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.