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The Myth of the Superpredator
It is time for us to do more than just say that we believe in Justice, we must actually act on it.
In the 1990s, criminologists and sociologists in the U.S. invented a term to describe a new generation that were “incorrigibly violent and without remorse.”
Politicians and media pundits followed suit by stirring up public emotions and fears so as to push through legislation that would enable harsher sentencing guidelines to the rising threat of “superpredators.”
The public acquiesced, believing that this was a reality that required legislative attention, only to find, decades later, that those theories have long since been debunked as blatantly false by real scientific studies supported by actual adolescent brain science.
The Washington establishment at the time was aflame in righteous indignation over criminality, in general, and in response passed a Crime Bill that essentially laid the groundwork for what is today mass-incarceration.
This legislative agenda, built on misinformation and fear, has led to a body of written and unwritten laws, policies and procedures that effectively deny youth offenders an opportunity to be rehabilitated so as to rejoin society as functioning, contributing members.
The consequences of this brute attack on the life potential of America’s youth affects more than just the kids that are issued DOC numbers and catalogued away into the oblivion of the carceral state.
It affects their families, friends and loved ones. People who have never been convicted of a crime, but nonetheless are dragged through the often violent contrasts of this experience.
As I have previously written and spoken, the stated purpose of incarceration versus, say, execution is to rehabilitate. Yet, when a youth offender is sentenced as an adult to life without parole (LWOP), rehabilitation takes a back seat to punishment, and likewise, vengeance oversteps justice.
To be 15 or 16 years old and be told that the rest of your natural life is going to be lived inside a box, for a mistake made before you ever experienced adulthood or maturity, is by definition cruel and unusual.
The circumstances as they are, have permitted me to know a few of these “superpredators,” and as someone who has likewise struggled to survive the harsh reality of incarceration and, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision in Jones v. Mississippi, I felt compelled to help all of you to better know one of these supposed monsters so that you may be guided by truth rather than misinformation.
Five years ago, I met a man by the name of Michael Brown in Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs, New Mexico. We were both part of an institutional program related to rescuing dogs from certain euthanasia by retraining them to be more readily adoptable.
Ironic, if you think about it, discarded men working to save discarded dogs from the fate of oblivion. Who would rescue us?
Michael Brown, was charged in 1994, at the age of 16, for his participation in the double homicide of his loving grandparents, Ed and Marie. The actual, proven murderers were two adolescent friends of Michael, but the state argued and proved to a jury that he had been complicit to the crime for having entertained certain conversations of potential violence with aforementioned friends and, for not having done anything to actively stop the murders from taking place.
The result, for which, was a sentence of life plus forty-one-and-a-half years. Effectively, a death sentence to be drawn out through the monotony of decay in prison.
Recently, I had an opportunity to interview Michael with the intent of better understanding his predicament of having been labelled a “superpredator” by society. Over the years he had mentioned that there were ongoing legislative efforts to free him and others like him, but with the recent polarization of the courts, I wanted to know if those efforts had proven fruitful.
I began the interview by revisiting some of the lamentable facts of his case, so as to try and understand some of the contributing factors to his present predicament. He was direct in his responses, in no way trying to sidestep responsibility or the reality of his actions.
And despite what I considered the draconian sentence he was given, when I asked whether he thought that he should’ve been sent to prison for his indirect involvement in his grandparents’ murders. Surprisingly, he said, “Yes.”
“I could’ve done more, “ he said, “and I absolutely should’ve done more to have stopped what happened from happening.”
I reminded him, that according to the facts of his case that I had read, during the crime he had been in his bedroom, “frightened,” with his head in the pillow, “crying.” So, naturally, I wanted to know why he felt that he was guilty.
“Because I could’ve stopped it,” he said. “Especially with the conversations that took place between me and my friends beforehand. I could’ve stopped those conversations from having taken place and I didn’t. So, I deserved to be punished for that…I accept responsibility for my lack of reaction.”
A sobering confession. The kind of rare response that is given when there is no ulterior motive, no gain to be achieved. Like hearing someone tell you the time of day, or the current weather outside. We then talked about various stages of his life and how it was that he stumbled upon the destructive path of criminality.
“I had everything given to me,” he admitted. “I came from an upper middle class family and basically whatever I wanted, I had. And still I preferred being on the streets, stealing cars, and otherwise living that other life. It really doesn’t make any sense when I look back on it, and so many times I wish I could go back and just beat my own ass because I just didn’t get it.”
Get what, exactly? Michael explained that as a youth he didn’t get how his actions and decisions affected others. He didn’t get that he was causing those who most loved him to suffer.
He was more focussed on how others perceived him, and less focussed on the longterm consequences of his decisions. By his own assessment he was a troubled teen headed down a path of destruction.
I then asked whether he felt that the Department of Corrections had rehabilitated him.
“No,” was his definitive answer.
Naturally, I aimed to dig further into his answer. Because for the five years that I had known him he was someone who was level-headed and deliberate in his decisions.
I don’t presume to be a close friend of Michael, but circumstances have placed us together a few times and he has always proven to be straight forward, intelligent, well-spoken, and disciplined. All in an environment that doesn’t exactly promote or readily permit those personality traits from blossoming.
I’ve met his wife, and listened to how he talks about his family and by no means is this a “superpredator,” nor is he the monster that the system has tried to make him into. His tattoos may say something to someone, but his eyes are clear and steady, his smile genuine, and he would clearly be an asset to any community.
“When I stepped into this system,” he said, “I wasn’t interested in school or getting an education, the only thing I cared about was surviving. I was just a kid and I was obsessed with how others perceived me. I didn’t want to be seen as an easy target to these grown men who were so much bigger and stronger than me.
“So I thought that if I just showed everyone that I was willing to fight that I would somehow be safe,” he admitted. “But it eventually got to the point that instead of just defending myself I actually started to seek out trouble and fights. Because, I guess I thought, that if others thought I was crazy they would leave me alone.”
But, from what Michael explained, the only thing he accomplished for himself was to make an already difficult life all the more difficult.
I had read in some of his legal briefs that he had been quoted as having said that he never believed that he would live beyond the age of twenty-five, once he entered the DOC, and I was eager to better understand his reasoning.
“Because there was just so much open violence,” Michael said. “There were people getting raped, assaulted and outright killed on a regular basis. It was normal to carry a knife wherever you went and to have to be mentally prepared to use it, because your survival depended on it.
And normal people in the world,” he added, “they just don’t understand any of this. They can’t imagine that a place like this could exist, much less be funded by tax dollars.”
He further explained that the threat of perpetual violence wasn’t just from other inmates, because a large part of that threat came from the staff. Something that I myself can attest to, that the security staff is another faction of criminals to be reckoned with on a daily and ongoing basis.
The difference being that they have badges and qualified immunity to shield them from legal consequences for their criminality.
“There is always that psychological torment,” Michael admitted, “of knowing that at any moment they can come toss your room, plant contraband, or otherwise invent an infraction to further punish or take privileges from you.”
Our conversation moved to the recent Supreme Court ruling in Jones v. Mississippi, where the recent Trump appointed Justice, Kavanaugh B., had penned an opinion that overturned legal precedent and potentially stagnated legislative trends that were paving the way to undoing the legislative destruction of the 1990s with the Crime Bill and the sensationalized nonsense regarding “superpredators.”
Beginning with other decisions like Graham v. Florida (2010), followed shortly thereafter by Miller v. Alabama (2012), then Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), up until recently it was clearly established that children must be afforded a meaningful opportunity for release—even in homicide cases.
But suddenly with a polarized Court, adhering more to political ideology and less to legal precedent or the Constitution, one decision can suddenly topple the collective efforts of decades, essentially legitimizing prison sentences just like Michael’s.
A cruel reality that can easily be summed up by Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion, where she wrote, “Time and again, this Court has recognized that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing,” quoting Miller v. Alabama. Sotomayor then explained that “ ‘as any parent knows,’ and as scientific and sociological studies have confirmed, juveniles are less mature and responsible than adults, which ‘often results in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.’
Second, juveniles are ‘more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures’ and ‘have less control…over their own environment.’ Finally, ‘the character of a juvenile’ is ‘more transitory’ than that of an adult.”
Michael agreed that, “the Supreme Court should be detached from politics. But now everything is either conservative or liberal, and ideology is more important than the legality of something. Which sucks for the whole country.”
A statement that, for most, is easy to agree with. In opposition, however, is an overwhelming fear of change and stubborn unwillingness to side with reason and facts, leaving us to wonder as to the source of this obstinant behavior.
Does it come from politicians, corporate media, the profit-minded prison industry, or just a generalized misperception caused by targeted misinformation? Because the fear is real, that is without doubt a certainty, as people naturally don’t want homicidal predators released into their societies.
But fearing these men who made mistakes as children, and thinking that they are incapable of growing into functioning members of society, is not only absurd, it’s in line with thinking that childhood nightmares and terrors of monsters under the bed somehow precludes people from ever getting a good night’s rest with the lights off as adults.
There were any number of criminologists or sociologists, in the 1990s, who predicted the rise of this class of “superpredator” child, but there was never any hard evidence to support the harbored fears engrained into us. We listened to them because at that time we didn’t yet understand that news outlets don’t sell truth, they sell advertising.
And because we were ignorant to this reality an even greater crime has been committed against Michael and others like him, men and women who have fought against all odds for that better more mature version of themselves.
The system set out to destroy them, and despite its mediocre efforts and calloused indifference to the lives that it destroys, others like Michael have achieved much more than what we collectively ask of any other member of society.
And where is the justice for them? We tell them to toe-the-line, rehabilitate, grow and mature, only to have a political ideology that is buttressed by fears, not facts, denying them any and all opportunities at a righteous and free life.
Then, what was the point? I ask. To what end is society investing six percent of GDP towards these countless departments of “correction,” if the only thing to be achieved is a compendium of torture and vengeance masquerading as Justice?
When Michael and I spoke about his apparent maturity throughout the last twenty-seven years of his life, he admitted that the system had never tried to rehabilitate him. From the beginning, due to his draconian-long sentence, he wasn’t eligible for rehabilitative programming.
Space is always limited and first priority always goes to those who are closest to the door, which means that a man like Michael who wants to rehabilitate himself is left to do so on his own, through books, self-study, and a determination to change.
“I came to hate that other world [of the criminal element] that I so wanted as a kid,” he said. “Because now I could see it for what it really was. I can see now that, then, I just wanted to rebel against the upper-middle class world that I had come from.
“But I made a decision to not be put off and I soon came to see education as the key to everything that I wanted to be as a man,” he recalled. “But it was closed off to me because of my sentence.”
Yet, despite the realities of a system more interested in punishment than rehabilitation Michael managed to “talk [his] way into some of those [very] programs.”
“It’s just not fair,” he said. “You have these guys who step into prison again and again. They aren’t interested in being rehabilitated. And they get offered education, college, technical training, and they could care less because all they’re thinking about is returning to that criminal element on the streets.
And no matter what they do or how they act, they have a guaranteed release date. There is no deterrant, because regardless of what they do, they get out.”
For me, Michael’s frustrations with a system that hands out second-third-and fourth chances for a free life to some, while never even considering it for others, is a maddening reality that I have struggled with for years.
And what is most upsetting is that the people who get these multi-tiered chances at freedom, responsibility, career, and maybe even a fruitful relationship and family are people who don’t even want these things.
Most are so enslaved to their addictions that incarceration is actually a much cozier alternative to freedom because it offers easy and ready access to their drugs of choice, and it has now morphed into an environment where no actual effort or responsibility is expected of them.
Instead of being taught the value of an education, or a day’s wage for honest work, they are shelved away into these pods of substance abuse and addiction. There is no societal benefit to any of this.
From prison, Michael has been an active participant and voice for youth, victim, and community awareness groups. He is outspoken about the value to having sincere conversations with people about the realities of crime and incarceration.
“They need to see,” he said, “that we want and are capable of being productive members of society.”
I asked Michael whether he believed that society had in any way benefited from his incarceration for the past twenty-seven-plus years.
He considered the question for several moments, and then said, “No,” matter-of-factly. “I don’t mean it to be a self-serving answer. I just don’t see how anyone has benefited from this.”
The conversation then turned to his loved ones. He talked about the difficulties of reintegrating himself into his father’s life, who for the longest time didn’t want anything to do with him. But as the years progressed Michael’s determination to make amends was never deterred by his circumstances.
He poured himself into becoming a renowned tattoo artist, awakening a passion that helped to transform him into a more mature and aware version of himself.
And eventually his father and stepmother began to slowly open the door to him. Letters turned to conversations, which eventually led to a reciprocal relationship of truth, empathy and mutual understanding.
“At first my dad and stepmom wanted me locked up,” Michael admitted. “But now they are two of my biggest advocates for release. They have seen the changes in me, and now they know that I am no longer that kid who did that horrible thing.”
I asked him about the difficult nature of being loved and supported by so many people. The duality of having your mind and thoughts torn between this world and that world. A reality that has been known to drive prisoners into depression and madness.
Some choose to ignore the outside world altogether, while others walk the perilous line of inclusion and active involvement. He had obviously chosen the latter, and I wanted to explore his choice.
“At the beginning, it wasn’t like that,” he said, referring to his emotional involvement with others on the outside.
He explained that at the beginning his attention was devoted to his daily survival, which included managing the perceptions of others and how they saw him. “But as I began to grow and change, so did my perceptions. Now I have a wife, daughters, and family. And we depend on each other.”
Michael had developed a metaphor for expressing the ebb and flow of his life. “It’s like riding a wave,” he said.
Things would start to go well for him in the sense of his comforts and privileges. As a well known tattoo artist he had money, a telephone, plenty of food, music and all the other comforts. But the longer he rode the wave the more inevitable the crash became, as is the nature of the wave.
And when it did come crashing down, there were the months in segregation and the unrelenting turmoil to him and to those who loved and supported him.
“There was a moment when my comforts and how others perceived me were no longer what most mattered to me,” he confessed. “My wife and family were being affected by my choices, and I suddenly realized that they were more important to me than anything else.”
Michael had grown into the man that his father had come to know and love. A change that would mark the shift from the boy that he was to the man that he is. In a sense he had crossed the Rubicon into manhood and there was no turning back.
Personally, I have only ever known this version of Michael, and even now, knowing what I know, it’s difficult to imagine him as anything other than who he is now.
I’m glad to know him, and glad to know that the courts are taking a hard look at the legality of his sentence. And I dare to hope that Justice Kavanaugh’s decision, affirmed by the Republican majority on the Supreme Court, doesn’t torpedo his future.
“But regardless of that decision,” Michael assured me, “In two-and-a-half years, I’ll see the parole board and hopefully I’ll get that chance.”
For as long as I can remember, New Mexico’s parole board has only ever been an apparatus of rubber-stamping men into the hereafter. But Michael assures me that that has changed, and he firmly believes that they will give him a second chance at life.
I asked whether he was nervous, and whether or not he was concerned about those less-than-scrupulous staff members that might do something to sabotage his freedom. Because in this world that’s easier than one might think.
“It does bother me,” he said. “It’s the daily stress and anxiety of constantly trying to not get caught up in things. But I just keep going with the thought of my family guiding each and every one of my decisions.”
“And when you get out?” I asked, because often times the individuals who are most informed about the atrocities that take place in prisons are not those who are most ardently trying to bring about reforms.
“I’m always going to be involved,” he said, “especially when it comes to juvenile justice reform. I want to help the kids so that they don’t have to survive what I’ve had to survive.”
Obviously, the circumstances and tragedies of Michael’s life have turned him into an activist. And as I’ve said before, true change is born from empathy, from a collective willingness to see life through the eyes of another. I have been afforded a rare opportunity to see Michael’s world through his eyes.
He was once a boy who could’ve done more to save his loving grandparents, Ed and Marie, and he didn’t. That’s the fact that will never change. What will and has changed is who Michael is in relation to that tragic event.
Despite the cynical efforts of a system that he himself thought would kill him before he was twenty-five, he has grown into a man who has shown that he can be trusted. He is a husband. He is a father. He is a brother. And, he is still a son who hopes to be there for his aging father.
“I want him to have memories of me,” Michael said, referring to his dad and his declining health, “as the man that I am now. Good memories.”
With this experience that life has afforded me, as a writer and activist from within, Michael is no “superpredator,” and the legislation and judicial opinions that are based more on political rhetoric than factual science or evidence need to be overturned.
There is no societal benefit to forever denying a child a second chance at life. We all make mistakes, and it’s from them that we have grown into the mature individuals who we are today.
It is time for us to do more than just say that we believe in Justice, we must actually act on it.
Thank you for reading today’s publication and supporting MYLIFEplus25.
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Look out for next week’s publication: Demanding Reforms.