The Fifth Thing I Learned From Kids in Jail

A mind which really lays hold of a subject is not easily detached from it.

– Ida Tarbell

The following is part of a series titled “10 Things I Learned From Kids in Jail.” This is the fifth thing I learned. You can find the introduction, the first thing, the second thing, the third thing and the fourth thing on my blog in previous posts.

Thanks for reading!

The Fifth Thing I Learned

Once you know something, you can’t go back to not knowing it.

     Maybe I was like most Americans before I began working at the juvenile detention center; unaware of the inhumanity inflicted upon people in prisons. I wasn’t sensitive to jokes made on late night television or in movies about “dropping the soap” in a prison shower, or comments like “gay for the stay.”

     Although I vainly considered myself beyond proficient about the social justice issues plaguing our country, I was profoundly ignorant about the vast abuses legally embedded in the prison system. When repeatedly introduced to layers and details of oppression, outrage and frustration can consume a person. Because I can’t unknow what I know I turned to writing and activism as an outlet to vent my anger. I do not know if my words ever altered someone else’s attitude or offered anyone enlightenment, but it is therapy for me.

     Jack*, who was a student in my classroom for several months during my fourth year at the detention center, was adjudicated to the adult system or “bound over” for his alleged crime at the age of sixteen. Although unaware of the crime he committed, it was incredulous to me that this youthful student with learning disabilities was going to be treated as an adult in the justice system.

     During the time he was with me, he utilized therapeutic strategies offered and expressed a distinct aptitude for assessing respectful versus inappropriate behavior in our classroom. He was helpful and thoughtful and often colored pictures for me, which he would shyly ask me to sign his name on in cursive before relinquishing them to me.

     He was a diligent and committed student, and was often targeted by less childlike, unkind boys looking for an opportunity to entertain themselves by antagonizing him. I hung the carefully colored pages Jack gave me on the walls around my desk along with other accrued artifacts from students. He would critique his coloring at times and promise me even better pictures were to come.

     Jack is just one of the many children damaged by our culture’s negligence and dereliction of decency which often precedes delinquency. Growing up in the segregated neighborhoods of public housing his school attendance was sporadic and he was retained in second grade. By third grade, he was involved in multiple disciplinary incidents at school.

     It was not until Jack was destined to repeat 6th grade that school staff decided to meet to determine if Jack had a disability and qualified for special education services. During his first time in sixth grade, Jack missed over 40 days of school because he was suspended, and over twenty days of school were missed mostly due to a severe health issue he inherited. During his 5th grade year, Jack missed 35 days due to suspensions. His first year in sixth grade was also the year Jack’s encounters with the juvenile justice system began.

     School staff described Jack as a boy who needed to trust adults before he would attempt any academic tasks, and they mentioned repeatedly that Jack expressed distress over his father being incarcerated for drug trafficking.

     One classroom observation noted Jack asleep at his desk. When the teacher was asked by an observer why Jack was sleeping, the teacher shared that the class was reading a text aloud before Jack fell asleep, and Jack struggled with some words when it was his turn to read for the class which provoked Jack to make the decision to yell at the teacher with irritation. After this explosion of frustration, Jack put his head down and calmed himself to sleep at his desk.

     Although I reiterate the belief we cannot expect schools or police officers to solve all of the problems we’ve created in society, I cannot help but wonder about the potential of interventions earlier in Jack’s life.

     What if instead of suspensions, elementary schools were equipped with the medical and mental support personnel required to address the needs of students like Jack?

     What if schools were given the resources and permission to care for students like Jack?

     If we invested in our most vulnerable children at the earliest stages of their development (and in their families), could we prevent crimes and spare victims?

     The possibility of a better approach and more equitable means of caring for kids tantalizes me.

     It was a casual comment in class from Jack one morning replaying in my mind, and electronic communications in the afternoon of the same day with some former detention center students of mine, that inspired an entry on the blog I created to vent my feelings and share my churning thoughts.

     When he stood up to sharpen his pencil at the sharpener on the cart directly in front of my desk, he spoke unprompted softly and reflectively while he gazed blankly at the classroom wall. “I have never been to school in an actual high school. That’s a dang shame, isn’t it?” I looked down quickly to fight back any tears that might involuntarily form in my eyes.

     “Yes. It really is,” I replied. I knew this student’s case had just been adjudicated to the adult system, and it clearly weighed heavily on his sixteen-year-old shoulders. All of his high school credits prior to arriving to our classroom were from another detention facility in the state, and he seemed to accept he wouldn’t be exiting the system any time soon.

     As an educator at our county’s juvenile detention center, it is difficult to witness the effects of multiple moments of disappointment and neglect on our city’s most vulnerable children. My heart splinters for their lost childhoods and obstacle-laden futures, but also for those in the community whom they may have hurt because the interventions these kids desperately needed as they were growing up were never provided.

     Teaching is a humanity. It is difficult to find more glaring examples of the need for human connections once you have had the misfortune of being immersed in experiences at a juvenile jail. This necessity for a human nexus continues once kids leave my classroom for their next destination. Ideally, that next destination is in the community because the juvenile justice system in conjunction with other agencies has efficiently and effectively performed its established purpose. Tragically however, I often maintain communication with my students through correspondence with them at another incarceration facility.

     I optimistically expect most citizens to agree with the assertion that the United States’ justice and incarceration systems require reform. Yet, unless someone is directly entangled in the system, most of us are oblivious to the many costs people incarcerated and their loved ones must pay. In addition to having to purchase cheaply made and easily broken “j-players” in order for incarcerated people to electronically communicate with those outside of the prison system, each electronic message sent requires payment equivalent to or more than the cost of a U.S. postage stamp. Each picture attached to an electronic message sent through JPay also requires an additional “stamp” purchase in order to digitally send it.

     For example, a former student I maintain contact with asked me to send him a picture of his high school diploma because he was taken from our facility before his graduation could be certified. In order to send the picture, I paid .50 cents for the electronic message and an additional .50 for the digital picture attached, for a total of $1.00 for the one communication.

     Securus, the company which owns JPay, yields over one hundred million dollars per year in profits, with a gross profit margin of 51 percent, by exploiting already disadvantaged citizens. Although the profits generated as a result of people’s suffering are sufficiently abhorrent, the pit in my stomach the first time I became a JPay consumer was not initially spurred by the money I was spending. Rather, it is the way in which JPay and multiple other prison industries, in collaboration with various established institutions in our society, have successfully dehumanized people who are incarcerated.

     Going to JPay’s website, users can see how to do an “inmate search.” I am never looking for an “inmate.” I am searching for a young person who was a student in my class. They are sons. They may be brothers, uncles, nephews, or fathers. Whatever their worst deeds are, “inmate” should not be the summary of their existence.

     The over two million people incarcerated in the United States are human beings. Redacting their humanness and reducing them to their prodigious mistakes is a practice utilized by the inhumane to erase their humanity. Just as the revolting practice of referring to enslaved human beings as “slaves” was once embedded into our culture, attributing the term “inmate” to incarcerated human beings is similarly repulsive to my sensibilities.

     I often quote Desmond Tutu when I am concluding public presentations about my students and our classroom at the county’s juvenile detention center. He said “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” We must all remind each other of our innate worth as living beings on this planet, and seek the humanity that connects us. Discarding dehumanizing language that transforms people into negatively implicated nouns may enlighten our perceptions of the people many would rather not know or name. I may refer to the young people in my classroom as my students, but they are not my inmates.

     Welcome to the world of that which is known. There is no turning back.

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The 4th Thing I Learned from Kids in Jail

The following is part of a series titled “10 Things I Learned From Kids in Jail.” This is the fourth thing I learned. You can find the introduction, the first thing, the second thing, and the third thing on my blog in previous posts. I know it has been a few months since I posted and I appreciate your patience.

Thanks for reading!

I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. ― Albert Einstein

The Fourth Thing I Learned

Everyone needs love, but love isn’t all we need.

     My first year at the detention center began with a cohort of young men in my class who claimed membership in a gang called the “Heartless Felons.”  They were not used to being in a structured school setting, and the information I had about teaching in juvenile detention centers before I began working in one was limited to a few readings I found online.  

     National advocacy groups have called students in juvenile detention centers an “invisible population” because little to no attention has been given to this demographic. Fortunately, I had a bank of knowledge constructed throughout my sixteen years of teaching high school in the city to make withdrawals from. Plus, raising my own boys provided me with multiple opportunities to practice not taking things personally.

      I was repeatedly told by some of the angry students my first few months at JDC that “we were not in real school,” and they asked my principal if he could fire me for cajoling them to do school work they didn’t want to do.  My principal responded by chuckling and walking away.

     One day, shortly after the school year began, one of the guards worriedly returned to my classroom after securing the boys back on the housing unit to check on me. He was concerned the behavior of some of the boys might have an impact on me. His reaction was thoughtful and appreciated, but I assured him I was not on the brink of quitting or ceasing my attempts to offer education.

     It is necessary as an educator to care for and respect those within your realm, but reminding yourself of your place of power and privilege when student actions are potentially hurtful is also a valuable tool to utilize. Although our mutual humanity remained at the forefront, I also established myself as a professional with knowledge and skills which prepared me to facilitate their learning. Additionally, I reminded myself of the struggles in their lives which were unknown to me or were absent from my personal life experiences.

     My students’ yearning for someone who cared was consistently present, even when they could not articulate their need. Outside of our classroom, students hunted for kinship and spaces in which they felt valued. Sometimes the only affiliation to give them a sense of safety and validation was a gang. Media outlets may offer glimpses into what gang membership entails, but the nuances of membership in a gang are complex and organized.  

     The Heartless Felons formed after a merger of two gangs in the early 2000s. In one of Ohio’s youth correctional facilities, The Young Felons and The Land of the Heartless joined together. An April 2015, cleveland.com article explained the details of the gang’s origins:

In about 2000, the gang’s leader, Peterson, served a sentence at a state youth facility in Marion for felonious assault. Prosecutors said in court documents that Peterson had an extensive juvenile record of delinquencies, and authorities struggled to control him.

While in Marion, Peterson realized that Cleveland youths from different gangs should bond to become stronger so they could take on youth gangs from across the state, according to interviews and published reports.

Peterson reached out to Donte “Iceberg Ferg” Ferguson, also of Cleveland. Peterson, a member of the Young Felons, joined with Ferguson, a member of the Land of the Heartless, to form the new gang, according to interviews and courtroom testimony.

The gang took off, stunning authorities with its violence. Many of its members were involved in other gangs when they joined the Heartless Felons, records and interviews show.

As their time in the juvenile correctional facilities ended, gang members returned to Cleveland. In many cases, they were soon convicted of crimes and later shipped to prisons, where they quickly gained a reputation for brutality, state records show.

     A student at JDC shared their creed. Part of it reads, “I am a felon by birthrights, gangsta by circumstance… I am a reflection of my brothers and they are a reflection of me…” There is also a pledge. It reads, “I am a heartless felon. From this day forward I been reborn felon. Felon is my backbone.  The calab is the blood that runs through my veins. LOH is the heart within me that keeps me moving. I have a heart of 1000 men… therefore I am a 1000 men. That is what makes me a heartless felon.”

     There are also ten “golden rules” members of the Heartless Felons are expected to adhere to at all times. They were described by a student as follows:

  • No snitching
  • No stealing from another felon
  • No homosexual activity
  • No arguing in front of an outsider
  • No fighting in front of an outsider
  • No fam business in front of outsiders
  • Do not treat another felon like a flunky or pawn
  • Respect high ranking decisions
  • Take risks for the fam
  • Respect all.

     Could anything I did in my classroom compete with a creed, pledge and golden gang rules? I had to remember that I was not vying for members to anything. Capitalist and competitive principles do not apply to education in my classroom. Instead, teaching coexisted within a shared space. The boys gradually respected an inferred code switching between our classroom and activities related to their other allegiances, which very rarely interfered with our learning environment.

     I was also privileged to capture glimpses of the childhoods my students could have had in different environments under different circumstances. One student, Lester, who seemed to be a higher ranking gang member and had no qualms about stating “ima gangsta” on the intake survey he completed when he arrived to my class, had also lost both his parents.

     He wrote that if he had one wish it would be “my mom and dad back.”  Lester was in class with me for several months, and it was challenging for me to connect with him. During his first few months in class, there were incidents during which he screamed profanities and threatened to “flip this” (items in the classroom). There were also days when he was permitted by adults in the housing unit area to not attend school.

     Lester had attended four high schools in three years. School didn’t seem to be a place he felt he belonged. After approximately five months of attempting to engage Lester in school, I sensed a sliver of possibility. He became part of a small group of boys in class who teased me about the way I dressed for work.

     I always loosely covered the majority of my body with various styles of ponchos or flowing cardigans in a mostly successful attempt to extinguish any silhouette of my figure and reduce myself to a blob of clothing. Lester jokingly asked me where I got all of these ponchos. I replied that I found them at discount stores and sometimes I made them. He then asked me to make him one.

     During a long weekend for one of the federal winter holidays, I made him a fleece black serape. I gave it to the social worker on the housing unit because I didn’t want the other kids to know, and students are not allowed to take anything back to the unit on their own. Lester was moved from the juvenile facility to the adult jail shortly after.

     As I was leaving the secure area one day, I happened upon the social worker from House 3 giving the serape and Lester’s other personal items to his grandmother. His grandmother seemed a little perplexed by the article of clothing, but the social worker explained how much Lester enjoyed wearing it when he was in her office away from the pod (the areas within units groups of young people reside while being detained).

     A serape wasn’t going to make Lester believe in school or miss his parents less. The radical love of an educator which inspires the creation of a serape is not going to deter a child from joining a gang, or convince a young man to leave a gang, but if love is what you have to give, then why not give it?

     References to family (fam) and outsiders, and the losses so many of my students had experienced, marinated in my mind when I encountered discussions about gangs. The appeal of being in a gang was not an experience I shared with the young men, but I understood the kids were seeking safety, loyalty and love. Every kid deserves to grow up in a community that provides those things. As much as I loved my students and teaching, it was never going to be enough to topple the entrenched oppression my students were challenged daily to overcome.