I don’t know what is more upsetting: watching a 14 year old fail in the ‘last chance’ boot camp, where screaming in boys’ faces is the de facto method of retraining corrupted young minds, or recognising in that boy so many of the students I have taught. Louis Theroux’s ‘Miami Mega Jail’ instalments have certainly left me thinking, if not feeling more than a little physically ill.
Louis questions, in his inimitable way, the 14 year old, who is facing a ten year sentence for armed robbery. He asks his opinion on why he has ended up here, in an adult jail. The embarrassed smile, a faint shrug, the half-hearted assertion that he went to a violent school, was surrounded by violence from an early age, all feel chillingly familiar. So many of the boys who have been charged with serious allegations of violent acts, in or out of school, at that age cannot reason, cannot justify their actions. It is a consequence of a nebulous menace, a feeling-in-the-dark for answers. At 14, who has the power to recognise the culmination of a lifetime of failures? Not his own, but the failure of the lone parent, the failures of institutions too busy filling in self-evaluation forms for Ofsted to notice the slide of a child into the darklands of inner city crime.
This 14 year old is heartbreaking simply because he is one step on from what teachers in inner city schools already know. We have seen that boy before. He doesn’t articulate the reasons why he has done something; he just knows that there are reasons, some of them related to his immediate environment. We have heard him with his friends, playing at being a man; yet in conversation with an interested adult, he clams up, shy, perhaps, or just without the vocabulary to express himself.
Yes, the 14 year old in question is in Miami – a world away from the one we live in. We can distance ourselves from the ethics of his situation, or else judge from afar: He’s too young to be in an adult jail or Isn’t the US system of incarceration brutal? The questions we fail to ask ourselves are much harder to stomach. What did I say to that child who was involved in that burglary? Have I ignored my guiding role as an adult because social services are involved? Is it my job to show this child what is right or should I leave that to the police, his parents, his Head of Year?
If that 14 year old in jail was more articulate, less shy and more able to comprehend the complex nature of why young boys are left to slide into lives whose endpoints are incarceration or death, what would he say? Perhaps his inability to speak allows all of those who let him get to that point off the hook. It’s lucky for them he can’t find a way to speak the truth.