Harper’s Magazine

Mr. Richard Ross is a representative for Harper’s Magazine. He came to interview me. The reason I agreed to the interview was it dealt with preventive ways of stopping child incarceration.  Afterall as a parent, my beloved daughter was sentenced to a juvenile facility. Mr. Ross armed me with a mic and a small recorder and questioned me for about one hour. I talked about my childhood, the physical and mental abuse I endured. I further mentioned poverty as another key element to why children commit crimes.

Here is an extract of the interview:

My name is Derrick L. Griffin. At this time I am 45 years old. I used to get away with a lot of petty crimes. When I was in school, I always stayed in trouble, so it’s kind of a pattern of bad behavior, of bad choices. I would say I was a public nuisance. The crack epidemic came and kind of blew the doors off our house.  You know once you progress you just graduate, you don’t ever stay the same. It started with the little things like stealing from stores and then, it gets bigger and bigger. If you don’t get stopped it just keeps growing. There was no stop gap. Back in those days I felt like I didn’t have a lot of choices. I was just a child. I was just living in my understanding of life. I don’t know whether to go right or left, I just wanted to go. When available I tried to steal it. I made a lot of mistakes doing that. Other children have their clothes and they’re clean and they’re this and they’re that and you know, I did not have much. So I had to resort to the only thing that’s there, crime. So I took advantage of what little bit that was there. Eventually that’s how I started selling drugs. Choices don’t have color on it, choices don’t have color barriers, so being black is not an excuse. It’s just bad choices.

When you’re young like that you’re limited to what you can and what you can’t do. Families feel like they’re providing for us but they’re really not providing for us because we are lacking. We are lacking in a lot of areas. I try not to use my mistakes as a crutch. I embrace my mistakes, but at the same token I try to grow from my mistakes and somebody else maybe won’t make these same mistakes that I made. While I’m sitting here my children have suffered years of neglect and they’re making some really, really poor choices. My daughter was 15 when she got incarcerated. My youngest daughter is going through a lot of drama, and they have children, and my grandchildren are going probably to suffer as well. It never stops. It goes on and on and on until somebody stands up and stops it, and that’s my goal to try to stop it.

As a child I was getting bullied and being ridiculed, no child wants to be ridiculed. I wanted to be just like everybody else, but to be spotlighted and everything you do is highlighted and it’s bad enough you’re poor, and then on top of being poor you’re being embarrassed around your classmates. Then the only thing a child can do in these circumstances is fight. That’s my only mechanism that I knew. As a child it was like that, the small things. It are not the big things. What I discovered with me, I simply wanted to be a functional child.

Over the years, from that point as I grew, I stayed in the streets, I graduated to bigger crimes. I had children when I was too young, 18. I had four kids by four different girls. That was really, really stupid, but it happened. It was another way of trying to be accepted by my peers. I was selling drugs, I supposedly had all the girls and I had all this and I abandoned those relationships and those kids. That led to more problems. The problems do not get smaller, they get bigger. From that point things kind of went extremely downhill fast. It was like sliding down a razor blade into a pool of alcohol. Having all those kids and all those responsibilities at once was overwhelming for a child. With my stepfather, we got into a serious altercation. There was some abuse going on and I told my grandfather, my grandfather came and it was a big altercation and my grandfather moved me into his home. Back in those days, the police didn’t get involved when you were getting whipped like that.  I actually wrote my life story. I’m finishing with the rough draft. I went into great details to make sure that other people out there, if they’re experiencing it, know there are other options, other than the options that I made. I dug as deep as I could and I explored it and I looked and I have seen a lot of drama as a child that I shouldn’t have seen. I have seen too many people get killed or too many people get hurt. I’ve even drawn up a thing called the tragedy house. It’s just my idea. It’s something before the tragedy, it’s something during the tragedy and it’s something after the tragedy. Most kids don’t won’t to talk about it. I’ve grown up with girls that were abused by uncles. I’ve grown up with guys that were abused by their parents. I was abused by my stepfather. It was considered normal.

I found out as I got older, as I went through this prison thing, people started opening up to me and I encountered a lot of people that were abused or neglected, or both. We all end up in places like this, and the thing is, a lot of times our parents are so poor that they have to work to try to survive, to feed everybody and by them working, it gives a child an opportunity to explore. A parent can’t work and watch their child constantly. Especially with a child like me.  I was always inquisitive. I was always trying to find something to do or get off into. That was my biggest problem. At the same token, I was playing sports. I played football, baseball, boxing, I did it all. The bullying wasn’t going anywhere, it was the same thing I was getting in school. Same ridicule.

I had uncles that had cafes and those cafes bootlegged, dope was there and whorish women and as a kid, I was there also. When I was going to my uncle Frank’s cafe, there were all these little hustles that I could do to make a little money. Hustling stuck with me. One thing led to another and another, it was like I was groomed to be caught up in this street thing. I wish I wasn’t introduced to a lot of it, but it’s the environment that I grew up in. 

Even though I’m innocent, even though I can prove I’m innocent, I’m still at the whims of the prison system. Yeah, the Parole Board wants you to admit to a crime. I got the evidence to prove that I didn’t do it. I am in a situation where I have to lie about the crime I am accused of committing, but I don’t want to lie. I want to be honest to get free, but if I’m honest and get free I won’t get free. So it’s a catch-22. If I tell the truth, then they are not going to let me go, but if I lie to them then they may let me go. Yes, it’s crazy.  That’s what they do. At the same token I’m not putting it all on administration. I could look at it like this, when I got here I started immediately going to college. I started immediately trying to make changes. I started immediately doing the things that I needed to do to get out of here, and this was 25 years ago,

I immediately went to college, I immediately started trades. I immediately got caught up in religion. I immediately did those things to make me a better person and now years later, I’m still doing these things to make myself a better person because I don’t want to be put in the same situation where my options are limited. I’m trying to put myself in a position where I have as many options as possible. By having limited options I would be going right back into the same situation and have to make the same poor choices. I can’t give up. No, I’m not giving up.

Note:# August 4, 2020 Derrick came up for review after 25 years and a 80-page Parole Package. He was given a 5 years set off without seeing anyone. In his self-support letter he admitted to a crime he did not commit and he hoped that he would be freed. That was not the case.

The interview is also available as an audio.

You can also read my blog Childhood Incarceration 

Childhood incarceration
Childhood incarceration

Mr. Richard Ross is a photographer, researcher and professor of art,  based in Santa Barbara, California. He has been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Annie E. Casey  and MacArthur Foundations. Mr. Ross is also initiator of Juvenile in Justice to facilitate better outcomes for the 53.000+ children in custody every day. 

If you are interested in the facts please read the information of The Children Defense Fund

‘The Children’s Defense Fund envisions a nation where marginalized children flourish, leaders prioritize their well-being and communities wield the power to assure they thrive. To realize this vision, we pursue a movement-building and institutional growth strategy to build power for child centered public policy, informed by racial equity and the lived experience of children and youth. Our Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. We serve and advocate for the largest, most diverse generation in America: the 73 million children and youth under the age of 18 and 30 million young adults under the age of 25, with particular attention to those living in poverty and communities of color’.

For a complete insight please check the report at their website here: State-of-Americas-Children

Derrick L. Griffin, 10-06-2021