Last night, I found myself watching an ABC special report about the prison-industrial-complex in which judges had allegedly taken kickbacks for first the creation of and then the perpetual filling of a juvenile prison. Filling that prison required railroad trials of youth “offenders”; some were trials allegedly 4 minutes or less with lawyers and testimony barred. First time offenses and minor offenses that would normally be given a slap on the wrist were given maximum sentences. The alleged result was that judges made money and took lavish vacations while youth’s lives were permanently tainted. The show highlighted youth who could not get jobs in their chosen field, go to college b/c of exclusion from financial aid, or who had simply been so traumatized by their convictions and subsequent incarcerations that they had simply given up on school or developed adult attachment disorders. While some of these effects were in the process of being reversed through a DOJ investigation and plea agreement, others, like lost school years or fears of social interaction or intimacy will take years, maybe even lifetimes, to address.
The story not only highlights the corruption of a single town’s judicial system but the failure of checks and balances embedded in one of the largest growing industries in the U.S. And as I have said in previous posts, prisons redirect the labor of entire towns in similar ways that single industry factory towns were once redirected, so that the loss of the prison can literally mean the loss of the town, even if it existed prior, creating a community wide investment in the prison-industrial-complex even as the community becomes its target. In order for the prison to be profitable, there has to be a subsequent criminalization of the population and, as I have argued before, that criminalization preys upon existing oppressions. In this case, the target was poor youth, in others it has been youth of color, immigrants, young women, transgendered activists, lesbians, etc. And the books, activists, and resources surrounding this issue has made small gains but the complex keeps growing.
So imagine my surprise this morning when I read a blog article by Anthony Farley, Law professor at Boston college, about the connection between underperforming schools, literacy, and prisons. The first 1/2 of Farley’s argument is that urban schools, populated by black youth (I would argue youth of color and to a lesser extent poor white youth) are intentionally underfunded and staffed with people who are often trained (or retrained) to run them like prisons rather than schools. There is no care for the youth and no love for the craft and that translates to illiteracy and squelched hope. These in turn contribute to higher crime rates and truancy (which is itself criminalized). Worst of all it alienates young people from learning and language (language being the doorway to imagination and self-expression).
He ties this cycle to the historic push to literacy in the black community from slavery and the equally powerful push to prevent it from founding fathers who understood that literacy was a pathway to equality. A powerful connection that I think we all need to take some time to think about, especially in light of the kinds of targeted cuts going on in higher education that are compromising the educational attainment of poor students, students of color, and young women (thru the loss of feminist services and/or WS) at a disproportionate rate.
The second half of his article discusses prison reform to help re-establish life long pathways to learning and equality for criminalized communities.
It raises some really important questions on both fronts, and offers up a solution to alienation within the prison population. So go read it and give feedback there and tell me what you think of here.
- youth arrested for tagging. unattributed
- Shaquanda Cotton with her mother after finally being released. AP/unattributed
- urban school. unattributed