They put you in there with a life sentence because they expect you to be there for life. Prison is built to set you up for failure.
April Barber Scales was a pregnant 15-year-old when she received two life sentences; Anthony Willis was 16 when he was sent away for life. Last year, after more than a quarter-century behind bars in North Carolina, they each received something desperately rare: clemency.
On a special episode of New Thinking, they describe how they fought against a prison system that "sets you up for failure" and their work on behalf of those they left behind—the many people still serving life sentences no less deserving of a second chance.
Barber Scales's and Willis’s stories are an invitation to consider the wisdom and the morality of the long and life sentences the U.S. hands out so liberally.
Another candidate for rethinking: rather than arrests and incarceration, what do young people who commit harm actually need? In the final part of the episode, a conversation with two people in Baltimore from an organization called Roca.
Roca works exclusively with young people—generally deeply-traumatized young people—at high-risk of violence. It’s work that takes place on an entirely different timeline from that of the criminal legal system.
"You're dealing with these young men on a regular basis, daily basis," Jamal West explains. "You have to invest a lot of emotion and a lot of yourself into them. Because it pulls away, it tugs away at you."
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
April BARBER SCALES: They put you in there with a life sentence because they expect you to be there for life. Prison is built to set you up for failure
Matt WATKINS: Welcome to New Thinking from the Center for Justice Innovation. I’m Matt Watkins. As you might have just noticed, we’ve changed our name… we being the organization that puts out this podcast. At the end of the show, I’ll tell you a bit about why we made this change from “courts” to “justice” writ large.
How should we respond when young people commit serious harm? Often, that response is incarceration, and, as it frequently is, the U.S. is an outlier here—the only country that allows juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison.
In 2012, the Supreme Court declared mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional for juveniles. Later it extended that ruling to young people already sentenced.
North Carolina has been one of the leaders among the states in imposing these sentences on young people and the racial disparities in who receives them are especially steep. But the Supreme Court decisions led to something remarkable last March: the first sentence commutations in 13 years. All three people who received clemency from Governor Roy Cooper had been sentenced as juveniles and had already spent between 20 and 30 years behind bars.
In a moment, we’re going to hear from two of those people: April Barber Scales and Anthony Willis. They both received life sentences for crimes committed as young people—in April’s case, she was a pregnant 15-year-old at the time.
April published four books during her decades in prison; Anthony earned five college degrees. But should that be what it takes to be a candidate for clemency? You’ll hear both April and Anthony refer to “the people they left behind.” That’s to say the many people still serving long or life sentences who are no less deserving of a second chance.
April and Anthony’s stories, I hope, will make you think about the wisdom and the morality of the long and life sentences the U.S. hands out so liberally. One way to make a real dent in mass incarceration would simply be to imprison people for much shorter periods of time.
A better way, of course, would be to not imprison so many people in the first place, and that means building different responses to harm. In the final third of the show, you’ll hear a conversation I had with two remarkable people in Baltimore from an organization called Roca.
Roca works exclusively with young people, generally deeply traumatized young people, at high-risk of violence. For them, the default response of punishment and incarceration is generally only making things worse.
This is, I think, an inspirational episode in more ways than one, but a heads up there are some pretty frank discussions of violence in here so please take care listening.
First up, then, my discussion with April Barber Scales and Anthony Willis. They’ve become close friends since their release almost a year ago. I learned that they spoke often by phone. I started our conversation by asking if they could tell me some of what they talked about.
April speaks first, followed by Anthony:
BARBER SCALES: First and foremost, we check in on one another to see how we're emotionally doing, because it has been challenging since we've been out—not bad challenging, we just are very busy people and we want to do a lot and we want to do a lot for our friends that we left behind, our family, and just ourselves.
We check in to make sure that we're doing well emotionally and then we check in on to see what kind of projects and ideas we have been doing.
Anthony WILLIS: The way we met, I think, was very unique. And I didn't really know what to think the first time I spoke with her. She was just like this fireball full of energy and just so enthusiastic and we immediately realized how much we have in common.
We found ourselves talking almost every day saying, "What did you do today? Did you get your license today? Did you have trouble with the DMV? Did you have trouble trying to log in on this or that program?" It was very encouraging because no one else could really relate to us or understands the challenges.
Anytime I have an opportunity to do something productive, I normally contact her first saying, "Someone called me about this and I told them that we're a package deal. Are you available?"
Just like this podcast here: I feel comfortable with her being there. Because she has a very unique perspective by her being a female, being pregnant, while she was charged, and giving birth to her son whenever she was incarcerated, and making her way through one of the most difficult things anyone can ever face in their entire lives, and she's coming out thriving, being successful.
She's just been a joy to be around and we do relate to each other in that. And she does the same for me. I get phone calls from people like, "Who are you? April told me to call you." Okay. We do help each other in that regard.
BARBER SCALES: Yes.
WATKINS: What has the transition been like for both of you?
BARBER SCALES: I think Anthony and I both have realized that the little things to people that have been out here are giant things to us. The little things that people take for granted, we would never take for granted.
The fact that we can see a tree, the fact that we can touch a tree, for that matter. Or just see nature, just be able to pick up the phone and not have someone have to push five, have to only speak 15 minutes, have a lot of noise in the background, and just the everyday little things that don't matter to other people matter to us.
WILLIS: I remember the first time I was at a STOP sign and there was a duck on the side of the road and I was stuck just looking at the duck and they're like, "Go." "That's a duck right there! You see, there's a duck!" They said, "Yeah, but there's a STOP sign. Can we go?" Because the smallest things that, like she said, that we take for granted, we don't get a chance to experience in nature.
The freedom of being able to walk to your refrigerator whenever you want to; being able to walk on carpet after so many years, because incarcerated, you don't have that; to be able to have access to your bathroom anytime you want to instead of waiting in line for the bathroom.
Those who are incarcerated, they get paid like 40 cents a day—four dimes for working eight hours. Some make 70 cents a day. If you make a dollar a day, you feel like you're like one of the wealthiest people at the prison.
BARBER SCALES: You bougie then, yes.
WILLIS: The one thing I would tell anyone who's looking to hire someone who's been formerly incarcerated is this: for the most part, someone who experienced prison would be your best employee. Being able to work for $18, $21 an hour, that is amazing compared to 40 cents a day. Knowing that they have so much to lose, yet so much to gain, needing that job because they have to pay restitution, child support, probation fees, whatever the case may be.
Those are some of the arguments I make to potential employers to let them know to just be open to someone who has that background because they could potentially be your best employee.
WATKINS: Yeah, I mean, Anthony, you just referenced it there: you guys are both, along with doing work to keep yourselves supported, you guys are also doing work to help people who are still behind bars. April, do you want to go first on talking a bit about that?
BARBER SCALES: I do a lot of advocacy and a lot of work with the organizations that helped me along the way. Once they have gotten wind of my story, they want me to come speak on their panels, I have moderated some panels. I started a business—Fenced In, Fighting for Freedom—to be able to go back and advocate legally, so to speak, for those that I left behind.
A lot of the connections that I have made with just calling and inquiring, things that my friends in there have asked me about. Like, for example, someone asked me the other day, she was talking about someone incarcerated who needed a MAPP, and a MAPP stands for Mutual Agreement Parole Plan.
I said, "Well, call this person about such and such as MAPP." They were like, "Oh, you have a number?" I was like, "Yeah, let me check." They're like, "Oh, thank you." They were just so overjoyed. It really, it brings me joy to be able to provide resources to the same people that provided resources for me.
WATKINS: Anthony, you've also been doing work, I think really focused on people who are still behind bars.
WILLIS: I'm currently the program director for a nonprofit organization called North Carolina Cure. What we do is we advocate for the humane treatment of those who are still incarcerated. We receive letters daily from those from different prisons who are experiencing some type of hardship, challenge, discrimination.
Then, what we have to do is we review the letters. We vet out the information and we try to report it to the appropriate authorities, especially if it's something immediate, someone who is threatening to harm themselves or anything of that nature. Because there are things that are going on inside the prisons that no one knows about.
Those who are incarcerated, April and I know that you don't have a voice in there.
Also, I do a lot of speaking engagements at different places: different schools, different churches. Mainly my story’s about hope, forgiveness, and redemption.
April and I are very fortunate to have the opportunity that we have, but we want to use our voice to let everyone know that there are many other boys and girls, men and women, who also have shown that they are worthy of another chance because they've done everything they possibly can do while facing an impossible task and impossible situation that is so hard, but yet they're holding onto hope that maybe one day they will also have a second chance.
WATKINS: It seems like clemency across the country and in North Carolina is just so hard to get. I think the two of you were one of a group of three who were the first in 13 years, I think, to be granted clemency and you all accomplished so much while you were in prison, I can only imagine through just an immense effort of will.
April, I know you've published some books. I mean, can you talk about some of what you managed to accomplish while you were in prison? I mean, going in there, I think at age 15, I saw somebody saying, "You took advantage of every opportunity there was," but there weren't always so many of those opportunities, right?
BARBER SCALES: No, and over time there were less and less. A lot of times, when I would sign up for classes, especially ones toward a degree of some sort, I would be denied because of the length of my sentence.
The law changed back in the early '90s saying that people with a life sentence would be wasting the taxpayer's time and money and they would automatically deny me the opportunity for education.
WATKINS: So, that’s sending you a message of...
BARBER SCALES: That you're just thrown away, that you're not worthy of change. There was, at some intervals, no opportunity for me to show growth and opportunity, growth and progress, because the state automatically denied me access to educating myself.
If I had not taken the opportunity to just read what few books in there there were and just talk to different people, then, I'm not sure exactly what place I would be in at this moment.
I was able to obtain a license in cosmetology, a paralegal certificate, and an advanced paralegal. Also, I'm a certified personal care aide, which is now what I primarily do. My job now is I take care of the elderly and I was able to obtain that certificate while I was incarcerated.
I did write when I was in there. That was one of my means of escape. When I wasn't allowed outside, I just had to get it out some kind of way. My way was with words. I did write three books—I actually wrote four books while I was in there. I wrote Memoirs of Susie, which was about the relationship that I had with my mother.
Just a little bit about my past: Both my parents were incarcerated. I grew up seeing the inside of a prison at like 8-years-old, and my mother was on drugs, back and forth. She and I didn't have the best relationship. She actually came to prison three times while I was there, which was a very challenging situation.
WATKINS: She only visited three times, you mean, over all those years?
BARBER SCALES: She visited three times because she was incarcerated with me.
BARBER SCALES: That's why she visited because she came to do time herself.
Then, I have Thirty-One Days of Growth and Reflection—it's a meditative journal and they're all original quotes. It was just things that would go through my mind that the average Joe could relate to. Even though I was physically incarcerated, my mind tried to stay active.
Then, I have Fenced In Fighting For Freedom, which is like a small autobiography of various takes that are true-to-life events that happened in my life before and during incarceration. Lastly, is Quotes 365, which is a 365-day meditative journal. There's 365 quotes and 365 journal pages for you to write down your reflection of what this quote says.
WATKINS: I'm thinking, some people might hear your story, April, and think, "Oh, well, I mean, prison helped you transform your life and it's prison that made you a better person." Do you feel like that at all?
BARBER SCALES: I'm not going to say that prison in the physical sense made me a better person, but prison is a place where the only person that you know is yourself. You really get to know yourself and there's going to be some aspects of yourself that you're going to say are really great and some are going to be really bad.
The ones that are really bad, you need to learn to just get rid of that and kind of move forward. You can't hold on to bitterness or hatred or what could've, should've, would've happened. You just have to focus on who you are now and try to make yourself as good as you possibly can so you won't inflict your bad behavior and thoughts upon those around you and those that matter in your life.
WATKINS: And Anthony, I don't know if you set some kind of record by getting five degrees while you were incarcerated. Can you just talk about how you managed to do that?
WILLIS: It's one of the things that when you go into an environment like that at a young age, it is very challenging. It is hard for a teenager to be placed in a prison with those who are probably twice your age.
They tell you that you don't snitch, you don't tell—if you see something, you don't see it. Everything that you've been trained to think and believe growing up the way your parents taught you is now different.
It's one of the darkest, loneliest, scariest environments a child could ever be in.
WATKINS: That's the environment you were in at 16.
WILLIS: April and I both.
Until you're 18, you're in, for me, I was in an environment with 13- to 18-year-olds. It was Western Youth Institution. They shut that place down recently. It was a terrible environment. These 13-year-olds, they were terrible. I mean, they were just wild, just really wild. They told me, "If you can make it through here, you can make it through anywhere." That's what they told me.
Then, when I went to the adult facility at the age of 18, you have those who are 50 years old, 60 years old, 30 years old, everyone who's trying to tell you how you're supposed to live, how you're supposed to think, how you're supposed to respond to different situations: where anger, show no weakness; you’re not allowed to cry; you're not allowed to do all these different things. Everything is different.
You have a choice to make as a 16-year-old: What are you going to do with your life? What path are you going to take?
For me, I'm just going to be totally honest with you: people, they give me a lot of accolades for the things that I've done, but my motivation was not because I wanted to go to school, or I wanted to learn when I was first incarcerated. It was more out of fear.
What I mean by that was, I had a choice to sit in a dorm all day long with those who were just gambling all day, fighting all day, gang members pressuring you to join their gang, or I can find every excuse I possibly can to get out the dorm throughout the day.
Did I want to sit in class and do homework? No, but it gave me an escape. But the more I sat in there, I began to enjoy what I was doing. I began to understand that I was smarter than what I thought. I didn't really apply myself in high school because, honestly, I didn't think I could do the work, but once I pulled myself from my peers and I'm in an environment where it is every man for themself, then, I realized I can do the work. If I would've just applied myself in high school the way I was applying myself then, then maybe my life would've taken a different avenue.
I'm very grateful that I made that choice, but I want to say that there are so many other men and women right now, boys and girls, who are incarcerated who don't have those same opportunities that April and I had at that age because those programs are no longer in existence because over years, programs started being defunded and the programs that were offered are no longer offered.
Even if April and I did not take advantage of those classes early on, then, we wouldn't even be having this conversation because we might just have a GED and might just have one or two self-enhancement classes, but we wanted something different.
There's a lot of letters that I get from men and women who are saying that “I want to take these classes, but they won't let me.” I just want everyone to know that: don't hold that against them, because they don't have a page full of accolades, because there's a story or reason why they maybe didn't take those things.
It doesn't mean they don't have a desire to change. It doesn't mean they don't have a desire to better themselves. It may just mean they don't have the same opportunities.
WATKINS: I remember, Anthony, in an earlier conversation, you saying that that environment that you guys both encountered as teenagers is one that can just swallow people up.
WATKINS: I imagine it does swallow a lot of people up. It would just take a lot of will to pull against that, I would think.
BARBER SCALES: Where he was, he was separated. I was immediately thrown. I was 15, so I was under the age of 16 and you had to be 16 to be housed around regular population. Once I turned 16, I was immediately thrown to the wolves. There was no separation of juveniles back then.
WATKINS: And you were pregnant and gave birth?
BARBER SCALES: Yes. I gave birth, shackled and chained. They had to release the chains, gave birth under armed guards, shackled, and under the most incorrigible situations. I mean, just knowing that you're there, you're scared, and you're in labor, you're having this baby, you're now 16 years old, and the only people that you have to rely on are people that would just as soon shoot you as they would see you watch there and give someone a life.
WATKINS: I'm so sorry you had to experience that, April. That's just terrible to hear.
WILLIS: Think about this, if you have a teenager and you're given a life without parole sentence, you're basically saying that no matter what good they do, no matter what changes they make, they will never be fit for society. So then, you place them in an environment and then expect them to do good.
You have to ask yourself realistically: why? Why would they want to go to school? Why would they want to stay out of trouble? Why would they want to avoid the fights, the gangs, or the things that are exciting in prison, if you are told that you will never, ever be released from prison?
When April and I, we were both told those very things, but you and I know that no one can dictate or know how a child will grow over the years, how they will mature, the type of person that they will become. We don't know that.
WATKINS: April, when you got these two consecutive life sentences at age 15, how much did you understand of what was happening to you at that point? What kind of legal support were you getting?
BARBER SCALES: I absolutely did not understand the realm of what happened. I had just given birth to this child. I had to place them with a family friend, not knowing if I would ever see or hear from this child again.
Then, the legal situation: I had a court-appointed attorney, as most of us do, because we don't have that kind of money, and I was about almost three hours from him. I literally, in almost a year that I spent in jail, I saw him twice.
I saw him once in the beginning—he said it was too far for him to travel. About maybe three, maybe two months before, he came and convinced me to sign a plea, it was about 106 days after I had given birth. He said that I would be wasting the taxpayer's time and money by taking this to trial.
Then, I was also threatened with the death penalty. I was just given a lot of false information. I was questioned for 17 hours with no parent, juvenile guardian, or anyone present with me. Of course, I was being misled by the state authorities. They never investigated why this happened, what even remotely led up to this. There's been no psychological evaluations.
They just wanted this conviction and put this situation behind them, but putting it behind them was not putting it behind me. It was setting me up to have all these challenges and just try to figure things out by myself. It was impossible to do so.
WATKINS: As we are moving backwards here through both of your lives, I'm wondering, Anthony, if you can talk a little bit about what was going on in your life at the time that your crime occurred and you're a 15-year-old boy or a 15-year-old man.
WILLIS: Well, I was that kid who wanted to fit in. I was from a single parent home. I have five siblings. My mother, she did everything she possibly could to raise us correctly. She worked many hours every week just to make sure we had everything that we needed. We didn't have everything that we wanted, but we had all of our needs. There was no reason why I need to go out and start exploring and committing crime.
That's not the case for everyone. There are a lot of people who, I would never justify committing crime, but when you see their background, you can kind of understand why they thought that way, but I was not in that situation. Because I didn't have the same clothes, shoes, jewelry, things that my other peers had. I wanted those very things. I began to associate myself with the other boys, girls who had the very things that I wanted.
I found out, that they were breaking into houses, they were breaking into cars, stealing speakers and radios and things of that nature, and having them pawned. I started doing things like that, because I was that kid who would walk down the hallway of school and it felt like I was invisible. I felt like I could miss a week out of school and no one would even notice I was not even there.
I didn't like that. I did not like feeling that way. Like I said, I began to associate myself with those who would accept me, but it was because they wanted me to do the things that they were doing. It wasn't because they cared about me or they were my friends. It was just a way to use me in a sense, but in my 15- to 16-year-old mind, I wasn't able to rationalize that at that time.
Whenever we started doing things and it started getting more progressive: breaking into more houses, breaking into more cars and stealing cars, and then we had an idea to rob a store, and that's where the crime took place. In my mind, I never in a million years, would've thought that a life would've been taken. An innocent person's life was taken. That's something you can never take back. All I saw was going into this place, getting money, leaving, and buying the things that I wanted.
And everything changed.
A life was taken, a family was destroyed, a father, a friend, a son, an entrepreneur, a military hero that's now gone because of my selfishness, my greed, my immaturity. If I could change it, I would. In my mind, at that time, I was afraid. I was fearful. I was immature. But that's no excuse for my actions because I was raised better than that.
That's why I work so hard to do good in the world today. On that day I took so much. Now I want to give all my life to be productive where it would be no more minuses in my life. Everything would just be pluses.
That's why I volunteer with homeless shelters. That's why I help with food drives. That's why I accept the calls from those who are incarcerated and get them anything I can to help them because I want my life to be positive.
But as that juvenile, I didn't see the big picture. All I saw was the here and now: I want this, I'm going to do that. But as I got older, my perspective changed. If I could change that day, I would.
But through my incarceration, the things I experienced, it helped me to become the person I am today. I wish I didn't stay there as long as I did, but that environment, it taught me to value the very things I took for granted. It taught me to value my freedom, my family, my respect for my neighbors, and for their belongings.
That's why I go to high schools now. I want them to understand that I can relate to you. I've been in your shoes, and don't feel like you're invincible. Don't feel like you'll never get caught because I promise you, you will. You do not want to spend the rest of your life in prison because once you're there, there is no apologizing. There is no possible, not even a second chance.
I want them to understand from my mistakes, from my choices, that everything we do is going to have positive, negative consequences, and April and I want our lives to have those positive consequences.
I hope that answered your question. I know I went on and on and on.
WATKINS: No, it certainly does, Anthony, it certainly does.
And I see April nodding along with a lot of what you were saying. I imagine April, a lot of that resonates with you and maybe we can talk a little bit about your own story, at around the same age.
BARBER SCALES: Yeah, I was 14 and I met this guy who was 29. We snuck around for about a year before this happened. Then, of course, at that age, you're in love and you're so much under the influence of people around you. And just like Anthony, some lives were lost.
I think that looking back, that I was involved with this guy because I wanted that love, that nurture, that father-figure. My parents were incarcerated, so I grew up seeing the inside of a prison. I was raised by my grandparents, by my maternal adopted grandparents.
There was never a sense of normalcy for me. I kind of, too, felt like I didn't belong, because I realized that I had been adopted at a very early age. My parents looked different—that kind of, I always wondered why.
As I got older, I realized why. Like I said, my mother was, she had started getting in trouble early. She was on drugs. My father was in and out of prison. I knew both my parents. I was around my mother somewhat when she wasn't incarcerated, but I also saw the negative footprints that she left in my life, as well as my father. There was just a void, there was a hole there.
When this person, this adult that was twice my age, saw that, he gravitated toward me. I latched onto that because that was the one thing that was tangible to me. I had this one person that absolutely loved and adored me that I would follow to the end of the world and back.
This person convinced me that we needed to get rid of the oppositions in my life. The oppositions at the time were my grandparents.
I'm under his influence. I was supposed to do this thing and scare my grandparents, kind of like this dumb Lifetime movie where something tragic happens and everyone is all, "Oh, it's okay. We love everyone," and they're all hugging on the lawn and stuff. Please don't look at Lifetime movies because I promise you, it's not going to always end well, clearly.
He convinced me to just cause this fire that would everyone, like I said, would just run out, but in the result, my grandparents died. The very ones that loved me and reared me and geared me to the foundations of the positive things I have in my life. Those lives were destroyed because of my juvenile actions and because I was under the influence of this man twice my age, who happened to also be the father of this child that I spoke of earlier.
I had all these emotions and influences and stuff, and it was just a very bad situation, but of course, the same things that I did at 14 and 15, I would definitely not do now at 47. I do think that those that I left behind, do need to be, their backgrounds need to be taken into account. Just not what they did, but why things led up to what they did, because nine times out of 10, there's a reason.
You might find one child that's just a "bad seed," but for the most part, they're all great people. They're just in bad situations and sometimes they just don't know how to get out of those bad situations.
They feel like they're backed into a wall like April and Anthony thought. We were backed into walls and we came out of that corner, but we came out of that corner doing something dumb that led us to a lifetime of incarceration, had it not been for Governor Cooper.
WATKINS: As the, sadly, experts on the juvenile justice system that you guys both are, if you guys are the advisor to a mayor or a governor who's trying to rethink our approach to juvenile justice, what would be some of the chief things that you would want to see happen?
BARBER SCALES: I would want there to be certain criteria. If you give someone a life sentence, give them hope after 25 years, but building up to that, I think, in five-year increments, you should be reviewed and given an opportunity. It's levels. They should have different programs and opportunities for you to not be thrown back into society at one time, but certain levels that you reach to move you toward freedom.
WATKINS: Then, you'd also have to overhaul the prisons, no, so that it was easier to access these opportunities and they weren't the kind of environments that you guys both encountered, right?
BARBER SCALES: Yeah, but there are certain opportunities, and a lot of volunteers want to come inside the prison, but the powers that be will not allow them to come and volunteer and share their knowledge and their education, because to a degree, prison is set up for you to fail. There's no way around it. They put you in there with a life sentence for a reason because they expect you to be there for life. They're not setting you up for success. Only you set yourself up for success. Prison is built to set you up for failure.
WILLIS: I agree with everything she just said, and if there were to be levels, different requirements for someone to meet, I think it would give you a structure. If you try to change someone's mind after five or six years, if you get into a routine, sometimes you're not as motivated to do different things.
But from day one, if your case manager tells you, “You are in this lifers’ program, you can enroll in it or not, it's up to you. If you want to have a chance to be released, sign up for this program, but this is what you have to do. Starting today, if you don't have your GED, you're starting school tomorrow, and you have five years to get your GED and to take one or two substance abuse programs or self-help programs. Then, from year five to 10, do things like that.”
But I think there's also should be some type of financial contribution as well. As you get closer to that 25-year mark, there needs to be some type of program where someone can start earning money to sustain themselves. If they were to be released, they can actually provide for themselves.
That's one of the biggest things I see in North Carolina that is an issue. Whenever a person is released, they give you $45 whenever you leave the prison. If you spent 25 years, 30 years in prison, $45 is not going to last you very long. After you've earned 40 cents a day, then the prices in the inmate's store is so high, you have to work maybe two weeks to buy some toothpaste or to buy postage stamps, whatever the case is.
As they get closer to that door, I think there should be some type of program where you begin to show them you trust them on a very limited basis where they maybe even leave the facility, kind of like a work-release program so they can go into a community. Now, they're giving back to the community. There's so many organizations and businesses who are needing workers.
What better group of individuals, these people here who have everything to lose, they have no, they can't risk not being a good employee. They can't risk not showing up. They can't say, "Well, I'm calling in sick today. The kids are," no. They have no excuse. Who will not want to go to work every day? Think about that. Who will not want to leave the prison to go to work?
BARBER SCALES: Right, and earn real money.
WILLIS: Absolutely, but this money can be set in a trust fund for the day they're released. They'll give you a certain amount every week so you can survive on, but the rest will be held until the day you're released. By you showing that trust, it builds trust in the community, is building that discipline with the offender and has positive ramifications.
I think that's the biggest thing we can do. There's so many community volunteers and leaders who will be on board to help support that.
WATKINS: I was going to say, with everything you guys have been through, maybe it's hard for each of you to look forward, anticipate your lives going forward, but talking to you, it doesn't seem that way. I'm wondering: what do you each see now ahead for yourselves?
BARBER SCALES: That's a big question mark that he and I both have every day. We're still trying to find our niche in the world. The work that we do, whether it be for us or for others, it's just part of probably what we'll end up being one day. Who knows what we'll end up being, but we're definitely not at the same start point that we were 26, 31 years ago.
WILLIS: For me, I'm still in a place where I'm trying to discipline myself and slow down and be a little bit more focused. I say that because I want to do so much and I overextend myself often. But because I am a man of my word, if I tell you I'm going to do something to help you, and I committed myself, I'll make it work, even if I have to wake up early, get four hours of sleep, because I want to do that, because I just want to make a positive contribution.
I need to start focusing more on what the long game is, where I want to root and plant myself because I'm kind of all over the place. I'm doing so many various different things, so many different organizations and agencies, side projects of just helping people with different things: volunteering to help move furniture, building mailboxes, cleaning gutters, volunteering with homeless shelters, different podcasts that different churches want me to come and speak at, high schools are asking me to come and speak.
The fact that they're asking me out of everyone in society, someone who was deemed to be incorrigible, to not be fit for society, for them to ask me, I feel like I want to be there. I want to let you know that I am someone who's vastly different from that 16-year-old boy who made that terrible decision and I regret it every day.
Hopefully, they'll let the society, the community, know that there are also so many other men and women just like April and I, who've also done everything they possibly can and they're just hoping and praying every day for those same opportunities that April and I have been given.
I am so grateful for the Governor Cooper. I cannot thank him enough and I hope to be able to meet him face-to-face and thank him one day for the awesome opportunity he's granted us. And his staff, the Juvenile Sentencing Review Board, and Duke University for believing in us enough to fight for us, to recommend us for release.
April and I, all we can do now is to live up to that and continue to make those positive decisions and to do something to leave a legacy in a community, to show that people can and will change if given a second chance.
WATKINS: Do you guys think you're going to keep talking to each other regularly?
BARBER SCALES: Hmm… yeah (laughs).
WILLIS: Yeah. I think we're bound for life. Although we don't have a life sentence, I think we're friends for life.
BARBER SCALES: No, I think we do have a life sentence! And our life sentence is to band together.
WILLIS: Okay, I got you.
BARBER SCALES: Yeah.
WILLIS: Because there are times whenever I might have a question or just need a word of encouragement, I know I can always call her. No matter what she is doing, she'll always stop, and she might send me a text and say, "I'll call you in a few minutes," but she will always, she's always been there for me.
BARBER SCALES: Yeah.
WILLIS: I hope that I've done the same for her.
BARBER SCALES: Yes, definitely.
WILLIS: We understand each other and sometimes we just need just that positive reinforcement being like: just keep plowing, keep digging, keep going.
BARBER SCALES: You’re on the right track.
WATKINS: Well that seems like a good note to end on.
I just want to thank you guys immensely for taking part in this, and the conversations that we've had leading up to it. It's just been an immense learning and affirming, really, experience for me, and I hope for everybody who listens to this.
Congratulations on your release and on everything that you're doing to bring goodness into the world. I think it's really a remarkable thing.
Thank you so much. Thank you, Anthony. Thank you, April.
BARBER SCALES: You're welcome. Thank you.
WILLIS: Thank you for having us.
WATKINS: That was April Barber Scales and Anthony Willis. There are some really moving photographs of each of them on our website: click the link in your show notes or go to innovatingjustice.org/newthinking.
DOLEFUL MUSIC BREAK
WATKINS: So, rather than lengthy prison sentences, what do young people who’ve committed violence actually need?
Roca defines its approach as “relentless outreach.” The organization focuses on young people at risk of violence, one individual at a time. The commitment to them is unequivocal and long-term. The model stretches over four years, emphasizing responding to trauma, cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, and skill-building.
Evaluations show emphatically that it works—with improvements in mental health and significant reductions in arrests and incarceration.
But it’s intensive work on every level, and with the systemic obstacles these young people face setbacks are in most cases a given.
I spoke with two people from Roca’s Baltimore office: Andrea Harrison is the assistant direc`tor of programming and Jamal West is its assistant director of youth work.
I started by asking: how much do the young people they work with already feel like April and Anthony did after receiving their life sentences, that is, written off by the system, told that they’re not worth trying to save. Andrea speaks first, followed by Jamal.
Andrea HARRISON: I'd say 90 percent of them have that feeling, that a lot of systems have failed them: school systems, parole and probation systems.
Jamal WEST: It’s easier to penalize and send people away for long periods of time than to rehabilitate, reform, and support them. I can send you away for life and don't have to worry about you anymore instead of putting the time, the effort, support, and love into you.
HARRISON: This work, people have to have the patience. A lot of people proclaim to do this work but don't really do the work. They do what I say, they check the box: I see this many people, I've connected them to this many services, but there's no true follow-up.
What I believe that we do well is we connect them to mental health resources, we take them to their appointments, we have the conversations and advocate for them—because they don't know how to advocate for themselves. We teach them how to have agency.
You can't put a dollar amount on it. And people say, "Well, what's the success of Roca? What does success look like?" Well, we are a four-year behavioral intervention model. And we're saying in Baltimore, four years isn't enough. Some of these young men need six years. Some of them didn't make it through school. Our school system is so poor that they walked away with a fifth, sixth grade education.
So, how do you expect a fifth- or sixth-grade educated young man to be able to sit at a job interview or to be able to have a conversation about the medical services that they need or mental health when they haven't even been given the information that they need to be able to advocate?
WATKINS: The young people you're talking about are mostly what you call high-risk—high-risk for violence. And I've seen where one of your colleagues referred to them as deep-end kids. What does that mean? What makes them high-risk for you guys?
HARRISON: What makes them high-risk is they don't have the capacity to regulate their emotion. If someone stares at them too long, they're in fight, flight, or freeze. They're always looking at: everything is an adversary, everything is against me.
They don't walk outside and like, "Oh, it's sun shining and it's beautiful and I'm just going to walk down the street and enjoy the day." No—someone's after me, I got to be on guard all the time.
Whether it's with words that are negative to push you back, whether I'm going to pull a knife on you to keep you back, I'm going to pull up my shirt and show you my gun to push you back, that's their way of protecting themselves.
They don't always want to hurt someone, but they want to protect themselves. So, if that means me or you, then it's going to be you. Because I'm a survivor. They see themselves as survivors and they'll fight for their lives for that survival.
WATKINS: And Jamal, what kinds of things are they having to survive? Andrea mentioned fight, flight, or freeze, which is a kind of classic trauma reaction. What kind of life histories are the young people you're working with? What are they carrying with them?
WEST: Let's talk about these young men that grew up in broken homes and mom and dad are not in the house. Sometimes they have no parent at all. Sometimes they are the adult at 15-years-old, they're adult or head of household because whatever it is they're doing in the street to make money. So, what are they protecting themselves against?
The harsh realities that they got to walk out that door every day knowing that they're not the only ones with a gun. So, they have a gun because they know others around them have guns. They have to fight to make money when, if they out in the street and they hustling, they're definitely not going to school, for the most part, if they out on the street trying to make some money to put some food in their mouth, put some food in their household, help pay gas and electric bill that might have went up.
Just think of how many others have that same mentality as them.
WATKINS: And people are really, I mean, surrounded often by real experiences of violence and having witnessed it.
WATKINS: And what does that do to people in your experience?
HARRISON: The layers of trauma on top of each other can be catastrophic. We have one young man who saw his father murdered by his father's best friend. And he jumped out of a third story window as an eight-year-old or 10-year-old, maybe, apologies, but young, not a teenager. He jumped out of a window.
Father's gone, you just saw this, is the best friend trying to kill me, who knows? Mother not around.
WEST: You're raising yourself.
HARRISON: You're raising yourself! So, the scarcity, the “I can't trust anyone.” We work to build what we call transformational relationships with these young men. If we say we're going to do something, we do it.
We make sure that… They don't have basic needs! Basic needs that you and I take for granted! And I'm so passionate about this because I'm like: it's 2023. Why, in the richest country supposedly, in America, are we treating our youth like this?
Baltimore City has one shelter for young people. When I say young people, I mean under 24. One 12-bed shelter.
WATKINS: Twelve beds for the city of Baltimore!
HARRISON: Twelve beds! It's coed and there's one space for a mother with a child. It's unacceptable. You cannot house our high-risk young men in an adult shelter with other homeless people. You can't, it's a recipe for a disaster. So, I don't know. I get frustrated.
But we house them. We find housing for them, we talk to our partners, and we have to explain to them: this is what high-risk is. He may punch a wall, he may punch a hole in your wall, but we'll pay for it, we'll fix it. But he needs somewhere to stay because it's not safe out here on the streets. And we find some partners who say, "Nope, I'm not interested."
We find other partners who will work with us, but we are upfront and honest and say, look, we give our young... A young person can't get kicked out of Roca. And when I tell this story all the time to other providers that say they do this work and they work with high-risk young people, I say, "Well, if a young man comes into your program, he spits on you and pulls a knife on you, what are you going to do?"
And unanimously, most of them say: call the police. And I say that's not what we do at Roca. We wipe the spit off, we take the knife, and we have a conversation.
But that is a true story. And that young person had got fired from our work crew that day. The night before, unbeknownst to us, his parents had put him out. And he wanted to come upstairs to get something to eat, chill on the sofa, watch TV to figure out where he was going to sleep tonight. And he was a little embarrassed to tell us all of that at that time.
So, the knife wasn't to hurt staff, the knife was just: get away, I want to be left alone right now, just let me do what I want to do to get myself together. But had he been somewhere else and done that, he could have been locked up or killed by the police. And at the end of the day, we don't do that.
We know that these young people are traumatized at a very deep level and we have to work with them to get to the core of that trauma to help to heal them so that they can be whole, so that they can learn how to regulate their emotions.
A lot of them you ask, "How you feel today? How you feeling?" They'll say, "Good." They don't even know what a feeling is! Good's not a feeling. So, we're teaching them at the basic level about behavior: your body, your emotions, and how important they are to your success.
WATKINS: I imagine that can be a long process just trying to get these young people to trust you guys at all. Why do they want to talk to this nonprofit? How does that work?
WEST: It's definitely a process and it takes a level of humanity, patience, and understanding when dealing with these young men. Especially when you start peeling back these layers of the onion. Like you asked a question earlier about their trauma and things they grow up seeing. A lot of it is normalized to them. Seeing that, over 300 murders a year and almost a thousand shootings is regular to them until you start helping them address and understand what trauma is.
And then you start peeling back that layer through conversation, through CBT, through support. So, if they waking up in households with no parents, or their parents are not being parents but being their friends to them, we having the tough conversations with them. "Hey look man, these are the things you need to get in order to get your life straight."
I had a young man cry because he got a learner's permit!
HARRISON: I had one cry because he got an ID! Had never had an ID before in his life.
WEST: At one time, this young man told me if ever he was driving, he would always run from the police. Do you know the patience and effort it took to walk him through that process? When he got that learner's permit, he just bust down crying, I can't believe it.
HARRISON: And the other thing is, because a lot of them, and especially if they have children, I get through the children. One of our CBT skills we teach them is act on your values. So, young man tells me, “I love my daughter, I want to be here for her.” So, then I said to him, “Well, does it make sense for you to be on the corner holding a package and a piece and risk being arrested by the police? Do you really value your daughter? Because that behavior doesn’t equate to that.”
So, then it's, “Oh, okay. Well, yeah, you know what? You're right.” “So, what else can you do?” So now we're into problem-solving. “Oh, you could get a job, you could go get work on your GED, you could go to therapy.”
They call me the mother of the office. I don't want to be your mother! But I want to help you and support you to make better decisions and choices. We say all the time, “I can't want more for you...
HARRISON AND WEST: “...than you want for yourself.”
WEST: These guys that she was just speaking of on the corner with packs and stuff, that's the only opportunity they was shown because that's what they growing up around. And then when Roca comes in: if you do these things, you don't have to put your life at risk every day. You don't have to walk down the street looking over your shoulder.
You don't have to walk out the house wondering if today is the day you're going to die because of your actions.
WATKINS: The traditional way that we respond to young people in trouble who commit harm is the criminal justice system. It's 2023 and we're still doing that: arrest, punishment, incarceration. What kind of effects does that response, what do you see in the young people you're working with in terms of how that affects them?
HARRISON: It's more trauma. That is a broken system that needs to be reconstructed. I don't know. My philosophy is reform needs to start at incarceration. The whole construct of incarcerating someone, the premise has changed. We know that there are other countries where they really reform people and they teach them and they train them while they're locked up and then they come out and they're much more successful.
WEST: You take the schooling out of the prisons, barely have school out here on the street. So, if they not making enough effort to change the education on the street, they don't care at all if you in prison. And I think that's a bad way to go about it.
Because you can create change if you create opportunity. You take the trades out of the jail, you take schooling out of the jail, any form of rehabilitation except for drug class that some people just go to that just to say they got a certificate so when they go for parole, they'll have something to show.
I just think the recidivism rate in Maryland will always be high if you don't start addressing the issues. And the issues start with education and support.
HARRISON: Reentry starts at incarceration. They should have a plan going in. “You don't have your GED, you need a mental health assessment, you need…” All that should be done! And every day, “okay, you got to work while you're locked up. So, here's your job and then here's what you're doing for your development. Because when you leave, we don't want you to come back. We want you to have the support you need.”
Some of these young men, they don't have commissary money, they don't have...So they're in there, again, trying to beat the system so that they can get their basic needs… in prison?! And then some people will challenge me on this, “well, they shouldn't have broke the law and then they wouldn't get locked up.” Okay. But they're still human beings. Why are we... People die in prison because they don't have basic healthcare, because they don't have basic nutrition?
WEST: As a person who was incarcerated before, you see guys in jail that have to make a choice between, for one it's a long line to get into a GED class. And to earn the good days so you can get back home, you have to make a choice between working in the kitchen or getting your GED.
If they feel like getting a job is faster for me to get home, you putting these guys in a bad... You forcing these guys to make a decision that's not right for them. You setting them up to come back.
WATKINS: The system is just not investing in people in any sense. That's what these young people, that's the message they're getting, it sounds like.
HARRISON: Absolutely. That no one cares, we are the bottom of the barrel, and we have to survive. We're survivors so we're going to survive whatever it takes.
WATKINS: But the work that you guys are doing requires such an investment of time and trust-building and being prepared for the setbacks, because those are gonna be inevitable in most cases.
And it just strikes me that's a completely different timeline and mentality than the criminal justice system that we have now, right?
WEST: Absolutely. And not only investment in time, you're dealing with these young men on a regular basis, daily basis. You have to invest a lot of emotion and a lot of yourself into them. Because it pulls away, it tugs away at you.
But you know what's the big picture: I'm going to invest this time, this emotion, this money, whatever it takes to get this man on the right track. I will take that smile because I got my ID over going to see that man in cuffs and shackles in the courthouse.
HARRISON: Even in the let downs, we know, they’re still facing…. They say, "When we leave Roca, Ms. Andrea, we still have to go home. We have to go in the war zone. So here it's nice, but like real life!" And so that breaks my heart.
WATKINS: That must be hard sometimes for you guys: no matter how hard you work, there's only so much, well, not much you can do to change the world outside of Roca.
HARRISON: I just wish there were more Rocas and more people that were helping, because it's so many young people. It's like even with the family work… it's, it’s a lot. It's just a lot.
WATKINS: That was Andrea Harrison and Jamal West. Andrea is the assistant director of programming at Roca’s Baltimore location and Jamal West is its assistant director of youth work.
To learn more about Roca, and about April and Anthony, click the link in your show notes, or find the episode page at innovatingjustice.org/newthinking.
For their help making this episode happen, my thanks to Ben Finholt at Duke Law’s Just Sentencing Project and to Jamie Lau and Kristin Parks. Thank you as well to Lili Elkins, and to Katie Gingerich.
Now, as I mentioned in the introduction, at the onetime Center for Court Innovation, we have changed our name to the Center for Justice Innovation. After 25 years, we needed a name that better captures our work now, where we’re not just focused on courtrooms anymore. Here’s 90 seconds of audio put together by New Thinking technical director Bill Harkins that explains a bit more of the thinking here:
NAME CHANGE PROMO
WATKINS: Alright, today’s episode was produced by Julian Adler and myself, and was edited by me. Samiha Amin Meah is our director of design, Emma Dayton is our V-P of outreach, and our theme music is by Michael Aharon at quivernyc.com. This has been New Thinking from the Center for Justice Innovation. I'm Matt Watkins. Thanks for listening.