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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"It's a Fun Day to Be Incarcerated"

It's 8:17 am and I've already taken three Excedrin.

See, last November I changed jobs. Again. Raise your hand out there if you're surprised by that. No? No one?

I'm sure if you scroll through my blog archive you'll see that the longest I have ever taught in one place is the year and a half at the Dark Side and the year and a half I just wrapped up at the Dark Side's Satanic twin, the Center Ring of Hell School. Most people would say that at this point there must be something wrong with  me, but those of you who read this blog regularly also know that I've worked in some of the most hellish and horrible places you can imagine. I've been kicked, punched, bitten, spit on. I've had poop thrown at me, had my nose broken, and wrecked my knee (for which the "Shut the F*$k Up Ice Cream" kid still feels terrible). And now for some reason I've decided it would be a great idea to start working with incarcerated youth. After 15 years of this crap, you'd think I would lose a bit of my idealism but OH NO. I still think I can make a difference. Pfft.

The first few months here were amazing. I scored an office, I don't have to write lesson plans for every subject under the sun. I get to be part of a team working with some of the toughest kids in the state. At the same time, I'm working with some of the toughest kids in the state.

Throughout my career the hardest part of what I do hasn't been the constant fear that a fight is going to break out or that I'm going to get smacked in the face. The hardest part has been realizing just how much of a disservice we are doing when it comes to these kids. In fact, just this morning, my favorite professor posted a status on Facebook that definitely hit home: the average cost per year of incarcerating a juvenile is $88,500, and most of them are in for non-violent crimes like possession. My prof then asked his grad students to figure out what the per-year cost of a Harvard education was.

$67,000. More than $20,000 cheaper than incarcerating a youth. Education is cheaper than incarceration. Who knew?

Oh wait....

This past week has been rough. And heartbreaking. You can't help but love these kids because when they're incarcerated, you frequently get reminded that they're just that: kids-- the oldest is barely 18. Watch the science teacher break out a bottle of bubbles; then watch the kids go wild trying to catch them. Listen to them giggle uncontrollably at the lamest joke in your arsenal. Sit with them when they discover that you can do math on your desk with dry erase markers.

Then remember that once they're discharged there will be no continuity, no support. They may go on to a treatment program but what kind of treatment will they receive? Will they get the assistance they need to start over and go straight? Or will they go back to their block because there's no one there telling them that there's more to life than the streets and easy money? When they're incarcerated, they dream. They say they want to go to college, become engineers or lawyers. The bars make them feel safe, safe enough to imagine a life that doesn't involve drugs and weapons. But they know in their hearts that the rug will eventually disappear from under them and they will go back, often to a home that is more toxic than anywhere else in the world they could be.

I know, I know. The first lesson they teach you in teaching school is not to get attached. But when you do what I do, opening your heart to these kids is what gets them to trust you. Seeing an adult who cares about them just  because they can is what makes these kids feel secure enough to try, secure enough to learn. Why can't we provide them with that BEFORE they land themselves behind bars? Our school to prison pipeline is out of control and our programs have waiting lists that are sometimes 7 kids deep. Kids languish in programs, waiting to take the next step on their journey back to society-- time that slowly chips away at whatever optimism they may have built.

I also know I'm rambling. It's the stress melting my brain. But I needed to vent and I promise I'll keep this more up to date because knowing that you all are reading this is the best therapy I could ever invest in.

So tell me what you think. How do you feel about our juvenile incarceration system? How do we fix it? Where is my Excedrin?

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