Jamie J. Fader, author and assistant professor at the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, spoke to members of the Hamilton community about her book, Falling Back: Incarceration and Transitions to Adulthood among Urban Youth (Rutgers University Press, 2013), as part of the Levitt Center's speaker series on Oct. 8.
For three years, Fader followed and chronicled the journeys of 15 young black and Latino men from their incarceration at the Mountain Ridge Academy reform school (a private, for-profit juvenile-reform facility in Western Pennsylvania that treats male drug dealers and users between 13 and 18 years of age), to their transition back into society after release. Drawing on her own personal anecdotes and quotes from the young men with whom she worked, Fader’s presentation gave the audience a valuable glimpse into the lives of juvenile offenders and the enormous adversity that they face.
The thing that makes Fader’s research stand apart from much of the current literature regarding criminals and incarceration is her fusion of a unique emotional perspective with traditional public policy elements. Many Americans support incarceration for its retributive purpose and feel no sympathy for offenders and the stigma they experience. However, because the nature of Fader’s research caused her to become a mentor and supporter to the young men she studied, her conclusions lend a human quality to the offenders and calls for policy makers to address the structural causes that lead high-risk youth to engage in crime. As of 2013, it has been nine years since Fader first met these men and to this day she still remains in contact with about half of them.
Despite the high costs of the program at Mountain Ridge Academy, including energy, time and monetary costs, the program failed to deter participants from returning to a life of drug dealing and using after release. Even though all of the participants had established post-release goals for themselves prior to their release, and four of the participants were even set up in a position to advance their educations, two of the men were arrested, two self-reported their re-engagement in crime, and one was murdered within their first six weeks out of Mountain Ridge Academy.
In the following six months, another three were arrested, and after three years, Fader witnessed a total of 36 arrests between the 14 of 15 participants who had kept in touch. How could these men who had had sincere desires to improve their lives revert back to crime so quickly and uniformly?
According to Fader, perhaps the most major problem with the current criminal system is the irreconcilable disconnect between the environment of the reform facilities and the environment to where the young men must ultimately return. Although the young men are able to practice good decision-making and spend time reflect on their post-release goals in the safe and controlled environment at Mountain Ridge Academy, these skills are not translatable to dangerous environments to which they must ultimately return. When they go home, they become consumed with more immediate concerns, like “watching their backs” or dealing with chronically ill and drug-addicted family members, many of whom prompted the young men to start selling and using drugs in the first place.
A second problem Fader addressed was the growth of private prisons as a financial industry in itself. As the prison-industrial complex continues to grow, programs are becoming more concerned with staying afloat than acting in the best interests of their participants. In this way, Fader advocates for a restructuring of program curricula that avoids ritualistic practices and instead focuses on providing activities that are meaningful for the participants.
Fader also emphasized the importance of staffing programs with individuals who grew up in the same communities as the participants, and locating the programs in closer proximity to the participants’ community. Program staff who view their careers as a calling rather than an obligation are significantly more effective in providing the participants with the positive social support they need to get back on their feet and find their way in society. In this way, using the program as a means to connect the youth back to their communities and the people who live there may help the participants’ transition back into society and improve the residential programs' ability to have a more positive and lasting impact on young people’s lives.
Fader concluded her presentation with a quote from colleague Tim Black: “These guys don't need a social worker, they need a social movement.”