Interviewing kids behind bars
My grandmother Nellie died when I was eight. While we were cleaning out her house, I found a paperback copy of Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door, published in 1947, and Dad said I could keep it. I read it and reread it so many times, I can still recite passages. “Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse,” its protagonist famously said.
Before Motley, I had fed joyfully on Jean Little, E. B. White, and Trixie Belden. Knock on Any Door was an entirely different brand of book. It showed me just how intentionally brutal we can be as a society. It sparked my interest in how adults treat young people — especially in prison, where their power is absolute. The novel follows the life of Nick Romano, from his days as an altar boy in Chicago to his death in the electric chair. In between is a long stint in reform school. In one heart-wrenching scene, Nick and a friend are subjected to a punishment called the bucket brigade. They have to work past the point of exhaustion and hypothermia, using burlap bags to soak up a basement that is deliberately flooded — again and again and again.
In the years since I first read Knock on Any Door, I have had the privilege to meet with and learn from kids behind bars, in many parts of the world. I’ve sat on the floor with a fourteen-year-old Afghan girl, after she was sentenced to seven years for running away from an arranged marriage. I’ve listened to a boy in an overcrowded Malawi prison, as he awaited trial for killing another boy in self-defence; his attacker was enraged with grief after losing both his parents to AIDS. There was the girl in the Moscow jail who had hopped a train to escape the war in Georgia. I have met kids living in their parents’ cells in prisons in Bolivia; teen girls with shaved heads in a boot camp prison in the United States; and imprisoned students in a Guyanese detention centre, with a crumbling table, broken chairs, and almost no books.
The kids have all been the same. All terrific. And all scared, lonely, and without much hope that their lives can get better.
A few years ago, I attempted to draw on such experiences to write a young-adult novel about Canada’s first prison for young offenders. It was an unpublishable mess, but the folks at Groundwood Books suggested I do a book of interviews instead. I spent the next couple of years seeking out and meeting with other kids who had run afoul of the law. Those who shared their stories did so knowing their contributions would be anonymous and that any royalties would go to two organizations that support at-risk youth. Each had ample opportunity to say no, and those who spoke with me were eager to talk.
Some common themes quickly emerged in our conversations. Loss is one: loss of family, of stability, of opportunity, of who they thought they were. Another is that of low expectations. They don’t expect much out of life, because they don’t believe they are worth much. One seventeen-year-old boy told me, “I have this thing in my head that tells me as soon as something good happens, it’s all going to get ruined. It’s hard not to give up on myself.”
We can draw a clear connection between neglectful parenting and crime, between child abuse and crime, between addiction and crime, between poverty and crime. And, of course, between racism and crime. According to the Office of the Correctional Investigator, Indigenous youth are 8 percent of the youth in Canada yet 46 percent of those in correctional services. It’s not because they commit more crimes than non-Indigenous kids. We all break the law from time to time. Any one of us can end up behind bars. A bad day, a bad choice, a false accusation — all could send our lives spinning into confinement. But people with light skin and good clothes don’t get watched as much. They are more likely to be presumed innocent. If you’re a kid who breaks the law but comes from a family of means, you are more likely to have your misadventure rolled into the category of high-spirited mistake — one that can disappear, one that will not cloud your future.
One day, while walking my dog in Simcoe, Ontario, I spotted some graffiti on an old railway bridge. It read, “My story starts here.” I knew I had found my title.
Most of the young people who appear in My Story Starts Here came from disadvantaged backgrounds, but there are exceptions. Some came from loving homes, with every advantage, but still went down the road of drugs and destruction. Their parents are genuinely heartbroken, perplexed, and struggling to make sense of what went wrong. And that shows just how complex a matter youth crime is. It’s a complexity our solutions should reflect.
Most of the kids I interviewed have low expectations, especially for their futures. For them, the tiniest bit of kindness can be as bright as a movie premiere spotlight, can be a source of hope. One foster dad showed a boy how to barbecue, then let him cook the whole meal! A teacher remembered a child’s name, even after the child was no longer in her classroom! Staff at a court-mandated community service program shared their lunch with a kid! A police officer helped calm down a girl, and then got her a drink of water instead of arresting her! It doesn’t take much to acknowledge someone, to let them know that they are seen and heard, and that they have value to us. As adults, we need to know in our souls that it can make all the difference.
Motley’s novel, which went on to become a movie starring Humphrey Bogart, is a powerful critique of the U.S. juvenile justice system of the 1940s. It’s worth remembering that we have our own shameful stories here in Canada. In the nineteenth century, for example, we locked children up in Kingston Penitentiary. We put boys and girls as young as eight in cells barely big enough to stretch out in. We kept records of the beatings they received for their crimes of laughing, staring, winking, and speaking French. Today, we spend $100,000 a year to keep a child behind bars, even as we know the best predictor of becoming an adult offender is childhood incarceration.
Thankfully, progress is being made in the world of restorative justice. Trained volunteers across the country are meeting with youth who have gone astray. They help those kids repair the damage they have caused and repair the brokenness inside themselves. Every day, more and more good people are reaching through the confines of the system to give a helping hand, rather than knocking down someone who is already struggling.
I believe that stories can change us. I know that Knock on Any Door changed me. By sharing the stories of even a small number of boys and girls, we can learn what hasn’t worked and what might make a positive difference. If we actually listen, Canada could be a world leader in youth justice. By doing so, we could save a lot of money, save a lot of lives, and turn things around for generations to come. Our story could start here.