Juvenile Incarceration in America: Pt. 2

Continuing in this series, I would like to discuss the role of education both inside and outside the system of incarceration America has imbued its youthful potential with. But first, if you have not read part one, I would highly encourage you to take a moment to read it before moving on to this article.

What does education mean for the future of America? Well, whether you like it or not, it means everything. The United States is one of the world’s leading superpowers when it comes to spending on education. However, we fall low on the list of the world’s best results of education. Many an affluent-college-educated-“enter a graduate education degree here” individuals, where are we, as a nation, falling short thus producing such a gap?

Well, the answer in front of the very same individuals for whom such a question seems spurious. We live in a nation where your zip code determines the kind of education you will receive. Now, what does this mean, you might ask yourself? Well, allow me to give you a bit of an example from experience. In the Midwest, specifically the state of Nebraska, public schooling is often thwarted by students’ parents for a private education rooted in the Catholic tradition. Now, you might be asking yourself are the public schools in Nebraska that bad? The answer, yes. On the one hand, the rust belt of this nation loves to tout the American family including children fervent for religion. However, the statistics speak for themselves and public schooling in Nebraska has never been fully compatible with the kind of achievement the rest of the country is experiencing in top public schooling counties as superintendents are swapped as quickly as outfits during a fashion show in the state.

Contrasting the problem Nebraska has, there are states like Maryland which touts a mix of the top and middle tier public schooling systems in the country. Maryland also has some of the best religious and nonreligious affiliated private schools in the country as well; you may have heard about how Presidents present and past have sent their children to these elite private schools. Now, what is the difference between Maryland and Nebraska, well that would be a long list to type out, but when it comes to education, it’s their zip codes. Maryland hosts some of the wealthiest counties in the country for a state that is nearly one-sixth the size of Nebraska. With this wealth comes tax dollars via, you guessed it, some of the nation’s highest property taxes. The disparity I highlight here is not remarkable. Teach for America and countless other nonprofit organizations across this country have been warning of this unfortunate trend for decades.

Now, I realize you opened this up as a second part to my series on speaking with an incarcerated Andre. At this point you might be wondering when I will get to his half of all this, well here we go.

Knowing I would be speaking to an incarcerated juvenile the first thing that came to my mind was what education would be like for youth in prison. Speaking to Andre, the topic was almost uncomfortable. What I mean by this is that my questions about the way he was treated in school at the prison and what he was being taught were met with pauses and a nervous smile. For Andre, as he described to me, educating prisoners is not exactly the crème de la crème of prison management. Essentially, prisons treat education as a sort of a means to an end to get prisoners moving about the prison on a sort of timetable so that they are easier to manage.

I asked Andre what he was being taught now, this was back in March of this year, and he mentioned they were teaching him reading and math classes at that time. When I asked him for more specifics, he mentioned they were doing long division in the math class. I then asked him how they taught that long division to him and he said, “they don’t do nothing” and “they just sit there [the teacher] and tell you to ‘shut-up’ if you start to talk to somebody.” Allow me to break down what the last few sentences mean beyond the context upon which you find them. Andre is eighteen years old, and before his incarceration, he was a year away from his high school diploma, by any measure far removed from going back to elementary-level long division. Andre essentially is saying that even if the juveniles need help or want to work together on a problem they are quickly shut down. Andre mentioned how many prisoners turn to reading and writing to pass the time and educate themselves despite their circumstances.

The connection between our lack of consistent public schooling links to Andres story because, even before his now regulated state of education he attended public school in a low-income neighborhood where the curriculum, lacked a fervor for growth; often the funds needed to make the chance of a college entrance exam like the SAT or ACT possible. Studies have shown a correlation between gang violence and public schooling curricula and rankings. Essentially, leaving youth with free time and disinterest in reaching for their GED leads to their turning to the darker side of living which includes gang violence and illegal activities leading to possible incarceration. Mind you, not every public schooling system in the country is faced with such a possibility. In counties like Montgomery country in Maryland where nearly 91.20% of students who attend high school graduate with their diploma in four years, the more significant issue for some schools is how many students’ schools like Stanford are willing to take from one high school where too many students who meet qualifications for entry apply.

The disparity I present here is staunch. In a way, before the cement walls and steel bars, we might, in fact, be shackling students with the system of education we have in place in this country long before thoughts of grand-theft auto or assault fall onto their radar. In a nation where persons are born into a system of education that in many ways is directed towards either success or failure, it is no wonder why we face the rates of recidivism and incarcerated youth that we do. Rather than claiming the stories that Andre tells of his life both before and during his time behind bars as one of a ‘Bad Actor’ the statistics and plight that non-profits highlighting our education disparity across the country have long forewarned have come to fruition in such an unfortunate manner.

This is what we have created in this country for ourselves: a war on knowledge and a system of reckoning for those who are circumstantially tied to its casualties.