“AMERICA’S CULTURE OF INCARCERATION – PART 3 – PREPARING AMERICA’S CHILDREN FOR PRISON”

By Tony Casson 

“My future is in your hands.”  Psalm 31:14 NLT

“The hardest job kids have today is learning good manners without seeing any.”  Fred Astaire

Our children are the future of this country and that future has two faces: the bright, sunny faces of hope and the dark, cloudy faces of despair.

The faces of hope will yield our doctors, teachers, scientists, nurses, technicians, mechanics, farmers, spiritual leaders, inventors, factory workers, butchers, bakers and perhaps even a candle-maker or two. The faces of hope will also yield our lawyers, businessmen, civic leaders, legislators, police officers, judges, military personnel and those few who will rise to the presidency of the United States.

But America’s future will also yield those who will wear the faces of despair. Wearing that face will be the children who grow up to be drug addicts, alcoholics, rapists, murderers, liars, cheats, thieves and those who abuse and prey on the young, the weak and the elderly in all sorts of despicable ways.

Debates rage over the proper way to raise children to protect them from themselves, from bad influences and to help them grow up to be one of those who wear the face of hope. Regardless of the opinions offered, it is generally agreed upon that a two-parent home in which a child is shown love, receives a good education and proper nutrition and is given positive feedback, correction where necessary and opportunities to succeed would be considered a good place to start. In my opinion, adding a love of God and a basic understanding of the teachings of Jesus Christ and instilling a desire to serve humanity would also add to the potential to wear the face of hope.

No matter the nature of the “correct” environment, there are no guarantees. Sometimes human beings are simply wired wrong or are more susceptible to addictions or bad influences than others. We can never have all the answers, but we can be sure of this: children who are neglected, beaten, abused or live in poverty – those who receive inadequate nutrition and experience very little in the way of positive examples to follow have a decidedly poor chance of wearing anything but the face of despair. And these are the children of America who are being prepared – with no small measure of forethought by some who lead our country – to spend some portions of their lives in a prison or jail. Those born already wearing the face of despair stand a good chance of becoming fodder for the monster with the insatiable appetite created by “America’s Culture of Incarceration”.

In this, the richest, smartest, strongest and most advanced nation on earth, the only faces of despair should be the exceptional, unforeseeable ones and not those created by poverty, lack of education, neglect and abuse. Every child born in America should wear the face of hope. To allow conditions to exist which deny that face to any child is to say, “We are preparing this child for prison”. The notion that children are knowingly being prepared for prison may sound ludicrous to some, but there is an undeniable link between children born into conditions such as the ones I have stated and a life of criminal behavior that leads to incarceration. I propose that, for many, the American Dream is so far out of their reach at birth that they immediately begin experiencing the American Nightmare.

In a country where the richest 400 individuals have more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined, 25,000 school-aged children should not be homeless… in one state. And yet that is the number of homeless children for whom radio station KAJN in Alexandria, Louisiana was trying to help obtain back-to-school backpacks recently. According to the U.S. Education Department, for the first time, the number of homeless students in America topped one million by the end of the 2010-2011 school year. To top it off this count doesn’t include homeless infants, children not enrolled in school and homeless students that schools simply failed to identify. Basically 1 in every 45 children are homeless! I don’t know how you feel, but I know that this is a horrific statistic for this great country and somehow we need to make these numbers go down to zero!

Children with no proper home, without adequate nutrition and without guidance are forced into a system that is designed to help them fail. If anyone disputes this, I will point out what should be obvious: any system that is not designed for complete success may as well be designed specifically for failure. Hundreds of thousands of kids in this country wake up each day convinced that the only things that loom in their future are prison or death. Does it make more sense to incarcerate them later because we failed them now? Does it make more sense to pay for their care behind bars when they are adults than it does to feed, clothe, house and educate them when they are young? Of course not. But the sad truth appears to be that, while it may not make more sense, it definitely makes more dollars later on for this monster that has been created, nurtured and groomed specifically to turn those we have failed as children into profit centers as adults.

According to data from www.kidscount.org the following is true in America today:

  • 22% of all children live in poverty.
  • 33% have parents who lack secure employment.
  • 68% of all 4th graders are not proficient in reading.
  • 34% live in single parent families.
  • 11% live in high poverty areas.
  • 24% of high school students fail to graduate on time.
  • And just so you know how many children we are talking about, in the 2008-2009 school year there were almost 49 million children enrolled in public schools.

It should be apparent that child welfare and education in this country take a backseat to many other issues. The United States is far from first in providing its children with a quality education and for this, there is no excuse. Claims of inadequate funds are laughable in light of the fact that we always have enough money to inject ourselves into the affairs of other nations; we always have enough money to fight other people’s battles; and we always have enough money to go in and rebuild what we have destroyed doing those two things. And we always have enough money to incarcerate the adults we didn’t have enough money for as children. We cannot find the funds to give every child the face of hope, but we can find the money to deal with them after they put on the face of despair that was avoidably thrust upon many of them. While we cannot find the money to feed, clothe and house at-risk children – and while we are constantly reading about cutbacks in education budgets – lawmakers continue to advocate harsher and more draconian prison sentences in the nation that has the longest prison sentences in the world along with the most people serving them.

In every instance where more money has been spent on education, the results have been positive: higher graduation levels; higher percentage go on to college. In Washington, D.C., KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Charter Schools differentiate themselves from public schools in many ways:

In Washington, only 43% of students graduate high school and only 9% go on to get a college degree. KIPP claims a graduation rate of 93% and also claim that 80% go on to college.

What are the differences? Here are a few:

  • KIPP claims expenditures of $1,000 over public funding, raised through donations.
  • More time in the classroom: school until 5PM; school starts in July; Saturday classes 2-3 times per month.

This is just a rough idea of what can be done, but education must be a priority, along with addressing poverty and living conditions. These are real issues that our politicians avoid by focusing on things that sound good but do absolutely nothing but make a bad policy worse (such as Lamar Smith’s Child Protection Act That Doesn’t of 2012).

I earlier gave some disturbing numbers regarding children. Here are some equally alarming statistics regarding adults in one of the nation’s most infamous state prisons, The Louisiana State Prison at Angola:

  • There are 5,309 inmates.
  • 75%, or 3,982, are serving life sentences without parole.
  • The remaining 25% are serving an average of 93 years.
  • The average age at conviction is 35.
  • The average age now is 42.
  • 91% are in for committing violent crimes.
  • 55%, or 2,920, are in for homicide.
  • The most recent budget is $115 million.
  • The cost per inmate per year is $21,661.32.
  • There are almost 40,000 inmates in state prisons throughout Louisiana – the highest per capita prison population in the country, which makes it the highest in the world.

America’s lawmakers need to address this disturbing problem. It is easy to write bills that talk about protection from this group or from that threat. But when the only solution is to lock more people up for longer periods of time, then those lawmakers are actually the first part of the problem that must be solved.

The American people need leaders who are going to take a socio-economic approach to our problems on the front end and figure out what must be done to eliminate preventable faces of despair. We must stop preparing the children of this country for lives wasted as part of a shameful prison culture that is robbing the nation of human resources as well as financial ones.

We must also examine ways of reducing this nation’s prison population by 75% and using billions of dollars saved (about $58 billion) for educational programs, housing, clothing and other needs of the poor, including the use of child protective services. We have to identify parents who are not equipped to be positive influences on their children. Those parents should be required to participate in educational and training programs to help them become contributors to eliminating the despair from the faces of their children.

We reward our legislators – both state and federal – with handsome compensation and benefit packages. It is time they rolled up their sleeves and worked to solve problems and not just sponsor bills to help themselves get re-elected.

All it takes is a presidential election cycle to see where America’s problems lie. America’s problems do not lie with the individuals who break the laws. They lie with those who make the laws. American’s problems do not lie with those locked away behind bars. They lie with those whose political livelihoods rely upon the expansion of this nation’s prison system. America’s problems lie with allegedly mature, educated men and women who view themselves as Republican or Democrat as opposed to American. America’s problems are not solved by pointing fingers or dodging responsibility.

While America’s politicians wave banners like Texas Congressman Lamar Smith’s “Child Protection Act of 2012”, (see previous post titled The Child Protection Act That Doesn’t), more and more of America’s children wake up and see only a face of despair when they look in the mirror.

According to the World Almanac, in 2008 there were roughly 70 million Americans under the age of 18. How many of them wear the face of despair? How many of them are being prepared for a life in prison?

More tomorrow…

 

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