An insider’s plan for rehabilitating the juvenile justice system | Jeff Wallace | TEDxNaperville

Translator: Ellen Maloney
Reviewer: Denise RQ Everything that I do is driven
by a need to redeem myself, with an obligation
to give back to our society. It all started when the metal door
slammed shut onto the cell. It sent shivers down my spine. The chamber was cold,
and it smelled of stale air. You know, there’s something
about a door slamming shut, that provides an eerie level of finality and reflection. You hear the echo of it in your mind
for a long time to come. And as that door slammed, I started remembering
all that advice that my parents, and my teachers gave me, and I ignored it. And there I was,
with plenty of time to reflect, on all that information, that I met with disbelief, laughter, and scorn. June 24th, 1992, I made mistakes
that I couldn’t fix. After a long night of being violent, I ended it with beating a man,
taking his wallet, then trying to run him over with a car. That’s how, at age 17, that I was arrested,
charged, and convicted, as an adult. At an age where most kids are thinking
about their high school prom, or thinking about who
they’re going to vote for next, I was facing 11 years. And while facing those 11 years, again I had plenty of time
to think about all of my decisions. After being sentenced
to prison for 11 years, it took, well, you may think that out of all
the information that I did receive, that somehow it would get through to me, but it didn’t. Then I was finally sentenced, to prison, where I met some of the most
interesting people that you’ll ever meet. (Laughter) I met a man who ate mice, rats, and bugs. This man was also serving a life sentence for trying to kill another man
after a drugs deal went bad. I watched grown men melt
into puddles of insanity, as their minds could no longer
take the conditions of the monotony of being
in solitary confinement. I watched massive amounts of violence, that included guards beating prisoners, prisoners being stabbed, and all this before I turned 18. And again, you would think
that with that information, and with what I saw,
and what I experienced, that that would get through to me. But it actually wasn’t. It was actually one
of the most unlikeliest people, in one of the most unlikeliest of places
that finally did get through to me. And it’s a man who
I’ll always be grateful to. His name was Alamin. In our conversations, he would tell me
that his cell was actually his tomb, and that’s how he would call it. He would say, “This is my tomb,
this is where I’m living at.” He was serving two life sentences, and when there were disturbances
or things going on, the guards always wanted to make sure
they knew where he was, because they knew he was a man with no
reservations about what he might do. As we served our time together, he started teaching me a little
about the strategy of chess. Eventually, I started to understand about how to look at chess
in a whole different light. We were both in solitary confinement, but through the clutter,
through the 30 floors, through the constant
banging and yelling, I would get down on the floor and yell
my chess moves through the vent, and he would yell his. Through those chess moves, he would always make sure that he would
take time to execute them with another lesson. Some of those are lessons
that I started thinking about in that cell, that dirty, sometimes toilet-flooded cell. I started to practice virtues in life. And some of those virtues
that I started practicing were simple, yet profound. It all tied into chess, through those many years
of laying on the floor, playing this game. One, first lesson; respect everybody, no matter
what their differences. Looking at the chessboard;
respect each individual piece, and understand that each square
they are in is an important square. Two; protect the weak. You may look at the pawn, and it may appear at the beginning
of the game as the weakest piece, but it actually has the most potential,
more than any other piece on the board to actually become
the most powerful piece. Three; be humble. Play the game as if every move counts. And that’s how you make decisions in life. Don’t take it as a given. Lastly, practice restraint. When playing the game,
do not chase pieces; play the game to win. We used to play 10, 20, 30, 40, games of chess. And tied in there,
I learned the art of losing. Because I lost a lot of games. (Laughter) But through our many
conversations, interactions, and just our ability to communicate, I realised that my redemption
was going to be obtained through education, perseverance,
and helping others out. I began to read, and I read a lot. I read everything
from Plato to Nietzsche, to Machiavelli to Carl Von Clausewitz. I read everything. You may be surprised, but some
of the most accessible books to prisoners are law books. They are heavy, they are really sturdy. Not only do they make good weights, but I also, through
reading those law books, and understanding
them a little bit better, realised I could fight battles
without ever having to pick up a sword. But I knew that I had to make sure,
and I wanted to make sure, that once I was released,
I was to never to return again. But in order to do that,
when I did get out, I need to make sure I educated
myself much further. Well, thank goodness
for fast food restaurants, because the fast food
industry does hire felons. When I got out, I started
working at Taco Bell, and I also enrolled at the local
community college. And in that local
community college, I started there and eventually, two, three colleges later,
five years later, I eventually graduated
with my Bachelors of Paralegal Studies. (Applause) After I graduated,
because of my volunteerism, and because of the fact that I did obtain
a much more formal education, I was granted permission
by the state of Iowa to actually work in a facility
with juveniles. Actually at the same facility
where I spent time as a juvenile. Currently, I supervise over 50 employees
that include case-workers, that include program supervisors,
residential counselors, and nighttime workers. I also provide crisis intervention
to our local police department, hospitals, and I also work part-time at our local
juvenile detention center. I was a guest there too. I feel as though I’m making a difference,
but that’s not really enough for me, not at all. What I need to do,
and what I knew I needed to do, in order to affect real change, and in order to affect any type of policy
change on a local, state, and federal level, I knew that I needed to further my education
even more than that. I eventually did receive
a masters degree in criminal justice, and I’m very close to receiving
a PhD in criminal justice. (Applause) What I’m looking at is, “How do we work
with kids in the system?” We have to examine everything
that gets them where they’re at. We have to examine the trauma that a lot
of these kids have experienced, We have to then introduce
trauma-informed care. If you take anything from what I’ve said,
I want you to take this; when you look at these kids,
when you look at them, even the adults, these young adults, I want you to look at them, and instead of saying,
“What’s wrong with you?” I want you to say, “What happened to you?” That is the lens that will allow you
to sort of look at these people in a different manner, so then, as these policies eventually
go through the game, they become one of the most
powerful pieces as well. Currently, as I mentioned,
I’m working in this field. This is something
that is important to me, but if I could change four things to help facilitate the habilitation
of these juveniles, I want to list those out. Now, notice I said “habilitation”. It wasn’t a mispronunciation. Habilitation is what I say because we can’t really say “rehabilitation” because that assumes
that you have to be able to go back to what you were, and a lot
of these kids were not there, so how can you rehabilitate someone
who was never habilitated to begin with? You can’t. The first thing that I believe we need
to take a look at and focus on, when looking at reforming
the juvenile justice system is one; we need to look at the individual. We’ve got to understand
what got him or her there, especially if they are at a young age. One thing I want you guys
to realise is that this, what I’m talking about,
and what I’m speaking about, it isn’t just my experience
that’s making me say this, but this is what science says. The adolescent brain
doesn’t fully form until age 25; the frontal lobe is still
not connected at all. What you have then
is someone telling these kids, “Don’t do this, don’t do this!” Not understanding that in addition
to the frontal lobe not being connected, you also have someone
who has also probably had multiple amounts of trauma, violence in their life
that they witnessed. That affects the brain on another level, in the way that it sees, hears,
feels things, and perceives situations. We need to focus on the individual, and that’s the first
thing I want us to look at. Second thing is we need
to actually engage the family. The family need supportive
services put in there as well, because a lot of times, we work on the child,
but we don’t work on the family, so you send the child back to the family, and we’re right back
where we started, right? Is that habilitation?
That’s rehabilitation there then, right? That’s not what we want;
not that type of rehabilitation. We have to work
with them at the same time. You have to work with the family,
you have to work with the child, and you have to create
a child interaction plan, that will allow them to go back; The child with the right tools, and the family with the right pieces
of services placed in there to support them
with what’s going on in their lives, and their individual, diverse situations,
whatever those might be. Third; I want us to really, and this is one of the more
personal things for me is that we cannot allow juveniles to be with adults in prison settings. I have to tell you that when I first went
to the Iowa State Penitentiary, there was 550 prisoners there, I was the youngest for at least a year. And I was still 17, the neighbor to my right when I walked in
and I go to the lines of cells, I go to a cell, my neighbor
to the right, his name was “Shank”, he’s doing a life sentence. Neighbor to my left,
he’s doing a life sentence, and he just shanked somebody. So what we’ve got then is, this is who is influencing our kids
when we put them in there. Then, my first cellmate
was a 50-year old man, who was in there
for second-degree murder. And I’m 17. Again, he had the whole thing going on, from the “three-time loser” on his arms,
to, you know, everything going on. That was my roommate;
that was my cellmate. We cannot continue to house
juveniles and adults together. That’s wrong. (Applause) Lastly, the other point
I want to make, the fourth one, is that we’ve talked about the individual,
we’ve talked about the family, we’ve talked about, “They’ve done
something; where do we put them at?” But then they’ve also got to go back
to the community, right? That’s what shapes everybody
as they’re growing up, is the community. We need to re-establish
community connections. Those community connections
have to involve job opportunities, they have to involve the ability
to complete education, school, because school
was one of my saviors. And they also have to be able
to engage in community service. Everybody here has a choice,
and that choice is simple. You can either continue to invest in prisons, and we do, a lot, don’t we? We invest in a lot of prisons. Or we can invest in our children. Thank you. (Applause)


  1. Thank you Mr. Wallace, for showing our youths that they are able to defy the odds and become positive contributors to society. Hard as it may be, it's not impossible.

  2. In the description, please note that "penile system" and "penal system" mean two very different things and you are using the wrong one.

  3. Hello All!

    For those who are interested I wrote a two-part series that better illustrates some of my experiences. Thank you for taking the time to read them!

  4. Yes, cut them loose so they can kill, rape and rob again.

  5. I haven't experienced incarceration but I'm very passionate about juvenile incarceration. I worked in a juvenile justice facility and I was less than impressed with the way juveniles were treated. Like Mr. Wallace, I'd love to help in the reform of the juvenile justice system. I am currently working on my Ph.D. in Criminal Justice and I hope this degree will prepare me for policy evaluation, reform, and implementation.

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