A new biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
I’m 31 years old and have served over 14 years in the state’s prison system. I was recently transferred to the prison in Lino Lakes, where the Minnesota Department of Corrections houses the young men in the Youth Offender program. These are kids that were certified before they were 18 to serve prison time as adults.
As I was walking around the yard the other day, I saw these young men — these kids — playing basketball. I had a flashback of myself at the age of 17, when I was given a 26-year sentence and was injected into the system. As I watched them, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were given the chances, the support, or the encouragement that I was not.
I’m not referring to whether or not they got these things in their homes, but I question whether they got them from the institutions that are in place to influence our youth as they mature. I question if they were steered in the right direction or just dumped blindly behind the wheel and left to crash.
Actually, I don’t have to reflect too long about this because I know from my own experiences that these systems and institutions of which I speak are flawed.
Take the public school system for example. These are the environments where children are taught and shaped, ultimately contributing to who they become as adults. The problem is that many inner-city schools resemble and operate a lot like prisons. What is even more disturbing is that this injustice has gone mostly ignored or unnoticed for years now.
The majority of the policies enacted in the public school system over the last quarter century segregate and criminalize students, producing imprisoned minds before these kids’ brains are even fully developed. These strategies have established what is now termed the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
Throughout my adolescence I experienced a few of these pseudo-prison environments, but one of the specific mini-penitentiaries that I am referring to is Hans Christian Anderson Open School in South Minneapolis. I was enrolled in the special education section of the school known as Anderson D, otherwise known by the students as “The Rock.” (Yes, inner-city grade schools have prison monikers. Message!)
The troubling part, however, is that it was not just a moniker. When you were deemed to be “acting up,” unlike most schools where you would maybe be sent to the principal’s office, here you were placed in a cell. Yes, they had an area that actually consisted of rooms with doors on them that bore a strong resemblance to a prison cell. They would temporarily place you in them until, in their opinion, you had “calmed down.”
These children, including myself, faced cruel and unusual punishment before we even made it through maturity! There is also Harrison School in North Minneapolis that hasn’t graduated a student in years. It has become more like a warehouse for the system until these kids are either old enough or do something serious enough to go to prison.
Most kids placed in these special education or alternative school environments are placed there under the diagnoses of Emotional Behavior Disorders. If these children suffer from a clinical diagnosis, they shouldn’t be sent somewhere that encourages more antisocial behaviors.
There has to be a better solution, but so far the state hasn’t been able to come up with one that makes sense. Their tactic has been to take kids considered delinquent, like those who skip school, and arrest them for truancy. This solution results in their names being entered into the system, officially beginning the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
This approach hasn’t produced any positive or encouraging outcomes. How can kids learn riding in the back of a squad car to a sub-station that they think is where they belong? It’s where they were inspired throughout school to believe they should be.
Procedures like this should be abolished, because the majority of these kids should not be looked at as irredeemable. We are far overdue for an overhaul that would focus more attention on coming up with a positive solution for our youth.
There must be more effective ways to help them in a positive manner rather than punishing them further. Maybe, instead of dehumanizing and marginalizing their personality, character and individuality into a six-digit MNDOC number, they could perhaps be propelled on a more successful trajectory in life.
My purpose for this article was to bring a long-ago burnt-out light to the subject in hopes that this matter is important enough to get people to come together and contribute to creating inner-city communities where our youth no longer envision jail and prison as eventualities. This is vital because if the youth of future generations are cultivated properly, it will ultimately lead to much more ripeness in the future of our communities.
Robert Ives is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.