The land of the free leads the world in incarceration. Why?

Part of the Juneteenth issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

When Sylvester Shockley was 9 years old, he says he was arrested for breaking into businesses and sent to an “all-boys reform school” — what he later realized was a detention center for “juvenile delinquents.”

It was 1959, and his career as a defendant in the criminal justice system was just beginning. By the time Shockley was 14, he had been placed in a juvenile detention center for a second time, for another break-in. Shortly after he returned home, he says, he was back in the system again following a physical altercation with a white student who called him the n-word.

But it was during his time in an adult facility — at age 15 — that Shockley says he “entered the world of violence.” He was placed in a facility with men who were accused or convicted of violent crimes, forcing him to quickly toughen up to protect himself.

“I acquired a reputation there, and I liked the attention I was getting with that reputation,” Shockley says. “By the time I got out and turned 17, I thought that I was a bona fide hustler, so to speak. I made the decision that doing wrong was better than doing right.”

Shockley was eventually convicted in the manslaughter death of a store clerk and received a second felony conviction for rape at age 31.

America’s detention centers — rife with violence and inhumane conditions — have created a system that worsens prisoners’ mental health and perpetuates crime, even outside of their walls, prison reform advocates say. Federal investigations have revealed patterns of constitutional violations and civil rights offenses across the country that undermine the correctional system’s professed goal of rehabilitation.

In Georgia, federal officials are investigating state prisons where dozens of homicides and suicides have been reported since 2020. In Texas, the Department of Justice has launched an investigation into five juvenile facilities amid allegations of physical and sexual abuse as well as excessive use of chemical restraints and isolation. In Alabama, the DOJ’s civil rights division has filed a lawsuit against the state, saying it “fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff,” violations that have led to “homicides, rapes, and serious injuries.”

The US incarceration rate has been declining for more than a decade, but the land of the free continues to lead the world in putting its residents behind bars. Black Americans are most affected, funneled into state prisons at five times the rate of white Americans. Near the nation’s peak level of incarceration in 2008, one in every nine young Black men was locked up.

Incarceration is one of the most glaring examples of how fragile freedom can be for Black Americans. The 13th Amendment made America’s brand of mass incarceration possible by abolishing slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” That loophole has allowed correctional institutions to dehumanize those in their custody, often crowding them into heavily guarded facilities where they live in 6-by-8-foot cell blocks and work for pennies.

“It wasn’t until we started to criminalize Blackness more that we started to see more of a dehumanization take place within these correctional facilities,” says Nneka Jones Tapia, former executive director of the Cook County Department of Corrections. “That 13th Amendment clause, I think, is an articulation of the fear that we in America have always had of Black and brown people.”

For those like Shockley — whose 1982 life sentence for rape left room to reclaim his freedom with the possibility of parole — correctional institutions need to reframe their approach to be rehabilitative rather than punitive, reform advocates say. That means focusing on the trauma that often underlies criminal behavior and treating it, while finding ways to keep nonviolent people out of prison altogether.

“Prisons aren’t working,” says Fritzi Horstman, founder of Compassion Prison Project, a nonprofit organization focused on humanizing incarcerated individuals. “Prisons should not be for punishment, they should be for healing, because if you realize that everyone in a prison is traumatized, why would you continue to traumatize them?”

Horstman created a short program series called “Trauma Talks,” in which incarcerated people fill out a questionnaire that identifies their types of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as emotional or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, and mental illness. The program provides tools that encourage healing through breathing, writing, meditation exercises, and group discussions.

The talks are not considered therapy, Horstman says, but rather an awareness campaign to help those in correctional settings recognize and understand the root causes of their violent behavior and adjust to avoid recidivism.

Awareness of one’s childhood traumas isn’t meant to excuse bad behavior, she said. It’s an opportunity to take responsibility for one’s actions and develop coping mechanisms to better control them.

“A lot of people in prison don’t want to take accountability because it makes them feel like they’re wrong, and it brings up their shame,” Horstman says. “But accountability is courage. Accountability is saying, ‘Look, I’m human, I did something wrong.’”

The program launched in September at Valley State Prison in California and Horstman hopes to expand across the country.

Shockley, like many participants in Trauma Talks, said he has experienced at least one form of adverse childhood experience. Growing up Black with a record during Jim Crow meant that society put him in a box that labeled him a criminal, he says. He was given no tools for a second chance through rehabilitation.

“They were thinking that I was a person who was out of control, not realizing the trauma that’s involved with my acting out. They really deemed me as inhumane and not worth being rehabilitated,” Shockley says, adding that he was sent to a mental health professional whose questions weren’t helpful.

“Instead, they should have asked, ‘Did anybody molest you?’” he says. “That would have been a fair question to ask.”

Not only have most incarcerated people experienced traumatic events in their lifetimes, Tapia says, most correctional officers have, too. But the “us-versus-them” culture indoctrinated in prisons for generations prevents cooperation toward a shared goal of community safety.

“Even though these two groups — correctional officers and people incarcerated — have these experiences that are very common and rooted in trauma, the system teaches them to see each other as different,” she says, noting that correctional officers are trained in military-style tactics. “When we see people as ‘the other,’ that’s really the foundation for the dehumanization that we see happening in correctional facilities.”

Tapia serves as the managing director of justice initiatives for Chicago Beyond, an organization that funds and coordinates with grassroots organizations that target various inequities in communities of color, including education, health, and youth safety.

Horstman acknowledges that the rehabilitative approach she advocates isn’t a panacea. She believes “probably about 3 to 5 percent of people” in prison can’t be helped because of conditions that limit their ability to “see people as human.”

But advocates say that in most cases, criminal behavior isn’t innate — it’s learned, and the prevalence of juvenile detention has something to do with it.

Like Shockley, 68 percent of people in state prisons were first arrested before their 18th birthday, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 2016 report — long before one’s cerebral cortex is fully developed. The numbers are worse for Black Americans: 76 percent of incarcerated individuals’ first arrest was before the age of 18.

Some advocates say that any amount of time that a young person is held in detention is unjustifiable. CPP’s Trauma Talks workbook states that “when the brain is developing, it is adjusting to the world and acquiring new skills for survival and adaptation. If growth is taking place in an unstable, stressful and traumatizing environment it affects a child’s ability to think, learn, decision-make, play and build healthy relationships.”

Through accountability, compassion, and healing, Horstman and Tapia say that rehabilitation is possible for a large majority of those who are incarcerated and will make safer work environments for staff. But the commitment of correctional facility administrators to operating under the status quo is preventing progress, they say.

“We have to look beyond those military-style practices to think about recruiting people with expertise in mental health, with expertise in social work and education, so that they come into the job with a different mindset, one that’s rooted in healing and helping individuals and not one that’s rooted in control,” says Tapia, whose father was in and out of jail and prison during her childhood. “We must humanize those who are incarcerated. They’re not just what they’re charged with. They are mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons who have whole life experiences, good and bad, just like all of us.”

Three years after Shockley’s release from prison, the now 71-year-old says he is gainfully employed, owns a home, purchased a car, and received the “Achiever of the Year” award on May 20 from Goodwill of Delaware and Delaware County.

With support from relatives and Compassion Prison Project, Shockley says he is using his golden years to “explore all the possibilities life has to offer.”

Christina Carrega is the national criminal justice reporter for Capital B. Previously, she covered the Justice Department for CNN.

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