Plantations of Prisons – California’s Biggest Crop

By Mary Getlein

Jason stood before us, a 30-year-old Latino man. He was here to tell his story of growing up in East L.A. and how he met Javier Stauring, who changed his life. Javier supervises the Catholic detention ministry programs at all juvenile halls and probation camps in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. He also oversees three other restorative justice programs: Ministry to Victims of Crimes, Ministry to Families of the Incarcerated, and Ministry to Formerly Incarcerated.

Jason was raised in the neighborhood around USC. His father died when he was nine and his mother had to work two jobs. Jason’s 16-year old brother was given the responsibility of raising him. He grew up in the streets. His mother’s method of childrearing was physical beatings. He described brutal beatings by his mother and older brother. He started using drugs to numb the pain.

He joined a gang and got involved in an armed robbery. He robbed people and shot people. He wanted to hurt people the way he had been hurt. When he committed an act of violence, he felt like people paid attention to him, he felt powerful.

He related that as a 13-year old, his mother bought a goat and tied it up behind the house. For three days Jason watched the goat. It was a young goat, and Jason’s mother was going to cook it for a family event. So she told Jason to go get his gun and go kill the goat. He couldn’t kill the goat.

Javier asked him why he couldn’t kill the goat, but he could kill a kid on the street. Jason’s response was: “That goat didn’t do nothing to me. It was just a goat, so cute I couldn’t kill it.” But he was accused of killing another boy his age, in retaliation for the killing of his brother. So inside, there was still part of the child left in him.

Jason was in and out of juvenile halls. He got involved with a girl, and had a baby son. This brought up all the pain he had tried to bury with drugs. The pain of being a beaten child, the pain of being molested as a young child, the pain of growing up in the streets. He had to learn to sit with the pain and truly forgive himself, in order to begin to love himself.

How did Javier help him do this? By “listening to Jason’s stories, accepting his stories, finding God in the stories and accepting the person.” If enough people who are affected by this could come together, they could change the juvenile justice system.

Jason now goes around bringing poetry and writing classes to incarcerated teen-agers. By getting them to write their stories, they can release the pain and anger inside. This is a system of broken kids.

The United States is the only country in the world that tries teenagers as adults. Teenagers are given life sentences in prison, which are really death sentences. The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but it has 25 percent of the incarcerated people of the world. Ten billion dollars a year are used to maintain the prison industrial complex only in California. If only one percent of that budget could be redirected toward prevention, then that money could be used for youth programs so less young people will be drawn to criminal activity.

We need programs to help our youth. There is no infrastructure to fund programs at the present time.

The California prison system is the largest “cash crop” of the state. The prison guard union is one of the strongest unions in the state, with a lot of strength in Sacramento. We need bills in the California legislature addressing these concerns. We need to adopt a culture where we value our youth. There was a bill in Sacramento protesting the practice of shakling women inmates to the gourney while they are giving birth. That bill did not pass. These policies are having a “colonizing effect” on the prisoners in custody. Many of them are more familiar with prison life than life on the outside. This is equivalent to the conditions of slavery, when slavery was legal in most states of the country. In 2012 we have more Blacks in prison then there were slaves in 1850. Blacks are six times more likely to be in prison than whites.

This article is based on a talk given by Javier Stauring, who is co-director of the Office of Restorative Justice. Javier is also Policy Director for the Healing Justice Coalition, a diverse coalition of faith-based organizations in California. They seek to support restorative justice for juveniles instead of divisive, punative measures that further fracture families and communities. The talk was held on March 11 at the Church in Ocean Park, in Santa Monica. For more information, visit, email, or call 916-313-4024.