We always talk about how our future as a country and as a world is in our young people. The American Friends Service Committee has an interesting info-graphic showing who exactly we are talking about when we say “young people.” It’s certainly true that they hold the future of the globe. What I want to know is why we treat young people–in all countries–so shabbily, so disrespectfully–cutting budgets, services; limiting their choices by society’s expectations; labeling them in ways that damage how they see themselves. So many limits on the future. In the end it’s our loss.

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The days are filled with graduation speeches by the famous and the not so famous as students leave their schools and start out into the world. So I decided to re-post a piece I wrote about what it’s like for a locked up kid to “graduate” from jail and go out into the world. Indeed, a very different kind of commencement.

 

Now that all the high school graduations are over and the backyard barbeques celebrated, I’m finally coming down from the contact high of all that youthful exuberance and optimism.

It’s easy to get swept up into those good feelings. But now as I move into summer’s quieter months, I can’t help thinking about the high school students I taught in a county penitentiary and what “commencement” meant for them.

Success never came easily to my students. Why should it? They came from lives wrecked by poverty and discrimination. It tried to wreck their spirit, but it never could, not completely. In that way my students weren’t any different from the kids at our local high schools—like their peers, they believed that life was there for the shaping.  That faith in success, though, didn’t always translate onto the streets. So they got caught up in crime, got arrested, did their time.

When that time was served, their “commencement” was being released from jail.The “graduation ceremony” wasn’t much: Down to booking to sign papers, their clothes stuffed into black garbage bags. Then the booking officer handed the “graduate” bus money and delivered the keynote address, “Stay out of jail.”

And that’s exactly what they intended to do. My jailhouse students talked a lot about “starting over again,” and I believed each of them. Because while they were locked up, most worked to change things for the better. They studied for their diploma or GED. They worked at staying clean and sober. They grappled with the rage of disappointment that tore at their guts through anger management programs. If there was a thread of family life left, they reconnected with it.

When they hit the streets, they were determined to shake the dust—and smell—of prison off them forever. But the only thing that had changed while they were locked up was them, not the streets. There was nothing out there for them, no services, no resources, no one. The only things waiting were the same predator-prey food chain, the same joblessness, and the same lure of the streets with easy money.

I knew the litany these young people heard from corrections and probation officers: Get a job. Go to school. Stay away from your buddies (the only people who even remembered your name.) Stay away from your girlfriend (the only one glad to see you.) Stay in the house. Start over. Stay out of trouble. And I’ve watched more than one kid’s face fall when he was told that he had to find someplace else to live. He couldn’t live with his mother because his probation didn’t allow him to associate with anyone with a record, and since his brother, or uncle, or cousin was already there he needed to find another home.

It’s not hard to guess what all those demands sound like to a 16 year old fresh out of prison: Stop being the only person you recognize. Stop living your life.

I often tell people that the changes we demand of young ex-offenders are things most of us, even with all our assets, would find daunting. The isolation. The loneliness. The helpless rage of unreasonable expectations. Yet these kids are told to make those changes with no one to help or guide them.

It happens, though, if rarely—some kid takes the plunge into all that fear and dynamites his life apart.

Alex was one of those kids. The judge made it clear. This time no probation. Instead a full county bid. Next arrest, a long stretch in state prison. Even at 17 Alex knew that going back to the same neighborhood, the same friends and enemies would seal his fate. “I might as well stay here and wait for the next bus to state prison,” he tried to laugh it off but couldn’t.

I can’t tell you what happened, but something did. Everybody had given up on him, with good reason or not, but somehow he hadn’t. Alex had a cousin in California that he never met but who said he could come live with him. So at his “graduation” he hopped a cross country bus. However, there was nothing quixotic about his move. Alex had never been out of his own town except to go to various jails and detention centers. He knew he had to do it. It was a terrible struggle at first. The dirt jobs. The loneliness. The disorientation. The fears of failure. Eventually, though, the jobs got better and he signed up for college. Last I heard Alex was close to a real commencement.

Watching that final moment of triumph when our local high school graduates flung their caps into the air I imagined all the hands—of family, teachers, coaches, clergy, counselors—that over the years had made that moment possible.  Young ex-offenders at their “commencement” haven’t had, and don’t have that same net of hands. And yet, there are plenty of hands in each of their communities to help, if they only would. That way kids like Alex wouldn’t have to go 3,000 miles for a chance at a new beginning.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

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Numbers are tricky. Studies are done. Reports are written. Statistics released. And then people take the numbers and run with them, waving them like protest placards claiming how the numbers prove or disprove some long held “truth.” The Right does it. The Left does it. We all do it. Maybe there’s a tiny toggle in the human genome that manipulates us to manipulate the numbers. That’s why I’ve never liked numbers, never trusted them.

I saw this all play out in a recent Boston Globe OpEd piece about the high rates of recidivism in US prisons. Using the most recent data from the Bureau of Statistics, the numbers roll out: Within six months of being freed 28% of former prisoners were arrested for a new crime; three years, 68%; five years, 77%. 29% of the returnees had been arrested for violent offenses; 38% for property crimes; 39% for drug offenses; 58% for public order crimes. I think everyone would agree that the numbers paint a pretty bleak picture.

But this is where the numbers get tricky. The article insists that these statistics prove that efforts at prison reform and rehabilitation don’t work. Criminal justice experts have been searching for the “holy grail of rehabilitation” for years—40 according to one expert quoted—and nothing has worked. The article then goes on to suggest that since this holy grail is so elusive, since so many criminals leave prison “only too ready to offend again,” we have no option but to continue our present practice of mass incarceration, thus maintaining the US’s global position of locking up 25% of the world’s prison population while being only 5% of its general population.

This is why I don’t trust numbers. In these studies and reports people are treated as mere chits in the final count. No one notices that each one of those hatch marks is an individual, a real person—prisoner, inmate, offender, criminal, con, whatever you want to call them—living a life behind bars that few of us can imagine. That is the real story behind those numbers: a man or a woman, young or old, trying to survive in a prison culture that is designed—in the name of justice—not to nurture change but to demean; a system that punishes by deprivation: lack of proper nutrition; of adequate medical and mental health care; of physical, sexual and psychological safety; of meaningful work and education.

So where’s the mystery to recidivism? It is obvious—basic Social Science 101, basic parenting or human interaction. How you treat people is how they will act. Living under present day prison conditions, day after day, for years, can only foster more bitterness, anger, and despair; can only result in more crime fueled by vengeful feelings upon release.

And that “release” is another crushing blow to the ex-offender’s chances of making it. Many find themselves barred from public housing, food stamps, certain jobs and the right to vote. In some cases Federal education loans are denied for certain crimes. None of these punitive restrictions are an incentive to becoming a productive member of society.

There’s not much forgiveness in American culture. It seems that ex-offenders can’t suffer enough or repent enough for our Puritan tastes. The shackles of restrictions and prejudices that they as “free” men and women drag around may be silent compared to the ones they wore in prison, but those chains still rattle loudly not only in their own ears but in the ears of the communities that continue to shun them.

The roots of recidivism are not that elusive and never have been. Things won’t change until we are willing to define our penal system not as a social solution but as a social problem, one that we tackle with the same determination and vigor as we do other social problems such as addiction, sexual and physical abuse, and inadequate education. What’s our choice: the sacrifice, cost and efforts of true prison reform or the continued warehousing of human beings and the waste of their potential? Look at the numbers.

Originally appeared on Huffington Post

 

Maybeth Zeman’s Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time demonstrates, through a series of heartwarming yet heartbreaking stories, what anyone who has worked with juvenile offenders knows: that the thousands of minors locked up in US prisons—at least 10,000 such kids held in adult correctional facilities on any given night—are just children.

The media makes it easy for Americans to ignore this obvious fact with its visual clips cycling through the Nightly News mill showing teenagers of color, usually in hoodies, being let away in cuffs to a police cruiser or a young African American boy in an orange jump suit and shackles shuffling into court. Too few people see the half-truths behind those images. But Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian won’t let you turn your back on what juvenile justice really means in this country or on the vulnerability of these young people’s lives.

Zeman doesn’t just tug at the heartstrings, though. She gives backbone and bite to these boys’ stories by effortlessly weaving into her narrative research about such crucial topics as the psychological and neurological development of children, the devastating effects of poverty and racism on personality development, the high rates of juvenile recidivism. These studies challenge the reader to examine the laws governing how youth are handled in the legal system and the impact of prison culture on young offenders once they disappear behind the walls and razor wires into a world where the retribution trumps rehabilitation.

Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian would be an important book if it just stopped there. But it doesn’t. There’s another tale to tell. Although Zeman is a transitional counselor for a prison high school program, she is also a trained librarian. When she realizes that there isn’t a lending library for her students she does what any librarian would do. She gets a book cart and loads it up with all sorts of fiction and nonfiction including comic books.

There are no pretentions to her library on wheels. She is delightfully unconcerned with Core Curriculum, mandated standards, “the canon” of literature. A firm believer in the power of story and books to open up people’s lives, especially the lives of locked up kids whose worlds are limited and narrow, Zeman sets out to peddle her wares—adventure and mystery; heroes, superheroes and villains; customs and people from other cultures. As she writes, “The great thing about reading books is that they change where we are, and how we are, for a few minutes or even a few hours every day.” And that momentary relief for a locked up kid can often be a life saver in the chaos of jail.

I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries and know the sound that a book cart makes with its squeaky wheels. As Zeman describes pushing her cart through the prison hallways from classroom to classroom I could easily imagine that squeak calling kids out of the harsh reality of prison into the safe world of words and graphics like the pull of a Good Humor truck’s bell.

And those orange clad boys are just as hungry for something to read as they might be for a “King Cone” or a “Candy Center Crunch.” The reader can’t help but laugh, and be moved by their eagerness, asking for a particular book or comic, barely able to cover up their disappointment if the “Green Lantern” comic they’ve been waiting for hasn’t come back yet. They keep track like the old fashion librarian of what’s out, what’s in, overdue, or lost. There’s a poignancy to these boys and their books as though they themselves know what they missed as children and are now trying to make up for lost time and innocence.

Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time opens up to the reader—like the books that Zeman peddles to her students—a stark and punishing world that so few people know about, yet a world that is created and maintained in each of our names as citizens of this country. But she is a gentle alchemist. She mixes the harsh realities of prison life with just enough facts and a good bit of heart as she walks us through the same dark places into which so many of our children are sent every day.

Most teachers are curious about what school is like for a student. Meet a kindergarten tyke encountering the classroom for the first time; a middle schooler trying to balance body chemistry, a developing mind and new ways of learning; a high school teenager looking beyond the classroom into the world and most teachers want to hear how he or she is experiencing one of the most important parts of their lives.

So when I saw my 11 year old niece recently I asked her how school was going. I was prepared for the standard kid response—“fine.” What I wasn’t prepared for was the sudden sound of defeat in her answer.

Kim’s a pretty bouncy young girl. Just before I asked my question she had given me a tour of her newly decorated room. No more pink princess motif. Now it was retro 60s décor—lava lamp, peace symbol shades, shiny bead curtain across the closet door. She proudly twirled a baton as she announced, “I’m on the cheerleader squad.” She showed me her laptop, her school books, the age old array of glittery pens.

“So, how’s school, fifth grade this year, right?” I asked. Kim’s face fell, all the bounce—and light—went out of her. “I’m not an A student,” she whispered and looked down at the floor. If you knew Kim, her evident shame and embarrassment would surprise you as much as it did me. It took a lot to extinguish her usual enthusiasm about life, including school.

I couldn’t let that stand. “Yeah, well that’s just grades. What about the rest of it? Do you like your school? How about your teacher?” It didn’t take much to turn the light back on. She loved her teacher, the school, the interesting projects they had been doing.

“It’s that damn Common Core Curriculum,” her mother told me after Kim went off to play. “It’s killing her. It’s killing a lot of the other kids too. She’s working hard and I’m getting her extra help but she’s so down on herself.” We talked about the frustration she and other parents were having with the new imposed standards, standards that baffled them. I told her that they weren’t the only ones angry and mystified about what was happening in their children’s schools. Many teachers shared the same frustration with the curriculum changes imposed on schools by Federal standards, including the lack of implementation funds and clear direction on how to make it all work—and not hurt kids in the process.

I left that family gathering not feeling very exuberant myself. As much as I could sympathize with Kim’s mother and the other parents, I was haunted, disturbed and saddened by that young girl’s answer, “I’m not an A student.”
It was painful enough to see the shame on Kim’s face. But when I thought about it further I realized that her experience wasn’t an isolated one. Kids across the country are faced with that same sense of personal failure. They know the stakes are high these days. They learn in an environment that aims to “Race to the Top.” They live at a time when education pundits claim that “data is the great equalizer,” and schools, instead of having “walls of fame” celebrating student achievement in all walks of life, now have “data walls” displaying each student’s rank based on test performance. Today’s kids know that their personal academic performance affects not only themselves but also their teachers, their principals and ultimately the fate of their schools. What other generation has grown up with that kind of pressure, that kind of fear?

A growing of number of parents and school districts are raising objections to the Common Core curriculum. Some parents are actively resisting high stakes testing, refusing to have their children participate in standardized tests. In response to these “opt out” decisions some districts have taken punitive measures and penalized the students for their parents’ actions by denying them the right to participate in team sports and after school activities; while others have implemented “sit and stare” policies in which the students not taking the test must sit in the testing room and do nothing for hours.

While parents and school boards fight these battles at the local, state and Federal levels, I’m afraid that we are losing kids by the day. Kids are giving up, are being made to feel like failures because they can’t jump through the shape-shifting hoops of the latest educational reform. If we don’t do something soon we are allowing the love of learning with which children are born and which will flourish with proper nurturing to be trampled as America races to the top—of what?

Originally posted on Huffington Post

“Words: Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty” is Lauren Norton Carson’s second contribution to “Teachers in Their Own Words.” As she shared in her first piece, Lauren has a passion for books and for helping young offenders locked up in a juvenile center turn their lives around through them. These passions come across loudly in her newest piece in which she grapples with the “verbal poverty” of her students. I was struck by several things—Lauren’s love of the written word; her professional pedagogy (belying the common stereotype that if you teach in a lockup situation you’re not a “real teacher” but a “bleeding heart”); and her sense of teacher as activist,  shown in her determination to make a difference not just in the lives of the young men she teaches now, but in the lives of their children, present or future, by sharing with her students what she has learned about reducing poverty’s “word gap.” Using facts and personal experience, Lauren teaches all of us the importance of words in shaping better lives for the children we know.

Words:Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty

 Verbal poverty, I called it in 2002 when I first encountered the disturbing gap.  Theyve grown up in verbal poverty.

“They” were students in the 50-bed juvenile jail unit where I taught literacy skills, teenage boys ages 14 to 19 years old.  Virtually all had had dismal school experiences due to their behaviors, known or unknown learning disabilities, poor attendance, fractured family lives, gang involvement, or all of the above.  I knew that.  What I didn’t know was just how verbally arid their lives had been.

“I asked them once,” Deb, the lead teacher, told me when I first started working in the jail, “how many of them had been read to as children.  One.  Then I asked how many had seen their parents read at home–anything, ever.  Four out of fifty.”

No books?  No newspapers?  Nothing?  No wonder the boys skills are deficient (most reading at a 6th grade level), no wonder they hate to read and write.  How does a child acquire words (let alone the imagination, knowledge and interior life that reading builds) without someone reading to them?  I realized that oral language had been their primary teacher. But that didn’t bode well either.

As a reading specialist, I knew that research ties children’s pre-school oral language and vocabulary knowledge with later successful, grade-level reading comprehension. And that children—based on socio-economic differences—start kindergarten with vastly differing deposits in their “word banks”:

Children with professionally working parents                         1100 words

Children with working-class parents                                         700 words

Children with non-working, welfare parents                             500 words

(The Early Catastrophe, Hart and Risley, 1995)

Research also shows that this “word gap” (as it’s currently called) strongly correlates with a student’s life-long ability to read and comprehend:

First grade: Orally tested vocabulary was a proficient predictor of a student’s reading comprehension ten years later. (“Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later,” Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997)

Third grade: Children with restricted vocabularies have declining comprehension scores in later elementary years. (The Reading Crisis:  Why Poor Children Fall Behind, Chall, Jacobs, and Baldwin, 1990)

What happens at 4th grade is an axiom every educator knows and proffers:  “In grades K—3, students learn to read.  By grade 4 and after, they read to learn.”

But if a child doesn’t have the skills to read and comprehend at grade level, his learning is hampered from 4th grade on.  His skills and knowledge stay limited.

Like 16-yr. old Hasaam who asked me (when he knew for certain no one else could hear him), “Yo, miss.  What’s out there?” He pointed to the sky outside my cell-classroom’s barred window.  “Like, past the clouds.  How come we don’t just fall off Earth and fly out there?”

Hasaam had no concept of gravity and the solar system, truly no knowledge of what was “out there.”  He read at a 4th grade level.

So if a child has parents (more often than not, just one) whose economic resources are limited; who themselves work long hours to keep the family afloat; who are under-educated, tired, stressed and without many supports, he’s going to start life with a verbal deficit that will have a sequential and long-lasting impact.

He’s more likely not to become a strong reader.  As a poor reader, he’s likely to fall behind in academic skills.  Knowing his deficiencies and feeling embarrassed, he’s likely to act out in school, which will lead to suspension, maybe expulsions, maybe incarceration. Without an education, he’s likely to possess an earning power nearer the poverty line.  And the cycle continues.

Not all struggling students commit criminal acts, I know.  And I make no excuses for the choices my students have made; they made them and are living the consequences. But I can’t help wondering, what if?  What if they’d been read to, talked to, listened to more by their parents—who themselves probably had no model for doing so? What if their parents had been taught that regular conversation (literally giving their children more words) could help them become better readers and stronger learners?

I thought my son would be a rabid reader like me, but he wasn’t.  In spite of my tireless efforts he had no interest in books.  So when his 6th grade teacher told me how well-read he was, how much broad knowledge he shared in class, I was confused. But it hit me in just a second. “No,” I answered, “He’s well-talked-to.”  I had talked to him constantly from the day he was born, and told him stories, and asked him questions, and sang him songs.  Apparently, it helped.

What if all parents could be coached to do that, too?  Talking and reading and using vocabulary could be done by parents at any income level, if they only knew to do so.

NPR recently featured a story called “Closing the Word Gap Between Rich and Poor” that outlined the results of a 2012 Stanford University study. The study sadly revealed that the word gap seems to start even younger than age three, as previously believed: “By 18 months of age, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency.” (Standford News, November 25, 2013).

But the good news, the article continues to say, is that the research is finally affecting practice and the cities of Chicago and Providence are leading the charge.  The campaign to close the word gap is called 30 Million Words in Chicago, which is about the number of words three-year-olds from low-income families are ‘behind’ their middle-and-higher income peers in being exposed to.  Providence Talks, the Rhode Island initiative with the same aim, begins next month.

Both programs offer low-income parents training in the three “T’s” that develop vocabulary and early literacy: Tune-In, Talk More, and Take Turns.  They also offer technology that will make these efforts more than just words on paper—a “word-ometer” of sorts, a device that literally measures the number of words spoken between parent and child and the response time involved.

I was thrilled when I read the article.  It gave me hope that the playing field of the future might be more level and accessible to low-income children like my students. They deserve an equal chance to learn at grade level.

I can’t re-create what wasn’t done for the boys I currently teach in a different juvenile facility, but I can help increase their vocabularies.  Even for teens, increasing vocabulary is still one of the strongest ways to build knowledge and increase reading comprehension.  And they love it. Throwing words like “egregiously” and “voracious” at each other and the guards, they are empowered to understand and take part in more of the world around them.

I’m going to share the word gap research with them, too.  Make a Power-Point, video clip presentation to show them what they can do to stop the cycle, regardless of what income bracket they’re in when they become parents.  How they can talk and read their kids into becoming grade-level learners.

Because verbal poverty doesn’t have to bleed into the next generation and beyond.  They can stop it if they know how and are empowered to do so.  They can make their children rich—in literacy, knowledge, and spirit.  They can turn the cycle of academic struggle into one of academic success.

Word.

The following piece originally appeared on Beacon Broadside. Author and advocate Deborah Jiang Stein, through her own personal experience, brings to light a world so few of us know exists. Although the media–for better or worse–will focus on men in prison we hear very little about women serving time. It is a fast growing population, an invisible population, that is neglected not only in our public discourse about incarceration but in the prison world itself. Women in jail are horribly under-served, and that’s saying a lot since male inmates are equally under-served in terms of health care, mental health treatment, education and rehabilitative programs. And now Stein calls our attention to an even more invisible world, that of children born and raised in prison.

prison baby

In her memoir Prison Baby, now available from Beacon Press, author Deborah Jiang Stein describes the pain and confusion she experiences upon finding out at the age of twelve that she was not only adopted, but had in fact been born in prison to a heroin addict, spending the first year of her life there. The shock, Stein writes, “sends me into a deep dive, an emotional lockdown behind a wall that imprisons me for nearly twenty years.” The rest of the book details Stein’s harrowing descent into depression, violence, drugs, and crime, and her torturous climb back out of that emotional “imprisonment” to a place of eventual redemption.

To help herself heal from the stigma of being born a heroin-addicted “prison baby,” Stein founded the unPrison Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to “empower, inspire, and cultivate critical thinking, life skills, self-reflection, and peer mentoring for women and girls in prison” while calling attention to the needs of women and children in prison.

Sadly, the needs are many. The fact sheet below outlines just a few unfortunate statistics about the skyrocketing population of women prisoners in the US, and the children that are too often caught in the middle.

13 Facts about Women in Prisons and the Children Left Behind

  1. Women are the fastest growing prison population, increasing 800%+ in the last ten years.
  2. The United States has the largest prison population in the world: with 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners.
  3. 2.3 million minor children, or 3% of all children in the US, have a parent in prison; most under age 10. This is larger than the city of San Francisco, than the population of Philadelphia, larger than the state of Delaware. Whereas ten years ago, 60,000 children has a parent in prison.
  4. 85% of women in prisons are mothers.
  5. The majority of incarcerated women are sentenced for nonviolent drug related crimes.
  6. The majority incarcerated women have a diagnosable mental health issue like depression and suicidal tendencies.
  7. Nearly all women in prisons have experienced abuse of one kind or another: physical, sexual, psychological, or emotional.
  8. 4-7% of women entering prison are pregnant.
  9. 85% of incarcerated women have had problems with substance abuse, alcoholism, or other addictions.
  10. The cost to incarcerate averages $24,000 – $47,000 per inmate per year, compared to the cost of a high-end treatment center which averages $6,400 for an intensive outpatient program, and $33,000 for inpatient drug and alcohol treatment.
  11. According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, about one baby born each hour is addicted to opiate drugs in the US.
  12. Infections related to a mother’s drug addiction, like HIV and hepatitis, can be transmitted to the fetus.
  13. 60-80% of heroin-exposed infants experience withdrawal symptoms, with a high mortality if the syndrome is severe and untreated.

If you are interested in helping, you can contact the unPrison Project herePrison Baby is now available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

Deborah Jiang Stein, author of Prison Baby, is a national speaker, writer, and founder of the unPrison Project, a nonprofit that serves to build public awareness about women and girls in prison and offers mentoring and life-skills programs for inmates. She lives in Minneapolis.