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How Teens Cope in Prison After Being Sentenced as Adults

“I came in as a child. You want to be blind to it, but then you see people ... killing themselves,” said one Massachusetts boy.

Photo Credit: sakhorn / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new book Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse and a Prisoner's Fight for Justice by Jean Trounstine (Ig Publishing, 2016): 

There is another Lady Justice, less well-known than the fair-minded goddess that adorns our courthouses. She is “Lady Justice Red,” a distortion of the icon in robes and blindfold. Lady Justice Red is not the impartial arbiter of cases that come before her. Instead, she looks away from whatever she is judging. Her robes are blotted with blood. She “sees what she is paid to see,” her vision blurred behind bright red goggles. Her sword lacks the acuity to cut through the evidence for and against those who appear before her. Rather than reason, Lady Justice Red relies on dice, cupped in one side of the Scales of Justice, which she rolls when judging the unfortunate.

And so it was, in a country ruled by Lady Justice Red, that 16-year-old Massachusetts high school sophomore Karter Kane Reed was charged with first-degree murder and ultimately sentenced to life in an adult prison. According to the Boston Herald, on April 12, 1993, Karter “stormed” into a high school classroom and stabbed an unarmed boy named Jason Robinson, also 16 years old. The reasons why evolved for Karter as he understood more about himself, but the facts were distilled by many news sources into this: Karter Reed, along with two friends, arrived at a local high school to finish an earlier fight, and their actions set off a firestorm in the quiet town of Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Something had, as Karter himself later professed, gone “horribly wrong” in his life.

While Karter’s stabbing of Jason Robinson is not in dispute, the penalty for the crime is. Karter was tried and convicted as an adult, sent to prison for the rest of his life, with only the possibility of obtaining his freedom after serving 15 years. At the time of Karter’s sentencing, the United States was a country that set controversial boundaries where childhood ended and adulthood began in terms of criminal responsibility. Until 2005, the U.S. was the only nation that still sanctioned the death penalty for youth. Unlike 194 other countries, the United States, along with Somalia and South Sudan, were the only ones (and still are) not to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty designed to protect children from a variety of abuses—including forbidding a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

At the time of Karter’s arraignment, prosecutors could suggest, and even insist, that 16-year-olds were incapable of change, ignoring what science has since proved: that teenagers are not little adults, psychologically, physically or socially. Teens who killed could be transferred to the adult system, where they would mix with the general prison population—that is, if they weren’t kept in solitary confinement, to protect them from rape and other bodily harm. Notably, these imprisoned youths were often refused the benefit of education or therapy, programs that are more available in the juvenile system; nor were they protected from psychological harm.

Today, more than 20 years later, we have learned that it is wrong to treat kids as if they were little adults, no matter what crime they may have committed. Yet many of the same policies that impacted Karter Reed back in the 1990s continue to affect incarcerated youth today. On average, approximately 250,000 youths are currently processed in adult courts each year, a large number for drugs, burglary, theft and property crimes, as well as for violent acts. While the age of adulthood in all states but New York and North Carolina (as of 2015) is 18, juveniles as young as 12 in Colorado can be tried as adults for capital crimes. Of the 250,000 facing adult imprisonment, the Sentencing Project reported in 2013 that 10,000 had been convicted of crimes that occurred before they turned 18, and subsequently resulted in life sentences behind bars. These are boys and girls, barely having earned their driver’s license, too young to vote, too young to legally buy alcohol or cigarettes, who are locked away with adult men and women. This, in spite of the fact that 90 percent of juveniles, even those convicted of murder, grow out of criminal behavior as they age.

Part of what makes this practice unconscionable is that teens who are convicted and sentenced as adults actually have higher recidivism rates than those sentenced to juvenile jails; that is, they are rearrested and returned to prison more frequently. It is not that juvenile jails don’t have their problems too, but teens in adult prisons suffer dire consequences. They are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile detention facilities. They are 100 percent more likely to face physical assault by staff than those in juvenile placements.

***

Upon Karter’s arrival at MCI-Cedar Junction (previously known as the infamous Walpole State Prison), a corrections officer handed him a note from a guy named Spiffy. Karter would later describe Spiffy as six feet four inches tall, weighing 260 pounds, covered in tattoos, with long hair and a handlebar moustache. According to Karter, “Spiffy had just been returned to Walpole from the Feds,” meaning he had done “a bid” in a federal prison. The note seemed straight out of a bad prison movie: “Bash the first motherfucker who even looks at you the wrong way with a mop wringer, and don’t stop till the cops pull you off. You’ll go to the hole for six months or so but people will respect you.”

Karter initially had no idea who this person was, or why he was writing him such a note, but he soon learned that Spiffy was considered the most dangerous man at MCI-Cedar Junction. Not until much later did Karter discover that it was his father, Derek, incarcerated at MCI-Norfolk, who had contacted Spiffy through an intermediary in order to “school” his son and make sure he received proper protection. Ironically, the man who had abandoned Karter on the outside was now the one looking out for him inside. Shortly thereafter, Karter received a letter from his father, what prisoners call “a kite,” telling him that to survive behind bars meant never looking in other people’s cells, carrying himself with respect and minding his own business.

Unfortunately, minding one’s own business can be impossible for youth in adult prison, who are often traumatized by the horrific things they see—not on TV, but right in front of them. Instead of focusing on things like education, they’re worrying about burly officers pushing into their cells for searches. From the conflicts they witness, these youth learn several painful lessons: that self-preservation at all costs is the path they must follow in prison; that there is no shame in employing violence to resolve conflicts; and that domination and retaliation are the way of the prison yard. They forget that these “skills,” writes R. Daniel Okonkwo, executive director of D.C. Lawyers for Youth, are “the polar opposite of the skills necessary to survive in society on the outside.” Most young people fervently hope to avoid becoming what prison seems to demand, and if they do give in, crime behind bars becomes acceptable. The shock wears off as they see more and more beatings, brutality and rapes.

Youths in adult prisons are often directly impacted by the violence around them. Compared to youth in juvenile detention facilities, those in adult prisons are nearly twice as likely to be attacked by other prisoners or by staff. They are also five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than those in detention facilities—not only by other prisoners, but by officers as well. Many of these assaults result in physical injury as well as deep emotional scarring. Young female prisoners are particularly susceptible, often forced to engage in sex for such prison privileges as phone calls and medical care; they rarely receive treatment behind bars for the resulting trauma. Girls who enter the prison system have often been victimized beforehand, sexual abuse being one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into crime, and they report higher rates of abuse than boys. The coercive power that a guard can exert puts young female prisoners in an incredibly vulnerable situation, and women are most often guarded by men—more than 75 percent in New York State, for example. The rate of sexual abuse for youth is also higher among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender prisoners. A male corrections officer in Washington, D.C., was convicted of sexually assaulting a young transgender prisoner, forcing her into a restroom. Such incidents resulted in an outcry from activists, and in 2015, the San Francisco county jail became the first facility in the United States to jail people based on each individual’s gender preference.

It is too soon to determine the impact of The Prison Rape Elimination Act, introduced in 2003, which requires those under eighteen to be separated from older prisoners. States were fined if they weren’t in compliance by 2014, and audits had begun to occur, but some states have refused to cooperate. Allegations of rape have continued even since the Act was introduced, and lawsuits have continued to be filed. In Michigan seven teens sued the state for sexual assaults by prisoners and harassment by officers between 2010 and 2013, saying they were never protected in prison. (The suit was thrown out.)

The risk of suicide following sexual assault behind bars compounds the horror of sentencing kids to adult prisons. One 17-year-old who set a trash bin on fire was repeatedly raped, and eventually hung himself. These tragedies are not uncommon with juveniles, who are eight times more likely to commit suicide behind bars than those who are physically mature. Young prisoners have also reported how shocking it is to find that a cellmate committed suicide: “I came in as a child. You want to be blind to it, but then you see people ... killing themselves,” said one Massachusetts boy. Guards have been known to tell young prisoners to “grow up” when they express fear of taking a shower or going to sleep. When juveniles are bullied by older prisoners and attacked with weapons, depression as well as fear can set in. Juveniles are susceptible to “immature and irresponsible behavior” wrote Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in Roper v. Simmons in 2005.

In Karter’s case, he protected himself by holding in his feelings and keeping his distance from the other prisoners. Nevertheless, while in prison he was exposed to conversations he likely would not have overheard on the outside. In one, a prisoner gave a “clinic” on how to dismantle door locks to a rapt listener who wanted to change “careers” when he got out. In another, a man complained about double-bunking in cells: “You know what needs to happen, motherfuckers need to kill a few hundred of these swine [COs] . . . and that’ll teach them. Every time they put you in a cell with someone, kill him or try to kill him.” Certainly, such comments were not uttered by every prisoner, nor were they indicative of the many men who tried to keep away from the dark side. But, as we have seen, violent intimidations were sometimes not just idle threats.

After two weeks at MCI-Cedar Junction, on March 2, 1995, Karter was shuffled into yet another van, this one headed to MCI-Concord. Karter had been to Concord, a medium-security state prison, once before, to visit his father. But after he and his family had driven the two hours from New Bedford, a paperwork snafu prohibited Karter from visiting with Derek; he had to wait in the car with his uncle while the others went inside. By the time Karter arrived for intake in 1995, MCI-Concord was the Department of Correction Reception and Diagnostic Center for all men newly sentenced to prison. Upon arrival, the prisoners were screened, evaluated and classified to the appropriate security level. It was supposed to take six months for a prisoner to be classified and then, usually, sent to another prison.

Karter was immediately confined to a bunk in a makeshift building that had once contained an auto shop and a laundry, on a tier known as L6. Overcrowding at Concord had forced him and others out of the J tiers, which were located in the building for newbie orientation and screening. This situation was supposed to be temporary, but the men housed there—almost as if they were in prison limbo—were without a schedule, lacking caseworkers and important privileges such as a gym, yard, rec room, haircuts, movies, phone and canteen. Karter said that a group of guys had been in the Ls for weeks. He fell in with this disgruntled bunch, which was led by a 26-year-old man named Gino.

For a young prisoner, learning to be tough and getting a “crew” for protection can become a necessity. Some kids feel they must rely on weapons or gangs. Others are just tired of being picked on and know officials don’t “have their backs;” a gang might promise respect or power. In many ways, gangs are surrogate families for these kids: they offer approval, protection, reinforcement and a sense of belonging. Gangs also can take on the role of teaching young prisoners the ropes. David Skarbeck, a senior lecturer in political economy, wrote how about some of the unwritten rules of prison, which include not ratting out other prisoners, keeping one’s word, remaining loyal to fellow cons and never being a “sucker.”

Gino immediately hatched a plan to get them all out of the Ls. Step one involved shaving their heads with state-issued razors to protest not being given haircuts. Since Karter was expecting a visit from his mother, he declined this, but the rest of the 15 or so men agreed, including one they called “Rain Man.” Rain Man was a particularly troubled soul who had gone a bit ’round the bend, and continuously asked for his own radio.

The presence of prisoners with mental health issues is yet another shock for youth who are sentenced to adult facilities. Today, many prisons across the country are being nicknamed “the new asylums.” Since numerous psych hospitals have closed in the last several years, the punishment system has stepped in and criminalized many of those with mental illness; the United States incarcerates 10 times more people with psychological issues in prisons than in mental hospitals.” In 2015, reports spelled out that as many as two-thirds of males and three-quarters of females behind bars were diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses. Among state prisoners diagnosed, 49 percent were incarcerated for violent crimes. Sociologist Susan Sered wrote that across the country “incarcerated men and women have higher rates of hypertension, anxiety, myocardial infarction, psychotic episodes, asthma, arthritis, major depression, cervical cancer, urinary tract infections, chronic headaches, tuberculosis and hepatitis, than Americans in the general population.” In Massachusetts alone, 24 out of 100 prisoners deemed to have mental-health issues were on medication, which Sered called “chemical restraints” for prisons where talk therapy was not readily available.

Gino’s plan also involved the men putting on their coats and hats, packing up their belongings in pillowcases and surrounding one of the correctional officers, a man who liked to sleep on the job, and hitting him over the head with a mop bucket and then demanding to be moved. Gino figured that the “hole”—the disciplinary unit—was big enough for only ten men, so they wouldn’t be able to put all of them in there. Gino suggested that Karter be the one to “hit the cop,” since he had a life sentence. Karter was appalled but didn’t show it. Although he realized what a not-so-bright idea it was to be involved with Gino, he did not want to take a stand against him. Instead, he said coolly, “It’s your plan, you do it!” Gino likely had no intention of taking the fall, so he found someone even younger than Karter to do his bidding. Manuel, aged 17, was serving three to five years for armed robbery and had arrived at Concord only hours earlier. The guys all agreed, and Manuel maybe to show off or maybe because he was ready for a fight, went along. This is not uncommon. If a teen goes against an older prisoner, he could ultimately be the one to get punished—locked in his cell or even sent to solitary. Quick violence is everywhere, and as a prison guard once told me, “I don’t care at all about the circumstances, if a guy on my watch fights, he’s locked.”

Gino’s motley crew threw on their coats, and with pillowcases on their backs—a bunch of “denim-clad Santa clones,” Karter later wrote—they formed a circle around the officer. He was asleep, his hat over his face, his body leaning against the chainlink of the CO’s cage, a small enclosure that contained his desk. Manuel grabbed the bucket and slammed it against the cage, rattling the officer awake. At this point, half the crew deserted, leaving six or so, including Karter, to issue their demands to be moved. The officer said he had nothing to do with this. A captain and a lieutenant were summoned. They told the men to step into the hall. The captain wrote down all of their names, and then, to Karter’s surprise, asked them to voice their grievances. They told him about the horrendous conditions in L6 and that they wanted to be moved. The captain said he would look into it. Later that day, the men were all moved to the Js.

At the time, Karter was pleased, but a part of him began to realize that although their complaints were justified, prison authorities were rewarding bad behavior, something he would later write was a not-uncommon practice in a world of seemingly random decisions. Guards have been known to allow some to break rules for which they discipline others. When staff apply inconsistent rewards and punishment, prisoners more often than not feel that their decisions are unjust.

In those first weeks at Concord, Karter felt anger at every perceived injustice, and was not interested in changing the thinking that fueled his hate and resentment. At this point in his life, he welcomed a whipping boy. Newly incarcerated youth are not good at coping with the daily stresses that confront them, and when they see a predator-prey mentality all around them, they feel compelled to choose sides.

Right after being released from L6, Karter was on his way to the Js when he passed by Protective Custody, the unit that housed prisoners at risk of being harmed in the general population. There he spotted Mack, a known pedophile who had raped two little girls in Barnstable, Massachusetts, or so Karter believed. Researchers have shown that “sex offenders are the most feared and despised group in this country.” Behind bars, such predators are often the easiest target for those who, themselves, feel targeted. It is not uncommon for prisoners to gang up on a pedophile with the backing of others on their floor, or unofficially, even the prison staff. The child molester and former Roman Catholic priest John Geoghan was killed in his cell in 2003 by another prisoner, although some thought it was a setup by guards. In the 1974 play Short Eyes by Miguel Pinero, himself a former prisoner, jailed men gang up and murder an accused pedophile, an act that is sanctioned by officers. More than 40 years later, in 2015, older prisoners instigated a culture of violence by manipulating younger prisoners to go after convicted child molesters in an Australian prison.

Karter walked right up to the small square window of Mack’s cell and threatened him, saying, “That’s right you fucking skinner, I know who you are, and when that door opens, I’m gonna kill you.” When he got to his new bunk, Karter began yelling to others that there was a “skinner” on the floor and that they should get him. An officer overheard this and contacted Internal Perimeter Security (IPS), the officers who investigate alleged security abuses inside the prison. IPS officers arrived, warning Karter that he was an instigator, and if he didn’t watch out, someday a sex offender who wasn’t small or scared would beat him up.Then Karter would try to exact revenge, and would end up buried in Concord. Not surprisingly, Karter paid little attention to the officers’ warnings; he wanted to prove himself.

Later, when Karter was moved to another unit, he saw Mack walking around freely on his floor. He was livid. At the time, Karter had a protector named Eddie, an older Latino man whose wife’s niece was going out with a friend of Karter’s from New Bedford. Eddie heard that Karter wanted someone to beat up Mack and take the punishment. He told him that he had just the guy, a man who knew how to take care of these things better than anybody. Eddie introduced Karter to Carlos, a Cape Verdean, also from New Bedford.

According to Karter, he and Carlos went to Mack’s cell.

“Step out,” Carlos said. He leaned into the cell ominously. “You know my boy?” He pointed at Karter.

Mack said nothing.

Carlos pressed on. “He tells me you’re a skinner.”

Mack burst out, “I didn’t rape anyone, I swear.” He cowered, his words trying to divert Carlos’s glare. “It was statutory; she was my girlfriend. I’ll show you the letters. I was 17; she was 16. Her parents pressed charges, but it’s bullshit.”

Carlos laughed and told Mack he was “coppin’ pleas.”

Karter’s conscience then began to kick in. He worried that maybe the guy was not really a sex offender after all. Maybe he had made a mistake. However, he could not let himself feel these emotions—worry, anxiety, guilt—because he still needed a front to fend off the pain, grief and remorse. So, he stood there and said nothing. Carlos warned Mack that he had 24 hours to get off the block.

The next day, as Karter was returning to his cell from the shower, he saw Mack rushing out, his face bloodied and his belongings in a pillowcase. Mack screamed at the officer on duty, “Somebody beat me up. I need to get out of here!” The officers tried to pry out of him the name of his attacker, but Mack refused to say another word. Ratting could get him killed.

Internal Perimeter Security arrived, and the officers flipped through what is known as the “bed book,” a record of where prisoners are at different moments; they found out that Carlos had been in the area. When asked directly, Mack finally relented and fingered Carlos, whose hand was swollen. Mack was immediately transferred to another unit, and Carlos was sent to the hole—Department 9, as it was euphemistically called at Concord.

Karter may not have felt directly responsible, but nonetheless, because of him, a human who had done him no personal harm had been hurt. Karter’s prejudice had been bolstered by other inmates, but as the prison activist Angela Davis has noted, bigotry is reinforced by the punishment system itself, as “prisons are havens for backwards ideologies.”

 

Jean Trounstine is the author of the highly praised Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in Women’s Prison (St. Martin’s) about her decade directing plays and teaching at Framingham Women’s Prison in Massachusetts. She has written numerous articles on prison issues for publications including Boston magazine, the Boston GlobeWorking Woman magazine, the Women’s Review of Books, and Truthout, and has been the subject of many articles, radio broadcasts (NPR, The Connection), and TV shows (the Today Show).

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