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Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Atrocity of Sunsets: The Death of Childhood in Michigan

By Chris Dankovich

When my great-grandfather Jan (a Slavic John) came to America, it had been five years since he was released from an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. This was World War I, after the Italians had switched sides to the allies, away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had conscripted him. He had been shot through the jaw, taking out a row of teeth. The bullet stopped by his wisdom tooth (which fortunately had come by this point in his life, 19 years old). There are no purple hearts or corresponding rewards given when you are on the losing side, so he returned to the newly formed Czechoslovakia without anything to show for his sacrifice, probably grumbling about how he, a Magyar, had been separated from what he considered his homeland of Hungary by a few miles of re-drawn border. He took the gamble that is America, and, after earning money in Pennsylvanian coalmines and working Detroit steel, he sent for his wife and two children.

My grandfather John (John, son of Jan, son of Jan, son of Jan...) arrived on the RMS Olympic, sister-ship to the Titanic. He worked hard to learn English, and by 9th grade he was completely caught up with his age group in school. The next year, Great-Grandpa Jan took John Jr. (apparently they lost track of what number Grandpa John was supposed to be, though he would have been at least John VI if anyone would have counted) out of school and signed him up for the mines in Michigan. A standard physical before hiring showed Grandpa John had tuberculosis. He was promptly sent to Maybury Sanitorium (sanitarium for mental sanitation, sanitorium for physical sanitation) in Battle Creek, Michigan. A prisoner of disease, but also free: he was roommates with future comedian Dick Martin of “Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In” (there's a picture of the two of them mocking Hitler, Charlie Chaplin-style in 1939); they edited a sanitorium newspaper and finished their High School educations and began college. Getting out, he got a scholarship to a university and went to work as an engineer at General Motors instead of the coalmines.

My father James (Grandpa broke the tradition of naming his eldest son John) was a never a prisoner of anything, except, perhaps at times, his mind. He went to school to be a teacher, but found, after less than one school year, that he didn't like teaching. So he went back to school to become a chiropractor. This was the 1960's. He was a hippie, growing pot, selling acid (a roommate who was the main salesman drank the beer that they had dissolved the LSD crystals in and went crazy. ending up in a sanitarium before joining the Branch Davidians). He was lost, trying to find his way. And he became a chiropractor, one of the most successful in Michigan, taking care of the rich (and occasionally famous) in the metro-Detroit area. An American success story: from serfs to the top 1% in three generations. 

This isn't an American success story. This is more of an American failure story. Every day across the nation, children -- 13, 14, 15, 16 years old-- are put into adult prisons. I'm one of them.

I started off my incarceration at 15 years old in Oakland County Children's Village in Michigan, a secure juvenile detention and holding facility. The bathrooms were cleaned thoroughly every day there while the rest was cleaned only occasionally, and so the only parts of the facility that didn't smell like urine were the bathrooms themselves. Most of the kids there were between 13 and 16, some younger, a few older. They stole cars, sold drugs, got caught having sex with their girlfriends (or occasionally boyfriends) often the same age as they were, making it statutory rape. Some were incorrigible, some were disrespectful, some gave up their snack to the new kids to help them feel more comfortable. The staff was professional, sometimes strict, usually willing to offer advice, but, like most kids, the "residents" sought out their guides and role models in their peers. Each "pod" of resident children was generally kind and fairly gentle-worded to each other, though it would only take one bad apple to turn them into rioters. There was a tension in these kids: most had seen violence, many had experienced it. Most were prescribed some sort of medication: many were doped up to the point of barely functioning. Most regularly did drugs before going there: many started their drug abuse with the drugs they were prescribed. We would sit in the corners of the pods, at the picnic tables with the laminate chessboards on top, and trade tips on what to say to get the psychiatrist to prescribe us whatever we wanted, where to score good weed, how to steal a car, where the children's shelters were if they were being abused at home. There was one kid, Dmitry (11 years old), who would hide under those tables and cry whenever the staff or other residents got angry at him, and wouldn't come out for anything (except, occasionally, if I talked to him). He was in there for molesting someone or something --a biological or foster brother, sister, a neighbor, the dog-- as he had a Criminal Sexual conduct (CSC) charge. He was doped up on the highest level of Adderall (multiple doses of 30 mg) and CDB anti-psychotic Seroquel (a thousand milligrams just in the morning) I had or have ever heard of.

Once sentenced as an adult, at 16, to adult state prison, I couldn't stay in juvenile detention, and I was taken to the county jail, and then, the next week, to the state prison intake center in Jackson, MI (fun fact: this is the original home of the Republican Party in the 1800's when the party began as the anti-slavery party: now the town's economy is completely centered around its prison system, once the largest in the world). I was the only juvenile (though, having been charged as an adult, I was no longer a legal juvenile; now I was a “Youthful” adult) there, out of thousands of men, and I was kept in a separate, caged off area in one of the massive cell blocks. The prison looked just like the movies, a lot like the prison on Alcatraz where I visited on a family vacation two years before my incarceration. Rows and rows of steel-bar enclosed cells, tiers stacked upon each other. The porter who would clean the floor in front of my cell every few days (the only prisoner I really had any contact with) felt bad that I didn‘t have any tobacco. He said that it was the only thing that made life bearable in there.

I was transferred to the next prison in two weeks, whereas the normal amount of time is two to three months (being too young for general population again, I had to be escorted everywhere I went, which I’m sure grew tiresome for more than just myself). I arrived at Thumb Correctional Facility's "Youthful Offender's“ Side (Michigan's only prison for adult prisoners ages 13 to 18, though some stay into their early 20's), seven months after I turned 16 years old. I joined some 400 other "youthful" adults in the two units reserved for us, set apart by some fencing and a building we shared with 800 "adult" adult prisoners.

A state whose forbearers eliminated the death penalty due to the moving temperance speeches and last words delivered by a man who killed his partner in a drunken rage and remorsefully walked to the gallows, Michigan has a history of treating those of its citizens who often cannot legally drive a car, smoke, drink, or consent to the touch of another excessively harsh --the harshest, in fact, in the entire world. While the United States of America only officially stopped executing juveniles in 2005, it had been many, many years since any juvenile was actually executed. Instead, states have taken to sentencing juveniles to life in prison without any possibility of parole or early release -- sentencing them to live out the rest of their lifespans (the average lifespan for a juvenile serving life is 52 years) and die in prison. Michigan took the lead, sentencing its juveniles to life without parole at a higher rate than any other state or country in the world. Before the United States Supreme Court banned the practice in 2012, Michigan mandated that any juvenile found guilty of any amount of participation in a premeditated murder (even if it was a plan that wasn't carried out) or a death caused by anyone during the commission of any felony be sentenced to the state's maximum sentence. Hence, Kevin Boyd. who at 16 gave his estranged mother the keys to his father's house, which she and her lover used to rob and murder his father, receives the same penalty as John Norman Collins, a serial killer who cruised Michigan college campuses raping and murdering students. Hence, Cedric King, who at 14 accompanied his older brother to the apartment of a man who was subsequently shot in the leg by the older brother (the man survived) will die in prison (for his charge of conspiring to kill the man) while Charles Manson currently is eligible for parole. Hence, Nicole Dupree, who at 17 sat in restaurant while her older boyfriend excused himself and secretly left to rob and murder a woman whom Nicole had cared for (Nicole always maintained she knew nothing of the crime) will spend the rest of her life incarcerated while Gavrilo Princip, who started World War I by assassinating the Archduke of the empire my great-grandfather was conscripted by (along with the Archduke’s wife and others) as part of a terrorist organization, got sentenced to 25 years because the early-20th Century aggressive dictatorship held that it would not condemn a juvenile to die in prison by any means.

I recently watched an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit where a teenage boy was accused of a heinous crime. Detective Stabler, the archetypal hardened detective who plays by his own rules but also has a soft, compassionate side, makes it his mission to find out why the tragedy happened --what made the boy capable of such a thing. The other detectives in the unit debate the culpability of children and investigate leads that might mitigate the boy's responsibility. The unit psychiatrist, soft-spoken but determined Dr. Hong performs a forensic psychiatric evaluation on the boy right there in the station, looking and seeking out what may have happened to the child - with the child -during the crime, eventually discovering the boy was far from an adult, far from a sociopath, far from malicious. They guided the boy through the criminal justice system, eventually convincing the judge to have him treated instead of punished. 

When you are a child and are charged as an adult with an adult crime (there are many crimes other than murder that will make a 14 year old a legal adult), the experience is far from the movies or a Law and Order episode. There are no safeguards for you. Justice will not seek out understanding to why the alleged offense occurred, what led up to it, the psychology, reasoning, or capacity of the child perpetrator. If anything, you are considered potentially more dangerous than an actual adult criminal because, "How could you be so young and still be capable?" But no one will go out of his way to find out that answer (unless your parents, who have full legal decision-making authority over your defense, hire a professional... but that assumes they know to, know how, have the money, and care). No rehabilitation is sought for you, nor is any offered. From the moment the prosecutor decides to charge you as such, the only option available to your future is straight, hard punishment and suffering. The only thing you can do is try, as a child, to argue against an adult well-versed in the law and whose many years of schooling and experience have gone into beating you, that you deserve less than everlasting damnation. Your only ally is your attorney, whom you did not hire (and could not have, as you cannot legally sign a contract and probably have no money anyway), and who, if representing you as a juvenile facing a life without parole sentence in Michigan, has a 38% chance of having been publicly sanctioned or disciplined by the Michigan Bar Association for egregious violations of ethical conduct (though, in any given year, only about 0.3% of Michigan attorneys are reprimanded in such a way).

Most Michigan counties have some sort of juvenile detention facility like Children‘s Village, and the state itself runs a few that are designed to both treat and secure juvenile delinquents instead of directly punishing them. After the late 1980's predictions of child super-predators and 1990's reality of Columbine-like school shootings (none of which occurred in Michigan), former Governor John Engler gutted much of the funding and directly closed most state juvenile facilities and mental institutions (the latter of which at one time were considered some of the best and most innovative in the world). The physical plants of the properties and assets were liquidated as well, and emphasis was shifted to the more "cost-effective" outpatient and county treatments and programming for both. These outpatient treatments and programming never really got off the ground however, and the juveniles and mentally ill instead began being pushed into the state prison system (while still cost-effective in the short-term, as a prisoner costs about half as much to house as do juveniles or the mentally ill who need treatment, prison sentences tend to be for longer than those individuals would have been treated for. A juvenile sentenced to life without parole, for example, will cost an average of $2 million over his or her short lifespan). Engler, whose term also saw the implementation of the automatic waiver system --where children 14 years old or older are automatically "waived" to adult court if even so much as charged with a serious crime, eliminating a judge's discretion to even possibly decide to try the juvenile in juvenile court-- is still hailed by many state Republicans as the state‘s premier conservative for balancing the state budget (much of which was also accomplished by negotiating the sale of Michigan's Great Lakes water rights to foreign governments and corporations in China and France). Other states' leaders have been more blunt in recent years over bestowing the responsibilities of adulthood on juveniles as young as eleven. Former Arkansas governor, presidential runner, and current Fox News Channel show host Mike Huckabee brags in his pre-presidential run autobiography about how, after a thirteen year old and his eleven year old brother opened fire on an Arkansas middle school, he lobbied his state's legislature to pass a bill that would have enabled them to be tried and sentenced as adults to life in prison. Interestingly, fellow ultra-conservative show host Bill O'Reilly, a former teacher, has advocated for the elimination of automatically treating juveniles as adults in almost all cases.

About half of the juveniles at Thumb Correctional Facility's Youthful Side are sentenced under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act (HYTA). HYTA's are youth from l3 to 21 who are sentenced to adult prison for up to three years, after which they are released and their records expunged. Many of those with less serious offenses, who at one time would have been sent to a juvenile detention and rehabilitation facility, end up with HYTA. They take GED classes and one of two vocational classes when there's space available (taught by adults like myself who teach, tutor, and review lessons with them under the supervision of a teacher) for one to two hours a day, and are locked in their cells (in what used to be maximum security units designed to hold some of the state‘s most dangerous adult criminals) for most of the remainder of the day.

Most of the rest of the juveniles there (bearing the full legal adult burden of their mistakes) will be eligible for parole, though about a third won't be until they have served more time in prison than they have already been alive. Only a small percentage of these youth are serving life without the possibility of parole. But there is Christopher Bailey, who has severe cerebral palsy and can barely walk even with the aid of crutches, sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison at age 14. "Sharkboy" Walker, autistic and with a diagnosed emotional and intellectual age of seven, received a sentence of a minimum of 12 years, also at 14. Juvenile adult prisoners are disproportionately of color, disproportionately poor, disproportionately missing one or both parents (who, again, have control over their defense) from their lives, disproportionately mentally ill. Once they leave Thumb Correctional Facility for another prison, they are at a disproportionate risk of sexual predation and rape.

The rest of the world (except for America and Somalia) officially recognizes the difference between juveniles and adults in terms of ability to navigate their criminal justice systems and the juvenile‘s level of culpability regarding their responsibility for crimes they are found guilty of. In America the mantra repeated by lawmakers and prosecutors who advocate these harsh adult punishments for juveniles is "Adult Time forAdult Crimes." This was the title of a Heritage Foundation report, which argued that the United States could not be in violation of international human rights norms as the United States is the only nation that has refused to sign and ratify the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child, which mandates that "A.) No child shall be subjugated to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without the possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by a person below eighteen years of age: B.) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time… "

I have known some juvenile adult prisoners who are psychopaths...predators...dangerous people. Something rarely considered in regards to prisoners is that they too have families, friends, and loved ones. There are some "Youthful Offenders" I would never want free and living near the people that I love. There are just as many who come to prison, perhaps with problems, perhaps somewhat antisocial, but for making a mistake (like a fourteen year old breaking into a house down the street while the owners were away), who are transformed by adult prison culture of criminal instruction, violence, and domination into something they weren’t before, something scary. Perhaps the scariest aspect of the change in these juveniles is that it didn't have to occur. And there are many whom, with guidance and opportunity, would grow up to become actual adults and assets to society. Impetuousness is usually outgrown. Young adults learn that their mothers, fathers, brothers, older friends are not gods who must be obeyed --individuals that, as juveniles, the youth often could not emotionally, intellectually, or sometimes even legally separate themselves from. Incarcerated youth will not get these opportunities, and many, should they somehow manage to sow and reap these traits in the emotional desert of prison, will never have the opportunity to prove to others the men and women they've become.

Were my great-grandfather Jan to have stayed in his ethnic homeland instead of coming to America, and I had been born (along with the juvenile offenders at the Thumb facility) in Slovakia or Hungary, childhood would have been a time to mature into an adult, no matter the mistakes of youth. Instead, for many, youth begins as a period of abuse and violence, only for them to be condemned to a never-ending future of abuse and violence. One of the principles that the United States and other liberal democracies around the world are founded on is the idea that those subject to the authority of a governing body must have the ability to have some say in the governing processes. Should a juvenile of any age, who has almost no legal control over his or her life (due to the fact that their age group has been deemed unable to be responsible for their decisions), be held equally as responsible and treated and punished exactly the name as a fully autonomous adult when they violate (sometimes at the behest of those with authority over them) the laws of a legal system they know nothing about and have no say in? 

What are your teenage years for? Are they to learn? To mature. to grow up, to became an adult? When exactly does one become an adult? At 13 you can be tried as an adult--at 14 you are often automatically so if charged with certain things. At 16 you can drive (with many, many conditions), or become an emancipated minor (but there's the qualifier in the sentence—a minor still). You may be able to consent to sex with a lover. Before than you can never know the intimate touch of another, not legally. At 18 you can vote, smoke, buy a gun. You certainly are no longer called a minor. Most graduate high school. At 19 you are in the final stretch of that seven-year sentence of being a teenager. Are you an adult now? Is it automatic? If not, in those last few months, weeks, days, hours before your twentieth birthday, do you become one? Can you feel the transformation, adulthood suddenly "there?" Or is it gradual, not a specific moment in time --a process, a gauntlet, a crucible, an evolution of gained rights? 

Where is childhood? It was there at Children's Village, in the cries that life was over after being sentenced to nine months in juvenile programming, in pills snorted to make the unbearable burden of youth pass quicker, in the childish faux attempts at escape by climbing the twenty foot inverted fence in broad daylight, inches from security staff. It was there in the sharing of cookies at snack time, in the thought that ingesting certain chemicals really could make the world a better place and the pain go away, in the belief that when we die, we come back as a blade of grass (to be cut down again?).

There is no childhood in state prisons. It is a place of men, not of boys; men who stand up for themselves, who fight for themselves, their honor, and their greed. Their advice --stand up straight, keep your head up, don‘t walk so fast, start doing pushups ("But I already do multiple sets of 75." “You do? That can‘t be--you're so small“). Sometimes taunts from those who thought I couldn't or wouldn't do anything back. Sometimes sympathy --hands reached out to shake: kind words: writing on the underside of my sink (next to gang graffiti) that read, "God loves you" and “Everything gets better." For thousands of children across America, it doesn't.



Sources for The Atrocity of Sunsets

Pg. 4--“(fun fact: this is the original home of the Republican Party..." The Jackson. MI Historical Society
Pg. 5--"A state whose forbearers eliminated the death penalty due..." The New American Encyclopedia. Volume M. Published by Grolier Inc., 1998
Pg. 5--"...the United States only officially stopped executing juveniles in 2005..." Roper v Simmons 543 S.Ct. 569
Pg. 5--"...average lifespan for a juvenile serving life is 52 years..." National Center for Juvenile Justice Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics 1985-2008
Pg. 5--"Before the United States banned...mandated...any juvenile...be sentenced to the state's maximum sentence." Miller v Alabama 132 S.Ct. 2455
Pg. 6--"Kevin Boyd..." "Cedric King..." "Nicole Dupree...
"Christopher Bailey..." Basic Decency --Protecting the human rights of children A pamphlet published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, 2013
Pg. 6--"...Gavrilo Princip..." The New American Encyclopedia, Volume P. Published by Grolier Inc.. 1998
Pg. 7--"...attorney...has a 38% chance of having been publicly sanctioned...for egregious violations of ethical conduct..." Basic Decency --Protecting the human rights of children A pamphlet published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, 2013
Pg. 8--"...juvenile...will cost an average of $2 million..."
Second Chances: Juveniles serving Life without Parole in Michigan prisons American Civil Liberties Union Juvenile Life without Parole Initiative, 2004
Pg. 8--"...automatic waiver...children 14 years or older are automatically 'waived' to adult court..." Michigan Compiled Laws §764.1f
Pg. 9--"Holmes Youthful Trainee Act..." Michigan Compiled Laws
§799.81
Pg. 9--"Juvenile adult prisoners are disproportionately of color...poor...missing one or both parents...menta1ly ill.” Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics 1985-2008 National Center for Juvenile Justice
Pg. 9--"...they are at a disproportionate risk of sexual predation and rape." Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974 (42 USC §5633)
Pg. 9--"The rest of the world (except America and Somalia)..
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations Documents "A/6316" and "A/44/49") Pg. l0--"Adult Time for Adult Crimes..." Adult Time for Adult Crime: Life without Parole for Juvenile Killers and Violent Teens Heritage Foundation report, 2009



Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer, MI 48446


I am a tutor/teacher, a writer, an artist, and I have been incarcerated since I was 15. I am proud to say that I've helped over 100 young men earn their GED diplomas, and that I've been published in the Harvard Educational Review, The Periphery Magazine, The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing Volumes 3, 4, 5, and 6; won second place for essay in the 2014 PEN prison writing contest, and have been accepted to be published in FENCE magazine and placed third in non-fiction in Vidahlia Press's 2014 prison writing contest.

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