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In a few hours, I turn 27 years old. That number seemed much bigger one decade ago when my only worry was what sort of score I'd fire in the upcoming high school golf tournament. Now I re-arrange my compass to suggest that 27 isn't so old after all. Tomorrow will be a unique birthday for me. I've spent my birthdays in different ways, but never have I spent a birthday in prison. Tomorrow I will be there, but only to see about one of my office's clients.

I won't be the only person born February 5 who spends time in prison tomorrow. But I might be the only person celebrating it. There are no birthdays in prison, especially for the young children who we continue to hold in adult confinement in different corners of this country. As I think about that fact, I can't help but reflect on my own experiences and just how lucky I was, even if I didn't know it.

Young Grizzard, aged 12.

I've long had a fiery relationship with my mother. Two combustible personalities, we run an emotional live wire that can be many times toxic and other times extraordinarily meaningful. As a child, though, I was lucky to live with a mother whose creative expressions added meaning to my birthday.

When I turned five, I was treated to a Batman birthday party. My father dressed as Batman, and a family friend played the role of the Joker. Through what could only be described by a five-year old as magic, the Joker was arrested during the middle of my birthday party. Carried away in handcuffs and thrown into a local police car, Joker met his match, to the delight of all in attendance.

At one other point, I enjoyed a jungle-themed birthday party, complete with live animals and a well-decorated living room. One birthday brought a Captain Hook theme, and my mother charred the edges of the invitations to add authenticity. My parties were regularly the talk of the town, and I enjoyed them without reservation.

I was fortunate to grow up in a home that provided support on the other 364 days, too. I always wore the best cleats, even when buying them was a financial sacrifice for my parents. I had the opportunity to attend various sports camps, even when it meant my mom spent her last few dollars. I never wanted for a meal, and I was given every opportunity at a good education. My dad coached most of my little league teams, and my mother was a vocal participant in my high school experience. Though I often thought of my parents as wildly inadequate, it turns out that I was highly fortunate. They were always in my corner, even when I screwed up beyond belief.

As I've grown, I've spent more time with people who are legitimately indigent. Working at a public defender's office, I routinely come into contact with people who would have loved to even have a present parent. Many of these clients have parents who are dead, in prison, or in some sort of rehabilitation program. In the most egregious cases, these individuals have been subjected to mental, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Many have little chance to make it out of childhood unscathed.

And many of these kids find themselves in adult prison on their 13th and 14th birthdays. Take Christian Fernandez, for example, who is awaiting trial on the charge of murdering his 2-year old brother and sexually abusing another younger sibling. He's 13, and the alleged crimes took place when he was only 12. He sits in adult prison, and if convicted, he could spend his entire life incarcerated.

Fernandez and his case are instructive of the problems with the juvenile justice apparatus, and putting away people so young reflects society's willingness to give up on a child for the second time. It's hardly difficult to understand why Fernandez harmed his siblings, and it doesn't require a tremendous amount of creativity to understand where he learned such actions. After all, 12-year olds are products of their environment, and Fernandez lived through hell.

His conception itself was the result of a brutal sex assault perpetrated on his own 12-year old mother. His father served a decade in prison for the act. When he was two, he was discovered naked and alone, wandering the streets. His mother was nowhere to be found, and his caretaking grandmother was a cocaine addict. He was sexually assaulted before the age of nine. He was beaten repeatedly by his step-father.

Think about your childhood, and think for a moment about the people you tried to emulate. I spent much of my youth trying to dress like my dad, speak like him, and play basketball like some of my heroes. But what if I was exposed to little other than physical and emotional trauma? Doesn't it follow that I might have emulated those actions, too?
In Pennsylvania, an 11-year old was sent to adult prison on charges of murder. It is true that actions should have consequences, but our inability to appropriately deal with the issue of child crime is a mark against our apparently enlightened society.

For kids like those in Florida and Pennsylvania, the vulnerability does not stop when they're sent to prison. Instead, it's just beginning. According to statistics provided by the DOJ, approximately 10,000 children under 18 are housed in American adult prisons. These children make up less than one percent of the national prison population. Alarmingly and not surprisingly, these kids make up a much higher percentage of prison sexual assault victims. Some estimates put the number at 21-percent. That's right - just more than one in every five prison sex assaults is committed against a child.

Some adhere to the policy that whatever happens in prison is a part of the punishment for a crime. But this stone-age mindset cannot stand in a country that wants to be a global leader. For all the talk of freedom and American exceptionalism, we lag behind nearly all of our Western allies in how we deal with children who commit crimes. There is never a reason for a 12-year old to share a prison block with a grown man, even if that child has committed the most heinous of crimes.

We routinely fail our children in the worst ways. For those born into hunger and poverty, prison is often seen as an inevitable destination. We fail to protect these kids from the brutality of their often drug-addicted parents. We fail to provide the nutrition necessary for their brains to grow, and we fail to provide meaningful opportunity for those children to change their stars. And when they commit crimes, we sneer at the so-called monsters that we've had a hand in creating.

There are no birthdays in prison. Tomorrow, I will celebrate mine there. As for the rest of us, it's time to do something about the shameful treatment of children in our criminal injustice system.

Originally posted to Coby DuBose on Criminal Injustice, Race, and Poverty on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 08:37 PM PST.

Also republished by Invisible People and Inherent Human Rights.

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