Too Young to Jail
Jim St. Germain found himself incarcerated before his 16th birthday. Now he's fighting for prison reform at the highest levels of government.
Sometimes it's easy forget the ridiculousness of youth. The proliferation of mistakes. The necessity of making them.
Yet here in America we have a bad habit of throwing our wayward youth in jail. Jim St. Germain learned that the hard way. As an adolescent immigrant from Haiti—poor by Haitian standards and even poorer in his new home of Brooklyn—the only path to success seemed to be imitating the gangsters that dominated his neighborhood. So he ate instead of being eaten, and was thrown into juvenile detention at the tender age of 15.
But, like so many over-penalized youngsters, he wasn't actually a bad seed. He refused to let jail ruin the rest of his life. Instead, he used it as a springboard. With a positive attitude and help from a few mentors along the way, St. Germain became not just a success, but a force for good.
Today, he runs a mentoring program for at-risk youth called PLOT. He also advocates for juvenile justice reform in New York and national politics, and was recently appointed to the White House Task Force on Twenty First Century Policing. He worked closely with Mayor Bloomberg, served on the Youth Advisory Council of the NY Department of Criminal Justice, and advises U.S. congressmen like Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) on youth criminal justice. He's also a member of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton's Re-engineering Team, where he helps the NYPD reduce juvenile incarceration.
Jim has beaten the odds to become a prominent new voice in the fight against over-incarceration in the United States. And people are listening. Why? Because he lived it.
I was checking out your Twitter and I saw a picture of Paris with the caption “ringer on full” next to a picture of Aleppo with “ringer on silent.” It’s a striking image. Why did you feel like that was important to share?
I think traditionally in our society we're very selective when it comes to who we express sympathy for. Unfortunately, most of the times, race, ethnicity, religion plays a role in how we view these things. For example, there was a tragedy that took place in Paris where I think over 100 people died. A few months before or after, 10 times the amount of people were killed at a university in Kenya. Paris seemed like a big deal. The whole world was talking about it. People couldn't stop talking about it. Facebook allowed people to change their Facebook profiles to a France flag. None of the same things were done for the Kenyans who were even more brutalized. Thousands of innocent women and children.
It seems to me that they cover it when it's black killing white and they cover it when it's white killing black, but they ignore it when it's white on white or black on black. Chicago, for example, would be a huge crisis if it was happening elsewhere, and you just don't hear about it because I think the media knows people are like, "Ah, I don't care about that," because it's not a race crime.
At the end of the day, it's about what stories they think people will most likely gravitate toward. Obviously racism and America are mutually inclusive. You can't separate the two. The media understands that those stories get people riled up from every angle, and rightfully so to a certain degree. That said, when you have a conversation with some folks from the conservative areas, they'll tell you, "Oh, what about black on black crime?" Which makes no sense. It's like, "Hey, my house is on fire." You tell someone your house is on fire. Instead of them helping you put that fire out, they're like, "Oh, what about all the houses who caught fire prior to your house?" That makes no sense. I'm not talking about every other houses right now. Right now, my house is on fire.
I’d like to hear your story from the beginning, if you’re not too sick of telling it.
I was born in Haiti, in an area about 15 to 20 minutes outside of Port-au-Prince. My dad was unemployed for almost his entire adult life. As you can imagine, there aren't too many employment opportunities in Haiti, so a lot of people have to create their own little economy in terms of commerce in the streets, trying to sell things and whatever they can do to get by, or they are just unemployed. There weren't too many options.
My mom and my dad ended up having four kids together in addition to each having two before they met. The relationship really didn't work out between them. My dad was dealing with a lot of demons himself and had issues regarding his drinking problems. Even though he didn't have much whatever little he did have he would gamble it in cockfights and poker games and different things like that.
That strained their relationship and my dad also became very abusive after he would drink and get high. As a consequence of that, I started kind of drifting away and just being a street kid. I was all over in our neighborhood trying to just survive and do whatever I was able to do, whether it's helping someone, whether it's climbing a mango tree, whether it was helping someone clean their backyard and in return they would give me some food, or whether it was helping a guy who was a mechanic, a family friend. I would pass him tools and help him clean cars and different things like that as a way of just obtaining my next meal or anything that was available.
We didn't have access to TV or electricity, but when we did get a chance to perhaps see a movie at a neighbor’s house, it was a big deal. I remember one of my favorite movies as a kid was Home Alone with this kid named Kevin. In that movie, I saw the house he lived in and the neighborhood. I had a vision of me moving into an environment that looked just like that. I thought we would have a house and a dog and a car and neighbors saying hi to us. I just thought that America was heaven on Earth. I thought that once we came here, there would be no more suffering, no more pain, no more hunger. Everything would be fixed. Life would be perfect.
Little did you know...
Little did I know. I came here and it was just totally different than that. We moved into Crown Heights and there was a lot of drugs, a lot of violence. There was a lot of fighting. We were living in this rundown apartment and it was about 15 of us living in there. Things were different than I expected. Having a language barrier also was a part of the struggle that I had to deal with. Not only was I just trying to survive everyday, but I also had to find a way to break down barriers and assimilate into this new culture and society.
That struggle was very difficult. As a way of surviving that environment, either you were the prey or the predator. It was sort of like survival of the fittest because every time I would leave my apartment, there would be a kid harassing me and trying to fight me and get into stuff. You had to deal with gang members. The only way to really survive was to either become as the people who were trying to impose their will on you or become a victim. To me, I was never okay with playing the victim role, so I became more like a predator than the prey.
As a result, I started having run-ins with the law. Also, I lost a few friends to the streets who were murdered, shot and killed. I also lost friends who were deported back to Haiti and other friends who ended up serving a very long time in the criminal justice system. Lucky for me, all of this took place when I was really young. By the time I started to have my run-ins with the law, I hadn't turned 16 yet so I was still considered a minor. Finally, after being arrested multiple times, I caught two serious cases that were D felonies for selling drugs. At this point, the judge was really tired of me and just wanted to send me away.
My family gave up on me. They were just tired of going back to court. In Haitian culture, if your parents demand that you stop doing something and you continue to do it, then they're liable to give up on you and just allow you to go through your trials and tribulations by yourself since you're not listening. It's your job to deal with it alone, regardless of whether you're a kid or not. As you can imagine, navigating the legal system alone at that age can be really scary and daunting.
"I just thought that America was heaven on Earth. I thought that once we came here, there would be no more suffering, no more pain, no more hunger. Everything would be fixed. Life would be perfect."
That sounds like just about the most isolating rock bottom in existence. How did you find your way out?
While going through the juvenile justice system, I met some really great people. Had a dean from my junior high school who took me in as a mentee and really went out of his way to help me. I had my first lawyer, her name's Christine Bella, who also started to mentor me and she started to help me beyond the courtroom. Then I met another mentor who's a close friend of mine now. His name is Marty Feinman. I'm actually in his house right now.
After going through other juvenile justice facilities that were owned by the city of New York, I ended up with a nonprofit organization that runs group homes and other family services all across the country. It's called Boys Town.
There, I finally grew out of some of my behaviors. The change of my environment, the fact that now I was in a place that was conducive to productivity really made a difference. Folks started to invest more and more in me. I quit smoking. I quit drinking and I started to do things the right way. I started to read and I started to take school seriously.
Finally, I ended up taking my GED and I passed that. After that, I applied to college and started at BMCC. I did two years there where I studied human services, then afterwards I enrolled at John Jay College and I studied political science. I graduated from John Jay with a BA.
While I was there, I read books that helped me along the way. I remember reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I remember reading Dreams From my Father and this other book called The Pack by three young men who grew up in Newark, New Jersey who sort of had similar stories to mine and who were able to overcome them and became doctors. By the time I went home, I was about 18. I was already in college. I had gotten a little job at a supermarket, so there was really no need for me to go back to the streets and hang out with my old friends.
A few years later, I started to think about going back to the same facility I was in at Boys Town and to work there with the youngsters who were now involved in the system. Marty was able to help me get a job there. I ended up working there for about two to three years, but I was a little frustrated with the process of not being able to help young people as fast as I wanted to. I noticed that the youngsters who were coming into Boys Town were much younger, but they were also deeper into the streets than I was when I was their age.
Out of that experience, I called some of my friends who had helped me along the way and told them I wanted to start an organization where I could mentor young people, give them opportunities to go to college, and help them with job preparation. We followed through with that. Everybody was very gracious and decided to pitch in, and we were able to create PLOT. Now we have about 15 to 20 young people that we're mentoring in Brooklyn. My goal is to hopefully expand on that.
Wow. So Many questions. Here’s one that I've always wondered about and I apologize if it’s a bit simplistic. Is it worse to be poor in a place like Haiti, where everybody else is in the same situation, or is it worse to be poor in Brooklyn, where a few miles away you have extreme wealth?
That's a really good question. That's also a very tough question. I'm going to answer because I know you want an answer, but I must say that I personally don't believe in comparing pain and poverty. I think poverty is relative. Someone who's suffering in Haiti is suffering in Haiti. Someone who's suffering in America is suffering here in America.
With that being said, it's definitely worse in Haiti. Here, if I'm a homeless person who's hungry and I happen to walk 10 blocks and look into 10 different garbage cans, there's a chance that I might find a piece of bread, the end of a slice of pizza. I might find half of a bottle of water, and then I can eat that and at least feel better for the next hour. In Haiti, in certain places, you don't even have that option. There's nothing around. Literally nothing at all. As a kid, those are the things I experienced. The person who lives in public housing here and the elevator is broken and it's dirty and it stinks, and maybe they get $200 in food stamps, they're struggling. They're going through a lot. They're not living a life that some folks in the Upper West Side or in Beverly Hills are living, but if you're comparing those individuals to someone in Haiti, then those individuals are way better off.
However, the disparity between rich and poor is a whole different kind of pain. For example, I was in Cuba last month. I noticed that everybody in Cuba has just a little, just enough. Nobody had a lot, but everybody had just enough.
"The disparity between rich and poor is a whole different kind of pain."
Yeah, I've been there too. I noticed that same thing.
Right. For example, I didn't see homelessness in Cuba.
No homeless people. There's healthcare. There's a little electricity. Everybody has a little something, and to me, I find that to be so much better than knowing that Bloomberg is worth $30 billion and there'a 60,000 homeless people in New York City and 30,000 of them are children. I find that to be more painful and more immoral.
Yeah, because one relies on the other.
That's exactly right. Poverty in America can only happen because Bloomberg has $30 billion. What's fascinating to me is that the American people as a whole seem to not think that something is wrong with that.
Was there anything better about living in Haiti?
There’s this feeling I get when I'm in Haiti, and I also got it when I was in Cuba, that I don’t get when I'm in America. A feeling of being a first class citizens that you can't put a price on, as a young black man, to know that I'm in a country where my skin tone isn’t a liability. If I get pulled over, it has nothing to do with the fact that I'm black, it because I actually did something wrong. To me, it's something that's so freeing that I'm willing to give up whatever little luxury I have here to have that feeling. It’s more important that anything. I can imagine that's what it's like for white people in America.
Sadly, you have some African-Americans who never experience that. They don't know what it's like. Their entire lives they've been second class citizens and to me it's like, wow, how? How can this be possible? I think all these things go hand in hand.