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 3rd 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 third thing I learned. You can find the introduction, the first thing and the second thing on my blog in previous posts. Thanks for reading! 

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. – Dalai Lama

The Third Thing I Learned

Anyone can choose to be a better human being.

     During the winter of my last school year as an educator at the detention center, there was an incident on House 4 the day before we were to return to classes after winter break. Property was damaged and local news reports conveyed the property destruction would cost the county over $250,000.

     Contrary to regrettable events like this, touching moments of humanity and generosity were not infrequent at the juvenile detention center. There was tension and sometimes violence and wreckage, but even when there is so little to be had and so few opportunities to give, the thoughtfulness and urgent desire of the kids at JDC to offer kindness was always inspiring.  

     Sometimes the selflessness of the kids I worked with would frustrate me later when I was home with my sons. When my students were profoundly writing on their daily gratitude statement they were grateful to still be alive, conflicts with my sons over video games, cell phones or doing household chores felt petty and ungrateful to me.

     I tried not to bring work home with me, preferring to stay in my classroom long past the school day to finish what needed to be done and to leave it all there. However, human nature does not always allow for our minds to leave work when our bodies exit the building.

     Most young people at the detention center encounter an intersection of obstacles. They are from low income households, environmentally toxic and violent neighborhoods, lack access to resources for healthcare and nutrition, have experienced trauma, and arrive with multiple diagnoses and disabilities.

     Knowing the oppression and inequities my students experienced dispirited me, but my sorrow deepened when students with severe challenges arrived to us. Although in my classroom the students had access to therapy putty, stress balls, fidget cloths, a bike desk, standing desks, and aromatherapy, the center is not equipped to handle a young person with severe mental or physical health needs, but that fact doesn’t prevent these young people from arriving there.

     Henry* arrived to the juvenile detention center with multiple disabilities including Asperger’s Syndrome, and with a recently reported IQ Composite of 49. His grandmother had adopted him a few months after he turned one because his mother struggled with addiction, including while she was pregnant with him.

     He didn’t really know his father who had been incarcerated most of Henry’s life, and whose history of mental health issues and disabilities mirrored Henry’s. Within thirty minutes of Henry’s arrival to my class, I picked up my desk phone and called the intervention specialist assigned to provide educational services to students in my classroom with disabilities. Even with the constant presence of a detention officer in our classroom, I did not believe I was capable of managing Henry’s needs without additional assistance.  

     Detention officers employed by the county escort students to class each day, and from the beginning of class to the end they remain in the doorway of the classroom, or just outside the classroom door. Juvenile detention centers operate twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week and do not close for holidays. The mental and physical demands on detention officers are grueling.

     One of the detention officers who was frequently assigned to keep my classroom safe during my last two years at JDC represented one of the best. I make this assertion without bias, although he was a student in one of my history classes many years before when I taught at a high school on the east side of the city. Yet, even the best among the detention officers, like my former student, were not adequately trained to respond to the needs of Henry.

     For over three weeks other boys who shared a housing pod with Henry assisted him with survival. Henry was protected and cared for by the other young people being held there. He never went hungry. Other students sat with him to watch videos of trains we had downloaded onto a computer for him.

     If students thought the intervention teacher was pushing him too hard to complete a task, they would interject and ask her to be gentler with him. They helped him when he had an accident and soiled his clothes while on the housing unit. Because Henry was taken into custody on a domestic violence charge, it was additionally difficult to expeditiously find another placement for him.

     Juvenile detention centers are not designed to adequately provide for young people with mental health issues or disabilities. Unfortunately, the centers often exacerbate issues already afflicting vulnerable young people. However, the boys around Henry knew the reasons they were there did not define who they are as human beings. They embraced an opportunity to help someone else who needed them, and gave him what they could. I am not sure I would have handled the situation with as much grace and generosity as my students if I had been in their place.

     At the end of each school day, I provided students with an opportunity to reflect on their performance in class for the day. On a half sheet of paper, students received the following prompts:

DAILY REFLECTION/EXIT TICKET

NAME_______________________________________________________DATE__________

Explain what you did well today in at least one complete sentence. _______________________

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Explain how you would rate your performance in class today on a scale of 10 to 1, and explain why you ranked yourself that way. 10= I did my best  5= I tried half the time 1=I did not try at all

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Write a complete sentence about one part of your work in class that you would like to improve and explain why. _____________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Choose to complete ONE of the writing prompts below. Circle which one you are completing.

  1. I wish that you would have known today that I…
  2. I am really proud that today I…
  3. My favorite part of today was…
  4. I wonder if today I could…

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

     This exercise each day allowed for students to experience a sense of accountability to themselves, and granted them a discreet way to communicate with me things they may not have wanted to verbally share.

     After completing tasks like using screen printing techniques to create artistic placemats for children staying at the Ronald McDonald House, or decorating flower pots to fill with soil and milkweed seeds to nourish monarch butterfly caterpillars, the students overwhelmingly responded to the first and last prompt with how much it meant to them to be able to do something nice for someone else or for the greater good. Many of the boys in my class who were being held were accused of murder, assault, aggravated robbery, and gang activity. Yet, when given opportunities to be kind they frequently and enthusiastically embraced them.

     Once, a former student I maintained contact with arrived at a facility in Ohio that was holding another former student of mine also. They both eventually wrote to me, excited to tell me they had met each other.

     The one who had been at the facility first had managed to find work there and save up enough money for toiletries and snacks, after he paid off over $1800 in restitution and court costs. There is no minimum wage in prisons, so it often takes a long time to earn what others on the outside might make in a day. The costs of items in prison can also be significantly higher because there is no need for competitive pricing. Only one company offers items approved for sale there. I was especially touched when the student who had been at the facility first wrote me in July 2016:

hey ms.smith

a student of yours named ***********  just came down here yesterday. I gave him some degree, toothpaste and food to make sure he’s alright. I seen *** at muslim service and told him 2 write you. I thinks it’s good to let you know how our status is.”

     It might be difficult to imagine what it feels like to possess so little in your daily life that all of your belongings could fit into a container the size of a plastic grocery bag. The policies in prisons create a culture of desperation and stashing.  It may not seem like a sacrifice to those on the outside, but within prison walls offering deodorant, toothpaste and food to someone simply because they were also in your former teacher’s classroom is genuinely benevolent.

     When I offered my gratitude to him for being so thoughtful and unselfish while in such a callous system, he humbly responded and actually deflected attention off of himself to compliment me.

ms.smith

how you doing? You’re welcome and it was no problem looking out for *****. He said add him on jpay and he’s sorry for not writing you back. [I had sent the young person handwritten letters while he was being held awaiting his trial proceedings at the adult county facility in Cleveland and he hadn’t responded.]

… thank you for keeping in contact and affecting so many people’s lives. You’re such a wonderful person.

     I am not certain I deserve his accolades. It is a lot easier to be altruistic when unconfined in a position of middle class privilege. I cannot say with certainty that I would be as charitable and thoughtful as the young men who have passed through my classroom.

     Schools should be places that encourage and develop displays of humanity. Whether I’m meeting a parent to give them their incarcerated child’s high school diploma, or sharing words of love from one of my student’s to their grandmother, there is much more to connect inhabitants of our planet than there is to divide us.  Everyone should have a place which connects them to the humanity of others as I found at the juvenile detention center.

Introduction to “10 Things I Learned from Kids in Jail (& You Can Too)”

     The following is the introduction to a series of ten additional sections revealing what I learned while employed as an educator at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) in Cleveland, Ohio.  

     The lines between good and evil, justice and injustice, virtuous and unvirtuous, and consequential and inconsequential were never more undefined and indistinct than the four years I taught at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Jail changes everyone, including those who are able to leave and return to their families and communities each day once their shift is complete.

     Anyone repeatedly exposed to the routines, sounds, sights, and the numbing absence of scent or touch, begins to conform unwittingly and often unwillingly to the absurdities of the institution. It is an unhealthy and vacuous normalization to become immersed in.

     Yet, I possess the distinctly immodest notion, as many educators do, that I have the ability to teach any child within my reach. Thus, as I contemplated leaving the teaching profession entirely after working for sixteen years in public high schools throughout the city of Cleveland, Ohio, a position for a social studies teacher at the county’s juvenile detention center became vacant. Communicating through a long-established network of colleagues, I was encouraged to apply for the post.

     After the interview process was complete, a job offer was made. Although the new placement meant my salary would be reduced by approximately twenty percent, the appeal of no longer having to prove my value within a system hyper focused on test scores and data, which requires an intentional neglect of the humanity of children, enticed me more than monetary factors. After all, I have not known any teachers who entered the profession with visions of future fortunes. There is a reason teaching colleges at universities are not part of the business college. Teaching is a humanity.

     Being a teacher for any length of time results in hoarding a massive amount of materials, just in case they are needed in the future, and because teachers are never certain if they will be able to obtain the items again if they do decide to discard them. It took me twenty years to relinquish the plastic sheets filled with history notes for the overhead projector I used when I first began teaching in 1998, even though they had been filed away and unused for fifteen years. This accumulation of materials means it is never enjoyable to pack up a classroom and move to a new one. Yet, I bundled my many belongings and supplies, loaded them into a large SUV and prepared to go to jail.

     My first few days at the juvenile detention center were spent trying to figure out how to get in and out of the facility. The nine-story, low-rise, cream-colored building on a reclaimed industrial site east of downtown Cleveland  looms largely and noticeably over the neighborhoods nearby. It is not coincidental that its location is near some of the most impoverished areas of the city and multiple public housing complexes. The majority of the young men who arrived to my classroom grew up in nearby neighborhoods, plagued with particles of discrimination and segregation.

     For the general public and most employees, entering the Juvenile Justice Center requires passing through a sheriff’s security station immediately after the main entrance doors. Bags are rolled on a belt through x-ray machines while sheriffs view their contents on monitors. Then, everyone walks through metal detectors, hoping they didn’t forget keys or change in their pockets because that misstep requires them to circle around and attempt the whole process once more.

     Next, individuals going to the detention center complex must swipe their badges to open a door which allows entry into an area with coat racks, locker rooms, a kitchen area, a training room, and offices. When transitioning from the public area of the Juvenile Justice Center to the secure area, the visual contrast is stark and harsh. All hues of color are assaulted and consumed by a complete white washing of the floors, furnishings, walls, and ceilings. No natural lighting filters through the solid block walls, which leaves only the intimidating and accusatory glare of fluorescent lights.

     The next step of gaining entry to the residential and school area includes another rolling belt to place bags on for another x-ray. Only clear bags are permitted. There is another stroll through a metal detector, and friendly brief exchanges between the sheriff assigned to the station and employees following the security routine. Once cleared to continue, a short  walk to a heavy white door with a small vertical rectangular window is required.

     Someone in another room watches this brief walk through mounted cameras encased in half circles attached to the ceiling. A buzz at the door from the watcher grants entrance to a narrow corridor that leads to another weighty door. Again, someone in a different room is watching through cameras and the sound of the buzzer at the second door means access to the detention center has been permitted.

     Upon opening the door, a short distance to the left, along rubber track flooring and curved white concrete block walls are two sets of doors with windows revealing the school area. Another swipe of my badge provides admittance to the school. Dark blue, bumpy carpet, walls covered with certificates celebrating student successes and colorful motivational posters break the white monotony, but there is no escaping the unrelenting fluorescent lights.

     When I first arrived to this school, my need to escape the sterile and drab whiteness everywhere overwhelmed me. Soon, my students’ artwork began creeping to walls beyond my classroom, like vines on a trestle covering foot after foot until the whiteness was absorbed. By my second year there, others had embraced the idea of decorating beyond their classroom or office walls. The school at the detention center became an oasis of color in an otherwise barren, bleached desert.

     There are ten classrooms side-by-side along two adjacent walls in the rectangle-shaped school area. An under-utilized life skills room with kitchen appliances and a washer and dryer is in one corner of the school, and an open library area is in the middle. Next to the library is a room with windows on three sides deemed the “fishbowl” room because anyone walking by any of the three windowed sides can peer in. A main office with a teacher supply room and three offices for intervention (special education) teachers is along another wall.  A fourth wall has a barbershop and school storage room.

     In order to exit the school area, the entrance procedures are followed in reverse: swipe out of the school, wait to be buzzed through two heavy white doors, walk past one sheriff station, gather outerwear and personal belongings, exit the secure area, and walk past a second sheriff station.

     My error the first few days of working at the detention center was not identifying a landmark to designate the set of heavy white doors needed to leave. As I attempted to leave work, I was buzzed through the thick white door I was waiting at, only to find myself in a small room with a chair and no other doors. My confusion must have been transmitted through the pixels captured by the camera. A voice over the speaker asked,

    “Ma’am, where are you trying to go?”

     Embarrassed, I responded I was seeking the exit. I was released from the small room and directed back to a door I had initially passed, with a red exit light above it. Remembering to look beyond the eye level my 5’4” height is accustomed to was probably the first lesson I learned at the detention center, but it wasn’t one my students taught me.

Finding Educational Justice in the Justice System for Students with Disabilities

Post for Special Education Consultants Group     

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, students can be adjudicated prior to age 18, or sent from the juvenile detention center once they reach age 18, to the adult county jail pending the outcome of their case. A couple years ago, I learned that access to education services are scarce to nonexistent at the adult county facility in Cuyahoga County. Appalled for all students, I began reaching out to local government officials at the county level. Outside of a meeting with a community liaison at the county executive’s office during the summer of 2015, I was largely ignored or dismissed. I then began reaching out to the Ohio Department of Education, Disability Rights Ohio, and to representatives and senators on a national level, lobbying my senators and representative in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2015. At the end of the summer, I realized that most folks in government don’t really give a rat’s tail about this practically invisible population of students. It was also then that it occurred to me that a significant number of the students sent to languish at the county facility for extended lengths of time without access to education, often still had active Individual Education Plans under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and that not offering services was a violation of their civil rights. I filed a complaint with the Department of Justice against the state of Ohio because students are assigned to the Buckeye United School District once they leave the county juvenile facility for the county adult facility. The Buckeye United School District includes schools under the Ohio Department of Youth Services.  

    Meanwhile, the State Deputy Director from Senator Sherrod Brown’s office responded to my outreach and agreed to visit my students at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, and to listen to my stories and theirs. When I did not get a timely response from the DOJ, Senator Sherrod Brown’s office followed up for me, and I received an update within a week. I also traveled to Boston in December of 2015 to meet and ask a question of Bryan Stevenson about the students I serve, and the situation of youth in adult detention facilities.

    The case initiated by my complaint was eventually transferred to the United States Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office in Cleveland, Ohio. An investigation is currently open and pending as of the summer of 2016. I do not believe that I need to explain to this educated group of people how damaging and negatively life-changing a lack of education, or the deprivation of education, can be on our young people caught in the juvenile or adult justice system. When students fight back (with the help of advocates), they receive compensatory school time, thus I have a former student in Mansfield now on an active IEP until he is 22 because he spent a year without access to education waiting at the adult county facility. For students already struggling academically, a year away from education cannot ever really be compensated. Due to the large number of people incarcerated who have disabilities and are between the ages of 18-21, I am creating awareness about this issue so that other people who care about the rights of students with disabilities can also advocate for those entangled in the very complicated maze of juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. There are many entrances into this maze, but the exits are few and infrequently include a high school diploma for those who experience it. Our communities would all be better places if that changed.

With hope for a means to justice and education for all,

Melissa