Larry—not his real name—is 38. He is serving a 30-year sentence for murder in a New Jersey prison. He will not be eligible for parole until 2032, when he will be 55. His impoverished and nightmarish childhood mirrors that of nearly all prisoners I have worked with who were convicted of violent crimes. And as governmental austerity and chronic poverty consume the American landscape, as little is done to blunt poverty’s disintegration of families, as mass incarceration and indiscriminate police violence continue to have a catastrophic impact on communities, Larry’s childhood is becoming the norm for millions of boys and girls.
As a child, Larry, along with his sister, was beaten routinely by his stepfather, especially when the man was drunk.
“My sister and I would have to make up stories about the bruises we had, but she was a much better liar than me and I found myself telling a teacher everything that was going on,” Larry said to me. His admission to the teacher caused New Jersey child-protection authorities to intervene. His stepfather held back for a while, but he mercilessly beat and choked Larry when the boy was about 8. “I was struggling for breath and there were tears streaming down my cheeks,” Larry remembered. “He eased up on my neck and slammed my head against the tile, which split my head open and knocked me unconscious. I woke up in a hospital. I was told he was arrested and put in jail. I never saw him again. All I have to remember him now is a few bad memories and frequent migraines, which I get three times a week thanks to the concussion he gave me.”