How We Can Work Together To Keep Our Nation’s Youth Out Of The Prison System

The incarceration of 15-year old Bresha Meadows is a yet another example of why we need to fight against the abuse-to-prison pipeline.

January 19, 2017
How We Can Work Together To Keep Our Nation’s Youth Out Of The Prison System Molly Crabapple

Last summer on July 19, a then 14 year-old Bresha Meadows was arrested for the alleged homicide of her father. On January 20, she’ll stand in a hearing as a 15 year-old who has spent 175 days in jail. According to her relatives, Bresha responded in self-defense to her father Jonathan Meadows's menacing abuse on his family, specifically Bresha’s mother Brandi. In 2011, she filed a civil domestic violence protection order against her husband for fear that he would continue to torment her and her children.


Despite a history of abuse, Bresha Meadows is being tried for aggravated murder. If convicted, the maximum sentence she would serve would order for her to be released at the age of 21. Although she no longer faces the possibility of a life sentence, activists are dedicated to an agenda that demands her freedom.

Abolitionist Mariame Kaba is one of those unwavering beacons devoted to bringing Meadows home. After hearing about her case, the New York native began to spread awareness through the #FreeBresha movement, with the intent of getting Meadows's charges dropped. Kaba also leads organizations like Project NIA and her blog, Prison Culture — efforts that rally for the eradication of youth incarceration and the criminalization of survivors of violence.


Last week, Kaba spoke with The FADER about the origins of the abuse-to-prison pipeline, how we use community engagement to prevent youth from imprisonment, and why Meadows needs to come home now.


How did you first find out about Bresha Meadows case?

A friend of mine read an article about Bresha Meadows in one of the local papers in Cleveland. She shared the article and another friend who is part of Survived and Punished, which is a group that I'm a part of, shared the article again and we tried to figure out if there's anything that Bresha’s family needed. That's what galvanized us to start. We also wanted to make sure that Bresha's name didn’t leave people's consciousness.

Initially, Bresha was facing a life sentence if she were to be tried as an adult. It was recently announced that she would be tried as juvenile. Some people may think that victory is enough but why is it so important to bring her home as soon as possible?


I don’t think people understand how detrimental incarceration really is. It not only has a really hard impact on people's psyche but often leads to encouraging people to contemplate suicide. Bresha's been under suicide watch several times since her incarceration in late July. So it's traumatic, it makes people worse on every sort of level; it's inhumane. The reason that Bresha's behind bars is because all the systems failed her and she did what she felt was the only thing that she really could do in order to make sure that she and her family were safe.

What she needs is the ability to be able to heal from all the trauma that she experienced prior to ending up in jail. She needs to be with her family. She needs to find a way to be able to heal and talk through what happened to her. She doesn't deserve punishment — she’s already been punished enough. Killing somebody when you are 14 years old is extraordinary circumstances. It's hard to kill people and it's very traumatic. It's one of the reasons why the lowest rate of redoing the same crime is among people who murder. It's very hard to take somebody's life even if you hate them — and in her case she loved her father. Even after all of the things that he had done to her family and to her. The jail is not doing anything but making her mental state worse and keeping her away from her loved ones when she desperately needs to be with them. So we really want the charges dropped against her altogether. We want her released now.

Bresha was arrested as a result of defending herself and her family from abuse. There's the pro-arrest policy element in cases of family or intimate partner violence that impacts the criminalization of survivors of abuse. Can you talk about that and how that impacts these people, specifically black people?

It's important to think about how we got to where we are. Pro-arrest policies have negatively impacted survivors of violence and their families. Part of it was the response that was called for when domestic violence became an issue that people started paying attention to. Folks began to ask for more astute involvement in addressing them and particularly for the police to be much more proactive in tackling “domestic violence.” So people turned to the system as a response to that harm but using a punishment system as a way to end violence is a problem. You're not going to end violence violently. That blunt instrument of the state was used as a way to try to intervene in situations that were occurring around people being abused. Then there were some laws that people had asked for as a way to address those issues.They were pretty much harsh Draconian laws that have now come back and been turned against survivors, and arrest was one of those.

Young girls are increasingly being convicted for crimes that they've had to commit in self-defense, or in response to violence that they've experienced. It then trickles into the abuse-to-prison pipeline, but specifically with black and brown girls in comparison to white girls. How often is this happening now and why is that?

The issue about abuse-to-prison pipeline is important to relay to people. Overwhelmingly, most women in prison and girls in detention have histories with family violence before they actually end up in those places. In the case of girls, over 84% of girls in juvenile detention have a history of family violence prior to getting to detention. For women who are prisoners, it’s anywhere from 70-90%. If you look at different studies, many suggest that they were victims of domestic and/or sexual violence prior to ending up in prison. We don't know though, what the numbers are of girls and women overall of any race, who are in jails and prisons for self-defense. We don't have any, there's no research out there in numbers to see that. But, we know just by the fact that you can extrapolate so many survivors of abuse to end up behind bars you have to assume that for many of them that is because of survival and self-defense.

Where do you think the void is in the system that allows for survivors of violence to be incarcerated? Especially black girls and women.

Since the people who are overwhelmingly personally targeted for criminalization are people of color, there’s more ending up in the abuse-to-prison pipeline and getting pushed into these systems. So for black girls and young women in particular, their being super impacted by forms of victimization and forms of violence. There’s personal violence, violence in their communities and our institutional forms of violence, like poverty and things like that. All that comes together to make them uniquely vulnerable. They find themselves in a situation where they might end up criminalized for both survival and self-defense. There's also this history of black women being particularly targeted for the criminal punishment system that dates back to the convict lease system after slavery ended. Black women were overwhelmingly represented in the chain gangs that came after the convict lease system and then that became so inherently connected to criminality. It makes it much easier for you to end up criminalizing people when you have deemed inherently criminal. That’s been the case since and we see that happening quite often.

We think about mass incarceration as a national issue, but what’s the importance of focusing on community engagement to address this?

It’s important for us to dismantle the systems and then to make sure that we also fight against the conditions that basically making policing, prisons and surveillance a reality. It’s also important that we imagine alternatives and ways that make it impossible for us to lead. In order to be able to address harms that happen in communities, it’s important to do that regardless of whether you have prisons or surveillance. People are still going to do things that harm other people, even in a world without any of those institutions. So, you have to make sure that you have structures in place to be able to evaluate harms, and address them. It’s restorative justice. Some people call it transformative justice, which is a process that asks a series of questions like: What happened? How did it impact the people it happened to? Were there bystanders that can help support the people who were harmed? And then: What do we do to repair the harm?

The reason that Bresha’s behind bars is because all the systems failed her and she did what she felt was the only thing that she really could do in order to make sure that she and her family were safe.

How can we continue to advocate for this issue under the presidency of Donald Trump?

As far as Trump, we know what the agenda's going to be, so we have to focus on local efforts. We don't have to look to the federal government for guidance in terms of what we need to be doing. Support efforts to eliminate cash bond and bail, support efforts to make sure there's decarceration in your state, so pay attention to what your governors are doing and what your state representatives and state senators are doing. Pay attention to your county government and if they configure the wholeness of the jails. We can shape the narrative by making sure we don't just focus on "nonviolent" but also understand that people commit violent offenses and also need to be freed from the crutches of the system in order for us to really make a dent in mass incarceration.

Moving forward, how can we help in the #FreeBresha movement as well as the larger issue of youth incarceration and criminalization for survivors of abuse?

The #FreeBresha campaign basically includes people who are part of existing projects that are defense committees, or freedom campaigns, and also some organizers who were local organizers on the ground in Warren, Ohio. So, it’s important to always make sure that we're actually working with people who are local and who know what the situation is in their communities, and can inform the direction that they choose to go in.

We have that list of creative actions that people can take and I always invite people to pay attention. In their own communities, see whichever Bresha’s exist in your area, because they certainly do — Bresha is not alone. Her family wants people to understand and stress how many other survivors of domestic violence find themselves criminalized. Make sure that you're advocating for black girls to have the resources they need to be able to live their lives. If you're somebody who pays attention to what kinds of resources for schools exist in your community, are there after-school programs? Are their counselors in schools instead of cops? Are there all sorts of different kinds of ways that we would be able to cut down on the criminalization of youth?

We should pay attention to the school-to-prison pipeline, the way in which girls of color in particular are disproportionately targeted for expulsion and suspensions and harsh disciplinary practices within schools, which push them from school out into the world and into the pipeline of prison and jail and confinement. Pay attention and care for girls and young women in your community. Both trans and non-trans. Do what you can. Be a mentor, be an advocate, be a friend.

Here are some ways you can help to #FreeBresha.

How We Can Work Together To Keep Our Nation’s Youth Out Of The Prison System