I once thought that the principle solution to the mounting violence and mediocrity of inner city schools was the systematic removal of the gangbangers, dealers, and thugs.
‘Throw the bastards out’, as Joe Clark, the famous Jersey principal, would say. Sacrifices the few so that the many may learn. I admit this was a dangerously simplistic and egalitarian approach. However, twenty odd years of teaching experience supported my conclusion.
A year ago I accepted an assignment in a city jail teaching juveniles charged as adults. The name of the school matters little. So let’s us just call it the little jail school, most people jokingly do.
Inside, a jail has a spuriously calm surface. While beneath the surface lays a deep sea of physical brutality and emotional slaughter. Neither side of the law is unsullied; both sides are deeply invested in the sanctioned madness.
Like eyes adjusting to a dark room, it takes time to penetrate to the murky depths of this sea of human misery.
I remember first standing in front of the gothic structure that is the oldest subdivision of the massive facility. Ironically, it resembled a medieval church, it windows black with mystery. This combined with its towering walls and ubiquitous barbed wire gave my new workplace a frightening appearance.
However, equally unsettling was the maze of corridors, courtyards, and choke points in route to my classroom. The callous and no-nonsense nature of the environment was reflected in the icy cold stares of the uniformed staff and the shackled detainees.
Finally, I arrived at my little schoolhouse, a small network of coupled trailers assembled smack-dab in the middle of a maximum-security adult correctional facility.
The jail houses between four and five thousand detainees. The population includes those held on lesser charges like DWI and shoplifting, as well as, those accused of homicide, robbery and rape.
The night before, I experienced the usual melancholy at watching the last hours of my summer vacation tick away. However, I was also excited about the new school year. I used the synergy of emotion to assemble a few mental notes about my ice breaker.
I never had much use for lesson plans on the first few days, preferring to improvise instead. The hand bell rang and the students filed into my cramped and narrow effigy of a classroom, the cheap wood panel walls displaying laughingly clichéd posters like “Just Say No” and “This is your Brain on drugs”.
There I stood, face to face with a classroom of baby face killers, drug dealers, gang bangers, stickup kids, and some with severe emotional disorders.
Strangely, they appeared no different than the thousands of other students that I’d taught from New York to Newport News. It was just another first day of school, and they were just kids.
I leaned against the front my desk, scanning my first period class. My face was as hard as stone; my every movement reflected a quiet self-confidence. My tone was quite formal, yet seasoned with my Harlem upbringing.
I ran down the many criminal endeavors of my youth; as well as, my history of gang involvement, both as a member and a councilor.
I proceeded to expound upon the veiled nature of the Crime “Justice” System and the underlying reality of the “war on drugs”.
It worked. I had their attention, without which nothing is possible.
Some were a little uncomfortable with was the seemingly perfect match between myself and these, so called, menaces to society. Teaching strategies that would have been frowned upon by most school administrators were indispensable assets here. It was imperative that I speak their language.
Unlike most teachers, I spoke their language on so many different levels. Nonetheless, it was as much a learning experience for me as it was for them, if not more. You learn quickly that nothing is free in behind bars, everything come with a price.
So, I can’t say that I didn’t experience some tense moments when the novelty of the new teacher began to fade and banality set in. In the end, I made some adjustments, perhaps concessions would be a better word.
In a month’s time, I was offered a teaching assignment afterschool and upstairs on the section where the juveniles are housed. There I got my first sobering glimpse behind some of the pretense, beyond the masquerade to emotional and physical cruelty that exists in such places.
There are roughly 129 juvenile detainees in this jail inside a jail. Most of which are housed on the unit. Those on protectic custody or PC are in held in smaller sections within the unit. Another part of the unit consists of those on disciplinary lockdown and those in intake or processing into the system.
The fluctuating population on “lock” or lockdown is remanded to their cells for 23 hours a day and sometimes more. The stink is on the unit barely tolerable for regulars and nauseating to visitors.
Throughout the unit, throngs of rodents scamper up and down the tiers feasting on discarded food, gorging on discarded sweat sandwiches or brinks as they are also called because of the cement-like texture.
Big-timers, roaches the size of an adult index finger, strut about and can be witnessed carrying off pieces of compost twice their size.
After earning a measure of their trust, which is no easy feat, I began to decipher a peeking order, a power structure, one established by acts of violence and cunning.
Though they be young, they be mighty.
These children of our urban wastelands can be devious, calculating and unrelenting. So, it was no surprise that many excelled at the game of chess and some have read, and practiced daily, the “Art of War” by Sun Tzu.
Gang affiliations also play a major part in establishing the order of things. As with most jail and prisons across American, gangs rule. The Bloods, the Crips, and the Black Gorilla Family or BGF often vie for control of this particular lockup.
New arrivals may be spared a beat down or being placed in protectic custody if they are able to verify their street connects to one of these “families”. The weak or unaffiliated detainees are subject to having their commissary taken, or their meals reduced to the least editable items on their trays.
But, mostly, they are harassed and often put in positions of having to steal, to launch hits against other detainees or to lie to protect the guilty.
Everyone tries to appear hard when they first arrive, but poseurs are quickly weeded out. Some are able to prolong the process by remaining silent and detached. Often, this is the safest strategy. But, all are put to the test in time.
Now, most people would say that they deserve this living hell. Others would argue jails are not supposed to be a playground. They say that it will teach them a lesson that they won’t soon forget.
I confess that on the surface, they have a strong argument. But, upon closer examination, the argument neglects some important points. First, these young boys and girls are, according to the Constitution, innocent until proven guilty. Second, they are children. But, more importantly, most can be saved or diverted from the path that they have mistakenly chosen.
You see, if you treat them like animals, they will learn to behave animalistic. If you cage them away for 23hours a day, with rotten food, and no creative means of channeling their frustration, you will only create monsters.
Weather sentenced to hard time or released, most will eventually return to their neighborhoods. Without meaningful reforms, they will return mentally and emotionally damaged; crazed, sadistic and even suicidal?
The criminal justice system has a chose. They can take serious steps to reform (including psychological counseling, training programs, and residential programs and halfway houses that prepare their return) jail become training ground for future miscreant and thugs.
That brings me to the next question. Who are the real victims in this anyway? No doubt, many of these teenagers have left a trail of tears in their wake. Innocent people have died, and lives have been put asunder.
On the other hand, many of my students are but victims themselves. Most have grown up in a gang infested and crime ridden neighborhoods where they are forced by circumstance to embrace aggression or fall victim to it.
Most attended inner-city schools which are miserably understaffed and poorly financed and a recruiting ground for some of the nation’s most dangerous gangs.
Some have dope fiends for parents, whose main concern is where their next fix is coming from. For others the drug trade is a family enterprise, with even grandparents sometimes playing a part.
Like other children, my students are bombarded with images of violence from action movies, rap lyrics, and video games. Unlike other children; however, no one has ever monitored what they watch or even sit down and explain fact from fiction. The majority of them have never had the benefit of an ever-present hand to guide and nurture their social development.
Lost and along, most have turned to the streets for answers.
Are they not victims of a cold and insensitive society that will spend billions a month on wars and weapons procurement, while constantly cutting programs that might make a difference in the lives of some of our nation’s most at-risk youngsters?
Few give a damn about these suspected felonies, and wish only that they’re locked away somewhere. Fueled by the horrid scenes on the nightly new, more and more people are crying out for the permanent removal of these useless dregs.
But, society does have a use for them. Truth is, my students and thousands like them across America represent billions in federal funding.
With the crumbling of the United States’ industrial base and the lost of millions of jobs to foreign countries, the government is hard-pressed to create jobs wherever they can. The survival of the economy and the American way of life depends on it.
While I am not implying that there is some back room conspiracy to use black youth as grist for the jail and prison mill, but bureaucracies (including city agencies and unions) tend to protect their inflated budgets at all cost.
If matter couldn’t get worse, we are starting to see the ominous shadow of “privatization” moving across the heartland. Several Midwestern states have contracted with corporations to take over specific operations, including security. This includes thousands of employees and tens of billions in operating expenses and capital projects.
The state in which I reside allocates close to 50 thousand a year to keep each youthful offender behind bars, while spending only a fraction of that amount to educate them while in public school.
So where does all of that money go? It goes to paying the salaries of correction officers, probations officers, case workers, judges, magistrates, teachers, principals, and support staff of every kind.
More broadly, prisons and jails are big business, a thriving industry, a cash cow for state and local governments.
There are masons, plumbers, carpenters, construction firms, and retailers who provide commissary items where a tiny bag of tuna fish cost up to $2.00, phone that charge exorbitant per minute rates for each call.
Parent of incarnated children have to send hundred of dollars to assure that they children are eating properly. This is an enormous burden on those, in many cases, struggling to survive as it is.
Where is all of this headed? Are my students, present and future, to be sacrificed on the altar of capitalism? Or will we find love and compassion for children who have sinned against God and man. Perhaps, in our compassion, we will find our own deliverance. Or are these children of a lesser God?
Having said that, what would I say to the bereaved who continue to suffer in the aftermath? What if a member of my own family had fallen victim to one of them? World I still advocate benevolent reforms?
The answer is yes.
Once the pain subsides and clarity of mind returns, I would see that the system is hardly doing enough, neither for the children nor for the families or communities that spawned them.
A man once said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats it women and children.”
If this is true then, America still a ways to go before leaving it mark on the mantle of history.
What will it take to help these children, and in so doing help ourselves? It’s going to take the bravery shown on Normandy Beach, the ingenuity that landed us on the moon, and the sacrifice displayed in the Marshal Plan.
But, more importantly, it’s going to take people getting involved. If it is your choice to make a difference, start by becoming informed. Then allow your voice to be heard. Remember, there are no experts.