the word “black” used again to describe the judges’ robes, the doomed men’s skin, men who then “blackened / the inside of a coffin,” more than sixty never-repetitive lines to unveil a world where the walls look the same, the concrete looks the same no matter which way you turn.

reaganera.jpgEven the titles of the poems in this collection feel like walls closing in: alongside “Elegy with a City in It” is “Elegy where a City Burns” and eleven poems titled “For the City that Nearly Broke Me.”  In prison, I’ve been told, resources are scarce.  Unless you learn to repurpose those few items that can be purchased at commissary, you’ll have to do without.  There must be ways: inmates often sport fresh tattoos, even though they have access to none of the equipment I’d think necessary.

And Betts shows that the men in prison are men, too.  Human beings, with their own hopes and dreams.  They live.  They pray.  If they didn’t pray before, their time teaches them to pray: “A fifty-year sentence buckles / a man’s knees into prayer.”  Reading that couplet, I can picture someone hearing from a judge and crumpling.

As human beings, they don’t deserve this.  Fifty years?  People do bad things, I know.  And because we so rarely come to the aid of children, we allow some to grow into twisted, unstable adults.  Some people probably are best kept away from their fellows.

But, eight years for a joyriding black teen?  Fifty for selling cocaine?  The sentences are egregious and unfair, too often left to the (at times racist) discretion of prosecutors and judges.

And then, instead of providing an environment where former criminals can easily heal and learn, we stuff them into a punitive box.  As someone who has luckily never been there, I am grateful that Betts so eloquently describes the austere life inside that box.