This blog is a space to share ideas, advocacy, experiences and developments around incarceration, it's effect to self, family,community and the greater society.
The Guilford College Higher Education in Prison Initiative is an effort to bring higher education to those incarcerated in prison, developing not only the skills for critical thinking and engaged learning but also fostering a shared human connection and mutual respect between all.
Sometimes there are no explanations for the circumstances and events that happen in our lives. Sometimes there are but we are too afraid or ashamed to see. We could spend hours analyzing everything that could've been different, better choices, or simply a choice. We could constantly live in a moment of suspended time, not truly living or learning.
What I have found to be important is that we acknowledge our weaknesses and vulnerablity within our humanity. Recognize that in this humanity, lies fault and mistake; yet growth.
And in this growth we understand that sometimes everything is not balck and white, fair or unfair, just or unjust; that the middle; the gray is just important to understanding each other as the concretes. And yes, the gray is subject to interpretation but until the day comes where we have the ability to live in one another shoes, feel each others pain, short-comings, regrets, and aspirations then the gray is our greatest and closest ally to connect with our humanity.
He told me he wakes sobbing in the middle of the night;
the smell of his son s hair in the morning... the way the toussled strands of hair dance around the nape of her neck when she hurriedly prepares empanadas... how flowing water sounds... driving down the road, windows down, hands riding the air... Silence.
He quickly hides his tears; there is no crying here, only concrete and memories that tastes... as metallic and cold as the bars that separate him from.... Today I held my son a little longer...
Rolled the windows down...
and thought of my friend
battling the silence of his tears with the clamor of his reality
Within the past two years I have had great opportunities to meet some extraordinary, engaging and amazing human beings. I began researching before I even realized I was researching. Immersing myself into the challenging issues of reentry to society has been inspiring, powerful, and at times frustrating and sad. The combination of getting the opportunity to interact and listen to the many stories, failures, triumphs, thought- provoking dialogue and observing the head on challenging obstacles and policies that blockade so many people from truly cohesive societal integration has blossomed into a passion and quest for justice and equality for me. It has catapulted my involvement to build a prison education initiative and successful avenues for career attainment upon release.
One of the most influential aspects that I became familiar with in the process of reentry is the notion that time served for many of these people does not necessary mean just that. The sentence that people serve behind prison walls does not constitute that once their time is up, punishment for their crimes have been rendered and they then can be integrated as “ law-abiding outstanding citizen”.
It is actually far from that.
For most individuals, reentry back into society is another sentence of its own. Upon release and reentry to society many people are faced with coping with communities and institutions that still view them as a criminal and if the offender is African American or Latino the apprehensions of trusting these people are even more intense because as a long standing tradition in American society, just being black or brown is a criminal offense in itself.
Reentry for many individuals is a stark and terrifying reality. Although being released from behind bars allows for physical freedom to the outside world, the proverbial shackles and chains are cast upon people attaining reentry into a world that many seek to break the confines from.
The challenge of attaining education is a goal that many of these people find to be unachievable once released.In 1994, former President Bill Clinton signed into effect the bill that enables offenders to receive any federal assistance, in the form of Pell grants to aid with college tuition. Paired with the reality that once someone has a felony on their record any trustworthiness for a bank or private institution to give an individual a loan, the chances of being able to afford to further ones’ human capital through college to not only compete in an capitalistic American marketplace but to gain a sense of intrinsic accomplishment and worth has become a harsh slap in the face.
To combat the obstacles of not being able to attain higher education faced by persons with criminal records there are a select few programs that have been established to allow people to gain their liberal arts degree behind prison walls so they have the opportunity to market themselves in a highly competitive society. For many years, GED and vocational programs have been established to allow for offenders to attain their GED or high school diploma and develop skills to a particular trade such as mechanics, welding, or construction, but as it has been ever so apparent within our culture a GED does not go very far to help establish a solid career and the job market may have availability for tradesmen but they are a dying breed.
One such program that has gained national acclaim and that has been featured in a two part series on PBS is The Bard Prison Initiative.
The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) creates the opportunity for incarcerated men and women to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences. The academic standards and workload are rigorous, based on an unusual mix of attention to developmental skills and ambitious college study. The rate of post-release employment among the program’s participants is high and recidivism is stunningly low. By challenging incarcerated men and women with a liberal education, BPI works to redefine the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice.
As the largest program of its kind in the United States, BPI enrolls 25 incarcerated men and women across a full spectrum of academic disciplines, and offers over 50 courses each semester. By 2011, Bard granted 157 degrees to BPI participants and enrolled a total of nearly 500 students (BPI.edu, 2011).This type of liberal arts education offered to these people opens up a world of opportunity that many have not educationally experienced.
A theme of collective community is central to not only perceived and actual successful reintegration, but to the basic fundamental and foundational elements of the program’s inception. BPI began in 1999, when then-student Max Kenner set out to engage Bard College in the effort to restore meaningful education to the prison system. At the start, Kenner organized other Bard students to volunteer as tutors in local prisons. In 2001, BPI outgrew its role as a student organization and became an academic program of the College. In 2005, BPI awarded the first Bard College degrees to incarcerated candidates. It now operates a network of 5 satellite campuses across New York, engaging students up through their release and after (BPI.edu, 2011).
Max Kenner states that “the grassroots founding of the program’s initiation was critical to truly implementing a holistic approach to reentry; the importance of the community and the offenders to work and contribute to one another’s insights, experience, and human capital produced a strong and tight-knit solidarity” (Interview, 2011). The Initiative is one of a number of projects at Bard College that seek to strengthen the importance of the liberal arts in public life. The process of democratic participation, community involvement, individual empowerment, and quest towards educational liberation is substantial within programs like the Bard Prison Initiative that what to consequently equip these offenders with necessary skills and critical thinking processes to dedicate and maintain efforts of individual and collective capacities to contribute to such inevitable and important facetsof public life.
The commitment of this mission runs through the dedication of prosperous reentry but also included and not limited to other initiatives that uphold priceless social capital. These include early college high schools in the New York City public school system, a collegiate academy for young people in New Orleans, an honors college at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, and liberal arts colleges in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (BPI.edu, 2011). Graduates of the BPI program have consistently succeeded after release from prison. Some have chosen to work in human service organizations, serving people with AIDS, or becoming professional counselors for residents in city-based alternatives to incarceration. Several alumni have worked their way up to management positions in an innovative, for-profit electronics recycling company. Other graduates have continued their educations, earning scholarships and working toward additional academic and professional degrees (BPI.edu, 2011).
The research that I have conducted into the Bard Prison Initiative as well as the lack of such liberal arts programs throughout the United States including North Carolina, and the realization of the many insurmountable strife, challenges and continually infringement of civil rights upon people navigating their way towards successful and inclusive reentry has tapped into the “wellspring of my being” (Minnich, 143).
The information, stories, injustices, triumphs and individuals that have composed much of my involvement in this research and journey have animated and enabled the reasons and needs that press me to a fight for a higher level of justice within our society to engage communities and offenders to openly and truthfully without reservations recognize and embrace one another’s potential and strengths to concretely manifest cohesive communities.
Reentry is more than a society allowing previously incarcerated persons back into communities, because as our social reality of criminals and crime are pervasively groomed by influences of media and affluent framers of our American culture, persuasive biases, prejudices and apprehensions will cloud abilities to trust one another.
The greatest works of reentry and society is to learn the teachings and honor one another in our various fields of experiences and knowledge. This learning process and experience of communities and offender desiring acceptance and reentry is substantiated by a belief that “subject matter and methods are most effectively learned, and remembered when they are studied by people who find our for themselves why they matter, and do so by following their own interest rather than as we prescribe the order in which they must be learned” (Minnich, pg150).
Reentry involves digging deep and really seeing one another, learning one another and what constitutes the capabilities to effectively contribute and uplift each other in our society and not adhere to ideologies that create divisive yet permeable paranoia and distrust.
Furthermore, reentry then is a continual “responsibility for individuals to be responsible for individuals” (Saul Alinsky, IAF) and to hold accountable most of all the “integral transformative” (Minnich, pg. 154) teaching and learning that aspires to do more than produce culturally standard citizens but to go against the grain of culturally standardized ideology and to develop communities of intense and powerful social capital that value one another.
Recognizing the human being in front of us, acknowledging that we need to cultivate a bit of humility and the ability to hear the souls of others requires silencing the clamor of our own obsessions and our own assumptions about how the world should be. The stigmatic labels of criminal, offender, ex-con, convict induces oppressive boundaries around our morality of fairness and equality. These labels ignite fear without analysis of understanding the individual and circumstance. It is only when we look past the label, more times than not applied to oppress and perpetuate fearful fallacies, can we truly listen to others and acquire the chance to discover and celebrate what we actually hold in common.
I have had the honor to be let into so many other's lives, hear their stories, see their pain and frustration but to also experience their resilence and fight for justice, humanity and dignity that has brought each of them and their families to the place they are today. You have all been an inspiration and motivation in my pursuits of justice and equality. Your existence gives me hope.
(Names have been changed to respect and protect the people in each story and their families)
In the winter of 2009, Marion, a convicted felon, was released after serving a fifteen month sentence for possession of narcotics in a medium-security prison in North Carolina. Upon his release, Marion was clean and sober and had made life changing revelations through adopting a new found passion by dedicating his life to his faith and more importantly his family. His work ethic was at its highest of his entire life, his determination to make a substantial living to provide the necessities, as well as, wants for his young daughter were stronger than the words he spoke for the love of his God, and his goals for being a stronger, productive, and more active member in his community were fueled by an appreciation of his rehabilitation.
But this is only a small chapter in Marion’s story. Like the other hundreds of offenders that will attempt to be successfully reintegrated into society in the upcoming months and years Marion’s aspirations of success in his life and acceptance of reintegration into society has been stonewalled by the lack of social capital within surrounding communities that are imperative for not only community prosperity, growth and connectedness but for individual human prosperity and nourishment.
The following will discuss the importance of social capital on successful community integration on reentry programs for offenders. The term offender can be broadly defined, so the concentration within the following text will be limited to offenders convicted of non-violent criminal offenses and those reentry efforts.
Current research suggests that“in 2011 nearly three-quarters of a million people, mostly men and disproportionately African American and Hispanic men--will return from jail or prison to communities all over the U.S.”(Smith, 2011). Some of these people have been incarcerated for only a limited amount of time; others have been incarcerated for long periods of their lives. Reentry programs have substantially been focused on providing these individuals with appropriations to successfully tackle the challenges of reintegrating back into society. Many of the challenges that these individuals face operate around a lack of “social capital” within the communities and neighborhoods they reintegrate into.
Although there may be disagreements explaining the most thorough and clear definition of social capital the main proponents within the definition of social capital are that “social capital is a form of organization that makes possible the achievement of certain ends” (Rose, 2001), “social capital are the benefits secured by membership in social networks” (Rose, 2001), and that “the features of social organization, such as networks, norms, and trust, that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (Rose, 2001). Ultimately, social capital is a collective social dynamic of relationships within communities that produces understanding of each other with collective social actions.
James Coleman in his article, Social Capital and the Creation of Human Capital builds on the theory of social capital by suggesting that “the understanding of individuals is acting based on a rational consideration of their self-interest, and as being influenced by their social contexts” (pg. 1). Social capital is of particular importance to offenders and its neighborhoods to recognize the collaborative goals of successful reentry, decreased recidivism of crime, family and community cohesiveness and strong accumulation of network and resource building.
Social capital is a strong asset to successful social policy as well. The community-based program Project Reentry, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina has received national recognition and acclaim for its efforts and mission to provide inmates and their post-release communities with services to enhance human and social capital. The reintegration efforts and services of programs like Project Reentry demonstrate the valuable importance that social capital has on social policy. In order for communities and individuals to successfully tackle the challenges with re-entry through community-based programs it is crucial to understand the components of social capital.
In the article, Social Cohesion, Social Capital and Neighborhoods, Forrest and Kearns identify eight components of social capital. They suggest that social capital is composed of the following: empowerment (when residents feel they have a voice, are involved in processes that affect them and can take action to initiate change); participation (in social and community activities so local events are well attended); associational activity and common purposes (cooperation which results in the formation of formal and informal groups to further collective interests); supporting networks and reciprocity (individual and organizational cooperation to support mutual and one-sided gain and an expectation that help is available if needed); collective norms and values; trust (both between co-residents and between residents and local organizations); safety (resulting in no restrictions of public space due to fear); and belonging (where people feel connected to each other, their home area and feel they belong to the place and its people) (Kearns, pg. 2140).These elements of social capital should be at the heart of any effective reentry effort and the most successful community-based organizations understand the implications of such.
Recidivism is a primary focus that both the inmate and community do not want to happen. Research has suggested that the most successful reentry plans involve comprehensive pre-release community in-reach and post-release community out-reach programs that lower the risks of offender recidivism. Promising planning efforts pre and post-release need to address the challenges of reentry through invested community in and out-reach organizations but be careful not to provide services that may be too much of a servant-hood rather than a combined effort of successful planning and implementation. When the servant-hood towards individuals is eliminated and a cohesive strategy of “community” is embraced the inmate will positively benefit from his own sense of accomplishment and contribution to society. Many persons do not feel a sense of urgency, calling or responsibility when we are continually handed services and not given the opportunity to utilize our human potential of craft to contribute to those around us. When a person is not given such an opportunity, feelings of inadequacy, isolation, and self-doubt will persist and this void will have to be filled, often times those who have only be expected to be criminal by society (released prisoners) will turn again to criminal behavior to fill the void that has been left by a society that has entrusted them with little, to gain intrinsic and tangible accomplishments.
The Urban Institute reported in 2011 that prisoners returning to neighborhoods perceived to be unsafe and lacking in social capital are at greater risk of recidivism. Community-based organization respondents who viewed their communities as safe and good places to live were much less likely to return to prison and more likely to be employed than those who reported their communities were unsafe or characterized by low social capital. In addition, those who felt that drug selling was a problem in their neighborhood were more likely to have engaged in substance use after release than those living in neighborhoods where drug selling was not perceived to be a problem (Urban, 2011).
Community-based programs like Project Reentry have made a profound impact on successful reintegration efforts of offenders into communities. The services that are available pre and post- release are not only service tools meant for a quick solution that the organization can hand out and then wash there hands from, but instead it builds on the human and social capital that is so vital for success for the inmate and the community.The participants in the Project Reentry program are not just given services in servant-hood, they are participants in a program where they acquire skills, knowledge, interpersonal relationship skills, and reclaim the power of self-worth, accomplishment, and contribution that has been lost behind bars. With combined efforts of the individual and community involvement through programs like Project Reentry, healthy, strong, and cohesive bonds can be formed through reintegration of offenders and the society they are a part of.The importance of social capital is vital within communities. Saul Alinsky, the founder of Industrial Areas Foundation, a community organizing organization has said, “never do for a person what they can do for themselves” this is an important concept for the self and recognizing our potentials and how they can contribute to our communities and vice versa.
A United States cultural ideological infactuation with punishment permeates through our public schools crippling students ability to critically think outside of the box. Instead walls are built within our institutions to contain and detain knowledge….literally.
Dr. Kaia Stern, Professor and Director of the Prison Studies Program at Harvard University states, “there is no more pressing human rights issue in the United States , no more urgent spiritual crossroads or threat to our democracy than the current punishment crisis”
In anywhere USA, a child is being actively engaged in his/her classroom. Rules and boundaries are equitably established based on discussion and compromised between students and teacher. The ideas, concerns and inquiries expressed by the students are uplifted and critically analyzed, dissected, and carefully considered by peers and instructors. Wrong answers are graded as a learning experience and corrected through self-examination and further, deeper analysis of contextual meaning. A student’s educational excellence is perpetuated through school and community commitment, encouragement, and involvement. In anywhere USA educational excellence is an inherent attribute that is acknowledged, cherished and consistently developed and nurtured in every child; a child’s character and personality is encouraged in his/her journey of educational achievement. In anywhere USA a child is a human respected for his/her capabilities, social and human capital and regarded as an asset to our nation’s preservation and cultural growth. In anywhere USA, education is the journey to communal acceptance, understanding and knowledge as well as, personal development and discovery.
But that is not our story.
In everywhere USA, children in public education schools are disengaged in their classrooms. There are no rules that have been agreed upon in a manner of discussion and mutual respect. Rules and curriculum are one in the same. They are dictated and drilled into a child’s head. Children are set upon predetermined pathways according to their race, socioeconomic status and gender. The availability of opportunity for a child to succeed and develop skills for critical and comprehensive learning rests upon the ideals of those in power who deem and define who is to be successful, who is to passed through and who is to fail. In everywhere USA a child is not celebrated for his/her inquisitiveness, wonder, and childlike characteristics but instead chastised for questioning, conditioned to obey, and molded to fill a tradition that is anything my extraordinary but everything standard. In everywhere USA our children, especially our African American and Latino children have become customary assets not to sustain a nation of excellence but to preserve a nation of traditional and historical white patriarchal power. Our schools in everywhere USA are failing our children to enhance their knowledge and capabilities and instead recycling them through a vicious system based on a power structure founded by racist, prejudicial, and unequal ideals and practices.
Within this paper I will examine the deep-rooted and historical practices and traditions of racism that are entrenched and perpetuated through our society into our American public education system that is designed to set our nation’s children up for failure. I will examine through historical perceptions of conditional thinking and pervasive systematic sanctioned prejudice and unequal treatment how our nation has developed a misconception of social reality that those children who are failing are characteristically bound to underachieve based on their race. I will integrate my discipline of criminal and community justice studies to demonstrate how our schools have increasingly become prison mill factories that more often than not, prepare our children for physical, emotional, mental and intellectual incarceration.
Upon highlighting systematic approaches that have failed and continue to fail our children and lead them through a pipeline septic with low expectations of academic excellence and high expectations of preconceived notions of mediocrity and delinquency, I will expose the great fallacy we are conditioned to accept as truth; that children of color are more delinquent, less engage to learn or understand critical or comprehensive concepts. This paper will examine why the very same children we have condoned to failure, labeled and stigmatized delinquent and criminal, and neglect in American primary public education have the potential to become and have become some of the brightest, motivated, and curious students in secondary education, ironically behind bars.
If we intend to learn how the injustices of color have permeated throughout our society into the classrooms, curriculum, and teaching mechanics of our American public schools then it is imperative that we assess the critical foundations of racism our country was built upon. Making sense of ones’ current circumstance and making preparations for ones’ future requires a critical recognition and growth from ones’ past. Unfortunately,in American society we have become accustomed to convincing ourselves that our history has changed when in stark reality, though America has been through pockets of transformation, the predominate underlying blueprint of our structure is prejudicial and racist and has stayed the same.
Unequal distributed resources combined with achievement gaps and opportunity gaps have been constant from American conception. A brief timeline of segregation in U.S. Public Education will emphasize the extent of how deeply rooted racism is within the nation’s biggest institutional system; it’s schools. The following brief timeline of segregation in U.S Public Education is a direct correlation to the nation’s devastatingly harmful, racist, and unjust “black codes” or “slave codes” and Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965. These laws originated from “black codes” or “slave codes” that sprouted up in the late 19th century after Reconstruction and lasted until the 1960s. These “codes” and subsequent laws mandated de jure segregation in all public facilities imposing inferior treatment and economic, educational, and social disadvantages for African Americans and other minority groups and persons of color (Blackcode). These laws did not simply criminalize slave behavior, it criminalized blackness itself.
1779Thomas Jefferson proposes a two-track educational system, with different tracks, in his words, for “the laboring and the learned.” Scholarship would allow a very few of the laboring class to advance, Jefferson says, by “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish.”
1830sMost southern states have “slave codes,” making it illegal to teach Blacks to read or write. Thus, roughly five percent of the slave population is literate at the time of the Civil War.
1859The Chinese are excluded from San Francisco public schools. In 1885 a family sues the school board to enroll their Chinese daughter in a public school. San Francisco responds by building a new segregated “Oriental School.” It is not until 1905 that the U.S. Supreme Court requires California to extend public education to the children of Chinese immigrants.
1864Congress makes it illegal for Native Americans to be taught in their native languages. Native children as young as four years old are taken from their parents and sent to Bureau of Indian Affairs off-reservation boarding schools, whose goals, as one BIA official put it, is to “kill the Indian to save the man.”
1896In Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the state of Louisiana has the right to require “separate but equal” railroad cars for Blacks and Whites, thereby officially recognizing segregation as legal. One result is that southern states pass laws requiring racial segregation in public schools, which remain in place for almost 60 years.
1941Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt authorizes the internment of 120, 000 persons of Japanese ancestry. These Japanese Americans-half of whom are children-are forced to evacuate their homes, jobs, and schools and are incarcerated for up to for years in camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Schools are not part of the original construction plans in many camps, so classes are held in mess halls and other makeshift structures. It is difficult to recruit outside educators because of the harsh living conditions, so access to adequate teaching staff is limited.
1975The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is passed. Prior to its implementation, approximately 1 million children with disabilities were shut out of schools and hundreds of thousands more were denied appropriate services. Ninety percent of children with developmental disabilities were previously housed in state institutions. Many of which were catergorized “imbecile” and “low-functioning” because “scientific” research supported genetic intelligence levels based on race (Anti-Defamation League, 2004).
The timeline above significantly accentuates the pervasive and legally sanctioned perceptions of racism apparent throughout American history that has manifested and rooted itself in our public education system. The continual and overwhelmingly negative perceptions thrown upon minorities throughout our history has inevitably produced conditioned feelings and misconceptions of social reality towards these persons and criminalizing persons of color on the basis of their race has become second nature in American society and sadly breeds rapidly in public schools through policies formulated and implemented by persons in power.
In 1970, Richard Quinney, a criminological and philosophical theorist published his theory on the “social reality of crime”. Quinney explains in this theory that “the legislative process of defining criminal laws and the criminal justice process of enforcing criminal laws occur in a political context in which the persons with the most power within societies pursue their own self-interests”(Vold, pg. 250).
He continues to assert that “conceptions of crime and what is criminal are promoted by individuals and groups with a great deal of power, and will be and often widely accepted as legitimate by other people in the society” (Vold, pg. 251).
According to Quinney, “the social reality of crime,” particularly conceptions of crime in order to legitimate their authority and allow them to carry out policies in the name of the common good that really promote their own self-interests” (Vold, pg. 251).
Can this conflict theory of “social reality” explain American’s silent covenant of complacence that allows so many of our youth to be tossed away in our educational system only to be recycled into another oppressive system of a prison industrial complex to uphold traditional white patriarchal interests ?
Rebecca Gordon, in the article Facing the Consequences makes a striking examination and comparison of racial discrimination within U.S. public schools that emphasizes the criminalization of children of color and glaring disproportionate inequalities compared to that of their white counterparts. Gordon states that, “a preponderance of statistical evidence on every key factor, from drop-out rates and discipline rates to access to advance placement courses and entrance into college, students of color are at a serious disadvantage compared to their white counterparts. Though the discrimination may not be intentional, its persistence and pervasiveness, as measured by actual statistical impacts, amounts to a deep pattern of institutional racism in U.S. public schools” (Gordon, pg. 2).
Consequently and unsurprisingly with overwhelming and enduring research,minority youth are disproportionately represented throughout the juvenile justice system in nearly every state in the nation. According to research by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, minority youth receive harsher treatment than their white counterparts at every stage of the juvenile justice process. Minority juveniles are sentenced for longer periods and are less likely to receive alternative sentences or probation compared to white juveniles (Armour, pg.1).
The following article, Minority Youth in the Juvenile Justice System: Disproportionate Minority Contact written by Jeff Armour and Sarah Hammond for the National Conference of State Legislatures, discusses several explanations for disproportionate minority contact.
According to Armour, data from The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) states that one of these explanations is the jurisdiction in which the juvenile is processed. Minority populations are often more concentrated in urban areas and harsher results are more likely in these urban areas than non-urban areas.
Another explanation is law enforcement. Police practices tend to target low-income urban neighborhoods and the arrest rates for African-American youth are substantially higher than that of their white peers for drug, property, and violent crime even though white juveniles are just as likely, if not more so, to be involved with illegal drug use and sales (Armour, pg4).
Harsher punitive juvenile laws arose in the early 1990s, due to an increase in juvenile homicides with handguns. Many states enacted “automatic transfer laws” to exempt certain crimes from juvenile court jurisdiction (Armour, pg.4). OJJPD’s data indicates that African American and Native American youth are more likely to face conviction in adult court. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency indicates that three out of four of the 4,100 new admissions to adult prisons were minority youth and a recent study conducted in 2005 by The Building Blocks for Youth showed that 85 percent of youths transferred to adult court were African American (Armour, pg.4).
A final explanation for the disproportionate treatment of minority youth according to Armour is racial bias.The OJJDP’s analysis of studies spanning 12 years unveils that around two-thirds of the studies “negative race effects” (race explains why minorities remain in the system) were present in different stages of the juvenile justice process (Armour, pg.5).
The four explanations of disproportionate minority contact with juveniles that Armour highlights in this article are not only complex, but mixed with race and ethnicity issues make for an important and difficult challenge for states to develop strategies to reduce such contact and overrepresentation of minorities in the juvenile justice system.
The problem of disproportionate minority contact, besides the blinding and apparent overrepresentation of minorities, is that many of such infractions that are occurring in schools! There has been an overemphasis on discipline within schools to ensure student conformity.
Gordon adds to the recommendations of proposing ways to reduce disproportionate minority contact by suggesting that a “challenging, respectful and culturally appropriate learning environment” (Gordon, pg. 14) be established and maintained within public schools concentrating and providing training for teachers and administrators to enable them to work effectively with a multiracial, multicultural student body. Mutual respect and excitement about teaching and learning are the most effective discipline measures available to any teacher or school (Gordon, pg. 14).
The importance of equal, challenging, critical and comprehensive education should be at the fore front of agendas to preserve and build a stronger and more cohesive nation. Continually supplying ramifications and imposed sanctions of discipline disables children to freely liberate themselves in an inquisitive and wondering curiosity of attainment for knowledge. Individuals need “instruction and connection” (Payne, pg. 116) to recognize the freedom to be a free-thinker.
“A school with poor and unsympathetic teachers, with hostile public opinion and no teaching of cultural awareness and uplifting; with ignorant placeholders and inadequate equipment” (Dubois, pg. 335) negates higher and holistic appreciation and a love for learning and traps individuals in a state of educational incarceration. The quest for “sympathy, knowledge and truth” (Dubois, pg. 335); through equal and empowering education, by those who “profess to favor this freedom” (Chafe, pg.3) will endure and prevail through societal confinement of race.
The American social construction of race and the negative connotations that have been annexed to ideals that have been unjustly associated with its many distorted definitions in social institutions seems at times dismal and overwhelmingly a lost battle.
This section of the paper is designed to bring into question “why have so many of the individuals that have failed in primary U.S. public K-12 education and have been passed through the school to prison pipeline find themselves flourishing in higher education college programs, ironically in prison?”
I will specifically reference a particular liberal arts program, The Bard Prison Initiative and attempt to comprehensively explain its bottom up attempt to rehabilitate individuals by providing them with an opportunity of educational advancement and achievement that primary U.S. public education failed to supply or make an equal opportunity towards.
In The Allegory of the Cave, by Plato, Plato contends that the world is not the real world but merely a poor copy of it, and the way to see and become part of the real world is intellectually. He continues to say that knowledge cannot be transferred from teacher to student, but rather that education consists in directing students’ minds toward what is real and important and allowing them to apprehend it for themselves; his faith that the universe is ultimately good; his conviction that enlightened individuals have an obligation to the rest of society, and that a good society must be one in which you are truly wise. Plato compares the student that is spoken to with the inability to think for himself and formulate ideas about the world around him is like a prisoner in a dark cave, blinded by the darkness and only being able to believe what is true to be what is told to him. This education limits the prisoner and shackles in a way one understanding of the reality of the world that is dictated to him (historyguide.org).
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a significant metaphor for our society.
Individuals in our society are constricted and confined to develop only is substantial ways that are deemed appropriate by the ruling and dominate class, and in American society that is the white, affluent patriarchal symbol and ideology.This ruling class formulates and implements policies and procedures that protects its self-interests and in doing so creates systemic oppression to ensure its continued existence. This oppression is cyclical through education and criminal justice systems.
It is only when persons begin to see one another’s obligation to each other in a society that we can corrode the shackles on one another’s neck to be able to turn and truly see each other for our goodness instead of being prisoner to the captor. Saul Alinsky was quoted that “ it is the responsibility of individuals to be responsible for individuals”. We as a society are a collective force that is only as strong as our weakest link. Allowing people to find and grow their knowledge of empowerment not only strengthens our human capital but strengthens our social capital as well.
The Bard Prison Initiative is a liberal arts program within the confines of prison walls that enables inmates to work through a rigorous college curriculum to attain their Bachelor’s Degree. What makes this program different in educational learning? Anthony Cardenales a former inmate that after being labeled with a learning disability in primary school and dropping our of school at fourteen years of age, attained his Associates and Bachelors degree at Bard, now released and a successful recycling plant operator and speaker at esteemed colleges such as Princeton, Yale, and Cornell University says that the curriculum challenged him to think and develop critical processing skills that he was never given the opportunity to discover and refine.
“I wasn’t handed the steps but was allowed to develop potential to make decisions along the way” (Interview, 2011).“I had never felt more educationally liberated and part of a critical thinker of society than when my “societal freedom” was taken away and I was given “liberated educational freedom” while incarcerated (Interview, 2011).
Cardenales and Program Director of The Bard Prison Initiative Max Kennar both agree that when an individual is consistently belittled by policies and programs that are only meant to produce outcomes that serve dominant culture interests rather than empower those within communities to create and sustain a collective and cohesive capital then a system of pigeon-holing and handouts are administered, temporarily placing band aids on social ills rather than aiming at the source. A similar idea is expressed by John McKnight in the article Why Servanthood is Bad. McKnight assert that when you continually give to others what they can do for themselves you are debilitation their potentials to use their gifts, capacities and contributions that gives them a place in a community (McKnight, pg. 3).
Is this why our schools and children are failing? Are we taking away from them their ability to problem solve, critically think, question, and build relationship with one another by asserting rules and dictations and preconceived conditioned historical fallacies and social realities of one another?
Not only are the power and politics within U.S. public schools stifling our nation’s children’s’ thirst and desire for knowledge and development of their human capital; our systemic oppression of social capital through institutional abuse of racism, prejudice, and criminalization is steadfastly closely the entrance of Plato’s cave. If continually efforts of community support and rehabilitation of equal public education and ostracized members of our society are not adamantly demanded and nurtured as cherished building blocks for a sound foundation of academic achievement and intrinsic growth then the chains we shackle to one another will cripple us as a whole.
In today’s American society it is more prevalent than ever that race is still a determinate factor of equal education and justice within our institutional systems. Top down approaches and policies that serve the interests of the more affluent, traditional class stifle and stigmatize persons of the “lesser” class such as “Zero Tolerance” disciplinary policies for juveniles that filter youth into the prison system (minority youth represent 62% of youth in detention) and bills such as the 1994 Repeal of educational grants for offenders that stagnate opportunity for educational advancement for offenders (40% of incarcerated offenders are African American males, 38% of incarcerated offenders are Latino males)(Alexander, 2011) must be combated with bottom up approaches of community collectivity and organization to uplift our nation to create enduring and prosperous communities that value human and social capital like wall street values market capital.
“Admittedly, the economic needs of a society are hound to be reflected to some rational degree within the policies and purposes of public schools. But, even so, there must be something more to life as it is lived by six-year-olds or six-year-olds, or by teenagers, for that matter, than concerns about "successful global competition." Childhood is not merely basic training for utilitarian adulthood. It should have some claims upon our mercy, not for its future value to the economic interests of competitive societies but for its present value as a perishable piece of life itself.” –Jonathan Kozol
"The transformative power and value of education cannot be ignored; neither can the relationship between race and incarceration...."
Problem need of significant magnitude DOES exist:
-Nearly one and a half million individuals are housed in adult correctional facilities in the United States. The United States Department of Justice reports that “the typical offender is undereducated, unemployed and living in poverty before incarceration”
-Inside prisons, 19% of adult inmates are illiterate, and up to 60% are functionally illiterate
-Social, psychological, and demographic factors correlate powerfully with recidivism. Most persons are released from prison into the community unskilled, undereducated, and highly unlikely to become involved in crime again.
-Rates of recidivism in the United States are extraordinarily high, ranging from 41%-71%
Education CAN be used as Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation:
-simply attending school behind bars reduces the likelihood of reincarceration by 29%
-Every dollar spent on education returned more than two dollars to the citizens in reduced prison costs
-Research suggests that a 20% lowered recidivism for those who received a GED certificate and completed vocational training
-rates for college degree holders as low as 12%
It is fair and clear enough to suggest that there is correlation between completion of collegiate studies and reduction in recidivism.
I have always felt an intense drive to help others who have been affected by societal injustices. Even more recently I have been focused on my abilities to advocate for others.
This previous semester, while sitting in court another day, for another hour, in another week of my internship with a defense attorney, emotional fatigue ravaged me like a helpless bystander witnessing, with little ability to contest the blatant, unjust atrocities that are so engrained in our American system of “justice.”
Throughout my months in the courtroom, I watched with immense sadness the majority of men charged be African American or Latino and poor. The majority of the attorneys, judges, or bailiffs are white men, and the system is constructed to reward the powerful and condemn the meek.
This is what I have seen. I have watched men cry while their lawyers pat them on the back and assure them that everything will be okay. I have watched those same lawyers rush off to expensive lunches to shoot the bull and enjoy the fruits of their indifference, their clients sitting on the curb and waiting for the bus, or sitting in cold cells waiting to tell their family that the money wasn’t enough, that being black or Latino or poor constitutes different definitions of “equal”, “justice”, “free”; that the weight of the shackles that have never been removed tips the scale towards a definition of justice in a lighter shade.
What I am describing here is a tree of injustice, the same tree Billie Holiday sang about in “Strange Fruit,” the tree that men hung from early in the previous century.Oppressive policies and routines attempt to guide individuals towards justice, but loopholes contrived by habitual practices and societal bias undermine the possibility of fairness. Little has changed since men were hanged for the color of their skin.
I completed my internship this semester, and my time observing the actors within the court system vehemently intertwined with frustration, rage, and sadness. Many days I left court in tears, driving home or back to campus weighed by conviction for these people and their families. Anger birthed by vexation screamed loudly for relief, but I knew my tears wouldn’t make things better or change outcomes.
I would leave court feeling so conflicted. Heartache and the reel of strife projected in the courtrooms compelled me to continually find ways to help fight the inequalities and injustices within our complicated system, but I now believe that I must fight for change rather than grieve.
Think of the symbol of our justice system: a woman, cast proudly and immortally in stone with turned cheek and blinded eye, firmly embracing a scale representing an eternal duty to justice. This façade portrays a utopian, idealistic view of equality. In reality, the woman is heavy with burden. Her back is bending. She is stone because she is hardened by the continual practice of injustice towards citizens of her beloved country. Her cheek is turned and her eyes are blindfolded because she is ashamed to see the contradictions within the system she represents. Her face is solemn because her scale tips towards the lighter and whiter side of “right.”
As citizens within this system, it is our duty to liberate ourselves from fear and silence to advocate for our fellow human beings. It is imperative that we fight the debilitating ugliness of injustice and bias, whether they be conscious or unconscious, to lift ourselves towards a strong, cohesive and mutually respectful community. It is imperative to question ourselves and each other on our own prejudices, demanding that the covenant of silence that obscures these faults be broken and reconstructed through policies of visionary equality and justice.
As a colleague of mine resoundingly stated, “It’s time to ask ourselves, Where’s the outrage?”
The way we choose to use our language is a powerful tool.
The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions
1637 Bedford Avenue, Room 220/32
Brooklyn, New York 11225
Tel: (718) 270-5136 ~ Fax: (718) 270-6190
"When there is emotional pain, psychiatrists like me believe that we can help. But before we act we need to find some handle for the problem, some name to guide action. Once in awhile, we realize that these names are inadequate for the problems we are seeing. Then we search for new names, or new ways to group old names."
An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language
The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions is an activist academic center, public policy think tank and community organizer at Medgar Evers College in the City University of New York. The Center was founded and is directed and staffed by people who were formerly incarcerated. It is the first and only one of its kind in the United States.
One of our first initiatives is to respond to the negative public perception about our population as expressed in the language and concepts used to describe us. When we are not called mad dogs, animals, predators, offenders and other derogatory terms, we are referred to as inmates, convicts, prisoners and felons. All terms devoid of humanness which identify us as "things" rather than as people. These terms are accepted as the "official" language of the media, law enforcement, the prison industrial complex and public policy agencies.
However, they are no longer acceptable for us and we are asking people to stop using them.
In an effort to assist our transition from prison to our communities as responsible citizens and to create a more positive human image of ourselves, we are asking everyone to stop using these negative terms and to simply refer to us as
PEOPLE. People currently or formerly incarcerated, PEOPLE on parole, PEOPLE recently released from prison, PEOPLE in prison, PEOPLE with criminal convictions, but PEOPLE.
We habitually underestimate the power of language. The bible says,
The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions believes that if we can get progressive publications, organizations and individuals like you to stop from using the old offensive language and simply refer to us as
We believe we have the right to be called by a name we choose, rather than one someone else decides to use. We think that by insisting on being called
"Death and life are in the power of the tongue." In fact, all of the faith traditions recognize the power of words and, in particular, names that we are given or give ourselves. Ancient traditions considered the "naming ceremony" one of the most important rites of passage. Your name indicated not only who you were and where you belonged, but also who you could be. The worst part of repeatedly hearing your negative definition of me, is that I begin to believe it myself "for as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." It follows then, that calling me inmate, convict, prisoner, felon, or offender indicates a lack of understanding of who I am, but more importantly what I can be. I can be and am much more than an "ex-con," or an "ex-offender," or an "ex-felon." "Creating Success, One Student at a Time" 2 "people," we will have achieved a significant step forward in our life giving struggle to be recognized as the human beings we are. We have made our mistakes, yes, but we have also paid or are paying our debts to society. "people" we reaffirm our right to be recognized as human beings, not animals, inmates, prisoners or offenders.
We also firmly believe that if we cannot persuade you to refer to us, and think of us, as people, then all our other efforts at reform and change are seriously compromised.
Accordingly, please talk with your friends and colleagues about this initiative. If you agree with our approach encourage others to join us. Use positive language in your writing, speeches, publications, web sites and literature.
When you hear people using the negative language, gently and respectfully correct them and explain why such language is hurting us. Kindly circulate this letter on your various list serves.
If you disagree with this initiative, please write and tell us why at the above address or e-mail us at
email@example.com. Perhaps, we have overlooked something.
Please join us in making this campaign successful. With your help we can change public opinion, one person at a time. Thank you so much.
I am originally from Bemidji, MN but have resided in Greensboro, NC for 11 years. I graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Community and Justice Studies and a minor in psychology from Guilford College in Greensboro, NC in May 2012. I then attended Wake Forest University where I received my Master's in the Study of Law.
Driven by a strong sense of community and conviction to the value of transformative education and justice I have collaborated with amazing individuals who encompass the same values of equality and justice, to spearhead efforts and ground significant support to launch a practical liberal arts prison education initiative through Guilford College.
During my time at Guilford I had the honor of being a Justice and Policy Studies Outstanding Student and Barton Parks Community Justice awards winner and presented my work of issues of mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline at Guilford College’s Undergraduate Symposium and NC Conference: Our Responsibility to Oppose the Abuse of State Power towards a More Humane Society.
My research has focused on not only the quantitative data of the justice system but overwhelmingly on the qualitative data; the stories that give meaning to the numbers, working with people in all areas of the justice system.
I was awarded the Center for Principled Problem Solving Fellowship to advance my efforts around higher education in prisons. Thus, I decided to attend the intensive Master's Study of Law at Wake Forest to delve deeper into the laws and policies that influence the criminal justice system and prison culture.
I am honored to have the unyielding support and privilege to work with such brilliant, inspirational individuals involved with higher education in prisons, here in North Carolina and throughout the United States.
Beyond my work and study, my life is filled with the love of my two beautiful sons; Brendan and Roman.
Many of us who have worked with people inside prisons have an awe and a deep appreciation of how they are able to keep their spirituality, soul and love alive--and with that said also have an immense frustration and anger of current prison policies and practices. Below are a couple books that give fact to our feelings. These give historical perspectives.