From rural to reform


Abby Kempf

[heading]Fifth in a six-part series covering the criminal justice system[/heading][dropcap style=”flat”]T[/dropcap]orture, unjust punishment and death resulting from cruel beatings were the norms of Missouri’s juvenile justice systems in the 1800s. Law enforcement was rogue with no training required. Some officers became sadistic, militant guards, resulting in maltreatment of the particularly vulnerable youth, according to Dr. Douglas Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia and a member of Missouri’s Division of Youth Services’ Advisory Board (DYS).
“The attitude in the 1800s was ‘make prison as bad as it could be, as brutal and destructive as it possibly could be so that nobody would ever want to come back,’” Dr. Abrams, a historian on Missouri juvenile justice’s past, said. “That was not only the attitude about adult crime, but also children. Most states, including Missouri — which was almost entirely a rural state at the time — had no place to put kids who got into trouble.”
The children were thrown into jail, surrounded by rapists, murders and “hardened” criminals twice, and even thrice their major, Dr. Abrams said. The youths’ crime: homelessness, poverty and petty theft to save a starving sibling.
“They’d put eight, nine,10 and 11-year-olds [in prison] who were nothing more than neglected, and they’d suffer the same harsh effects as the adults did because at that time, children were seen to be miniature adults without special facilities and so forth,” Dr. Abrams said. “Also, in the 1800s many or most of the kids put in prison had committed no crimes by today’s standards. They were poor, or they were orphaned because their parents died and vagrancy was a crime in those days. A lot of kids went to jail with their parents because the family couldn’t take care of themselves. It wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century that psychology and science began to perceive children as different from adults.”
This new attitude allowed for conversations surrounding the nature of juvenile justice and incarceration to begin.
Instead of lumping child criminals with the adults, psychologists began to recognize that children needed different programs and systems to be rehabilitated and corrected. Thus, “The Missouri Approach” was created.
The new program sought to correct the errors of Missouri’s dark past, by making smaller facilities, keeping children close to home, focusing on rehabilitation instead of punishment and recognizing the youth’s potential.
infographic by Joy Park
“Missouri DYS is based on the understanding that large facilities where two or three hundred boys or girls live together is not the way you can reach kids who are distressed or in trouble. So what Missouri has done is decentralize everything,” Dr. Abrams. “The state has been divided into five regions and has 40 or 30 facilities around the state. When you have only 10 kids instead of 500, it’s much more hands-on attention to the kids’needs because around the country today somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of juvenile delinquents are mentally ill to one extent to another [with] things like Attention Deficit Disorder, or worse. Hands-on therapeutic attention works better than what goes on in many states.”
Former RBHS student Brandon Jones* has spent time in Columbia’s juvenile justice center, the Robert L. Perry Juvenile Center. His path to the center was not unlike many other RBHS students.
“I had poor attendance freshman year and I associated with a bad group of people at the time,” Jones said. “So as most of them got in trouble, the justice system found it fit to give me and a few of those guys juvenile officers. That was essentially the start.”
During his 60-day stay, he came to know the strengths and weaknesses of the system. Education was one area he said was definitely lacking.
“It was well taught, but I felt like I was moving so slowly. I couldn’t progress fast enough,” Jones said. “The fact that other kids couldn’t learn as quick and were younger made me feel held back. It felt a bit dumbed down due to the younger kids having to learn at the same time.”
He said they need “more teachers for varying ages.”
Tyrone Flowers, like Dr. Abrams, is a Missouri Division of Youth Services advisory board member. Also similar to Jones, Flowers is a former inmate of several different juvenile correctional facilities. He agrees with Jones’ comments about the faults in the center’s educational systems.
“It didn’t really help me learn anything from an academic perspective, and also when you try to use one model to get everyone — that’s where it fell short with me. As far as some of the programs, it seemed like it was more geared to just managing me overall from a behavioral perspective as opposed to preparing me for society once I got out,” Flowers said. “There was nothing that I learned on the inside that was useful when I got out.”
Flowers’ experiences as a youth, however, aren’t exactly what lead him to work as a mentor for kids who had histories like him. Instead, a class he took at the University of Missouri-Columbia, one that he assumed was going to be a breeze, made him seriously consider mentorship and the possible impact he could have on their lives.
“[In] my senior year at MU, it became clear what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I had to write a paper, and I decided to write it on the juvenile system. I knew it was going to be an easy A because I knew it like the back of my hand. But, one of the requirements was I had to do some site visits. I was like, ‘All right, let me sit down and go through some of the same facilities I was incarcerated in. Just sign in, do my hour and leave.’ That was my goal. But then when I got there something happened. Here I am, one person, but these kids were clamoring, all coming at me. At this time I had no counseling skills, and I wasn’t really trying to relate to them — I’ve never done it before. I was just trying to be in there, hang out for a little while and leave. I wasn’t trying to solve their problems, nor was I interested in their problems.”
Flowers said the kids connected with him. He wasn’t overbearing, questioning or judgmental as were many of the other adults who visited the facilities. Instead, he worked as a therapist with an open ear and a closed mouth; just what the kids needed. Many admitted stories to him they had never told anyone before. Without prompting, kids told Flowers of their innocence, their guilt, their dreams and their sorrows.
Soon, the workers would rush up to Flowers when he arrived and ask if he would talk to their group. All the kids were asking for him. Everyone wanted to meet the man who came from where they were and became a successful college student.
“They all just wanted to talk or interact, and it was all basic stuff. We always want to go in and solve people’s problems instead of just being human to them, interacting with them and developing a relationship. Unintentionally, that’s what I was doing,” Flowers said. “I didn’t know why they were incarcerated. I treated them like a human being and then all of a sudden they just started opening up, and I didn’t know why. It was kind of uncomfortable. I didn’t even know what to do with the information because I didn’t want to leave the impression that I was going to try to solve their issues or invest in them.”
All of his reservations about making connections and getting emotionally invested melted away, though, when he began to talk with a boy who struck a chord with his frankness and naivety.
“I met one kid. He was [a] very articulate, very attractive young kid. We kind of connected. Over a period of time I finally asked him, ‘What are you in here for?’ and when he told me murder, it really blew my mind. A lot of us assume we have these radars that will tell us good or bad. The reality is, we don’t. I never would’ve thought this kid was in here for murder. Then he finally told me why, and his situation was something that I could’ve easily related to,” Flowers said. “He said that one of his friends had permission to drive their parents’ car. They picked up a few other friends like kids do. They were riding around, and one of the kids in the car said, ‘Follow that guy in the truck.’ When the other kid got out, unbeknownst to them, he tried to take the truck. In the process he ended up killing a guy, and so they all got charged with felony murder. I said, ‘Crap, that could’ve easily been me.’ So that bothered me, and then [there was] the fact that he didn’t get the benefit of the doubt.”
With his personal, inside view and his experience meeting and connecting with these kids, Flowers decided to join in on the new wave of thinking brought about by The Missouri Approach and prove that many youth with so-called behavioral problems and strings of misdemeanors had potential.
After showing adults that he had a lot of intelligence buried underneath his hardened exterior, Flowers founded Higher M-Pact, an organization that helps rehabilitate youth who have been identified as high-risk of being incarcerated.
[quote cite=”Tyrone Flowers”] I treated them like a human being and then all of a sudden they just started opening up.[/quote] “One of the reasons [I founded Higher M-Pact] was I realized that there was a bunch of kids operating in grey areas. It’s not black and white. The system is responding to what they perceived as the problem. If you catch [a kid] smoking marijuana, the first thing they want to do is put them in an eight-week to six-month drug program. You can do drugs but not be addicted to drugs, but they never go past that act. You may have a fight, and they want you in an anger management class, but you don’t have anger management issues. What was the source of that,” Flowers said. “I realized a lot of times people are investing in perceived issues. They’re investing in them based on where they come from but don’t really believe in investing because they believe in what they’re capable of doing.”
He thinks a major part of rehabilitation is teaching the kids things that are pertinent to their lives. Many times, students drift from school because the lessons seem so distant to their hectic lives, Flowers said. Both Jones and Flowers agree that at juvenile justice systems, instead of helping the kids cope with their problems, the curriculum largely focuses on topics way beneath them. A girl who lives in a home where drugs and sex are daily activities isn’t going to be responsive to a lesson about how to talk to strangers or be polite to peers.
“You got a bunch of kids who are gifted. When I say gifted they’re gifted emotionally and socially. What I mean by that is if you have a kid who’s gifted academically, we would know how to recognize that, nurture that, encourage it. A lot of times you test a kid in fifth grade math. They do very very well, extremely well, and they do math on a college level. We don’t leave that kid doing fifth grade math. What you do is give him college level work because where does learning begin? When you’re challenged,” Flowers said. “You have a bunch of kids that have been exposed to certain things, having experienced certain things at an early age for whatever reason, but they’re beyond their experience and their education. They’re beyond their age. You’re giving me a 14-year-old program when I have a 21-year-old lifestyle.”
Flowers himself experienced this lag in education when he was incarcerated. He decided if he was going to work with children, he was going to treat them as the mental age they really were because he knew if he did not, the kids would act out and disobey rules because of boredom and an assumption that those who were attempting to teach them didn’t really know any more than they themselves knew.
“I realized you can’t get kids who live X-rated lives a G-rated program. It’s so frustrating that we can’t even show a PG-17 rated movie because, ‘Oh, they got a cuss word in there.’ You really think these kids haven’t heard cussing? Those kids are frustrated. They’re not learning; they’re bored,” Flowers said. “Most kids are gifted whether academically or whatever area. It’s because they get their work done, and they’re processing whatever you’re throwing at them so quick they get it done, and they get bored and then they do what kids do. Talk, throw spitballs, hang with people, and then that’s considered bad behavior because of the context. I knew that if I worked with kids, that wasn’t going be my approach.”
Working in tandem with the kids turned out to be the perfect match. By collaborating with children, Flowers and his team have been able to show kids their true worth.
One supporter, Drew Hiss, is quoted on the Higher M-Pact site saying, “At the core level, the kids and adolescents that are served through Higher M-Pact become aware of a new type of hope and a shift in paradigm relative to where they are and where they can be.”
Higher M-Pact received many awards as well as national recognition for its hardwork and dedication to youth.
DYS has seen similar victories, Dr. Abrams said. The Missouri Approach’s focus on rehabilitation has propelled statistics of success forward and allowed more incarcerated youth to go on to amazing futures that many of their former teachers, disciplinarians and even friends would have never been able to predict.
infographic by Stephanie Kang
“The kids who go through the [Missouri] DYS program only reoffend 10 percent of the time. That means that 90 percent of the kids are success stories. It really is a success story,” Dr. Abrams said. “Now as an advisory board member, when I go to some of these site visits, I’m not astounded anymore, but I’m very hardened by the articulateness of these kids; how they have future plans for their lives. One of the visiting people from Maryland said, ‘You can look at the kids in Missouri in DYS custody and they’ve got a sparkle in their eyes. They’ve got a future.’ They don’t look down at the floor, [and] they aren’t pushed around by guards, but they do have to obey because that’s what children are supposed to do. It’s just an entirely different attitude.”
With first-hand experience, Jones knows that while going to the center initially seems like a bleak thing, it can be a growing experience that helps the youth within its gloomy doors.
“Aside from the bleach odor and the locked doors, it felt like a mini-community. We woke up at 6 a.m., had breakfast, then [went to] school. Then we had an hour to get exercise indoors or out,” Jones said. “Obviously the adults called the shots, but when an issue would arise, we would try to resolve it with communication and compromise.”
At the center he finally faced his reality: start making the right choice or keep returning to prison and face bigger sentences. He decided he wanted to change and opened himself up to the advice from the adults within.
“The place helped me; I can’t say the same for others, though. Most of the people there wouldn’t allow themselves to get better,” Jones said. “I went into it the second time knowing I either change for the better or this is my life: just in and out of jail. I didn’t want that, so I think that made me open-minded and more willing to accept advice.”
The advice he received was to surround himself with people who would bring him up and to know who those people were. This advice comes from a place of humanity, not of condemnation — just what vulnerable youth need, Flowers said.
It is important to remember that at their base, these young people are just like others, Dr. Abrams said. They have hopes and dreams and are full of the same potential and possibility that every student across the nation possesses in their core. One beautiful moment that Dr. Abrams witnesses is the graduations each center holds at the end of the school year.
“In May and June of each year, each of the five regions hold a high school graduation for juveniles who earn their high school diploma or more likely their GED. In custody, the percentage rates are very high with kids who do that,” Dr. Abrams said. “One of the things they have is they have a slideshow and each kid’s picture is put up on the screen in the auditorium, and they have like a high school yearbook and the kids, so many of them overwhelmingly say, ‘I want to go to college. I want additional schooling like Missouri State.’ That is sort of what you want. The graduations are very indistinguishable from the ordinary high school graduation except some of the kids don’t have two parents there. Sometimes they don’t even have one.”
*Name changed upon request.
Have you spent time in the juvenile justice system? If so, did you find problems in it? What do you think about Flowers’ program Higher M-Pact?