A Life Behind Bars Before the Age of 24: Cadeem Gibbs’ Story

Originally published on December 12, 2014

On Jan. 3, 2007, Cadeem Gibbs, 16, started out with 100 bags of crack cocaine in his pocket. He finished the day with seven bags of crack cocaine, $924, and a one-year sentence to Rikers Island. Charged with drug possession and intent to sell, Gibbs knew that there was no escaping his fate. “For the first time ever in my life, I remember being afraid,” Gibbs said.

Initially, when Gibbs was arrested on 125th Street in Harlem, he told the police officers that he had no identification on him and that he was Sean Farmer, a 15-year-old made-up person from Harlem. “I lied because there was no way that I was telling them my real identity and my real age. Even if it didn’t work, I thought it would save me some time before going to jail,” Gibbs said.

Shortly after, Gibbs’ mother found out about his arrest through one of Gibbs’ drug clients. she appeared at the 32nd Precinct in Harlem looking for her son but was told by a police officer that no one with the name “Cadeem Gibbs” was being held there. From afar, Gibbs’ mother saw him handcuffed to a pole under the alias “Sean Farmer.” His identity was revealed, thus his fate as a 16-year-old adult criminal was sealed.

Immediately, Gibbs was sent to the 25th Precinct hub site in East Harlem. Gibbs got pushed into a van, cuffed to another criminal, sent to central booking, and placed in a holding cell. His bail was set at $7,500. “I was allowed to make one phone call, and I called one of my friends that was in the same [drug] business as me,” Cadeem said. “They would always tell me how if anything ever happened, they’d be there for me. But no one posted bail or even showed up to help.”

Shortly after central booking, Gibbs was forced onto a large white school bus with the words “Correction: New York City” plastered horizontally across the chipped white and blue paneling. When Gibbs stepped onto the bus, he noticed the first eight rows were cages outlining seats followed by eight rows of two person seats. Shackled to a man who reeked of alcohol and body odor, Gibbs endured a 20 minute bus ride to Rikers Island listening to this man ramble on about what was going to happen when they arrived at the jail. “Here we go again,” the man said.

Within 48 hours of his arrest, Gibbs arrived at Rikers Island. Entering the island, Gibbs peered outside the tiny, dark window of the bus and saw this grandiose, dimly lit sign that read, “City of New York Correction Department Rikers Island: Home of New York’s Boldest.” Barely able to keep his eyes open after being awake for almost two days, Gibbs anxiously awaited as the bus arrived at the jail. “The real fear set in when I actually got in the facility,” Gibbs said.

Given a green drinking cup, rubber toothbrush, plain toothpaste, a grey blanket, two pairs of rough sheets, a pair of bright orange shoes, Gibbs settled into his new home, 22 Cell Block, for the next nine months. “The whole atmosphere is like a permanent dark cloud,” Gibbs said.

New York State is the only other state other than North Carolina that tries 16- and 17-year olds as adults, regardless of the severity of the crime. Approximately 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested and faced prosecution as adults in criminal court with the vast majority committing minor, nonviolent misdemeanors in 2013, according to the annual performance report by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

In his 2014 State of the State address, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo proposed establishing the commission to “Raise the Age” and help ensure young people become productive and successful adults. “It is time to improve New York’s outdated juvenile justice laws and raise the age at which our children can be tried and charged as adults,” Cuomo said in his speech. In an effort to restructure the youth justice system, Cuomo assigned a panel to examine the state’s juvenile sentencing system and make the proper recommendations on raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old. The commission will have until the end of the 2014 year to form its recommendations.

“There is no right answer or magic bullet that will fix this enormous problem…This is a misguided statute. We can do much better. We can help these children and do so while upholding public safety. The two issues are not mutually separate,” Jeremy Kohomban, president and chief executive officer of The Children’s Village, a charitable institution dedicated to children and families of New York City, said.

While in Rikers Island at the age of 16, Gibbs filled a composition notebook with his future goals and business endeavors to pass the time. Gibbs meticulously organized each page and section, dedicated to his life after jail. Gibbs’ main objectives of operation, as listed in his notebook with red stars as bullet points, entailed raising capital, taking care of fan-base, providing employment opportunities for fellow minorities, being a proprietor of legitimate establishments, monopolizing and investing in assets. Gibbs called it “Deem’s Plan Layout for Business/Ventures.”

Photo // Charlotte Gibson Cadeem Gibbs' composition notebook from his first sentence inside Rikers Island.
Photo // Charlotte Gibson
Cadeem Gibbs’ composition notebook from his first sentence inside Rikers Island.

In order to achieve these goals, Gibbs had to comprise a second notebook dedicated to his drug business in order to generate enough money to pursue these future endeavors. “My whole plan was to still sell drugs,” Gibbs said. By generating revenue from his drug business, Gibbs believed that he could achieve and succeed in these business ventures. Altogether, Gibbs calculated that he could be making $3,535 dollars weekly re-up, $4,265 dollars weekly profit,
$2, 980 dollars weekly stock, and still have $1,285 dollars weekly left for necessities.

Upon his release from Rikers in September 2007, Gibbs said his circumstances remained the same as when he got arrested in January for drug charges. “I had it all mapped out [in my notebook] but I wasn’t prepared and I wasn’t thinking of reality,” Gibbs said. “I couldn’t foresee any of what I had planned at that point.”

Gibbs returned to Harlem and pursued his business, while attending GED classes at Bronx Community College. In three short months, Gibbs received his GED. Gibbs said the motive for getting his GED was to expand his network – his drug network. Each day, Gibbs showed up to the GED classroom at the Bronx Community College campus looking as if he had not a care in the world. Eyes bloodshot from smoking marijuana, Gibbs would come into the classroom, push the worksheets off the desk, propel his legs up on the table, and listen to music on his walkman. While everyone else worked vigorously on their assignments, Gibbs doesn’t even remember writing his name on anything besides the attendance sheet. However, Gibbs said he was the only one in the class to pass the GED practice test and the GED Exam. “There I am in the middle of my world doing what I am doing, and I am going to do something academically that I am not giving the slightest bit of thought to and I excelled at it,” Gibbs said. “I didn’t just pass it, I smacked it.”

Admitted to Bronx Community College in 2008, Gibbs declined the offer due to an arrest for selling drugs on Feb. 20, 2008. Gibbs went straight back to Rikers Island for six months. After being released in August, Gibbs said he felt like it was coming back to nothing – no business, no apartment, no girlfriend. Two weeks later, Gibbs was arrested for attempted murder and robbery in the first degree. “It was a drug transaction gone wrong. I gave someone a decent amount of money and they sold me something that was fake,” Gibbs said. “That was my lowest point because I had nothing and that led me to do what I did.” Spending two years at Rikers Island and then four years at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, New York, Gibbs was released on April 11, 2013.

While at Greene Correctional Facility, Gibbs enrolled in the college-prison program and received 27 credits with a 3.5 grade point average. “Everything was a self-motivated thing. In prison, I am just a number. So I had to do it for myself. I knew it was the last step before I transitioned back home,” Gibbs said.

For juvenile criminals like Gibbs, his first sentence to Rikers Island at 16 years old was not his first or last interaction with the justice system. At the ripe age of 11, Gibbs had been arrested for bringing a weapon to his sixth grade class. From there on, Gibbs got involved with drugs and gangs by the age of 14 and preceded to carry out the same patterns of criminal activity until the age of 24. Over the span of his life, Gibbs has spent eight years in both the juvenile and the adult prison systems.

For young offenders like Gibbs, the rate of recidivism, the act of relapsing into criminal behavior, increases when treated and charged as adults by the court system at the age of 16. Youth admitted to the adult criminal justice system expose themselves to 34 percent more re-arrests for felony crimes than youth retained in the youth justice system and are 80 percent more likely to commit more serious crimes, according to a 2007 study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Task Force on Community Preventive Services. In order to reduce the number of re-arrests and threats of recidivism, “The Task Force recommends against laws or policies facilitating the transfer of juveniles from the juvenile justice to the adult judicial system for the purpose of reducing violence,” Robert A. Hahn, Coordinating Scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Youth in the adult system receive limited services and often become socialized into a culture where their role models are adult criminals and violence is a routine part of life, according to Charles Davis, Program Manager at Harlem Justice Community Program.

“When you place a person in that situation/structure of the adult justice system, the outcome will be a poorly educated young adult,” Davis said. “You essentially handicap them from being a productive adult because you aren’t giving them the proper tools to succeed.” Young men like Gibbs have the capacity to move their lives away from a life of crime but it is up to the external systems to support that person and help them become whole again, Davis said.

Since serving six years for attempted murder and robbery, Gibbs has struggled to find a consistent and stable job that he both enjoys and pays the bills. Determined to get right back on his feet after being released from prison in 2013, Gibbs has bounced from job-to-job as a campaign aide, paralegal, maintenance worker, peer counselor, motivational speaker, and warehouse worker. Due to Gibbs’ inconsistent work flow, from December 2013 to October 2014, he said he was practically jobless and homeless. “I was seriously depressed,” Gibbs said.

On Oct. 2, 2014, Gibbs was arrested in Harlem for one count felony arrest charge and arraignment charge for third degree robbery. “After that, I kinda fell into a slump to be honest,” Gibbs said. Gibbs denied the charges and said it was a misconception from the person that reported the incident and the police that arrested him. He is due to appear in court on Jan. 13, 2015 for the hearing and trial. For Gibbs, his arrest, on what he claims are faulty charges, is an example of how he is mistreated because of his arrest record, thus making him a victim of the justice system.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson Cadeem Gibbs checks his emails at The Children's Village in Harelm, New York.
Photo // Charlotte Gibson
Cadeem Gibbs checks his emails at The Children’s Village in Harelm, New York.

Sitting behind a desk, staring at a computer screen in The Children’s Village computer lab on a Wednesday afternoon in December, Gibbs looked at the page of emails sitting in his inbox. The reflection from Gibbs’ Gmail account illuminated from his plastic framed glasses showcasing a series of bold letters drowning the page. The baby blue walls of the computer lab contrasted with a large whiteboard reflecting light from the two small windows adjacent to where Gibbs sat. Inspirational quotes from famous political leaders and artists scattered from every corner of the whiteboard. “During your life, never stop dreaming,” from Tupac. “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” from Nelson Mandela. These words fell into the darkness as Gibbs carefully focused on and read an email from the law office where he recently got employed a month ago as a paralegal aide. Gibbs leans back in his seat and says he has too much on his plate and needs to eliminate some projects and jobs from his life.

“My greatest weakness is that I am a perfectionist. I have dozens of projects that I’ve started that will never see the light of day,” Gibbs says. “In my mind, I feel like I do it because I know I shouldn’t be. I need to make up for lost time.”