By David Brand
Steve Austin was convicted for murder and sent to prison at 16. He would have died there, if not for a crucial Supreme Court ruling.
In 1975, Austin was sentenced to life without the possibility for parole by a judge in Philadelphia after he was convicted for killing a man during an argument. More than 40 years later, a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision determined that a ban on life sentences for juvenile offenders must be applied retroactively and enabled Austin to be resentenced and finally leave prison.
Since his release, Austin has worked on “participatory defense,” an initiative that helps defendants and incarcerated people better advocate for themselves. His experience as a teen growing up amid what he called “the turmoil” of jails and prisons has given him perspective on how to better serve incarcerated young people — the vast majority of whom will eventually be released back into society.
“At age 16, I can’t tell you what a shock it is,” Austin said. “You have to grow up in a hurry. You have to be smart and aware and learn how to navigate. And you resign yourself to the idea that ‘I’m going to survive, whatever it takes.’”
Austin is one of 90 members of the Incarcerated Children Advocacy Network (ICAN), an alliance of people sentenced to prison as adolescents across 25 states, including New York. ICAN is part of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY).
“These individuals are experts who demonstrate through their advocacy that children, even those convicted of serious crimes, can mature and become rehabilitated,” the CFSY says in its ICAN mission statement. “ICAN identifies, mobilizes, and amplifies the experiences of individuals incarcerated as youth to inform the public debate about children’s capacity for positive change and to debunk racially charged and dehumanizing narratives that seek to justify extreme sentencing of youth.
Austin said that high-stress environment affects developing young people and can influence behavior, emotions and coping strategies for life, an issue for the individual as well as their families and communities.
“We are the sum of our experiences,” he said, adding that it is vital that detention facilities provide comprehensive services and training programs for all prisoners — especially young people — throughout their time behind bars.
“If we’re sent to prison, there have to be comprehensive programs established for people,” he said. “They can’t just be sentenced to time served, but [instead] to achieve something.”
Those achievements prepare people for release and re-entry to society, he said. Positive development for people growing up in “survival mode” is often based on positive interventions and opportunities for growth, he said.
“Prison is not a school – violence happens there,” he said. “But people shouldn’t necessarily fail if they get into a fight. The system needs to be understand the behaviors in relation to the environment.”
“A lot of young guys don’t have relationships, don’t have friendships,” he continued. “The socialization we have comes from the prison environment.”
New York City Department of Corrections spokesperson Jason Kersten said the city has worked to increased the amount of programming available to all detainees, including young adults.
“Prior to the de Blasio administration, DOC provided on average less than an hour a day of non-school programming,” Kersten said. “Now, we offer up to five hours of daily programming for every individual in our custody. This serves a major goal of our reforms — reducing violence — by keeping inmates meaningfully occupied and preparing them for their return to the community.”
Specific services and programs include discharge planning, individual counseling, group sessions, computer training, job readiness and workforce development programs, DOC said. Detainees are eligible for instruction and certification in construction, electrical work, cosmetology, mold remediation and food protection. They can begin such programs on the first day they arrive in jail, DOC said.
Ultimately, Austin said, preparing people for re-entry is “paramount” and needs to begin on Day One of incarceration. Early interventions can foster constructive relationships and provide guidance, he said.
“The system has to find a way to build on these experiences,” he said.
This article is Part Three in a series about young adults detained on Rikers Island and the implementation of the Raise the Age law.