Larry—not his real name—is 38. He is serving a 30-year sentence for murder in a New Jersey prison. He will not be eligible for parole until 2032, when he will be 55. His impoverished and nightmarish childhood mirrors that of nearly all prisoners I have worked with who were convicted of violent crimes. And as governmental austerity and chronic poverty consume the American landscape, as little is done to blunt poverty’s disintegration of families, as mass incarceration and indiscriminate police violence continue to have a catastrophic impact on communities, Larry’s childhood is becoming the norm for millions of boys and girls.
As a child, Larry, along with his sister, was beaten routinely by his stepfather, especially when the man was drunk.
“My sister and I would have to make up stories about the bruises we had, but she was a much better liar than me and I found myself telling a teacher everything that was going on,” Larry said to me. His admission to the teacher caused New Jersey child-protection authorities to intervene. His stepfather held back for a while, but he mercilessly beat and choked Larry when the boy was about 8. “I was struggling for breath and there were tears streaming down my cheeks,” Larry remembered. “He eased up on my neck and slammed my head against the tile, which split my head open and knocked me unconscious. I woke up in a hospital. I was told he was arrested and put in jail. I never saw him again. All I have to remember him now is a few bad memories and frequent migraines, which I get three times a week thanks to the concussion he gave me.”
Larry, like many others among the long-term incarcerated, made the rounds of group homes and youth shelters. When he was 10, his biological father took him to live in Florida.
“It started out as a vacation,” Larry said, “but it soon became hell. My father had gone out to a strip club one night and met some whore that introduced him to coke. It was a lifestyle he was unfamiliar with, but cocaine didn’t discriminate. It stripped him. It robbed him of everything we had. He pawned everything from the TV to my Walkman. Nothing seemed to be off limits. My father had my grandparents wire him money nearly every week. It wasn’t long until he drained them of their retirement fund and broke their hearts in two.
“He swore he would change his life, but it was too late for that,” Larry went on. “We moved back to Jersey. He took with us a garbage bag full of clothes and an ex-stripper that had recently turned him on to heroin. We went from motel to motel. Instead of going to school, I was taught by my father how to hotwire cars, bypass certain security systems and boost whatever I wanted. I helped support his habit that had spiraled completely out of control. He was shooting up a couple times a day. In about 11 months he had turned into this little skeleton of a man. It got so bad that he had to hit the veins in his foot because the ones in his arms had collapsed. He told me he was going to stop—‘any day now’—but he never did. He died with a needle in his leg at the Park Rest Motel in Edison from an overdose when I was a few months short of turning 14. I remember thinking it was just a bad dream, that everything was going to be fine. Rosa, his girlfriend, took what she could and ran off, leaving me with him until the ambulance arrived. He never woke up.”
Larry could barely speak for the next nine months. Until he turned 18, he again was in a succession of group homes and foster homes. Then, woefully unprepared psychologically and financially to cope with the world, he was on his own. He hitchhiked to California. He began using drugs. “Without them,” he said, “life became colorless.” He moved back to New Jersey, found a job and rented a house, but he could not keep it together. “My life spiraled out of control,” he said.
“One day, in the blink of an eye, my life had changed forever,” he said of the murder charge pressed against him. “I was in jail, facing more time than I had lived.”
Violent criminals are socialized into violence. And a society that permits this to take place is culpable. Over 15 million of our children go to bed hungry. Every fifth child (16.1 million) in America is poor. Every 10th child (7.1 million) is extremely poor. We have 25 percent of the world’s prison population. We have scaled back or cut social services, including welfare. Our infrastructures—including our inner-city schools, little more than warehouses—are crumbling. Police regularly gun down unarmed people in the streets. The poor spend years, sometimes lifetimes, without meaningful work or nurturing environments. And these forms of state violence fuel acts of personal violence.
Violent criminals, like all of us, begin as vulnerable, fragile children. They are made. They are repeatedly violated and traumatized as children, often to the point of numbness. And as adults they turn on a world that violated them, as the criminologist Lonnie Athens—himself raised in a violent household—has pointed out.
All of us, Athens says, carry within us phantom communities, those personalities and experiences that shape us and tell us how to interpret the world. The impact of these phantom communities, Athens writes, “is no less than [that of] the people who are present during our social experiences.” The phantom community, Athens says, is “where someone is coming from.” When your phantom community is a place of violence, you act out with violence. Violent criminal behavior is not a product of race. It is not even, finally, a product of poverty. It is a product of repeated acts of violence by figures of authority, including the state, upon the child.
“Violent actors act violently not because they are mentally ill or come from violent subcultures or are brain damaged or have low self-esteem but because they have different phantom communities from the rest of us,” Richard Rhodes writes in his book about Lonnie Athens, “Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist.” “The difference is the reason they attach different, violent meanings to their social experiences.”
If our phantom communities have been violent, Athens argues in his book “The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals,” then we will read violent intent into the motives of others based on our past experience. We are the product of our social experiences. Those who carry out violent crimes “always have some violence-related experiences in their backgrounds,” Athens writes.
“They [these phantom communities] tell us how an experience that we are undergoing will unfold before it actually ends, which can create in us a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy,” Athens writes. “Ironically, such self-fulfilling prophecies can stir such deep emotions in us that they can bring about the very experiences imagined.”
The slashing of state and federal programs for children and the failure to address the poverty that now grips half the country are creating a vast underclass of the young who often live in constant insecurity and fear, at times terror, and are schooled daily in the language of violence. As Athens has pointed out, “[T]he creation of dangerous violent criminals is largely preventable, as is much of the human carnage which follows in the wake of their birth. Therefore, if society fails to take any significant steps to stop the process behind the creation of dangerous criminals, it tacitly becomes an accomplice in creating them.”
Killers have reasons, however twisted, for killing “that they believe to be significant, not trivial, or senseless,” Athens says.
“Physical abuse,” he writes, “often causes central nervous system damage, thus contributing to impulsivity, attention disorders and learning disabilities … it provides a model with which to identify. Finally, it engenders rage toward the abusing parent, rage that can then be displaced onto authority figures and other individuals, against whom the child may vent this anger.”
“The basic assumption behind my theory,” Athens writes in “Violent Criminal Acts and Actors Revisited,” “is that crime is a product of social retardation. Social retardation exists when people guide their actions toward themselves and others from the standpoint of an underdeveloped, primitive phantom community, an ‘us’ that hinders them from cooperating in the ongoing social activities of their corporal community or the larger society in which it is embedded.”
In past societies, such as medieval Europe—where corporal punishment, especially of children, was widespread, along with domestic violence, sexual abuse, public floggings and executions—there was a corresponding higher rate of violent crime. In 13th-century England, Rhodes points out in his book on Lonnie Athens, “the national homicide rate was around 18 to 23 per 100,000.” The United States has a homicide rate of 4.5 per 100,000. But when you look at impoverished inner cities you find homicide rates that are astronomical. St. Louis has a homicide rate of 59.23 per 100,000, Baltimore 54.98 per 100,000, and Detroit 43.89 per 100,000. Some impoverished neighborhoods within American cities have even higher homicide rates. West Garfield Park in Chicago, for example, with 18,000 people, had 21 murders last year. This gives the neighborhood a homicide rate of 116 per 100,000 people.
The country’s 10 largest cities have seen murder rates climb by 11.3 percent in the last year.
No night class in marital counseling—David Brooks’ and the capitalist elites’ ridiculous response to social and economic disintegration—is going to help. These crimes are the crimes of neoliberalism, which, in the name of profit, has abandoned poor children in cities like Flint, Mich., where it forced them to drink poisoned water, and Baltimore and St. Louis. The idea that the elites are going to teach virtue to those they have oppressed is another example of how woefully out of touch our ruling classes—consumed by greed, hedonism and corruption—have become. Give the poor a chance economically by providing jobs, integrate them into the social order, provide vigorous protection and quality education for children, make possible a life of dignity for families, secure neighborhoods, end mass incarceration. If those things are done, violent crime and drug addiction will dissipate. If we continue down the road of neoliberalism and austerity, violent crime and drug addiction—the way many of the broken cope with the stress, humiliation and despair of poverty—will grow.
To understand the roots of violent crime is not to condone it. If we continue to ignore its causes, if we turn our backs as our children are brutalized, we perpetuate a world of misery for the young and create a world of misery for ourselves. Violentization, as Athens points out, is a developmental process. And, as Rhodes writes, “Violent people come to their violence by the same universal processes of soliloquy and dramatic self-change that carry the rest of us to conformity, pacifism, greatness, eccentricity or sainthood—and bear equal responsibility for their choices.”
“I am very ashamed of the man I am today,” Larry said. “I never thought this would be my life. I have tried to talk to God, but I’m not sure if he hears me or even wants to. I don’t necessarily blame him, but I do feel alone.”