Joel Castón has been incarcerated for 26 years. Tyrone Walker, who was incarcerated for almost 25 years, is an associate with the Justice Policy Institute.
Black emerging adults, ages 18 to 25, though just 5.5 percent of D.C.’s population, account for the overwhelming majority of people with justice system involvement. Despite being only 1 in 18 residents, Black emerging adults account for 1 in 5 arrests, 1 in 4 arrests for a violent crime and 1 in 3 individuals incarcerated. And nearly 98 percent of D.C. residents in prison serving the longest prison terms, who were sentenced as emerging adults, are Black.
These rates are alarming. We must change the way we treat system-involved emerging adults in D.C. if we are to move toward a just system.
This issue is personal for us: We are both Black men who were in the justice system as emerging adults, ended up serving long prison terms and worked as mentors to currently incarcerated young adults. We are social justice advocates who have a combined 50-plus years of incarceration. As with most young adults, we did things we regret, and we take responsibility for the harm we caused. Yet, locking us away for decades to serve long prison terms has resulted in a tremendous loss to our families, especially with our siblings and children. Our communities never had the chance to see the educated and committed people we have become, and we couldn’t do anything while incarcerated to help repair the harms we caused to our city.
Our lived experience is that evidence-based, developmentally appropriate interventions for emerging adults can have an outsize positive impact on racial justice and public safety. One model we are proud to share is the D.C. Jail’s Young Men Emerging Unit (YME), a successful program that blends mentorship and counseling to reach the young adult population.
We are proud to have served as two of the original mentors on this unit, and also to have just published a report on how the program was created and lessons learned in working with emerging adults in the justice system. The D.C. Department of Corrections, with critical support and partnership from the YME mentors, has already expanded the YME into another unit at the jail. The overarching goal of YME is to transform D.C.’s jails into places that are equitable and humane.
The YME approach, which is being piloted in other jurisdictions through the Restoring Promise Initiative, should be scaled throughout the country. The YME mentors in D.C. have been instrumental in providing mentoring, staff training and executive consultation. Future initiatives should replicate the YME approach — including providing structure, education, employment training, counseling and restorative practices — all with guidance by mentors with lived experiences in the justice system. The intention of any YME-type program should be to engage a young adult as long as they require mentorship, regardless of their position in or out of the justice system.
The YME is an incredible community, unlike anything we’ve experienced while in prison. In YME, young people who are incarcerated are treated with respect and dignity and are directly involved in their own process of rehabilitation. We see amazing changes in these guys every single day. We both wish we had this type of programming in the community when we were growing up in D.C. If it had been available, we may have avoided being incarcerated in the first place. We are proud that we’ve helped create this program, and we hope the approach will also move beyond the walls of the D.C. jails and into the community.
Our stories illustrate that when we provide our young adults with structure and proper resources, they can flourish. We know that because, despite our experiences, we have flourished to give back to others. In giving back to the next generation of young people in need of guidance, we saw the growth and hope both in them and in us. It’s hard work, but it can and must be done.
We take pride in the motto we created for the YME: “What happens in this city sets the standards for the nation,” because we believe in the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.” We are not happy to be providing this lesson to young adults while incarcerated, but we are fortunate to be able to help them so they never return. Our ultimate goal is to make our city, and country, safer — from the inside out.