The Orlando Sentinel
February 2, 2002
By Maya Bell
MIAMI — The day a 17-year-old boy hanged himself in the county jail, Xavier Cortada left the sterile concrete lockup west of Miami’s airport, drove to his studio and, with tears streaming down his face, took his rage out on canvas.
With bold, brooding strokes, Cortada painted the boy’s body dangling from a bedsheet, swinging back and forth like a pendulum, the thrashing weight cutting an angry red gash into the floor.
To the Miami artist, lawyer and activist, the floor might as well be the conscience of Florida, wounded by its policy of letting prosecutors turn children who do bad things into adults by the stroke of a pen.
When Cortada painted the image for an exhibition that opened Friday, he did not know the dead boy’s name. Or that he had been transferred to adult court after his first arrest on drug charges. Or that he had been so determined to die, he made a noose for his neck out of a sheet, tied it to a pipe under the sink and then pulled until all life drained out of him.
But Cortada already was on a mission with the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office to enlist the 140 boys confined to the
second floor of the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Facility in making a mural inspired by the state’s “direct file” law.
“We say we love our children, but it’s conditional love. We love them unless — unless they’re threatening, unless they’re poor, unless they need our help,” Cortada said. “The direct-file policy is proof of that. We do it so we have a clear conscience. So we can say, `Well, we don’t have to love you. You’re an adult.”
Expanded after teen robbers killed a number of tourists in the early 1990s, the law gives prosecutors discretion to charge juveniles as young as 14 in adult court without a hearing before a judge. The number of transfers has been dropping since lawmakers beefed up the juvenile justice system in 1994, but Florida consistently leads the nation, and Miami-Dade the state, in the number of minors it rechristens adults.
Last year, 2,077 Florida children under 18 were bound over to adult court, 415 of them in Miami-Dade. The overwhelming majority were not accused of murder, but of burglary, robbery and drug crimes.
Prosecutors defend the system, saying they use transfers to adult court to protect the public from kids either too old or too dangerous to benefit from the juvenile system. After all, they say, the juvenile court loses jurisdiction over youths by age 19, and that’s just not long enough to reach or to punish some kids who have gone astray.
Many criminologists, psychologists and juvenile judges have long argued that the “adult crime, adult time” mantra that guided Florida’s get-tough approach to juvenile crime in the early 1990s is doing more harm than good — giving up on children who could be salvaged.
Cortada, though, is pretty much alone in turning to art to spread that message. He began using art as an agent for social change in the slums of South Africa, which he visited in 1994 to lecture on drug abuse for the U.S. Information Agency.
A lawyer by training, he became an expert on drug use and other anti-social behavior in much the same way he became an artist — circuitously. After graduating from the University of Miami School of Law in 1991, he joined UM’s psychiatry department to head prevention programs for juvenile violence and delinquency.
That’s where he picked up the “pro-social” jargon that peppers his speech and permeates his art. Working with sociologists, psychiatrists and doctors, he learned that kids who turn to crime and drugs usually lack positive — or pro-social — bonds with their families, schools and communities.
It wasn’t until he stood in the community center in Soweto, however, that he realized art could help build those bonds.
Standing in his coat and tie, the New York-born Cuban-American who grew up in Miami couldn’t quite connect to the bedraggled Zulu boys who had been rounded up from the street to hear him speak. So he loosened his tie, dispensed with his translator and fetched his sketchpad, drawing pictures of lost souls detoured by drugs.
Almost by magic, the cultural and linguistic barriers evaporated. The boys grew interested and animated. Cortada, now 37, was transformed.
“That process has translated into what I do now,” Cortada said. “I had always doodled and drawn but it wasn’t until then that I said, `Wait a minute. I am not a professor. I am not a lawyer. I am an artist.’ ”
It was his legal training, however, that propelled Cortada to turn his sights — and paintbrush — on Florida’s transfer policy.
When he first walked into the jail — known as TGK — late last year, he expected the kids awaiting trial or sentencing as adults to be “scary, threatening, hard-core,” the very picture of the fearsome “super-predators” who had inspired the get-tough juvenile laws.
But all he met were pimply-faced boys swimming in oversized jail jumpsuits and adult-sized woes. Cortada thought of them as “convictims” — part convict, part victim.
Cortada spent very little time at TGK doing the stuff most people think artists do. He didn’t paint or sketch. Joined by a
photographer and videographer, he gave pep talks, told stories, asked questions, listened, learned and encouraged.
The boys responded, writing rap songs, poems and essays. They jotted down what they would like to see printed on the backs of jumpsuits instead of INMATE DC JAIL, eagerly pasting their words on the mural that will hang in the lobby of the Public Defender’s Office. “A person with feeling, not an animal,” one boy said. “Don’t throw me away. I’ve got potential,” another said.
Ranging in age from 14 to 18, each had a different story, but they shared some similarities. Few knew both parents, or could count on them for guidance or support. Most lived in neighborhoods awash in poverty, violence and drugs. Until their arrests, some had never had three meals a day or the same bed each night. They rarely thought about the future.
“I’m not saying these kids didn’t do wrong. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be locked up,” Cortada said, “but the truth is this place is full of kids without expensive lawyers, without the means, without the support systems, to get them out.”
TROUBLE AT HOME
Most had many chances in the juvenile justice system, but failed when they were returned to the environs where they found trouble. One Hispanic youth, 18, had a drug problem and a rap sheet for breaking into houses and stealing other people’s valuables. His mother married when she was just 13; his father was too busy battling alcohol to work, leaving his son to be the man of the house.
“I did what I could,” the boy said. “I’d give my mom money, tell her it was from helping people move. She didn’t believe me, but she took it because we needed it.”
But Garry Petit-Frere never had a crack at the juvenile system, and in Cortada’s opinion, is the “ultimate convictim.”
The 17-year-old Haitian, whose last name means “little brother” in French, was arrested for the first time last July for possession of cocaine and a shotgun. Because of his age and his charges, prosecutors bound him over to adult court. He bonded out, going home to a ramshackle house neighbors thought was abandoned.
A few months later, Petit-Frere was re-arrested on the same charges and, four days before Christmas, transferred to the county jail. The time was 2 a.m. Less than 10 hours later, he was found kneeling in his cell, his head under the sink, a noose around his neck.
“Little brother,” Cortada said. “His name says everything. He’s our little brother and he died on our watch.”