Prison cell block (by Bob Jagendorf via Wikimedia Commons)
Numbers are tricky. Studies are done. Reports are written. Statistics released. And then people take the numbers and run with them, waving them like protest placards claiming how the numbers prove or disprove some long held “truth.” The Right does it. The Left does it. We all do it. Maybe there’s a tiny toggle in the human genome that manipulates us to manipulate the numbers. That's why I've never liked numbers, never trusted them.
I saw this all play out in a recent Boston Globe Op-Ed piece about the high rates of recidivism in U.S. prisons. Using the most recent data from the Bureau of Statistics, the numbers roll out: Within six months of being freed 28 percent of former prisoners were arrested for a new crime; three years, 68 percent; five years, 77 percent. Twenty-nine percent of the returnees had been arrested for violent offenses; 38 percent for property crimes; 39 percent for drug offenses; 58 percent for public order crimes. I think everyone would agree that the numbers paint a pretty bleak picture.
Most teachers are curious about what school is like for a student. Meet a kindergarten tyke encountering the classroom for the first time; a middle schooler trying to balance body chemistry, a developing mind, and new ways of learning; a high school teenager looking beyond the classroom into the world and most teachers want to hear how he or she is experiencing one of the most important parts of their lives.
So when I saw my 11 year old niece recently, I asked her how school was going. I was prepared for the standard kid response—“fine.” What I wasn’t prepared for was the sudden sound of defeat in her answer.
Most of us know at least a few young teens—15-, 16-,
17-year-olds. A son or daughter. A niece
or nephew. A neighbor or a friend’s
grandchild. We see them around, waiting for the school bus, surfing the
sidewalk on a skate board, hanging out at the mall. Despite what they insist,
teens are only on the cusp of adulthood, and most of us will do whatever we can
to help them make it in the world.
Until, that is, one of those youths gets arrested. Then
all that good will disappears. At least that’s the case in over half the states
which have yet to change their laws prosecuting young teenagers (under the age
of 18) as adults and, if convicted, sending them to adult correctional
facilities. Suddenly that young person becomes
an exile to all the protections and decencies that communities work hard to
provide their children, and she or he enters a world that is blind to the needs
and vulnerabilities of every developing adolescent. (This disenfranchisement is
made starkly clear by the fact that in some states the parents of those teens are
not notified when their children are arrested.)There is nothing nice about a
kid in an adult prison or jail—nothing any of us would wish on the young teens
that we know.
This isn’t about teachers being afraid that they’ll be knifed in class or have their cars stolen in the bad neighborhoods where they teach. Nor are they worried that a disruptive student will threaten them, or that a disturbed gunman will invade their school. It’s not about being berated by an angry parent, or accused of being unfair—or something far worse—by a student.
I follow the education reform debate closely. Over time I realized that most of the voices raised in this debate were those of people who had nothing to do with the classroom. The obvious question was, “What do politicians, business executives, clergy, academic researchers know about teaching?” The people who would know best—teachers—were rarely heard. Yet the ones I knew and came in contact with were eager to talk about what they did. It was a decidedly different conversation from the ones the pundits and critics were having. Yes, most teachers lamented mandated testing, the loss of classroom autonomy and a one-size-fits-all curriculum shaped by test results. But most were happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do, given the day).
So I decided to invite teachers from a variety of educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom.
In approaching teachers to write for the series I was surprised how many at first hesitated. It wasn’t because they were too busy or didn’t have anything to say. Some had even written drafts and then gotten cold feet about going public. None of the articles were vindictive or critical of their school administrations. None were personal attacks or a fault finding feast. If anything the pieces were warmhearted, funny, and insightful. What criticism there was was directed toward our national education policy and its harmful effect on students. Still, in the end, a few teachers backed out altogether while others asked that their full name not be used or that their schools’ location be purposely vague.
And there’s the fear. Teachers were worried that somehow they would get in trouble with their school administrators. From what many teachers report there’s a strong message being given to teaching staffs: Don’t rock the boat. Don’t ask questions. Don’t bring up the inconvenient truth, say, of a school policy implemented to meet a national mandate that contradicts current research or best practices. In such an atmosphere of distrust, powerlessness, and alienation from what should be a culture of collegiality and collaboration what choices do teachers have but to hunker down and try to survive? After all, these days, teacher evaluations have become just as high stakes as student testing.
According to a MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, teacher satisfaction has slipped from 65% in 2008 to only 39% in 2012. Perhaps this fear of speaking out is contributing to that dissatisfaction. The sample of teachers that I encountered may seem small and therefore inconclusive. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that teachers from different schools and different parts of the country felt this fear, this need for caution. But it’s enough to make me wonder what is going on in our schools when teachers are afraid to engage in sincere democratic discourse, a process that we have always valued and that we teach our students is an essential ingredient of a healthy country.
It’s hard reading about the lockstep curriculum
set out by Common Core with its emphasis on “informational readings,” and
seeing all the hoops students and teachers have to jump through to meet its
standards. Quite frankly, it makes me sad.
“Why sad?” you might wonder. Frustrated, maybe, or for that
matter, mad. But sad? Usually when the topic is education reform frustrated and
mad come easily to me. But this is different. I’m a romantic (as I think many
English teachers are) and I see literature—poetry, drama, fiction—and its power
to change people’s lives as the heart of an English teacher’s job.
But the designers of Common Core don’t see it that way. They assert that
students have been raised on an easy-read curriculum and because of this they
are unable to analyze complex reports, studies and government documents. The
administration’s solution is to have informational texts make up 50 percent of
elementary school readings and 70 percent of 12th grade readings by 2014.
Unfortunately, the burden of this solution will fall mostly on English
teachers, leaving them little time to teach real literature. Instead they will
somehow have to figure out ways to get kids interested in such texts as “Fed Views” by
the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) or “Executive Order 13423:
Strengthening Federal Environmental Energy, and Transportation Management”
published by the General Services Administration.
So yes, it makes me sad to see the education of the heart—the real core of any
worthwhile English curriculum—gutted for the sake of global competition, and to
see teachers once again take the hit for “dummied down” education.
But I feel saddest for the kids who must struggle their way
through this type of literal—not literary—education, especially those kids
for whom school is already a difficult and alienating place.
I’ve worked with those students in both
alternative high schools and a county prison, young men and women who have
already had the heart taken out of their lives by poverty, racism, abandonment
and neglect. They have very little interest in school because the traditional
school setting has had very little interest in them. And now this latest
roadblock makes success even harder to attain: a reading curriculum that has
less to do with real life, their real life, and more to do with corporate
As an English teacher it’s never easy to get
disaffected kids to pick up a book and read. I was constantly justifying my
choices, answering the question every literature teacher (and author) is
confronted with in one way or another, “What’s this got to do with me?” But
once we got past those hurdles and students gave a particular reading a chance,
I have seen books—novels, plays, poetry, biography, memoir—save at-risk kids’
lives, if only for the time that they are reading them.
I’m pretty certain that one of the Federalist Papers, a Common
Core selection, wouldn’t have kept 15-year-old Warren out of trouble on the
cell block and coming to my jailhouse classroom. But Manchild in the Promised Land did. As Warren put
it, “I’ve never ever read a whole book before,” but once he got his hands on
Claude Brown’s memoir that changed. Slowly, he got lost in a book that not only
reflected Warren’s own troubled life but also did something else—showed him a
young man much like himself deciding that life on the streets was no life at
all. That book helped keep Warren out of trouble and coming to school long
after he’d read the last page.
The way poetry did for ‘Nor, a 17-year-old
single mom who worked the 3-11 shift at Sears. ‘Nor never missed a day of
school because of the poets she read in class like Nikki Giovanni, Langston
Hughes, Rilke, Luis Rodriguez, and her favorite, the enigmatic Emily Dickinson.
She didn’t always understand what she read but those words helped her survive
life in the projects where too often words had nothing to do with poetry.
And it’s hard to imagine that George Orwell’s “Politics and the
English Language” would have had Tanya, a real cut-up with a long suspension
record from her home school, jumping off the school bus and running towards me
yelling, “Mr. C., Mr. C, I finished 1984! I can’t
believe what they did to Winston!”
Given the way this country is going, haunted by
one tragedy after another, maybe it’s time to re-examine what we want our true
Common Core to be. Maybe it’s time to worry more about the heart of America,
and about all America’s children and less about the bankrolls of corporate
America. Let’s design a reading curriculum that keeps kids connected to their
schools, to their communities and to their best selves.
Over the last few months, Chura's blog, Kids in the System, has featured a series called "Teachers in Their Own Words." Chura invited "a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom." It's made for enlightening, inspirational reading. We asked him a few questions about the series for Beacon Broadside.
David Chura will speak at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Boston this Saturday, as part of Beacon's panel on Literary Nonfiction and Social Activism. See him—along with Courtney Martin, Michael Patrick MacDonald, Marianne Leone, and Beacon Director Helene Atwan—at 9am Saturday in Room 206, level 2. Get more information on AWP panels featuring Beacon authors, and be sure to visit us in the Bookfair at booth 1214 for author signings and a 35% discount on all books.
What inspired you to ask other teachers to write about their
The educational debate is lively, fierce at times, and filled with
voices—of economists, politicians, business executives, unions, academics,
educational experts. The one voice that is under represented, if not silent, is
that of classroom teachers, the folks on the front lines of education. But that
silence hasn’t been my experience. In my many conversations with teachers that
I know, and in my correspondence with those from across the country who have
reached out to me through the internet, teachers have a lot to say. Yes,
they’re concerned about the policies that are being made about curriculum,
about standardized testing, about teacher evaluation. But what they are really
talking about is what matters most to them: the everyday classroom and the kids
that they teach and nurture and care about, and about how they can do their
best for their students. The absence of teachers’ voices in the educational
debate has bothered and saddened me. In order to break that silence I began the
series, “Teachers in Their Own Words,” inviting teachers to write about what is
most on their minds.
Teaching is a demanding job under the best conditions. How do
teachers who have additional challenges—of teaching kids in lockup, overcoming
ESL difficulties, getting through to kids who have been abused—find the
strength to do what they do?
I think all teachers but especially those working
with special needs students ask themselves that question: how—and why—do I keep
doing this? The answer is pretty simple. They’re nourished by the steps—little steps, big steps, leaps and bounds, and sometimes a
mere eighth of an inch forward—that their students make, students for whom any
progress is a struggle of effort against some pretty hefty odds. Teachers
facing the extra challenge of special needs students learn to appreciate not
just the successes of their students (and there are many) but also to value the
effort that these kids put into their work. Why teach in challenging
classrooms? Galway Kinell put it nicely: “everything flowers, from
within, of self-blessing /though sometimes it is
necessary/to reteach a thing its loveliness.” Who wouldn’t show up day after
day for that?
Given that the educational system is always under heavy scrutiny
and budget pressure, do you think that teachers have to, in some way, be
Being a teacher, almost by definition, means being an activist.
And given the present economic and educational climate, teachers as agents of
change seem even more imperative. For a teacher, that change happens daily in
the classroom as he or she is alert to the needs of students: it may be for a
winter coat, a pair of eyeglasses to see the board, or a dental checkup; or it
may be a need for protection from bullies, from abusive treatment at home, from
danger in the streets on the way to school. Any teacher knows that these needs must
be attended to as soon as possible—there’s no time for the bickering of experts—in
order to ensure student safety and wellbeing. In turn, dealing with those needs
on the everyday level often has compelled teachers to become involved in the larger
national debate on such issues as economic disparity, gun control and health
care. The insights teachers bring to these issues comes from their knowledge and
experience of the whole child and their
firsthand awareness of the impact that these and other social issues have on
kids’ development and education. It’s a perspective only teachers can bring to our
national discourse about what is best for our children. It’s a voice we need to
I met Amber at a tutoring program for inner city children. It was 1966, my senior year in high school, and the war on poverty was on, a war we’ve failed to win.
At nine years old Amber looked like a scarecrow, an old scarecrow at that, bird-picked, weather beaten. She was stick thin. None of her clothes fit, hand-me-downs from her sister Bunny who quickly outgrew her clothes while her younger sister didn’t seem to grow at all. Her eyes were dark circled; her hair, straw and falling out.
Saturday mornings she was one of the first kids through the church basement doors. My friends and I weren’t naïve. We knew that that gaggle of children who showed up each week wasn’t there for the mandatory hour of instruction. They put up with our drilling them on the timestables or helping them parse a paragraph. They were really there for the cookies and milk, and the tables spread with art supplies and games. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that they may have been just as eager for our attention, our reliability, and perhaps even our youthful faith in the future as for those treats.
I worked with Amber all that year. She didn’t progress much. But that didn’t seem to matter. She was always there. Besides, there was something else going on: I was being tutored in what poverty was really all about.
Walking Amber home several times I got to see where she lived—a cramped, drafty tenement—and to meet the rest of her family. Her mother, Mrs. Laurel, was as frail and battered looking as Amber. She had a nervous tic that twitched her head, a purple bruise on her cheekbone, a baby on her hip and a toddler pulling at her housecoat. Peter, a year older than Amber, dervished through the apartment while Bunny, a twelve year old with a fifteen year old’s body, refused to say hello.
There were no secrets in the Laurel family. Sitting at their kitchen table I heard how Bunny was boy-crazy, how Peter ate paste in school, and how they all loved margarine and sugar sandwiches. Amber, I was told, shared the bed of whatever brother or sister let her: she was a bed wetter. Pointing to the toddler pulling a waste basket over and the baby on her lap, Mrs. Laurel told me how “Mr. Laurel” was in and out of the house. “That’s what these two are all about,” she laughed ruefully then touched her cheekbone.
I lost track of the Laurels when I went off to college and got involved in another war—the war against the war, the Vietnam War. I didn’t think about them until Ronald Reagan in the 1980s started talking about the “deserving poor.” By then I was teaching kids in an alternative high school that very well could’ve been the children of an Amber or a Peter or a Bunny. I remember at the time wondering if the Laurels would’ve fit Reagan’s criteria for “deserving.” What would he have made of that bubble bath that tumbled out of the grocery bag Mrs. Laurel plopped down on the table one day when I was there? Or the endless packages of Lick-a-maid her kids lapped up from their grimy palms instead of lunch.
And now, years later, census figures show that the US poverty rate has hit its highest levels since President Johnson declared war on it, and that child poverty has increased from its 2010 twenty-two percent level.
This is especially bad news in these high stakes, high pressure days of “educational reform.” How will the Ambers of this world fare with so much depending on a student’s test performance especially when “education reformers” continue to refuse to acknowledge the crippling role that economic disparity plays in academic performance? Yet the stakes have gotten higher. According to a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, “US Education Reform and National Security,” (a report Diane Ravitch called the latest education “jeremiad”) educational failures are indeed a threat to national security. Another burden put on young shoulders.
In 1962 Michael Harrington showed America the face of “the invisible poor.” Now that the ranks of the Ambers among us are growing will we finally be able to look squarely into those faces and help the children of poverty achieve true academic parity? Or do we—and they—have to wait another 50 years?
“You don’t care about the victims. All you care about are those kids.”
It was a comment I’ve heard in one form or another at book events, at juvenile justice talks I’ve given, or in response to pieces I’d written about our national policy of retribution towards troubled kids. I have to admit, though, this guy was a bit more, shall I say, challenging, as he stood up after my reading and made his comment.
I’d read several advice articles for authors on giving readings suggesting you have “pat answers” ready for the Q & A. It keeps things moving. It may be good advice, but I’ve found it doesn’t work for me. Juvenile justice is too potent a topic be “pat answered” away. Besides, I wrote I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup about the young offenders I taught for 10 years in the adult county prison to get people thinking about this much-neglected issue. So I do my best to address each concern sincerely.
Fielding the man’s rather angry question, I talked about my belief that kids should indeed be held accountable for their actions; that they should learn that what they did affected not only their victims and their families and communities but also the young offenders themselves and their families and communities. What I couldn’t support was the punitive quality of that accountability as it is now practiced in our prison system.
I could tell that evening’s questionerwaspretty disgusted. I was one more bleeding heart, one more knee jerk liberal, one more sucker taken in by “those kids.” He was gracious about it. He didn’t say any of that out loud. He didn’t have to. I’d heard it all before.
But his comment stayed with me long after the event: What did I feel about the victims?
I talk a lot about victims in my book. But the victims in this case are the locked up high school students I worked with for those 10 years. In telling their stories — stories of childhood neglect and abandonment; of sexual abuse; of violence in the home and on the streets; of parental addiction and disease — I wanted readers to at least be aware of the fertile ground of mistreatment in which these children grew up. From my challenger’s point of view I’m sure I do go on too much about “those kids” and not about the people who suffered because of their crimes. (It’s important to note, however, that many of the teens I came across in jail — and this holds true for prisons nationally — were serving time for victimless, nonviolent offences.) I was beginning to wonder if maybe the guy was right. Maybe I didn’t care about crime victims?
Like all good questions, this one stayed with me well afterwards. Yet despite the doubts he raised for me I knew that I did care deeply about the people hurt by crime; that, in an odd twist on the title of my book, “I don’t wish nobody” to have their lives damaged by the irresponsible acts of others, young or old. I turned the question over and over until finally I understood more clearly where I stood: the only way to protect society from youthful offenders and to prevent more crime was to protect the offenders themselves.
Study after study has shown that the harsh treatment of young people locked up in our nation’s jails has not only failed to reduce recidivism but has also created angrier, more bitter, more violent juvenile offenders. Lock a 14- or 15- year-old up in an adult prison with its toxic environment of noise and dirt; of abuse, intimidation and paranoia; of violence and aggression, and that kid will not leave jail with a heightened sense of responsibility towards society, ready to re-examine and change his or her behavior.
I know that my reasoning wouldn’t convince those who feel that any punishment for criminal actions is not harsh enough to give victims the justice they seek. But the more I think about it the more convinced I am of the wisdom — and commonsense, which wisdom often is — behind it: if we truly care about victims, if we want to shield people from the hurt of crime we must look at and change the way we bring juvenile offenders — all offenders, really — to true justice.
During my tenure as a jailhouse teacher and while I was writing my book, I always thought of the kids I taught as children of disappointment, children let down time and time again by the world of adults — parents, teachers, clergy, neighbors. Prison breeds disappointment, and as I did my own 10-year jail bid I watched many of my students come in as children of disappointment and leave young adults of disappointment.
That’s a transformation no one truly wants and protects no one.
I didn’t expect my talk to a class of criminal justice majors at a local community college to be any different from the other workshops, presentations and classes I’d done. The students had read my book for class. I figured I’d talk about the book, about my 10 years teaching high school kids locked up in an adult county jail, and about juvenile justice issues in general. The usual topics. But when I asked the students to go around and say what area of criminal justice they wanted to pursue, I knew this would be a different kind of talk.
Most wanted to be police or correctional officers; a few mentioned probation. I wasn’t surprised then, when several students commented and questioned me on what they felt was my negative portrayal of the prison system and the people who work in it.
Anyone who has been in corrections probably wouldn’t deny the things that I wrote about: how “the system” is toxic both physically—the overcrowding, the noise, the smell, the potential for violence, and morally—the lack of respect, the constant suspicion, the need to be “tough.” Most correctional people would agree that these conditions have a harmful impact on their professional performance and their personal lives. Over my years in lockup, more than one CO ruefully commented to me, “Sometimes I feel like I’m the one doing time.” What they didn’t like was that I said these things publicity: I was the worst kind of jail scum—a rat.
However, there was a subtext to what I wrote that I suspected the students (and other correctional professionals) might have missed. As I explained in my book, and to the students that day, jail is defined by a hierarchy of power. Who’s got it, who wants it, and what they’ll do to get it. It is a culture based on “us” and “them.” I wrote about how, when I first came to teach at the jail, I had my own version of this hierarchy: the “bad guys” were the correctional staff, the ones with the keys, and the “good guys” were the inmates, the ones who were oppressed, locked up. A pivotal element in my personal prison journey was to recognize how I had been taken in like everyone else by this hierarchy. Realizing that, I worked to shake off my stereotypes, meeting each person—inmate and staff alike—as an individual no matter where they fit into the pecking order.
I hit pay dirt. Stereotyping was a concept the students had studied in class, and given their future careers, it was an essential one to understand. As I talked about my evolution their own concerns slowly came out about how quickly their stereotypes of inmates kicked in, seeing them all as thugs, predators, as “bad,” getting what they deserved.
And then their worries started to come out. If you go beyond the media stereotypes of criminals then what are you left with? How do you keep your humanity, your openness, yet not get taken advantage of by inmates, eaten up by “the system.”
“What I want to know is how you didn’t get discouraged by the whole thing and just quit?” Jake was sitting in the front row, baggy shorts, sneakers, and backwards ball cap. With his book opened, eager and interested, he’d been asking tough questions. I should’ve known that he’d get to the heart of the matter. “I mean, what with inmate recidivism and the conditions in the prison, what about hope?”
I’m not sure the students bought the “long view” I presented. I wouldn’t have at their age. It sounded too simplistic, downright hokey. But I gave it anyway. Although I saw young kids return to jail time after time, and watched officers and inmates bowed by prison’s oppressive conditions, I never gave up hope because I had a bone-deep belief that no effort to be fair, to be respectful, to be decent in the face of all “the system’s” negativity would be wasted. Early in my jail time I made the decision not to tally my efforts with the results. I’d let others keep score. I just held fast to the belief that small change would happen sometime, somewhere, and that that’s all it takes to turn things around.
At the end of class I’m pretty sure I left the students with more questions than answers. It’s not something I like to do. Maybe it’s a teacher thing. I know Jake wasn’t satisfied. He told me so, quite respectfully, when he came up to have me sign his book.
But looking back at that morning I feel now that Jake’s “What about hope?” was a good question for the class to carry into their challenging futures as correctional professionals—and as people. Too many of us forget, in our professional and personal lives, that there will always be more questions than answers in whatever we do. Maybe the only way to keep hope alive in our jobs and our lives is to keep asking those tough questions and hope we don’t come up with answers.
Like most teachers I’ve gotten some praise from my high school students over my 26 years of teaching—a lesson “wasn’t bad,” or a particular class was “sorta interesting.” I’ve even been told that I was a “pretty good teacher.” High praise coming from teenagers.
But the truth is I wasn’t a “good teacher.” I was a “failure,” at least according to America’s “education reformers”—that “odd coalition of corporate-friendly Democrats, right-wing Republicans, Tea Party governors, Wall Street executives, and major foundations” as Diane Ravitch aptly defines them—because the kids I taught consistently lagged behind their peers in every measure, performing well below grade level, failing state standardized tests.
Given the present state of teacher evaluations, with a significant portion allotted to student performance on mandated tests, I’d be in big trouble if I hadn’t left teaching recently. I certainly wouldn’t get any bonus pay. If it were up to the Obama Administration I might not even have a job since I would be one of those teachers who, as the President noted in his 2012 State of the Union address, “just aren’t helping kids.” And if I still taught in New York I’d be facing the prospect of having my name and ratings published in newspapers and on the internet if the Legislature gets its way in what the New York State Union of Teachers called the “name/shame/blame game.”
But I know that I wasn’t a “failure,” and more importantly, that the hundreds of kids I’ve taught weren’t either. My students were mostly young people of color, living in neighborhoods and families destroyed by poverty and substance abuse, racism and violence, physical and sexual abuse. Overall, life—shaped by their own mistakes and by conditions they couldn’t control—left them little time for, or interest in education. Frequently that lack of time and interest led to trouble which led to repeated suspensions, expulsions and in some cases, incarceration. But sometimes trouble translated into being placed in a small community alternative high school or the jailhouse classroom in the county penitentiary, both places I taught in.
By the time they made it to me, my students were pretty damaged. They hated school. They could barely read or do basic math. And forget about writing. “You expect me to write?” more than one teen squawked in horror at me. But eventually they did. They read, piling up grade levels like some Americans pile up debt. They calculated. They even learned the magic of connecting sentences that made sense.
But by the state’s educational rubric, they didn’t cut it. As noteworthy as their successes were—both academically and behaviorally—they were still “failures” and I along with them: success was only validated by passing the standardized tests.
One of the hardest things I had to do was send kids into those tests who weren’t ready. I tried hard beforehand to get them out of it. I’d explain, downright argue at times, with the school administration that although my students had made solid progress it wasn’t enough to tackle the exam and so they should wait and take it next time. It never worked. “It’s the law,” I was told.
Every time I think about Tyler my palms sweat. He was a jailhouse student, lanky, 16, with an Afro picked out to an angel’s halo. But he was no angel, and he had the missing front teeth and two years at the county pen to prove it. When he first came to class he was reading on a second grade level. For some reason he was determined to improve this time round in school. He came every day, took work to his cell every night and returned it completed every morning. Slowly his reading level increased. He was pleased with himself. You could see it in the almost toothless smile he didn’t bother to hide anymore.
But he wasn’t close to test-ready. When I petitioned to delay Tyler’s exam the administrator refused but offered me her idea of comfort, “Look, it’s okay if he fails. Then he’ll be eligible for remediation.” I couldn’t help shooting back, “Sure, send the kid in so he can get shot down one more time.” I prepared Tyler for that test as best as I could. He worked harder than ever. He was psyched. “I’m gonna ace it, Mr. C.”
You know the end of the story. It’s the same for many damaged kids living in poverty and neglect, factors that the pundits say can be overcome by good, dedicated teachers. Once again Tyler “failed.” He never came back to class for remediation.
If Tyler and kids like him are “failures” then I—and all the other teachers who teach in tough places—are too. But I don’t think we should take the rap alone. As long as our educational policies let down students like Tyler in the name of “reform” and “the law,” continuing the “name/shame/blame game” instead of addressing the social conditions that cripple these kids’ lives and learning, then we as a country are failures as well, in need of some serious remediation.
Arizona’s Legislature recently passed a law charging prison visitors a onetime $25 fee as a way to help close the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit. Middle Ground Prison Reform, a prison advocacy group, challenged the law in court as a discriminatory tax, but a county judge upheld its constitutionality.
Fees like that, slapped on prisoners and their families, couldn’t be more counterintuitive. But then again, so many of our criminal justice policies are just that. Since it is mostly the poor, the desperately poor who fill U.S. prisons, the $25 fee is one more economic hardship offenders’ families have to struggle with. It becomes another bill they have to scramble to pay — that is if they can.
These kinds of charges (and Arizona isn’t the only jurisdiction trying to shift the cost of incarceration to the poor) have even graver consequences. When a family can’t pay the fee, their contact with their loved one is limited, essentially cutting an offender off from the only supports he or she has in the outside world.
Psychologists have long known how central it is for an individual to have nurturing people in his or her life in order to develop emotionally, psychologically and socially. This need for a supportive network is even more essential when we talk about the young people who are locked away from family and loved ones in our nation’s prisons and detention centers.
As anyone who has worked with kids in the penal system knows on a gut level, it is crucial to have families and other supportive community members involved in young offenders’ lives as they serve their time. Now, that commonsense intuition has been given empirical strength by studies done by such juvenile justice groups as the Vera Institute of Justice which have demonstrated that maintaining young people’s connection to families is a major factor in helping kids stay out of jail once they are released.
But it’s easy to question whether these families are really such a positive influence. After all, if they were doing such a great job what are their kids doing in jail?
It’s an easy assumption to make until you see some of those family members in the prison visiting room with their sons and daughters. I got to do that at least twice a year when the jailhouse high school where I taught for 10 years in a county adult facility had its open house for families and caregivers.
The place was packed with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, or the people who stepped into those roles when circumstances — AIDS, death, addiction, incarceration, abandonment, all the things that ravage the lives of the poor and disenfranchised — demanded it. It wasn’t easy for many of them to get there. Meals had to be missed. Second jobs skipped. Long cross-county bus rides with tickets to pay for, transfers to be negotiated, at night, often in bad weather.
The grandmother of one of my students, Leon, a skinny 15-year-old who was finally making progress in class, had to travel over an hour on three buses to get there. It was a trip I knew she faithfully made twice a week to see her grandson. “I wouldn’t miss a visit with my boy for anything,” she told me, reaching over and giving Leon’s hair a playful tug. “But now you tell, Mr. Chura, how’s he doin in class?” That set Leon squirming.
It was a conversation I had over and over during those family visits. Miguel’s uncle who gave me his phone number and urged me to call him if Miguel wasn’t in school. Luis’ mother, frail and in a wheelchair, holding her son’s hand, telling me how when Luis got out of jail she was moving her whole family out of state to get away from the gangs that ran wild in the streets. “I just want my boys to be safe,” she said, her English halting but her fear and determination palpable.
It was hard to hear in the visiting room sometimes with people chattering in several different languages, children running around, little brothers squealing when their big brother in his funny orange jump suit picked them up, mothers crying, locked-up sons trying to explain, promise, console. It was hard to hear but it was easy to know what was going on: Families — fragile, fragmented, strained, mending — were desperately trying to stay a family.
Many of those visitors would be willing to admit that they hadn’t done such a good job at maintaining the family bond, but that they did the best they could given the problems they had to face. Like Luis’ mother the determination was there but the resources weren’t.
If we as a nation are serious about reducing crime (and not just by increased incarceration) it is important that we not put more obstacles in the way of young inmates’ families but rather that we give them the opportunities and resources to develop and sustain those crucial connections. It’s an investment that’s worth losing 25 bucks over.
If anyone doubts that the young people locked up in our jails are children they should spend some time in one of those prisons around holiday time.
I did just that for the 10 years I taught high school students, some as young as fifteen, in an adult county jail, and every year it got tougher to deny the impact being locked up for the holidays had on these teens.
Jail’s a pretty isolating place. That’s one of the ideas. But in lockup they watched a lot of TV—that great purveyor of culture—and so despite all that concrete and steel and lack of freedom the holidays still seeped in. Christmas carols. Happy families. Cozy couples in front of the fire. Children happier than any of my students had ever been. Promises of peace and joy. And of course, the must-have merchandise. The holiday message blared out day and night on the blocks. Even the din of 40 teenage boys in an overcrowded dorm shouting, rapping, arguing, cursing; of correctional staff barking out orders; of the PA system announcing clinic, lockdown, lights out couldn’t compete with it. Christmas just wouldn’t leave you alone.
So day by day I watched as the holiday spirit got to these young guys. Of course they would never say out loud that it was hard being locked up for Christmas. After all they were tough and had been around more than the block. But like many troubled teens they had their own language of grief. As the weeks of cheery ads piled up, as the carols grew louder, and the TV images of happiness became more insistent, life in lockup became more tense and violent. Food trays got thrown. Noses broken. Food extorted. Threats made and followed through. Codes were called and the emergency response team, sinister black-clad, helmeted Santas, ran down the halls to haul off kid after kid to long days of 23 hour isolation in disciplinary lockdown.
“Home for the holidays” held no magic for my jailhouse students. For most of them there wasn’t much out there. Many had long been abandoned or thrown out by whatever remnant of family they had left. Like Ray who was taken from his mother at 5. “She was really messed up on drugs, and my pops was doin’ his first long bid up in Attica,” he explained to me with a fierce family loyalty I couldn’t quite understand. But he didn’t defend his Aunt Sally. She took him out of foster care when he was a little older (“She needed the money”) and locked him up at night with a bucket to pee in. Then one year just a few days before Christmas she kicked him out into the streets. But she didn’t dump him completely. She kept getting and cashing his SSI checks. I taught a lot of Rays over my 10 holidays in the county lockup.
My first Christmas in jail I brought all my students small gifts, mostly car, sports or music magazines, colored pencils, favorite candy bars, just something they could open Christmas morning. I managed to do it somehow; I wasn’t aware that I had broken procedure. But I heard about it soon enough from the warden who gave me a thorough dressing down for “bringing in contraband.” Luckily I kept the job, but more importantly I’ve kept the construction paper “Thank you” card the guys contrived to make and sign for me. After that Christmases became even more bleak and barren.
While I was writing my book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, my working title was Children of Disappointment. The more I got to know these young throw-aways, the more I heard their stories of struggle from an early age, the more I realized how all the adults in their young lives had dismally failed them—families, schools, churches, communities, the child welfare system, the very nation that claimed children as a cherished and protected resource. This time round I was the slow learner. My students, still so much the children they had always been, had gotten the lesson years ago and had been living with these disappointments most of their lives. It took me awhile but I finally understood.
Nevertheless it is still the season of hope and light, of rebirth and possibilities. I’d like to think that we as communities and a country can do what must be done so that the lives of other at-risk children are shaped not by the cold, recurring reality of poverty, neglect and disappointment but by the compassion and good will we all hope to feel at this time of year.
It was like a giant switchboard, the kind you see in 30s and 40s movies, a bevy of operators plugging in a crisscross of wires, taking calls, making connections, a cacophony of chatter.
That image came to me recently as I walked into the lobby of the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass. The only difference was that the conversations filling the hall were about the same thing: girls and young women in the juvenile justice system.
We were there — teachers, social workers, lawyers, mentors, youth workers, college students and professors — for the Through Her Eyes conference sponsored by the Center for Human Development, a regional social services agency. This annual gathering, now in its seventh year, came about when a number of professionals expressed concern over the increased number of at-risk young females in “the system,” and the need for “best practices” to help this growing population. The Center for Human Development stepped up to address their concerns with the first Through Her Eyes conference in 2004.
This increase isn’t just a regional issue, however. It is a nationwide trend. According to the Institute on Women & Criminal Justice the number of women in prison has grown 832 percent in the past three decades. (The male population grew 416 percent during the same period.) Of this population African American girls and young women are the fastest growing group. The Department of Justice reports that black females are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than Hispanics and 4.5 times more likely than whites.
But numbers don’t tell the whole story. They don’t tell what it’s like to be abandoned by your family, the child welfare system, your school and community, to be physically and sexually abused, to grow up in poverty and neglect, to have your life controlled by drugs, alcohol and sex.
The conference participants, though, had firsthand experience of what life was like behind the data. They had sat with these young women in emergency rooms and clinics, stood with them before the judge, listened with them as the school principal refused to give a girl one more chance. That day at the MassMutual Center they were there to share what they had seen Through Her Eyes and to learn other ways to help these vulnerable, much neglected and almost invisible young people.
As a teacher in an adult county prison, I taught high school English on the female unit several days a week. Tell people you teach locked-up girls and you can see all the images they’ve ever heard of or seen in B-grade women-in-prison movies flash across their faces: violent, tough, sadistic, sinister. I’m not sure people believe me when I tell them that none of those stereotypes really fit. Not that my students, some as young as 15, didn’t don one of those masks if they had to. After all, jail is jail and you have to survive. But in the brutal hierarchy of prejudice incarcerated girls and women are on the bottom rung. Society demonizes them as irredeemable while the prison system infantilizes and insults them. (The Warden—a white, middle-aged man — for the female unit where I taught rationed toilet paper and tampons in order to save money.)
But when these girls came to school they were what they most wanted to be — teenagers living a “normal life.” It was a struggle since none had ever had a normal life. Not Heather who after her mother died of AIDS got hooked on crack at 12 years old and took to prostitution to support her habit. Nor Ayesha whose mother refused to name her, leaving the hospital to fill in her birth certificate, “No Name.” As Ayesha was handed down from foster home to group home to detention center she would give herself a different name. “That way I get to feel like a new person each time.” And certainly not Eppy, unless a normal life means being physically and sexually abused first by her brother, then by her uncle, and finally her boyfriend. Until in desperation and self-defense she stabbed the boyfriend with a screwdriver.
Each of us had stories like that to share during the conference. As the day wound down another image, a phrase really, came to my mind, “Only connect.” It was from E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, Howards End. “Only connect…and human love will be seen at its height.”
It was as old fashioned perhaps as that switchboard image, and maybe only an old English teacher like me would think of it. But for me it summed up the focus of the conference day and the purpose of the work so many professionals like us did across the country: to give the girls and young women lost in the juvenile justice system what we all want and need — a connection to a better life and a share of human love at its height.
There’s been some good news in the media lately for anyone who cares about kids and justice. Federal statistics show that the number of juvenile offenders in jail has dropped by at least 25%. Along those same lines, the New York Times recently reported that New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has called for moving most juvenile cases from criminal court to family court, where kids will get more help than punishment, thus adding his voice to the excellent work of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice. In the Boston Globe,criminologist James Alan Fox wrote that the Massachusetts law that requires all juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to be sentenced to life without parole “has not reduced juvenile murder”—and he has the numbers to prove it. And, supporting all these concerns, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration hits hard at the waste of both taxpayer money and human potential when states lock up young offenders.
Good news, right? So why with all this good news and media attention do I still get cranky about kids in adult jails? Because the 1962 New York State statue setting the age for criminal responsibility at 16 is still law. It is still law even though it was supposed to be a temporary measure until research was conducted (the research was, of course, never done). I'm still cranky because in Massachusetts 59 people are serving life sentences with no chance of ever getting out for crimes committed when they were too young to vote, some of them when they were too young to drive. Because a recent Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Americans think crime is worse than it was last year despite data showing the opposite. Because lawmakers respond more to the electorate’s fears than to commonsense and compassion.
But I’ll give you an even better reason why I’m cranky. I’ve seen firsthand what happens to young people caught up in the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, studies are conducted (or not), reports are written, and statistics analyzed; pundits study the issues and experts testify before commissions.
For ten years I taught kids locked up in an adult county jail and watched how the penal system corrupted and eroded their humanity. That’s easy to do when you take away people’s identity. Give them a number instead of a name; call them “criminal,” “inmate,” “thug,” and you take away their dignity—and their rights—the way we do when we label people “illegals.” Suddenly it’s okay to stop someone and demand their “papers,” to deny their families medical care, their children an education and the protections of the law.
The locked-up kids I taught were forced to eat food banned in public schools years earlier. To go without eyeglasses they needed to read, to navigate safely in a perilous environment, eyeglasses they had when they were booked and somehow never got back to them. Worse yet, many of these young people went without the psychotropic medications they had been on for such conditions as depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit, and psychosis. When those untreated conditions made them hard to handle they were punished, thrown into solitary confinement, where, with no human interaction or mental health treatment, things only deteriorated.
I had students come to class with jaws swollen, and not from some brawl on the block the way you might expect would happen when you lock up together 40 or so teenage boys. The swelling was because of an abscessed tooth, and there was no dentist to take care of it because he only came every other week, or because the sick call form I helped them fill out somehow “got lost.”
Other medical treatment, when it was available, was often perfunctory and inadequate. One young man I worked with, Toro, a young Guatemalan who was always respectful to anyone in authority, received 30 day lockdown—23 hours alone in a cell with a half hour to clean up and a half hour to do PT—because he refused to take the unidentified pills the nurse was giving him. “All I wanted to know was what the pills were for,” he told me. “I didn’t know. I’d never taken them before and nobody would tell me.”
None of us, no matter what conditions we’re forced to live in, easily gives up our humanity, and the young men and women I saw at the county penitentiary were no different. But their resources—family, education, community, health, spirituality—the kind of resources that help all of us hold firm to who we are, were meager even before they were incarcerated. Maintaining even a kernel of humanity in the face of such daily deprivation was near to impossible.
If it all sounds bleak that’s because it is. But I say let the good news roll—the reports, the endorsements, the calls to action—but let’s do something about the harsh, demeaning, counterintuitive prison conditions we force young people to live in while insisting that they grow and change. Until then, whether it’s the 45,873 16- and 17-year olds arrested in New York last year or the 59 juvenile offenders serving life without parole in Massachusetts, or just one kid locked up somewhere in the country, I guarantee I’ll be cranky, very cranky.
She was pretty upfront about it: she didn’t want me there.
“It’s not you personally,” Marge explained. “It’s the book.”
Marge was the moderator, researcher, engine, really, of a local reading group. She was good at what she did, I was told, and I believed it. She was pretty thorough at listing all the reasons why she didn’t want to read or recommend to the group my book I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, about my ten years teaching teenagers in adult detention.
“The title, for one. It’s all wrong. Even the third graders I used to teach would know that it wasn’t correct,” she started off. “It’s just poor grammar. And what about that cover? It put me off.”
I happened to think Beacon Press did a terrific job with the cover—the title, in hip-hop script on a blue background and, in profile, the photograph of a young African American male, sixteen at most, looking out at the reader with a somewhat challenging look yet with the inevitable vulnerability of any teenager.
But I knew where Marge was headed.
“Besides, I don’t like the topic, sounds too depressing,” she said. And then she got blunt. “What’s it got to do with me?”
I’d heard the objections before, although not quite so frankly stated. I did some mild reassuring, but I didn’t work at it. I knew that Marge had called to invite me to speak to the group despite her opposition. Two friends who were a part of the book club had read the book, liked it, and lobbied for it.
When I arrived at the community center the night of my talk, I thought things might have changed.
“We don’t usually do refreshments, but I thought this time it might be nice,” Marge said, greeting me warmly at the door, then leading me to a table covered with plates of home-baked cookies and pastries, a coffee urn, and two pitchers of fresh-squeezed lemonade.
And indeed things had changed. At first when Marge introduced me, she was true to form. I winced as she laid out all her objections and doubts about the book in excruciating detail. “Oh boy, what kind of night is this going to be?” I thought.
But then, with equal clarity, Marge told the group of about thirty how the book had changed her thinking and answered all her doubts. How she understood now that the title reflected the fractured yet still human lives of many of the kids I wrote about, especially Ray, the young man who was damaged by years of abandonment and drugs, and from whom I took the quote for the title. She said how the cover itself mirrored these kids’ lives—on the one hand it showed the fragile world of childhood with the book jacket’s blue background and playful lettering, and on the other, the gritty world of the streets with that scowling, discontented-looking young man. How, yes, the stories that she expected to depress and alienate her did make her sad at times, as she learned about these children’s lives in and out of jail. Yet at the same time they made her smile and laugh and admire those same children for their resilience and generosity and willingness to forgive society for what it had done to them, although society didn’t forgive the children for their mistakes.
“It was pretty obvious to me by the end of the book that I had a lot more in common with those kids than I could ever have imagined,” Marge concluded.
Listening to Marge, I smiled to myself and began to wonder why I’d made the trip there (well, there were those delicious-looking brownies), since she was telling the group all the things I would have said.
And I wondered if Marge realized that what had happened to her is what I always hoped would happen whenever I handed one of my locked-up students a book: their perceptions of the world would shift; that places they’d never been to, were excluded from, would open up to them; that people they’d never gotten the chance to meet, or who they refused to meet because of all the protective barriers they put up, would suddenly became more like them than they could have ever realized.
I didn’t think Marge, now, after reading the book, would mind being in the company of Warren, who, finally, at the age of fifteen and reading on a fourth-grade level, had completed his “first-ever book,” as he put it, or Frankie, who made it through a long stint in solitary confinement devouring the novels (all good ones, I might add) I brought him; or Larry, who began to see that even a life like his wasn’t foreign to the pages of literature after he finished reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy.
Readers like Marge and Warren and Frankie and Larry and all the others out there are the reasons why writers like me write their books and why teachers like me stay in the classroom despite the struggles. We want to do nothing less than change the world (and a few hearts while we’re at it) book by book.
In a six by eight foot jail cell there’s barely room for a bunk, a seatless toilet, and a postage-sized sink. The only other space you have in jail is in your head, and even that gets crowded with all the people you carry around in there who you resent for the things they did to you.
The world is pretty small when you’re locked up, especially if you’re a kid doing time with a healthy body that needs to move, energy sizzling through you like high tension wires, your emotions threatening to blow the power grid any second as you struggle with those nagging teenage questions, “Who am I?” “Why me?” It doesn’t help that the only answers you get come from walls and bars, gates and guards, and maybe that crowd of unreliable experts in your head.
Many of my jailhouse students lived that loneliness and isolation hour after hour, day after day, and for some, year after year until it was hard for them not to see the world as anything but confining, and brutally uncaring. It’s a vision that, as hard as they might work against it, too many of them carry throughout life.
Even though I taught high school in a county penitentiary for over 10 years and experienced in a minor way some of that same isolation and indifference I still know otherwise about the world: That there are people out there who care about real justice, not just for the “done to” but for the “doer” as well; who worry not only about “the system”—child welfare, juvenile and criminal justice—but about the kids, each individual kid, consigned to those systems.
But it’s hard a sell to young people whose world has taught them otherwise. Sometimes, listening to them talk about their lives, I feel as though they are living an alternative reality. Then again, maybe that is the reality of today’s America.
This summer I got to talk with various groups about these issues and met some people who could back me up on my view of the world. I just wish my students could’ve met them as well.
I’d like them to meet the 15 or so law students whom I met who were interning at the New York Center for Juvenile Justice (NYCJJ) in New York City, an organization working to ensure that kids in trouble are treated compassionately and fairly in the justice system. Even the toughest guys that I taught, and I’ve taught quite a few “thugs”—scarred, tattooed, hearts tough as stone (or so they’d like you to think)—would’ve had a hard time not being affected by the interns’ sensitivity to, genuine concern for, and insights into their lives and “the system” that had them (in so ways.) But my students were used to words—judge words, cop words, social worker words, even teacher words, so they would have been impressed by the students plans to establish juvenile justice chapters in their law schools and gotten a kick out of the fast-cut videos they made about laws that treat kids as adults when it comes to crime but not when it comes to voting or drinking or going to the movies.
And I wonder what they would’ve thought of the group of German juvenile justice professionals visiting the center. In halting English or through the slow process of translation, these professionals shared the same concerns about their criminal justice system that people in this country have about ours: a system that refuses to treat children as children; that refuses to look at the real reasons—poverty, discrimination, failing families, lack of money and resources for youth programs—that young people get drawn into crime.
At times the conversation in two languages was stumbling and drawn out. However, what translated fluently was the universality of the concern and compassion that is out there for the world’s young throwaways. It was moving to realize that there is a worldwide network of people just like me, just like the student interns and the staff at NYCJJ, just like the many other folks I know—teachers, lawyers, judges, social workers, clergy, parents, and yes, correctional staff—involved in this work. We may not be many but we’re out there, and, if you’re like me, it helps just knowing that.
Because the work never stops. As concerned as many of us from various nations are about the already bleak treatment young offenders receive, there are in some countries loud demands to make that treatment even harsher and more punishing. Canada for example “is planning to shift toward a jail-intensive approach” when dealing with its juveniles according to Toronto’s The Globe and Mail. And in the wake of Britain’s’ recent riots there are renewed calls for a retaliatory approach to young offenders rather than a rehabilitative one.
The global picture can be bleak. Nevertheless, that network of concerned and committed people is still out there. Despite everything, they keep doing what they can for the world’s locked up kids because no matter how much as those kids might bad mouth their country, society, “The Man,” their lives, they don’t give up hope. So, I ask you, how could any of us do otherwise?
Now that all the high school graduations are over and the backyard barbeques celebrated, I’m finally coming down from the contact high of all that youthful exuberance and optimism.
It’s easy to get swept up into those good feelings. But now as I move into summer’s quieter months, I can’t help thinking about the high school students I taught in a county penitentiary and what “commencement” meant for them.
Success never came easily to my students. Why should it? They came from lives wrecked by poverty and discrimination. It tried to wreck their spirit, but it never could, not completely. In that way my students weren’t any different from the kids at our local high schools—like their peers, they believed that life was there for the shaping. That faith in success, though, didn’t always translate onto the streets. So they got caught up in crime, got arrested, did their time.
When that time was served, their “commencement” was being released from jail.The “graduation ceremony” wasn’t much: Down to booking to sign papers, their clothes stuffed into black garbage bags. Then the booking officer handed the “graduate” bus money and delivered the keynote address, “Stay out of jail.”
And that’s exactly what they intended to do. My jailhouse students talked a lot about “starting over again,” and I believed each of them. Because while they were locked up, most worked to change things for the better. They studied for their diploma or GED. They worked at staying clean and sober. They grappled with the rage of disappointment that tore at their guts through anger management programs. If there was a thread of family life left, they reconnected with it.
When they hit the streets, they were determined to shake the dust—and smell—of prison off them forever. But the only thing that had changed while they were locked up was them, not the streets. There was nothing out there for them, no services, no resources, no one. The only things waiting were the same predator-prey food chain, the same joblessness, and the same lure of the streets with easy money.
I knew the litany these young people heard from corrections and probation officers: Get a job. Go to school. Stay away from your buddies (the only people who even remembered your name). Stay away from your girlfriend (the only one glad to see you). Stay in the house. Start over. Stay out of trouble. And I’ve watched more than one kid’s face fall when he was told that he had to find someplace else to live. He couldn’t live with his mother because his probation didn’t allow him to associate with anyone with a record, and since his brother, or uncle, or cousin was already there he needed to find another home.
It’s not hard to guess what all those demands sound like to a 16 year old fresh out of prison: Stop being the only person you recognize. Stop living your life.
I often tell people that the changes we demand of young ex-offenders are things most of us, even with all our assets, would find daunting. The isolation. The loneliness. The helpless rage of unreasonable expectations. Yet these kids are told to make those changes with no one to help or guide them.
It happens, though, if rarely—some kid takes the plunge into all that fear and dynamites his life apart.
Alex was one of those kids. The judge made it clear. This time no probation. Instead a full county bid. Next arrest, a long stretch in state prison. Even at 17 Alex knew that going back to the same neighborhood, the same friends and enemies would seal his fate. “I might as well stay here and wait for the next bus to state prison,” he tried to laugh it off but couldn’t.
I can’t tell you what happened, but something did. Everybody had given up on him, with good reason or not, but somehow he hadn’t. Alex had a cousin in California that he never met but who said he could come live with him. So at his “graduation” he hopped a cross country bus. However, there was nothing quixotic about his move. Alex had never been out of his own town except to go to various jails and detention centers. He knew he had to do it. It was a terrible struggle at first. The dirt jobs. The loneliness. The disorientation. The fears of failure. Eventually, though, the jobs got better and he signed up for college. Last I heard Alex was close to a real commencement.
Watching that final moment of triumph when our local high school graduates flung their caps into the air I imagined all the hands—of family, teachers, coaches, clergy, counselors—that over the years had made that moment possible. Young ex-offenders at their “commencement” haven’t had, and don’t have that same net of hands. And yet, there are plenty of hands in each of their communities to help, if they only would. That way kids like Alex wouldn’t have to go 3,000 miles for a chance at a new beginning.
It was a busman’s holiday. 30 people in a room, all teachers in high school and GED programs in various prisons from across New York State, listening to me talk about teaching locked up kids. The conference was in Saratoga Springs with lots of other things to do. Yet there they were, nodding their heads in recognition of the stories I told, laughing in all the right places with that dark sense of humor we jailhouse teachers develop from years of working with society’s throwaways in some of the toughest schools going.
In interviews or talks I’m frequently asked why I wrote I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. I often explain that I want people to see the kind of living conditions to which young offenders are consigned in adult facilities and to show that each incarcerated kid is a real person, one who most likely grew up in a home crippled by poverty, by poor health, by addiction as well as physical and sexual abuse. It’s a picture not conveyed by the crime numbers we read in the newspapers.
But looking out over that audience of incarcerated education teachers, I knew there was another reason why I wrote these stories: to describe what it’s like to be a teacher working under some of the harshest conditions going. In this time of “education reform” and its concomitant teacher bashing, I wanted to praise the people who are committed to teaching every day, no matter what’s going on around them, around their classroom and their students.
And in jail a lot goes around. Most classrooms are right in the correctional facility, and so the closed, foul smells of overcrowded and under-washed bodies, the ubiquitous roaches, the dirt and grime of poorly ventilated buildings and the chaotic noises of slamming gates and shouting voices easily seep under a classroom door.
One of the rooms in which I taught at a county lockup was a cramped, dark space right off a major hallway going to the blocks. Students sat elbow to elbow at a long table. Getting up for a book or some paper was tricky business. Personal space in jail is as valuable a commodity as a dealer’s street corner. I never knew when a fight, or at least a face-off, might erupt. Likewise, it didn’t make it any easier for my students or me to settle down knowing that any minute one of the kids might be pulled out of class for a random search, a lawyer’s visit, or taken down to booking in handcuffs. And nobody could tell when a fight might break out and a code called with the emergency response team in full riot gear running down the hallway screaming threats and commands.
Try teaching the difference between a simple and a complex sentence, or the definition of irony, with that kind of disruption. Sometimes I felt downright silly going on about adjectives in the face of such chaos. Sometimes I’d think, “Why bother?” Nevertheless, I kept at it. I taught every day and my students learned. I want to repeat that, because so many people don’t believe it’s possible: every day I taught and my students learned. I had high standards and expectations. We had skills to acquire and to hone. We had tests to prepare for. We had tools to fashion so that when they left jail they could repair and change their lives and, I hoped, not come back to prison.
Looking out at that conference room full of intent faces, I could see that every teacher understood what I was talking about. They knew the damaged lives their students brought into prison and in turn, into their classrooms, and they recognized their own oppressive working conditions.
I realized something else that day in Saratoga. My jailhouse colleagues were not much different from the many other educators in this country who work in similarly harsh environments in the inner city in schools that are underfunded and undersupplied, in unsafe and unhealthy buildings, and in dangerous neighborhoods. The media reports that schools fail because teachers don’t teach. All they want to do is protect their cushy, tenure-assured jobs. Don’t believe it. Teachers—especially those in the toughest places—teach because they believe that every kid can succeed and deserves a chance. If we teachers are greedy, it’s for those small triumphs that every day make a difference in our students’ lives.
It seems that no matter how tough politicians and education pundits talk the obstacles remain. Massachusetts is a good example. The Boston Globe reports that among 3rd graders last year, minority and low income students were twice as likely as white students to score lowest in the state's standardized tests. These are discouraging numbers for everyone, and they are pretty much replicated nationally.
Nobody is satisfied with our schools, and there's blame all round as experts scramble for solutions: We label schools as failing. We fire whole teachings staffs. We tweak curricula. We script teachers' every move. We increase the school day and student seat time at the expense of art, music and recreation. Still things don't improve.
Maybe we're not listening to the right people. Somebody like Dick Gregory, for example. Yeah, Dick Gregory. You may remember him (if you're old enough)—African American comedian, civil rights activist, 1968 presidential candidate, author, and nutrition guru? His list of accomplishments doesn't include education specialist, but he knew quite a lot about why schools fail and about the "achievement gap." He went to one of those failing schools and was trapped in that gap.
Most of my students—kids serving time in an adult county jail where I taught high school—didn't know who Dick Gregory was when I announced that we were going to read a short chapter entitled "Shame" from his autobiography. At first they weren't interested. They assumed (like so many teenagers) that the reading, any reading would be boring. Then when I mentioned that he was black, and had marched with Dr. King there was a spark of curiosity. It was enough to get us into the chapter. After that they were hooked.
In a page and a half, Gregory tells the reader (and America if we would only listen) why poor kids of color fail in school. In heartbreaking detail he writes about being in the third grade filled with shame—the shame of poverty, of being a "welfare kid," of being abandoned by his father, of living in the projects, of wearing dirty clothes because once again there wasn't any hot water, of having little food, and of living with rats and bugs.
When my locked-up students read that he was a "troublemaker" in school, the little kid who spent more time in the corner facing the wall than he did at his desk, none of them was surprised. And when Gregory wonders out loud why the teacher didn't understand that maybe he caused trouble not because he was bad or stupid but because he was poor and hungry and too tired to concentrate you could hear the whispered, "Ya got that right," followed by, "bitch" when she berates him in front of the class, talking about "you and your kind."
The reading may seem dated to those of us comfortable with the gifts of life; after all that was back in the late 30s. But my students had no problem with what Gregory described. Most of them lived similar lives, although I would venture to say, much harsher and more embattled ones. They grew up in neighborhoods overrun with drugs, guns and random violence, in households fractured by unemployment, disease and substance abuse. My students went to schools that never had enough books or supplies or staff to go around, in falling down buildings in neighborhoods unsafe to walk. A friend of mine works in a school where it's not unusual that kids can't play outside at recess because of drive-by-shootings.
If it wasn't good in Dick Gregory's day, it's far from good for minority students today. The 2010 Census confirms this: Black children are three times as likely to be poor as white children. Forty percent of black children are born into poor families compared with 8% of white children. An even more alarming statistic is that an African American boy born in the past decade has a 1-in-3 chance of being incarcerated in his lifetime.
There's a poignant moment in Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools when he goes into an East St. Louis grade school classroom that is dirty, dilapidated, and overcrowded. At one point Kozol reports that as he came into a classroom a young boy looked up at him with an expression that asked, "What did I do to deserve this?" The "achievement gap"—which is just that young boy's unspoken question in a different form—will never be closed until our policymakers, educational and otherwise, aggressively address the underlying issues of poverty and racism that cripple every aspect of poor and minority children's lives. Maybe those policymakers need to stop talking and listen for a change to people who know a lot more than they do about failing schools, and about failing lives.
I’ve worked with “slow” learners all of my 26 years as a teacher. But nothing matches the lack of understanding, insight and plain common sense that many of our politicians and their constituents show when it comes to the treatment of ex-offenders, people who by the law of the land have served their time, paid their dues, made amends, learned their lesson, been punished—whatever language matches your view of justice.
I’m thinking about ex-offenders and voting rights. In many states men and women who have been incarcerated are denied one of the basic rights of any democracy: to help select who will govern your daily life. Meanwhile, ex-offenders are expected to stay out of jail, rebuild their lives, and become productive members of the community even though they can’t fully be a part of that community.
I’m not too sure how many people see the irony in that logic. The kids I taught for ten years in the county jail did. Most of them had been labeled “slow,” and yes, most of them probably weren’t able to articulate what irony is (then again, I’m not too sure how many other Americans could either.) Still, these kids knew it when they saw it.
Anyone who has been locked up hears plenty about respect for society, for the law, for other people and their property, and so they should since that respect is essential for civil communities and nations. But at the same time inmates and ex-offenders are not afforded that same respect when it comes to jobs, housing and voting rights. Or as my students would put it, “What goes ‘round, in this case, definitely doesn’t come ‘round.”
The ACLU reports that many states continue to deny voting rights to ex-offenders and that that denial can extend anywhere from the length of time the person has been incarcerated up to a lifetime in ten states. While Virginia’s new leader, Governor McDonnell, intents not only to continue the process already in place of allowing former inmates to apply for a restoration of their voting rights but to actually streamline it, Iowa is about to take a step backward. Newly elected Governor Branstad declared during the gubernatorial race that he would rescind his predecessor’s 2005 executive order restoring voting rights to ex-offenders. He seems set to follow through on that regressive and oppressive promise despite the urgent call from over 20 civil rights groups to reconsider.
Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but whenever I hear stories like Iowa’s governor rescinding voting rights, I can’t help thinking, “What lesson are we trying to teach?”
Most offenders have been disenfranchised all their lives. They’ve never felt a part of any society. Many come from backgrounds of deprivation, living in neighborhoods devastated by poverty, violence, addiction and disease, neighborhoods abandoned by the larger community. The schools they attended, or in so many cases were kicked out of or fled from on their own, weren’t much better. And not coincidently the majority of locked up men and women are people of color.
The way they are treated during incarceration as well as when they are released only reinforces the lessons they’ve had drummed into them since childhood—that they are outcasts, outsiders, and eventually outlaws. A basic concept in all human relations is that the way we treat people is the way they’ll act. When my jailhouse students and I discussed this idea in a communications lesson they summed it up crudely but cogently, “Treat people like shit and they’ll act like shit.”
And so we’re back to the slow learners. Too often people are puzzled and angered at the high rate of recidivism among young offenders. “Why can’t these kids just learn their lesson and stay out of jail?” But I’m not too sure who’s the slow learner here. It looks to me as though those repeat offenders may have learned the lesson we’re teaching all too well. Perhaps it’s our policymakers, and ultimately we the voters, who are the slow learners as we continue to fail to recognize the damaging effects the criminal justice system has on all its citizens. A small but significant step in correcting our national ignorance would be to restore voting rights to ex-offenders and so restore a small portion of the respect and dignity they’ve been denied.