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Book Review: I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine
Alanna Hunter
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I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup was written by David Chura, a former English teacher at the Westchester County jail. His book, published earlier this year, shows how misguided the system is when it places teenagers in adult lockup.

Chura starts his narrative with a brief history of how kids got put in adult prisons to begin with: In the mid-1990s, political scientist John DiIulio and a few others warned the nation that a wave of “super-predators”—remorseless teen street thugs—was coming. The media picked up on this idea, then the politicians. Soon, in a reaction to this predicted onslaught of violent juvenile crime (that never came), teens as young as 13 began to be placed in adult lockup for crimes that previously would have landed them in more forgiving juvenile detention centers.

Chura worked in an adult prison with kids who had been labeled “super-predators,” but believes that society is often to blame for their misdeeds. He calls his students “children of disappointment.”

Portraits of Pain

In each chapter, he tells the story of a teen who he taught inside the jail. Many of his students came from the streets where drug dealing and hustling was a way of life. They had lost family to drugs, disease, and gang violence. The only family most of them had were the boys in their gang. Chura gives these locked-down youth a voice.

For example, he writes about Ray, who tells Chura, “Sometimes I feel that being born was my fault.” When he was just 5 years old, Ray was taken away from his mother, who was strung out on drugs. His father was incarcerated, so he became a ward of the state. He was in and out of foster homes, then in and out of state detention centers for stealing. In one of these detention centers, a 19-year-old male raped him. Ray was only 11. After he was raped, he attempted suicide and was put into psychiatric hospitals.

Eventually, Ray went to live with an aunt who hated him. She locked him in a room with only a pitcher of water and a bucket to pee in. A few days before Christmas, she kicked him out of the house, keeping his government checks for herself. After nights of sleeping on the streets, Ray was taken in by a drug dealer. He treated Ray like a son, but that set-up proved temporary, too. One day when Ray went back home, he found the whole apartment cleared out. His drug-dealing second family had run from the law.

Set Up to Fail

This sort of complicated and tragic childhood was the norm for the boys who ended up in Chura’s English class. Chura shows how the juvenile justice system hasn’t worked to rehabilitate these traumatized teens, but instead has destined them for failure and treated them inhumanely. Corrections officers watched their every step and gave them orders like dogs. They were subject to search at any time and sometimes told they weren’t even allowed to use the bathroom.

From reading this well-written book, I definitely feel that the juvenile justice system could be improved. These young people have so much potential, but because many of them were treated like animals by both their families and the justice system, they acted like animals. It seems as if they were set up to fail. We need a system that helps young people like them recuperate from their difficult pasts, and teaches them how to succeed.

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(NYC-2010-05-05b)

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