Archive for the ‘Families in Crisis’ Category

Annie Sapucaia, a book reviewer for New Books Network with a particular interest in sociology, interviewed me recently. Her questions were pretty insightful and once again left me with the feeling that there are caring people in the world who want to “do the right thing” by all people. Here’s her introduction to the interview.

“It is easy to dismiss juveniles in prison as “bad seeds”, as people with which we have nothing in common, and of which we want only distance.  David Chura, however, did not maintain his distance, and has been working with at-risk kids for other 40 years.  His new book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup (Beacon Press, 2010), is a collection of stories from the time he taught kids in a New York County jail.  These narratives paint a picture of children who have been abused, neglected, and chronically disappointed by those in their lives and in the justice and foster system.  Chura exposes a number of issues in the justice system and in society at large  which contribute greatly to the outcome of these kids’ lives, and seeks to inform us that far from simply being “bad”, the gulf between these children and ours are mainly due to circumstances, not to personality or inborn traits.   Chura shares stories that we rarely hear, of a world we barely know, in order to give a voice to those who are often silenced. Take a listen at New Books Network.”

I met Amber at a tutoring program for inner city children. It was 1966, my senior year in high school, and the war on poverty was on, a war we’ve failed to win.

At nine years old Amber looked like a scarecrow, an old scarecrow at that, bird-picked, weather beaten. She was stick thin. None of her clothes fit, hand-me-downs from her sister Bunny who quickly outgrew her clothes while her younger sister didn’t seem to grow at all. Her eyes were dark circled; her hair, straw and falling out.

Saturday mornings she was one of the first kids through the church basement doors. My friends and I weren’t naïve. We knew that that gaggle of children who showed up each week wasn’t there for the mandatory hour of instruction. They put up with our drilling them on the timestables or helping them parse a paragraph. They were really there for the cookies and milk, and the tables spread with art supplies and games. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that they may have been just as eager for our attention, our reliability, and perhaps even our youthful faith in the future as for those treats.

I worked with Amber all that year. She didn’t progress much. But that didn’t seem to matter. She was always there. Besides, there was something else going on: I was being tutored in what poverty was really all about.

Walking Amber home several times I got to see where she lived—a cramped, drafty tenement—and to meet the rest of her family. Her mother, Mrs. Laurel, was as frail and battered looking as Amber. She had a nervous tic that twitched her head, a purple bruise on her cheekbone, a baby on her hip and a toddler pulling at her housecoat. Peter, a year older than Amber, dervished through the apartment while Bunny, a twelve year old with a fifteen year old’s body, refused to say hello.

There were no secrets in the Laurel family. Sitting at their kitchen table I heard how Bunny was boy-crazy, how Peter ate paste in school, and how they all loved margarine and sugar sandwiches. Amber, I was told, shared the bed of whatever brother or sister let her: she was a bed wetter. Pointing to the toddler pulling a waste basket over and the baby on her lap, Mrs. Laurel told me how “Mr. Laurel” was in and out of the house. “That’s what these two are all about,” she laughed ruefully then touched her cheekbone.

I lost track of the Laurels when I went off to college and got involved in another war—the war against the war, the Vietnam War. I didn’t think about them until Ronald Reagan in the 1980s started talking about the “deserving poor”. By then I was teaching kids in an alternative high school that very well could’ve been the children of an Amber or a Peter or a Bunny. I remember at the time wondering if the Laurels would’ve fit Reagan’s criteria for “deserving.” What would he have made of that bubble bath that tumbled out of the grocery bag Mrs. Laurel plopped down on the table one day when I was there? Or the endless packages of Lick-a-maid her kids lapped up from their grimy palms instead of lunch.

And now, years later, census figures show that the US poverty rate has hit its highest levels since President Johnson declared war on it, and that child poverty has increased from its 2010 twenty-two percent level.

This is especially bad news in these high stakes, high pressure days of “educational reform.” How will the Ambers of this world fare with so much depending on a student’s test performance especially when “education reformers” continue to refuse to acknowledge the crippling role that economic disparity plays in academic performance? Yet the stakes have gotten higher. According to a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, “US Education Reform and National Security,” (a report Diane Ravitch called the latest education “jeremiad”) educational failures are indeed a threat to national security. Another burden put on young shoulders.

In 1962 Michael Harrington showed America the face of “the invisible poor.” Now that the ranks of the Ambers among us are growing will we finally be able to look squarely into those faces and help the children of poverty achieve true academic parity? Or do we—and they—have to wait another 50 years?

Originally appeared at Reclaiming Futures  

When Americans think about the prison system, we think about the men and women locked up in them and the people who work there. But we rarely, if ever, think about inmates’ families. We should.

The Boston Globe had it right in its recent editorial on the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s putting a halt to the Bristol County sheriff’s $5 dollar a day fee on inmates for upkeep. As the Globe noted, since there were no work release programs or jobs at the jail, inmates’ families were the ones who had to pay the fee, placing on them “an even heavier burden” than they already carry. The Globe urged the Massachusetts legislature not to legalize that burden.

Visiting days were some of the hardest days to work at the county jail where I taught incarcerated high school kids. The lobby filled up with anxious mothers and grandmothers, and got a little raucous with toddlers and babies brought to see their daddies by wives and girlfriends who still found the fortitude to stand by their locked up men.

They got there early because they knew that the jail routine ate into their limited time with their loved ones. But getting there early meant an even earlier start from home, many coming cross county. Most visitors didn’t have cars, and so they took bus after bus after bus. Once signed in, they sat on cracked vinyl benches and waited, the way they waited for those buses.

Then, the slow crawl through security where papers were checked; belongings searched; where belts, boots, bobby pins, jewelry, even the occasional bra had to be removed to clear the metal detector. One glitch and the whole process ground to a halt. Except the clock. It kept ticking, robbing families of what little time they had together.

It was nobody’s fault. Things happen. Someone didn’t know they had to have a picture ID. A grandmother only spoke Spanish. And who would have thought that they needed the baby’s birth certificate?

Things like that happen. But that doesn’t explain the most egregious wrong of visiting days—the way the correctional staff treated visitors. Although the officers working the lobby were “polite” in that cardboard cutout way that people in charge can have, the suspicion and contempt with which they treated the visiting family members were as obvious as the print on an arrest warrant. It was as though those mothers and grandmothers, those wives and girlfriends were themselves criminals.

Those correctional officers, however, were only reflecting the general view that most Americans have about inmates’ families. “If you’d been a better mother.” “If you’d only raised your daughter right her son wouldn’t be here.” “Where’s the father?”  “What are you doing having that thug’s baby?”

Jail strips people of their freedom, their community, and their identity. But those family members who we accuse of neglect and complicity are the only ones who give inmates a sense (as tentative as it may be) of stability and self, of connection to a world they are cut off from.

And when inmates are finally released into a world they are expected to fit into, they return home to those same families we consider inadequate. They may not have much to offer the ex-offender, but what they do offer is a lot more than the plastic bag for clothes, the bus token, and the injunction to “stay out of jail” that most criminal justice systems provide. Imposing an upkeep fee on inmates  only adds to the responsibilities these overburdened families already carry.