Give Them the Key or Throw Them Away

by:  Chris Dankovich

Chris Dankovich is a 26-year-old prisoner at Thumb Correctional Facility where he is serving a 25-to-37-year sentence for a second-degree murder he committed when he was 15.  Mr. Dankovich has been published in The Marshall Project and the Harvard Educational Review.

Earlier this year, in Montgomery v Louisiana, the United States Supreme Court granted a lot of friends of mine the first chance at life that they’ve ever had. They are the now-grown men and women who were given life without parole sentences while still legally children. And now, though in their 40’s, 50’s, and some in their 60’s, these friends of mine that I like to half-jokingly refer to as “perpetual kids” are going to be entering the workforce, paying bills, and paying taxes.

The thing is they don’t know how. See, when people outside of prison look at the often tattooed, muscle-bound, bearded outer shells of these men, it’s easy to forget that their education in the practical skills nearly everyone takes for granted (“What is a resume?”, “You mean there are more taxes than sales tax?”, “What is a W-2?”) stopped at the pre-high school or freshman year level. I say this with authority, as I’ve been incarcerated for nearly half of my life, since I was 15 years old. Though not a juvenile lifer, I’m in a similar situation as many of them, and while I’ve been fortunate enough to earn a college degree, I still have no idea what the hell a “W-2” form is, what taxes I have to pay, to whom I pay them to, or how to go about paying them (one of my compulsive fears is that after I am released at age 40, I’ll unknowingly commit tax evasion and be re-arrested).  But juvenile lifers have it worse. Having spent decades in prison, most of them have lacked any ability to educate themselves in a meaningful way, and have been denied access to programming designed to help returning citizens  (as of writing, though their life sentences have been invalidated, they are still being denied access to most programming). They are older, hopefully wiser, but they are Benjamin Buttons all the same: grown men with practical knowledge of a young teen.

The same is the problem with all “Youthful Offenders,” the designator Michigan gives to the children it incarcerates as adults. While the ones with shorter adult sentences will have the ability to earn their GED’s and take some well-taught vocational classes (I’m somewhat biased, as I’ve been tutored in one or the other for over a third of my life), many of the basic facts necessary to civilized adult life are not taught to them, at least officially. It is often taken for granted by ordinary people that our parents will habilitate us into adulthood, but while these children can’t use this as a defense for their crimes, most of them wouldn’t be in prison if they had kind, caring, intelligent, responsible parents. One 17 year old prisoner I used to tutor in GED math bears the scar from where his mother shot him with her 9mm…on purpose. I can relate to that type of childhood trauma as my own mother once tried to force me to have sex with her.

I’ve been published by the Harvard Educational Review, but I don’t know how to vote (in Michigan, these former children will be able to once released), how to get my driver’s license, how to write a resume, how to open a bank account, how to obtain a credit card, or how to pay a bill. Most of the juvenile lifers I’ve talked to not only don’t know what their Social Security Number is; they don’t know what a Social Security Number is.

Thumb Correctional Facility, which houses incarcerated “Youth” in Michigan while they are still chronologically juveniles, has implemented a handful of really great classes that teach basic skills on money management and basic job skills (including how to apply and interview for a job). But resources and funding are limited, workplace experience is more so, and the ability for these “perpetual children” to continue learning outside of this prison is small. Away from this place is where hundreds of teens have the first job of their lives (paying approximately ten cents an hour), youthful offenders are essentially on their own to educate themselves.

There needs to be a division implemented in any system that deals with children, including prisons, to teach them just the basic framework of civilized adult life. Because we’re not just expecting these future citizens to learn what they should know…we’re expecting them to learn what they don’t know. Instead of placing the responsibility solely on the incarcerated kid to earn their GED and take a vocational class (which some youth with invalidated life sentences have still been unable to attempt), it should be the responsibility of the society that incarcerates its children as adults to make sure they at least have the opportunity to learn the basics of being an adult.

C is a “Youthful Offender” with severe cerebral palsy, who can barely walk even with the aid of crutches, and goes by the prison moniker “Cripple-Chris.” He started life in a complicated family dynamic until he was 14 years old, when he was sentenced to a minimum of a decade in prison for acts involving a young girl. In prison, I have watched him try to better himself. He tries to advise new young prisoners, though he hasn’t yet found a way to not get picked on. He tried to learn to play softball. He tried for five years before finally earning his GED. C is getting out in a few months. Maybe he’s a deviant. Maybe he’ll be a lifelong criminal. While I’m not a fan of what he was convicted of, I’ve grown up with him, and watched him attempt to grow up himself. I hope he makes it on the outside. But he will never be able to drive; he’s physically incapable of doing physical labor, and he doesn’t know his SSN, how or where to apply for the welfare assistance he’ll need, how to pay a bill or how to pay taxes. So even if he is rehabilitated, he still has many hurdles to overcome in order to be successful on the outside.