As part of a program designed to show out-of-control students the harsh realities of prison life, members of Evans Middle School were recently sent on a tour of a Washington, D.C. jail. During the course of the visit, corrections officials demanded that the children remove their clothing, open their mouths and submit to a body search. Students reported feelings of fear and shame as officers reportedly yelled, cussed and even forcibly removed the clothing of one child, in full view of other students and inmates.
This brutal and frank simulation of prison life has since led to the dismissal of three prison officials and complaints from parents and children that the children had been mistreated and traumatized.
Of course, the parents and children have a point; they simply miss the main one: Experiencing how criminals live is supposed to be an uncomfortable process. After all, criminals have their basic rights stripped away. Though simulating prison life is not a pleasant experience, it achieves it's intent: to shock the participants into abandoning a life of crime by showing them, first hand, that no crime is worth the terror of incarceration.
Or, as an instructor at the middle school put it, in a letter written to prison officials prior to the visit, "... Our youth ... are beyond control. I would love for them to experience the way they will live when they are punished by the law."
There is a popular saying amongst kids nowadays: "Let's keep it real." Well, this time school officials kept it real by shocking these juveniles back into reality. They kept it real by presenting the consequences of crime in a manner so frank and brutal that they could not be ignored.
I cannot think of a timelier message. Currently, homicide is the second leading cause of death for juveniles 15 to 24. Moreover, the risk of becoming a victim of violent crime peaks in the late teen years, as opposed to the early 20s, the peak age a decade ago. Plainly, our middle school and high school children are in need of a sobering message.
In order for that message to be effective, it must be jarring enough that it cuts through all artifices. The message must reach into the dangerous and sad recesses of our children's minds, where the criminal is often glamorized. For many of these kids, the idea of asserting one's will on another comprises the perfect adolescent fantasy. They see criminals as transcendent - almost heroic figures - who somehow escape the normal social boundaries that enmesh the rest of us.
This is the rationale that led copycat killers to don black trench coats and stalk through the hallways of Columbine like machines programmed to destroy. Similarly, Nathaniel Brazil nourished himself on the idea of becoming famous, reportedly bragging, "Just watch. I'll be all over the news," shortly before discharging a bullet into the face of his seventh-grade English teacher.
For a youth bombarded with images of the criminal as hero, a frank and uncompromising look at the realities of prison life can prove a much-needed wake-up call. Of course, as with all moments of clarity, there may be backsliding. That's why it is necessary to build upon such interventions with community and family supervision. That's why the parents should have been made aware of the harsh and uncompromising nature of the prison tour. Only by partnering such interventions with family guidance will juvenile delinquents come to fully appreciate that the final meaning of crime is not freedom, but jail or death.