In today’s data-driven education system, prisons are being planned and built according to 3rd grade test scores. What does this tell us? It tells us that youth who do not do well in school are often destined to live out a marginal existence in and out of jail. For the most part, low income youth are the ones who do not do well in school
Low income youth do less well in school often because they bring fewer life experiences and less exposure to knowledge and vocabulary to their school learning. This is ironic given that due to their “behind” status, these students are often the ones given the driest educational lessons. In other words, they are drilled endlessly to prepare them to take standardized tests, and what they really require is enrichment through the arts and field trips. Real life learning and creative expression expand the capacity to learn and grown. We are doing the opposite.
Bear with me as the relationship between these seemingly disparate points will soon become clear.
Recently I went for an interview at Denier Youth Center here in Durango. At one point in the conversation I was asked if I knew the difference between a site-based program and a community-based program. I was baffled that I was being asked this question, but answered that a site-based program was responsible for children 24/7, whereas a community-based program was not. Therefore, a site-based program carried with it a higher level of responsibility. After the interview I toured the facility. I saw children lined up and marched into a closed off area where they stood in front of the doors to their “rooms” and had to take of their belts before entering the room. They counted off like criminals and then changed to go to P.E. Their frustration and rebellion was obvious in their body language.
I know this may sound strange, and I will seem incredibly naïve, which may be true, but I really didn’t get it. The next evening I did. Suddenly the reality of what I had seen and witnessed penetrated my consciousness, and the shocking realization that we put children in jail rocked my existence. I know. How could someone with my education and experience not know this? All I can say with hindsight is that I don’t think I ever allowed this reality fully into my awareness until that moment. Or perhaps I just thought jails for kids would be different. That they would get to go home for the weekend or something.
I began to cry. Sob actually which had I been less upset might have embarrassed me, because I was walking along Main Street at the time. Interestingly two ladies saw me crying and stopped to see if I was okay. When I told them my issue, one said that her daughter had spent one night at Denier and it had changed her and their relationship completely, and now they were both much happier.
In that same week I was at the bus stop at Buckley Park with a group of young boys of high school age. I began to talk to them. Every single one of them had been in and out of Denier. When asked, they shared that it made no difference to them in terms of their lives and who they are now. In fact, it just seemed to make thing worse. The message they received is that they were less than human. They were completely disempowered by the rigid structure, and they rebelled even more when free.
If we are putting children in jail, it is not their fault. It is the fault of a society that refuses to see poverty as the cause of most of its problems, because if we admitted that was the issue, then we would have to do something about it, and most people seem unready to share.
I say prisons for children are not an option and it’s time re-evaluate our approach to childrearing as a culture, as families, and as individuals.