Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Minors Sentenced To Life Without Parole Deserve More Than Scare Tactics When Transitioning To Adult Prisons

If the justice system’s goal is to produce healthy, safe, and productive members of society, then it must begin with support from corrections staff and healthy relationships with peers.

Illustration by Claire Merchlinsky.

“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.

“You can go upstate and get raped, or you can stay here. That’s a choice you’ll have to make. I suppose it just depends how important you think your appeal is.” That’s what the manager of the unit I was on at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Oregon, said to me when I asked for legal help. MacLaren didn’t have a law library or legal assistance for us. We were told to “go upstate” (go to adult prison) if we wanted that kind of help. When I pressed the issue about not being able to appeal my sentence, the response was a standard one for youth like me at MacLaren who were children sentenced as adults: get in line or get raped.

The staff at MacLaren was constantly telling us how good we had it there and warning us to fear our coming transfers to adult prison. I knew my sentence meant I wouldn’t stay in youth detention forever. Before my 25th birthday, I would be transferred into the adult system. To prepare us for that day, we were assigned to a group called From Adult Corrections Department or FACD. The name was an acknowledgement that juvenile lifers like me were already officially in the custody of the Oregon Department of Corrections even though we were living at MacLaren.

Our first assignment for FACD was to watch a documentary called “Anatomy of a Prison Murder.” For 25 minutes we watched in horror as white supremacists brutally stabbed and beat to death a Black inmate at a notoriously violent prison in another state. After watching the murder and listening to the recording of a guard giving a play-by-play while he did nothing to intervene, the video was shut off so we could hear from our guest speaker. He was a guard from the Oregon State Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison in Salem. The guard told us what we could expect when we went to prison. He said we would have to fight for ourselves because the guards would not protect us. If we didn’t or couldn’t fight, there was a real chance we’d be raped. Then he looked around the room and pointed out which of us he thought would be most vulnerable. 

No one seemed to think that making children watch a video of someone being murdered was a bad idea or that telling children they would be raped was cruel. I find it hard to believe that the staff who treated us that way went home to their kids and said and did the same kinds of things to them. If it was inappropriate to do that to their children, why was it acceptable to do it to us because we were children behind bars? Why is it that when the state becomes your “parent” through incarceration, none of the usual rules apply? 

Giving the state power over youth in the criminal justice system may be intended to support compassion and rehabilitation, but harsh sentencing policies and the “tough on crime” mentality undermine them. Here in Oregon, voters approved Measure 11 in 1994, which automatically put children as young as 15 in the adult system when charged with certain crimes. That practice continued until legislators passed reforms last year to keep children in youth court in almost all cases. These new policies transformed facilities like MacLaren from emphasizing rehabilitation to focusing on punishment. The threat of prison became a control mechanism, with coercion and the promise of prison rape eroding the culture of care. Staff would threaten us with the “Blue Bird,” the bus used to transport prisoners to adult prisons, whenever we got out of line. This didn’t do much for us as kids struggling to cope with thoughts of the day when the Blue Bird would be coming for us.

I was scared and anxious about my transfer to adult prison. After all, I had been told every day that that was how I should feel about it. I’ve learned since that many incarcerated young people come from criminogenic environments. That is, they grow up in places where the threat of violence and crimes against them is commonplace. When they experience repeated violence, their brains adapt to the trauma by becoming hypervigilant. This state of constant awareness leaves them always with their guard up, afraid of another attack. That was my mentality when I boarded the Blue Bird on my way to prison.

I was sent out east, to a facility where I was alone and isolated from people who cared about me. I was surrounded by men, many much older than me who I had been hearing for years wanted nothing more than to hurt me. I gave up on any thoughts of ever getting out of prison and going home. It became a “me against the world” mentality where I was determined to fight to keep myself safe from the violence I expected was imminent.

Within a week of being at my new home, I tried to prove how tough I was by getting into a fight with one of the biggest prisoners there. Within two weeks, I took part in a 150-person riot on the yard that landed me in solitary for six months and set me on a path of violence and isolation for years afterward.

When I look back on what I experienced while in youth detention, I don’t place all of the blame on the staff at MacLaren. There were good people there who cared about the kids they worked with and tried to do their best for us. I’m not sure I’d be able to write this article today if it weren’t for them. MacLaren was never designed to help children sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. The unrelenting focus on punishment crowded out efforts at rehabilitation.

Often while I was at the youth facility, I would be asked to take state legislators on tours. I was supposed to help convince them to keep voting for funding for rehabilitative programs for us. One state representative bluntly asked what the point was of providing rehabilitation to someone like me, who had no prospect of early release. He was worried that I was being made weak by MacLaren and that this treatment would not serve me well in adult prison. He wondered whether it would be better to do away with rehabilitation so as not to continue the softening up of children before sending them to endure the violence of prison. He said he was “concerned” about the harm the program was inflicting on us knowing what awaited youth in the adult system. For me, this was a perfect example of how the system has it backward: “Our prisons can be violent and dangerous so it’s best if we treat children brutally to prepare them.” This approach will do nothing to encourage reform.

Years have passed since my days at MacLaren. After my early challenges in the adult system, I was able to transfer to another prison where I now live among men who’ve also been through the transition from the youth correctional system. We’ve been able to build a community here and have even started a peer support program for young people who are entering adult prison. Our goal is to foster safer communities by providing services for these young people during what is often one of the most difficult periods of their lives. Our program emphasizes the importance of healthy relationships for youth in the justice system. It acknowledges that many are entering prison with chronic trauma that is exacerbated when exposed to the harsh conditions of confinement. For young adults transitioning to prison, the influences around them will most likely determine their chances of success and will have a tremendous effect on their ability to form healthy relationships. For them to feel like they’re in a safe environment depends on the relationships they find themselves in with older peers. Until their need to feel safe is met they will have tremendous difficulty transitioning from youth custody.

When I transferred from MacLaren into an adult prison I didn’t feel safe. I was told for years by my equally frightened peers, staff at MacLaren, guards from the penitentiary, and even state lawmakers that I would be preyed upon if I let MacLaren soften me up. If I refused to fight I would live the rest of my days as a target. I was alone, scared, and without hope for a future that didn’t involve violence and prison walls. A young man without hope and nothing to lose benefits no one. If the justice system’s goal is to produce healthy, safe, and productive members of society, then it must begin with healthy relationships. 

The slogan that our peer support program has adopted from author Nell Bernstein, “Rehabilitation happens in the context of relationships,” recognizes that young men transitioning to the adult system need to feel safe in order to grow. We all have a responsibility to keep kids safe, and the only way a child will be able to begin a process of inner reflection and healing is in a stable environment with the help of trusted adults. Young people will try to meet adult expectations. Our program acknowledges that if those expectations include surviving the violence and isolation of prison, then the adult who emerges will most likely be worse than the kid who entered. This is not the outcome most people want the justice system to accomplish.

Anthony Richardson is serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole. 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.