Last week, the UNM Honors College hosted a roundtable discussion concerning juvenile detention and mass incarceration across the states and here in New Mexico. Experts discussed their research, local efforts and possible solutions to the epidemic.
This event was organized by Assistant Professor Marygold Walsh-Dilley and Associate Professor Megan Jacobs as part of their year-long honors class, titled “Locked Up: Incarceration in Question.” The class is an interdisciplinary examination of mass incarceration through the lenses of art and sociology.
During the roundtable, photographer Richard Ross was accompanied by Shiv Desai of the Department of Teacher Education, Educational Leadership and Policy; Andrew Hsi of the Institute for Resilience, Health, and Justice & Department of Pediatrics; Glenabah Martinez from the Department of Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies; Kevin Mulhearn of the Department of Art and Art History; and Maria Velez from the Department of Sociology.
The panel began by introducing their work and discussing the basic history of incarceration in America. Data shows that the United States incarcerates its citizens at much higher rates than the rest of the world.
Hsi provided an overview of his research with Yael Cannon, George Davis, Alexandra Bochte and the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, which examined patterns of childhood trauma leading to youth entering the justice system.
According to the results of the study, this research may also aid in identifying prevention strategies that can benefit New Mexico’s youth.
Adverse Childhood Experiences were factors originally defined in the late ‘90s, and split into two types: childhood abuse or household dysfunction.
The study identified 10 experiences, including: “emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect, violent treatment towards mother, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce and having an incarcerated household member.”
These experiences are known risk factors for chronic disease later in adulthood.
Over the years, this study has been taken further to identify other negative consequences of ACE’s, such as functional changes to the developing brain and patterns of juvenile detention sentences.
Of the 220 juvenile offenders committed for incarceration in New Mexico during 2011, the results showed that each individual had an average of 5.4 adverse experiences.
Of this same group, 96.4 percent had a substance abuse disorder, identified upon admission.
“The striking thing to us was that this all happened before incarceration in youth prison,” Hsi said. “So whatever is going on in these kids’ lives before the time of incarceration were things that seemed to not be addressed very effectively in terms of the outcome of being incarcerated.”
Youth dealing with these kinds of experiences have a much greater risk of being incarcerated and staying locked up, panel members said.
Glenabah Martinez works to combat that by teaching Native American Studies to self-identified Native American youth who are incarcerated.
“We in the First Nations program try to work on developing a strong indigenous identity,” Martinez said. “So with a team of social workers, spiritual leaders and counselors, we work with the Native youth providing them opportunities to learn about Native spirituality in many different ways.”
Martinez also teaches Native American studies at UNM, but her discussion questions differ for incarcerated youth in order to focus on how to make better decisions through applying acquired knowledge.
“We’re trying to enrich them with information about indigenous studies, but we’re also trying to help them spiritually to work on themselves as individuals to try to make them think about themselves as not somebody who’s committed something bad in society, but someone who’s going to make a contribution to their communities,” Martinez said.
Martinez said at juvenile lockup facilities in Albuquerque, the youth were able to build their own sweat lodges, thanks to the Native American Freedom of Religion Act.
Martinez said they also have the right to hold ceremonies with cedar and feathers to bless youth when they’re transitioning out of incarceration or to another site.
She said that the work can be very challenging, but that it is all worth it when she sees a youth she has worked with in the outside world, after they’ve been released.
Shiv Desai works directly with LOUD — Leaders Organizing 2 Unite and Decriminalize — with a mission to unify and empower youth to bring affirmative changes in the juvenile justice system. Half of the youth members the group works with are in detention centers, many also working with Martinez.
“What is most powerful about doing this project is we get to speak directly with the director of the detention center, judges, and prosecutors,” Desai said. “We’ve done presentations about our data and shared recommendations. Because we sit on the different committees, we have youth here and they can give their input.”
Maria Velez studies the rise of incarceration from a sociological standpoint. She said the historical increase in incarceration in the U.S. over the past 40 years has little to do with crime — it was merely a political decision.
“In particular, it is this increasingly punitive climate that surrounds justice policy that was formed in a period of perceptions that crime was going up,” Velez said.
Velez said people responded to this change by implementing harsh policies, such as mandatory minimums, longer sentences, required prison time for minor offenses, intensified punishment for drug crimes, and more.
“Research suggests that at very high levels of incarceration, crime can actually go up,” she said. “So there’s diminishing returns to incarcerations.”
This tough-on-crime era eventually made a shift toward young people, who got swept up in this flurry of changes, she said. Initially the juvenile justice system was meant to be rehabilitative and restorative.
“So getting rid of this distinction that (juveniles) are different, now we have young people sentenced as adults, which means they are likely to get life without parole,” she said. “We discarded, in many ways, this notion that juveniles are different than adults.”
To Velez and many leading experts, this problem can be described as a “racialized issue.”
“Incarceration rates have increased for everybody — whites with low levels of education, whites with high levels of education — the list goes on,” she said. “Nonetheless, the brunt of the experience of mass incarceration is felt by African Americans in particular.”
Velez said Walsh-Dilley inspired her to think of mass incarceration as the issue of her time, a problem the millennial generation will have to help solve.
“It’s a political answer. What led to this is political, so then we have to deal with it in terms of politics,” she said. “Change our law-and-order culture.”
Sarah Trujillo is a news reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sarahtweets_abq.