My dad died suddenly a few days after my 16th birthday. Sans life insurance, he left my mom alone to raise my brother who was battling cancer at the time, my sister, and me.   

I was a strong-minded adolescent–the type grade school teachers called “bossy”–and inherently defiant. Hardship at home made life bitter and strengthened my aversion to high school. But I was lucky. After immigrating to the US, my family happened to settle into a zip code that would buoy me, despite my best attempts at academic self-sabotage. 

Particularly when my dad died, but even before and after, my irregular class attendance and missed assignments were met with empathy and concern, rather than punishment. My teachers and guidance counselors cared about my well-being and success, even if I hadn’t yet learned to care for them, myself. Like bowling alley bumpers, formative support from adults at school prevented me from straying too far from the course of a bright future. 

My breath shortens when I imagine where I’d be today if I hadn’t had the safety net of a public school that cares fastidiously about bolstering its youth — if instead, my family had happened to settle into one of the many US communities where such “bumpers” don’t exist.

Of the 44,000 kids America holds in confinement, nearly 25% are serving time for status and technical misdemeanors, like truancy and underage drinking. About 10,000 of incarcerated kids haven’t even been convicted of a crime; they’re only locked up because their family can’t afford a lawyer. Had kids from my high school been prosecuted for truancy or underage drinking, our graduating class would’ve looked radically different.

The US recidivism rate is over 60%. Incarcerating these 44,000 kids puts each of them on a course that likely results in returning to prison — unless we change the system that has proven for decades to perpetuate a damning cycle. 

For those who aren’t justice-involved, it can be easy to surmise that being incarcerated is a sufficient deterrent; that if you were sent to prison, you’d simply “learn your lesson” and not return. This kind of thinking is ignorant, and I urge anyone assuming that moral enlightenment is an elixir for the incarceration cycle to reevaluate the privileged lens through which they see the world. 

At The Last Mile, we teach software engineering at youth (and adult) prisons. Kids from marginalized communities who might never have met a computer programmer, or even tech industry professional, have the opportunity to explore a new world and learn skills that can dramatically transform the course of their lives. More opportunity like this is needed inside prison walls.

Like any problem, the solution begins with recognizing it exists. Critically, people who aren’t justice-impacted need to examine the incarceration epidemic with an empathetic lens and teachable mindset. 

Prison reform is a dire issue, but it’s often overlooked or misunderstood because of implicit biases. Many formerly incarcerated people are disenfranchised and most are marginalized, making it difficult for their voices to be heard. We need to listen. 

For those of us who aren’t justice-impacted, we need to educate ourselves on the realities of incarceration in the US. We need to take accountability for solving the flawed system keeping over 2.3 million people behind bars. Urgently, we need to act.  

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