Strong Education Programs, Supports Can Be Potent for Justice-Involved Youth

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Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” In my case, education fundamentally saved my life. At age 16, I was sentenced to serve six years at a secure juvenile detention facility in upstate New York for the crime of attempted murder.

I committed the offense when I was 15 years and 363 days old. If I been 16 at the time of the offense, I would have been charged as an adult and would have received a much longer sentence than six years.

When I entered the system, I was a completely different person; I was angry, impulsive, uneducated and gang-affiliated. To me, education played no important role in my life; as a matter of fact, very few things mattered to me, including my own life. It was not until I joined the college program of the juvenile detention facility that I was placed at that I realized the important role that education could play in helping young men like myself and others turn their life around.

Truth is, I could barely write when I entered the system and I only started reading after stepping into the system because it was something you could do to pass the time faster. However, what I also realized during my time incarcerated was that many of my peers had also just started reading and writing when they got into the system and so many of them struggled and acted out their frustrations by being disruptive in class or refusing to go to school.

For more examples of re-entry, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Re-entry

I, on the other hand, ended up getting into the GED program of the facility. Although I doubted my own ability to pass the exam, after six months of prepping behind a computer, I took the exam and passed it without a problem. Having come from a household with two undocumented parents who had essentially not continued their education after having come to this country, I felt like I had actually accomplished something. This confidence and the support that I received from a few staff led me to partake in the newly developed college program at my facility. The sad part of all of this, however, was that not all of my peers were gaining the same confidence and/or receiving the same support that as I was.

When I joined the college program, I did not know what I was getting myself into. To put it lightly, I had completely underestimated the program and I learned very quickly that EVERYONE in the program was held to a high standard. However, since I had never been challenged to push myself I constantly bumped heads with the director of the program, which inevitably led me to quit the program three times.

I quit the first two times because I could not write properly and because I was petrified of giving a speech in an English 101 course. However, even with all of my doubts and failures the director of this program still saw something in me and he brought me back into the program only to encourage me to try harder. And, just when I thought I was getting it together, I allowed all of the problems outside of the facility to get the best of me and I dropped out of the college program entirely for a third time. During this gap, my behavior in the facility dropped dramatically and I was steps away of being voluntarily transferred to the adult side of the system.

However, just when I had completely given up on everything, one lawyer, a volunteer of the college program, wrote a letter to me that completely got me to rethink my behavior and my decisions. In that letter she compared my story to that of Nelson Mandela and said that she truly believed that I had the capacity to be an agent of change just like Mandela.

Because of that letter, I decided to stay in the facility and get back into the college program. Although the director initially refused to let me back, thanks to the advocacy of several people I was allowed to return under two conditions: 1) I would take one semester without receiving any credit and 2) I would serve as a mentor to my fellow peers who needed support.

Although I was a bit skeptical about serving as mentor to the rest of my peers I slowly grew into my role and I learned to appreciate my education even more and the true meaning of responsibility. What I came to understand through this process was that youth need advocates who will push their educational needs but that they also need opportunities to make mistakes and be held accountable in ways that are more educational than they are punitive.

When I was released in June 2012, even after having managed to earn 54 college credits I struggled for six months with finding a job and getting into school. In January 2013, when I was close to giving up once again, opportunities began to present themselves left and right. Opportunities which came about through a bit of perseverance and a ton of good luck.

However, now that I look back at my experience I ask professionals in the juvenile justice and education arena this: Why was the transition so hard even for someone like me who was actually trying to do the right thing? Do we want success? Or do we want recidivism?

On May 2015, I successfully completed my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and, during the last four years, I have been actively working around the country to push for reforms that will give young people meaningful second chances (or several chances if needed). I went from being a gang-banging, illiterate, angry Latino kid to a successful advocate and true agent of change.

This all started when people in the system stopped looking me as a lost cause, started viewing me as a college student and who pushed me to think differently about the possibilities. If I had not made the decision to take my education serious while incarcerated and received the support that I needed, I would have likely found myself back in the system or dead on the streets. The problem is: Not every young person who goes through the system has a similar positive experience.

That said, to education and juvenile justice professionals, I provide these recommendations:

    1. Work together to provide youth with various educational options based on their interests and future aspirations: GED programs, college programs, vocational programs, leadership development programs; entrepreneurial training programs, etc.
    2. Provide youth with educational opportunities that promote civic engagement and that are heavily tied to the community.
    3. Connect youth with mentors and other supportive individuals who can provide guidance during their time in placement and who can help ease the transition back into the community.
    4. Push for legislation that removes barriers to employment, education and housing for youth coming out of prison.
    5. Hire enthusiastic facility staff who are ready to support, and not give up on, youth through hard times.
    6. Hire enthusiastic education staff who make learning interactive, engaging and relevant to the real world.
    7. Provide consistent and strong funding for educational programs in juvenile facilities.

Hernan Carvente is the national youth chair for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. He focuses on promoting youth and family engagement and has conducted trainings with diverse stakeholders such as policymakers, researchers, students and professionals in probation, child welfare, juvenile justice and corrections.