Juveniles Need A Chance, Not Life In Prison

A prisoner's hands poking from a cell i i

After spending nine years in prison, author R. Dwayne Betts argues that juveniles should not serve sentences with no promise of release. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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A prisoner's hands poking from a cell

After spending nine years in prison, author R. Dwayne Betts argues that juveniles should not serve sentences with no promise of release.

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R. Dwayne Betts is a poet, memoirist and teacher. At 16, Betts pleaded guilty to carjacking and was sentenced to nine years in prison. He is the author of A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison.

I remember meeting a guy even younger than I was waiting for a bus to go to prison. I'll call him Rasheed. His voice still carried the cracks and high notes of adolescence, and his smooth face had never seen a razor.

We were headed to Southhampton Correctional Center in Virginia, where only a dozen of us were teenagers. Our peers were at home waiting on driver's licenses, graduations and proms while we waited for a prison cell.

Rasheed's time was legendary: three life sentences with no chance for parole. It meant he awoke each morning knowing that one day he would flat-line in a cell.

In prison, guys told me that Rasheed robbed and raped an old lady. His crime had no explanation. And everyone I ever talked to about it thought it was wild, heinous and unfathomable. Rasheed didn't talk about his charges. And I couldn't look at him without thinking how his sentence would last until his final breath. In the visiting room I caught glimpses of his family and it almost seemed normal — except that Rasheed, the youngest among them, rarely smiled.

R. Dwayne Betts

R. Dwayne Betts is a poet, memoirist and teacher. He is the author of A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison. Courtesy of R. Dwayne Betts hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of R. Dwayne Betts

And in prison, surrounded by the violence cells inspire in men, he was just a kid.

There was no meanness about him, just the fragility of someone in the deep end — arms flailing, unable to swim.

When I looked at him, I remembered the judge looking down at me — asking if I understood that my charges carry a possible life sentence. Rasheed wasn't old enough to drive, vote or serve on a jury of his peers. But he was old enough to walk out of a courtroom with a sentence that ends in a casket.

After I met him, my nine-year sentence for carjacking seemed like a gift. Everything I did while incarcerated meant something because I could envision a day when I'd be free — and that day pushed me. Because I had a release date, I recognized that the time was a way for me to improve myself. Seventeen hours each day to read, study and exercise. To think and become a man far different from a 16-year-old boy who pleaded guilty to carjacking.

As teenagers, our lives are impulse and reaction. I am not the same person I was at 16. No one is. Juvenile offenders, who are years away from the maturity and sensibility of a 25- or 30-year-old, need to know that society believes they can be more than their crimes. All any incarcerated minor wants to believe is that life can be more than a series of cell doors. They need to know that we believe rehabilitation is not only possible, but real.

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