SAN FRANCISCO -- Where I’m from, boys don’t become men, they become inmates — lifers with their maturity stifled by institutionalization. Girls, don’t mature to womanhood, they become baby-momma’s who steal and prostitute their adult lives away having their maturity stifled but the “products” of institutionalization. Mother’s don’t stick around to watch their children grow. They instead abandon them at birth and escape their responsibility to return to the call of the “crack-rock”. Fathers, they don’t exist and it is on the promise of hope that our aging grandmother’s, who in their “golden years” attempt to raise children fifty and sixty years their younger. Then, you have the institutions that feed off this prevalent despair. Adult boys depend on Government Assistance and adult girls rely on Welfare as forms of income because their skills aren’t marketable in the workforce. Their poverty only trained them to hustle for food, run errands to keep a roof over their head and pounce on opportunity when it comes their way. An essential skill these adult boys and girls can’t market is staying alive.

Dodging stray bullets, avoiding gangs and saying “no” to drugs aren’t prerequisites for working in retail. In fact, if you’re born poor in the ghetto, you don’t know what a retailer looks life because other than the corner store, you don’t see a mall or a food court until you’re old enough to venture beyond your “hood” which, to be safe, you more and likely won’t.

I’m speaking to depravity you can’t fathom unless you’ve witnessed it and with that being said, I bet you’ve never asked yourself, “What happens to the “crack-baby” or the young boy or girl with no mother or father that age-out of foster care?” Not that you have to care but if you did, you would probably find out many ended up in jail or homeless on the streets. We live in a nation that believes if you are separated from poverty then the symptoms of poverty won’t affect you, but that’s false. Institutions are created to attempt to control and regulate masses of underserved populations but as long as our nation continues to ignore the direct results of institutionalization, society will continue to be at a loss of solutions for addressing crimes against humanity. Violence perpetuates violence and the predatory design of this county perpetuates violence upon the vulnerable.

I’ve come to experience that the existence of the institution of incarceration is a crime against humanity. Homeless people are arrested for sleeping on the streets. People of color are arrested for communal behavior like hanging on their block with friends. Children in poor communities are arrested for horse-playing at school while their counterparts in affluent communities just suffer through school detention.

What rational thinking collective believes you can cage a human being, made of the same flesh and blood but merely cut from a different cloth and expect to reproduce an individual capable of love, respect, loyalty and independence? Is this a fair expectation of someone you’ve treated worse than a stray animal in a non-regulated kennel that you refuse to educate and train but then release with barely anything more than the clothes they came with? The punitive origin of the institution of incarceration cannot serve anything but pain and suffering. Especially when the foundation of the institution has fallen away and been replaced by “backdoor deals” and “under the table” exchanges.
This I have witnessed.

My nephew recently was a victim of systemic racism at the hands of an unethical judicial system. From the point of his arrest he was treated as if he were “guilty” of a crime he knew he had not committed. Yes he is black and yes he was with two other boys and yes it was late into the night when the streets were sleep but for his accuser to say, “Those must be them, the guys that robbed us! What other three black guys are out this time of night…” should NOT have been enough. For the last three months, my nephew has spent his young life behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

When he thinks of his twenty-first birthday his memories won’t be of family and friends or a night with his girlfriend or a hangover like most celebrate the age of adulthood. His memory will be of laying in a cold cell, trapped night after night in the company of strangers, fighting for his freedom to be restored. This is all because a white man wanted so badly to accuse someone, anyone, of robbing him and his girlfriend allegedly at gun point as they left a Haight street bar late on a Sunday night.

What you just read probably gave you mixed feelings because human nature wants to automatically sympathize with the victim and I’m truly sorry this man and his girlfriend were robbed but the fact that there was no gun, no purse, nothing connecting my nephew and his friends to the robbery should’ve been enough to force a further investigation of the alleged crime. But that’s not what happened. A white couple had been allegedly robbed by three black boys and someone had to pay for it! So, because my nephew fit the description of being black in the wrong place at the wrong time, he had his first experience fighting the labyrinth of the criminal justice system from the inside.

The prosecuting attorney kept trying to force my nephew and his two friends to admit guilt but they refused. At each court date, the prosecutor kept trying to force a deal and each time the deal got sweeter and each time my nephew and his two friends refused to deal. Finally, the prosecutor agreed to reduce the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor and only one of the three had to accept the deal. This offer came on July 22, 2010; four days shy of three months from their arrest.

On the evening of this final offer, on the ride from San Francisco County Jail back to San Bruno County Jail, the youngest of the three boys, just eighteen-years-old, agreed he would accept the deal for the three of them to be released from prison—a place they should not have been in the first place. The system of bureaucracy had successfully broken his warrior spirit.
But every dog has their day. On July 23, 2010, before the eighteen-year-old could accept the deal, the case was suddenly dismissed. No explanation given.

In my eight years working in the juvenile and criminal justice field, I’ve heard the stories, I’ve cried with the families, I’ve attended the rallies and I’ve marched in the streets to fight human rights abuses but it was not until today did I realize, I can NOT, I will NOT fight injustice alone. We must to tell our stories and unite through our pain. A victory is in the near future and even through my tears I can still see it.

For the people who wake everyday to families torn apart by institutionalization, we are one in this journey and yes, our journey is young but our fight is old. We must find our strength in the footprints of our creator.

Ophelia Williams is an intern at the W. Haywood Burns Institute.