Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of presenting at a conference organized by the Lagos State Government Office of the Special Adviser on Education. Focused on public policy, entrepreneurship and leadership, the conference program featured presentations in each field and discussion with the student leaders who represented all tertiary institutions of Lagos including Lagos State University, the University of Lagos, Yaba College of Technology, and many others.
My presentation, entitled “Bad Boys: Youth and Urban Violence,” related to the humanity of criminality and society’s formation of the identity of the criminal, or ‘bad boy.’ One of the highlights was the question and answer session following my presentation during which a student asked a question in reference to “the $40,000 a year spent on prisoners in the United States.” His question: “How can we compare Nigeria to the United States, where so much money is being spent on prisoners, that they just want to keep going back to prison?” My, painfully calm and articulate, response dictated some important facts about the cyclical nature of incarceration in the United State, and Nigeria, that unfortunately exists and go unrecognized whereby men and women continue to return to prison once they have been released.
My response highlighted a few points including the nature drug and alcoholism highly prevalent in those who go to prison, and remains untreated upon release, not to mention mental illness, and the high grade of stigmatization that formerly incarcerated individuals face upon returning to society in terms of jobs security, housing, food and connections and relationships to friends and family. With little rehabilitation efforts or programs for self or professional development, prison does not provide the stepping stones for someone to positively re-enter society, rather, it provides the stigmatization of ‘criminal’ that Michelle Alexander so aptly describes in her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Era of Colorblindness.” My point was that Nigeria is no different. Men return to prison because they know no other way. With little means for survival, or even mechanisms for securing basic needs such as housing and food, the obvious choice is to re-engage in the negative behaviors that produced repercussions with the justice system originally. Moreover, especially in the case of the United States, parole extends the sentence of prison beyond the walls of the correctional institution to a high-watch incarcerated lifestyle pending on the brink of minor violations.
Bad boys, I explained are merely young men who engage with their urban environment through strategies for survival, which show little regard for formal law and in many ways are no different than the unlawful behavior of you or I, but the fact that their crimes are ones for which they were caught and tried.
Who is a criminal? We might think of a particular identity, rather than think of ourselves or society as a whole.
Who is a victim? We might think of the morally innocent and ubiquitous justice, rather than bad boys, or even area boys, as victims of their own urban environment.
Youth participating in urban violence begs all of us to question the factors relating to youth seeing violence as the only solution, while finding themselves participating in violence in the midst of stress, confusion, lack of space, lack of understanding of personal identity, and conflict with assertion of their role as a “true” man. Often the quest for assertion of masculine identity produces the sentimentalism of their response of disorderly behavior as they find any means necessary to vocalize their manhood and project it onto all for affirmation – especially those who fall victim to it, including women and children.