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When educating youth, there is a large emphasis on doing the right thing, to avoid commiting crimes for both honor and moral convictions, and setting a good example for future generations. However, the rate of incarceration in every country has increased tenfold despite our goals of thriving amongst each other, increasing annually and listing the United States as the world leader in incarceration. But how is this possible? What could cause so many people to defy the collective will that most of society shares? Research done by the national research council listed strife created from political activism and race relations as the instigator for problems like violence and gangs becoming a social norm, parental figures being associated with crime, and the isolation of youth by both their parents and similarly aged individuals. These issues can be seen in the memoir True Notebooks, where the author Mark Salzman recalls the experiences and impressions that he had with the inmates at Juvenile Hall. Persuaded to participate in a writing program led by his good friend, Salzman was impressed by both the depth and emotional content that the inmate students had. He then went on to start his own writing group, connecting with and bonding with the inmates more than he could have ever imagined possible, and discovered a different side to the hardened criminals that was not represented in any stereotypical depiction of gang life. Salzman’s experiences allowed him the opportunity to discover the reasons why a lack of presence from parents, gang influenced communities, and incarceration affect the probability of future generations for incarceration.
In True Notebooks, many of the boys that Salzman interacts with are part of single family homes, where the mother is supporting the children and the father is either missing or in jail for gang related crimes. The students are very verbal in their struggle to find a balance between hating or loving their father and staying strong for their mothers. On one hand, the gangsters are hateful towards their fathers since they are not the role models they are suppose to be, but they also still have love for them because they are their fathers. Toa, a student in Salzman’s writing class, sums it up with the following quote. “I seen him for the first time in about seven years. “Hi Daddy. I hate you.” Daddy? Pops? More like ghost. My heart raced to find words to say. For years I contemplated this moment. Now here it is. Nothin’ but dead silence. He looked into my eyes, I figured he was trying to see if I felt anything. “Son, I missed you.” My heart froze, like it was stabbed with a ice pick and stuck into a freezer, havin’ water poured over it repeatedly, seepin’ into the puncture wounds, chemically changing from fluids to solids, cold… tha coldest.” (303). On the other hand, the gangsters feel like since they are gang members and act more mature than they might be, they can’t show any emotional sympathy or love towards their mothers or else the people might think they are weak. Toa also writes about his mother, saying that “My mom’s kind, sensitive, loving, and if you take all that as a sign of weakness fuck you ‘cause I ain’t nothin’ like that and she’s my heart so killing you secures somebody I love and that’s how much I love her, that I’ll kill without remorse. Even though she don’t like what I do, my mom’s my world. I love her.” (304). This aspect of the story, where children of incarcerated parental figures work to find stand-in role models, remains true in the real world. According to the book “Parental Incarceration and the Family : Psychological and Social Effects of Imprisonment on Children, Parents, and Caregivers” by Joyce Arditti, in 2012, something like 1.7 million families have a parental figure in prison. These kinds of families have been linked to be influenced by negative role models like those in gangs. Therefore, a lack of role models in the family often lead to youth being associated with gang activities.
In True Notebooks, many of the students in Salzman’s class talk about how the only protection they could get on the streets was through gangs. The choices they had were to not be affiliated and suffer alienation and torment (fear) or join a gang and lead a violent life but have friends that would guard your back (power). Jimmy, another student in Salzman’s writing class, recalls the influence that the gangs had on him by saying, “I began to hate my father. My heart was full of anger. In the sea of rage I began to drown. I started to hang with gangsters. Gave up on my education. I felt everything was just a waste of time. One thing led to another, somehow I got pulled under. The next thing I knew, I was in jail for committing a crime.” (68). According to a journal titled “Youth Gangs and Adolescent Development: New Findings, New Challenges, and New Directions: Introduction to the Special Section”, research done by criminologists report that,”On the one hand, gangs can represent a protective and perhaps even positive influence, providing support, companionship, and safety to their members. Yet, on the other hand, and more pressingly, involvement in gangs significantly enhances adolescents’ risk for violent victimization and engagement in violent behavior” (1). However, since they were caught and prosecuted for the crimes they committed, many of the students’ friends had denied them any form of communication or acknowledgment. This is seen as a form of abandonment or betrayal from many of the students in Salzman’s group, and inspire desires to get out of the gang life.
Since most gangs are located near low-income areas, members are usually affiliated with these gangs for life because of their economic inability to remove themselves from possible gang influences, and thus guide their children with their interactions with crime and gang instances.
However, another reason why this is so is because individuals are not given the opportunities to escape these loops. Economic status is one of the factors in play for this issue. Research by John Hopkins University has linked a low income with a increased rate of incarceration according to their article titled “Mass Imprisonment and Economic Inequality”. They say that, ”Through the stigma of a criminal conviction, the diminished human capital from time out of the labor force, and the weakened social connections to legitimate employment opportunities, incarceration reduces the wages and employment of those serving time in prison. Not only does incarceration reduce pay and employment, it also limits the kinds of jobs that are available to formerly incarcerated workers. Career jobs requiring a high level of trust, skill, credentials, or well-placed social connections are largely out of reach for those with prison records.” (2) Also, being raised in a gang lifestyle instructs the future generations to follow such upbringing, and gives fewer reasons to break the cycle.
Through the book “True Notebooks”, Mark Salzman gives us situations about how incarcerated youth both feel misunderstood and desire additional education or assistance in order to change from the people they once were. From our research, we can see that a lack of presence from parents, gang influenced communities, and incarceration affect the probability of future generations for incarceration.
● Salzman, Mark. True Notebooks. Bloomsbury, 2004.
● Golash-Boza, Tanya. “America’s Mass Incarceration Problem in 5 Charts – or, Why Sessions Shouldn’t Bring Back Mandatory Minimums.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 13 June 2018, theconversation.com/americas-mass-incarceration-problem-in-5-charts-or-why-sessions-shouldnt-bring-back-mandatory-minimums-78019.
● National Research Council, et al. “Read ‘The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences’ at NAP.edu.” National Academies Press: OpenBook, National Academies Press, www.nap.edu/read/18613/chapter/15#337.
● Arditti, Joyce A. Parental Incarceration and the Family: Psychological and Social Effects of Imprisonment on Children, Parents, and Caregivers. New York University Press, 2014.
● Boxer, Paul. “Youth Gangs and Adolescent Development: New Findings, New Challenges, and New Directions: Introduction to the Special Section.” Journal of Research on Adolescence, vol. 24, no. 2, 2014, pp. 201–203., doi:10.1111/jora.12141.
● Western, Bruce. “Mass Imprisonment and Economic Inequality.” Social Research, vol. 74, no. 2, Summer2007, pp. 509-532. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.fhda.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pbh&AN=26378602&site=ehost-live.
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