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Far From Being Beyond Saving, Prison Youth Deserve Every Opportunity For Meaningful Rehabilitation

We should demand that prison officials and our elected representatives honor their constitutional obligation to promote and support youth healing, growth, and change.

Illustration by Cameron Wray.

“Left Behind,” a collaboration between The Appeal and Oregon Justice Resource Center, presents firsthand accounts of growing up in prison from individuals sentenced as children to 25 years-to-life. Inspired by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits the imposition of a mandatory sentence of death in prison for children, this series reveals the humanity of those given life sentences by asking: What obligations do we have as a community of not leaving them behind? Each of the primary authors is incarcerated in the Oregon state correctional system.

Now in my 50s and considered an “elderly prisoner,” I have just completed my 33rd year of incarceration for a crime I committed as a teenager. My incarceration continues, in part, because of a malicious lie that was told about youth who commit crimes. Although the “superpredator” myth has now been discredited, even by the man who coined that disparaging epithet, its great potency allows it to continue controlling my life. 

The belief that some children are “so utterly and incomprehensibly other,” as author Nell Bernstein described it, has reduced me and so many other teenagers to being seen as something less than human by most people. We were judged to be beyond saving: irredeemable, unsalvageable, pathological monsters, so why waste time naively trying to rehabilitate us?

I was 18 when I committed the crime that has kept me in prison since 1987, but the path to that horrifying moment began many years earlier. I don’t know who first said, “hurt people, hurt people,” but I know it to be true. Unhealed, unacknowledged childhood trauma is at the root of most youthful criminality and violence. 

As a deeply troubled teenager, I was no exception. Angry, depressed, and disconnected from people around me. I lacked the insight to understand myself or the words to articulate how I felt. I was sexually abused at 8 years old and from then on I was running from the pain and from myself. I kept the shame I felt about what was done to me locked away. I hoped the world and I would never have to see it, but it kept resurfacing in harmful ways. I built and hid behind massive walls that I hoped would protect me from ever feeling vulnerable or powerless again. Those walls also cut me off from feeling my own emotions and those of other people.

I turned to drugs and alcohol for relief when I was 12. As my addiction and reckless choices quickly escalated, I soon felt only rage and despair. I felt nothing for the people around me.

Though my life had been spiraling out of control for most of my teenage years, the path I was traveling became much more destructive when I became addicted to methamphetamine at 17.  Meth was not a gradual descent but the edge of a sheer cliff. I jumped.

Within two months, I was suspended from school for using meth in class. A few weeks later, I was carrying a gun. I told myself that I needed it for protection. In fact, I wanted it because it made me feel powerful, invincible even. That gun blocked out a lifetime of feeling weak and afraid.

During the next two months, I committed numerous burglaries with another teenager. Three weeks after I should have graduated from high school, I made the choice to participate in a double homicide. I shot one homeowner, and another teenager shot the other. I was soon arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two life sentences with cries of “monster” and “animal” ringing in my ears. 

When I entered Oregon’s prison system in the late 1980s there was more support available to help prisoners who wanted to change than there is today. I was relieved to find an atmosphere in my new home that was much more like a college than the frightening images of prison I had conjured in my mind. I had opportunities to attend mental health treatment, earn a two- or four-year college degree, take part in vocational training programs, earn apprenticeships and licensing in a wide range of professions, and receive other rehabilitative assistance.

I seized on every chance I had to work on myself. I spent years in mental health treatment, anger management classes, and substance use counseling. I got my high school diploma, a two-year degree, and then finally a four-year college degree. I have worked as a legal assistant; a GED tutor; a mentor for at-risk youth; a hospice volunteer caring for terminally ill prisoners; and a meditation, mindfulness, and yoga instructor for prisoners with developmental disabilities or severe mental illness.

It distresses me that my rehabilitative experience is not the norm. At best, most prisoners receive only a small fraction of the help I have had. Yet even I have lost opportunities for rehabilitation as “tough on crime” policies gathered steam, changing the culture of U.S. prisons.

Six years into my incarceration, in 1993, my counselor told me that no more treatment or rehabilitation programs were available to me even though my rehabilitation was far from complete. I was only 24, but the system felt nothing more should be offered to me or required of me by way of rehabilitation for the rest of my life. Since I was not eligible for release, prison staff classified me as the lowest possible reoffense risk, ensuring that I would be ineligible for any of the prison’s rapidly dwindling range of rehabilitation programs. The Supreme Court has recognized this as a tactic that prison officials use to deny young lifers access to rehabilitation programs offered to other prisoners. After all, why devote resources to people who will spend the rest of their lives behind bars? From then on, I had to fight for every chance at rehabilitation I got. Most young prisoners simply gave up.

Rehabilitation, treatment, and education programs were stripped from prisons across the nation in the early 1990s. Pell grants for prisoners were abolished in 1994 and education programs quickly disappeared. This meant that even as I and others like me desperately needed help to develop appropriately into adulthood, the prison system worked to deny us that help. The Supreme Court has criticized this as “the perverse consequence in which the lack of maturity that led to an offender’s crime is reinforced by the prison term” and “the system itself becomes complicit in the lack of development.”

I have seen the irreparable harm this has caused many young prisoners who have been excluded from opportunities to heal, change, and grow in healthy ways. Imprisonment is damaging to youth under the best circumstances, but it is much more detrimental when it is stripped of such essential support and guidance. What a tragedy that we lock up our young people for acts stemming from their lack of maturity and then deny them the chance to address it!

I was very fortunate to receive three and a half years of drug and alcohol treatment when I entered prison. I needed every second of it. I never could have overcome or even understood my addiction or the underlying issues that fueled it without treatment. I now have 30 years of sobriety thanks to the help that was so essential to changing my thinking and behavior and starting me on a path of ever-deepening rehabilitation, insight, and accountability. 

Today, I see the youth I once was in so many young people who enter prison still addicted to drugs. The substance use treatment I received is not available to them. The whole community pays the price in many ways. Some of those who are released from prison quickly return to drugs once they are freed, sometimes even while the prison gates are still in the rearview mirror. 

Likewise, it is estimated more than half of U.S. prisoners experience significant mental health issues. As community-based mental health services have been cut, prisons have become our mental hospitals. Yet, few of those imprisoned for crimes intimately linked to their mental illnesses receive the help they need while incarcerated. People incarcerated for sex offenses similarly lack support.

Our collective choice to abandon rehabilitation for retribution comes at a great cost. Everyone feels the impact of people returning to the community from so-called correctional facilities that make absolutely no effort to correct anyone they confine. Despite spending vast sums to lock up millions of Americans, prisons are a shameful failure. An estimated two-thirds of prisoners return within three years of release and three quarters return within five years. You and everyone you know are spending billions of dollars annually for this failure of public policy.

Prison officials and the politicians who fund their work should have recognized the series of U.S Supreme Court youth sentencing decisions in recent years as a call to action. The Court has gradually broadened and deepened its understanding and recognition of the unique qualities of youth and the capacity of adolescents to change and grow, despite the severity of their crimes. Yet we have not seen any significant effort to restore educational, treatment, and rehabilitative programming to America’s prisons. Instead, we continue to hear outdated rhetoric from some leaders who seem content to warehouse our youth, deny their humanity and dignity, and compound their trauma. 

Since our nation’s highest court has accepted that young people are “most in need of and receptive to rehabilitation,” we should demand that our elected representatives and prison officials understand and honor their constitutional obligation to promote and support youth healing, change, and growth through programs and services. Without those opportunities, most young prisoners will never be able to prove their rehabilitation and maturity, depriving them of their constitutional right to “a meaningful opportunity for release.” That denial of rights and dignity is causing devastating, irreparable harm to prisoners, crime victims, communities, social services, and state budgets. It is past time for us to bury the superpredator myth that is holding us back and build something better in its place.

Mark Wilson is serving a sentence of life in prison and has a projected release date of 2027. He resides at Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem. This column was edited by Alice Lundell, director of communication for the Oregon Justice Resource Center.