All Together Now: Part V
On December 8, 2011, I sat in the Washington County Courthouse, in Hillsboro, Oregon, at the sentencing of one of my incarcerated students, a 15-year old boy, convicted of aggravated homicide. The state of Oregon’s mandatory sentencing statute had this young kid, who committed his crime at age 13, facing life in prison with the possibility of parole, but only after 30 years of well-behaved life behind bars. The Supreme Court of the United States has declared that the law must not treat 13-year-olds as adults, and based its decision—the majority opinion written by justice Sonia Sotomayor—based on extensive neuro-anatomical research: The brain of a 13-year old has not fully developed, making it difficult for a juvenile to distinguish right from wrong. Against common sense, scientific finding, and any humane impulse, the district attorney of Hillsboro argued to have this boy tried as an adult. He won. States’ Rights triumphed—at least for the moment. The defense has appealed on constitutional grounds.
I testified to my student’s amazing creative potential, to his keen mind, and his powerful yet brief being. I based my testimony on almost 50 years of teaching. The district attorney cross-examined me about the young boy’s unusual maturity, about the possibility that he possessed the brain of someone beyond his years—say, a 17-year old. Might you not consider him an outlier, several deviations from the mean, demanded the DA. I responded that I could not talk about this young man as a statistic but only as a human being, alive and complicated and confused.
That’s the same human being who, when I asked the students at Donald E. Long (DEL) what kind of books they would like to have in the new literacy center, shouted out, “books that will expand my mind”. That’s the same human being who has become one more incarcerated young person of color in this country. And that’s the same human being who most of society has forgotten about, or refuses to think about, or even considers relevant. Shackled, handcuffed, scared, and sobbing, that same young person announced in his illocutionary statement that over the past two years behind bars he had kept his sanity only through the frequent visits of his family and the chance to draw and write, and finally, through the chance to read real books. I love that young man. I think you would too, if you ever get to meet him. Which means visiting him over the next ten years at Youth Authority, and after that, perhaps for his entire life, at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Facility.
For him, rehabilitation will not come in prison—I know that only too well—and certainly not in an adult prison. For him, rehabilitation will come from the pages of a book, from the point of a pencil, and perhaps most importantly, from that chance encounter with a most formidable project. It will have started with the literacy center that the students from the Applied Craft and Design Program at PNCA/OCAC designed and then built at DEL. And in that promise and in that execution lies an important lesson for each one of my incarcerated students: You say something. You do it.
The boys and girls at Donald E. Long pay attention and they give their thanks. It’s a very big beginning.
Barry Sanders holds a PhD in Medieval Literature with an emphasis on literature and language, and is co-chair of the Critical Theory and Creative Research Program at Pacific Northwest College of Art. The author of 14 books and over 50 essays and articles for various magazines, Sanders was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His book, The Green Zone: the Environmental Costs of Militarism, was selected as one of the top-ten censored stories of 2009. He is currently writing a book on the death of metaphor.