Jim St. Germain

A Stone of Hope: A Memoir

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A Stone of Hope: A Memoir Summary

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A Stone of Hope is a 2017 memoir by author and prison reform activist Jim St. Germain. Co-written by Jon Stanfield, the book recounts St. Germain’s early life as a young drug dealer in Crown Heights, New York, who became rehabilitated after spending time in the Boys Town juvenile detention facility.

Jim St. Germain is born to a penniless family in Haiti. At the age of ten, his large family relocates to a crowded and dilapidated apartment in the Brooklyn, New York neighborhood of Crown Heights. The small apartment houses fourteen members of the St. Germain extended family. His surroundings engender a sense of hopelessness and indifference. His father battles drug and alcohol addiction, and his family barely gets by, often without access to running water, electricity, and health care. On some days, the children go hungry for lack of food.

In order to survive, St. Germain gets involved in petty theft and dealing crack cocaine. In addition to survival, St. Germain says he engaged in miscreant behavior in large part due to negative peer pressure from other kids his own age and those a little older than him. In the absence of positive mentorship from people like his father, teachers, or other students, St. Germain says it’s only natural for a kid in his position, whose life is dominated by trauma, to skip school, get in fights, deal drugs, and steal. St. Germain describes this period of his life with a sense of self-awareness. At the time, he knows he is on a crash course with incarceration and death. However, with so few positive influences and no path toward a better life available to him, St. Germain sees no means for escape.

After a dozen or more run-ins with the law, at fifteen, St. Germain is arrested for a serious offense: dealing crack. He is lucky that his arrest takes place shortly before his sixteenth birthday because in the state of New York, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are treated as adults in the criminal justice system. Because St. Germain is still fifteen, the judge sends him to a local juvenile detention facility known as Boys Town.

St. Germain draws a stark difference between Boys Town and traditional prisons or juvenile detention facilities. The boys at Boys Town receive positive reinforcement from male mentors, as opposed to the prison system where inmate management is focused on negative reinforcement and punishment. Although strictly structured, Boys Town rewards the boys with various privileges in response to positive behavior. St. Germain also says he can’t overestimate the importance of simply having access to the things many Americans take for granted, such as health care, electricity, a sense of family, and an education that provides real value, both in a vocational sense and a purely academic sense.

In contrast, St. Germain describes the “hell” that his life would become had he been sixteen at the time of his arrest and sentenced to Rikers Island. To illustrate the harsh conditions of prison life at Rikers Island, the author relates the story of Kalief Browder. At the age of sixteen, Browder is wrongfully accused of punching a man and stealing his backpack. Browder refuses to accept a plea deal because he is innocent, not guilty. Furthermore, he might have avoided jail time had he been able to pay $3,000 to be released on bail. Instead, he spent three years at Rikers Island awaiting trial. Although the young man isn’t found guilty by a jury, he still must languish in prison until he’s twenty years old. For two of his years at Rikers, Browder is forced to live in solitary confinement, without any chance of receiving positive reinforcement. In solitary, Browder starves and is beaten by guards. When put into the rest of the prison’s population, he is regularly beaten by other inmates and, again, by the guards.

When Browder is finally released, having been found to bear no responsibility for the crime he was accused of, he is the broken shell of the young man he used to be. He suffers terrible bouts of PTSD, reliving flashbacks of his horrific experiences at Rikers on a daily basis. After numerous attempts, Browder eventually kills himself in 2015, a clear victim of the criminal justice system in America.

Meanwhile, St. Germain’s experience gives him hope and the self-confidence to complete his GED and to later enroll in the Borough of Manhattan Community College which awards him an associate degree. Shortly thereafter, St. Germain graduates magna cum laude from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and today runs a non-profit, Preparing Leaders for Tomorrow, providing mentorship to New York youths between the ages of nine and twenty-one.

St. Germain’s successes are contrasted with the horrible depravities most at-risk youths face growing up in poverty in America’s cities. As a result, A Stone of Hope is at once an inspiring story of redemption but also a harrowing look at all the ways America’s criminal justice system must be reformed.