Halt the school-to-prison pipeline.

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I had a conversation the other day with one of my mentees about what it was like to attend D.C. public schools. He described how he was greeted like a criminal when he walked in, instead of as a student. (He had to place his belt, jacket and book bag on a conveyor belt to be x-rayed, etc.) Over time, he became desensitized to this type of treatment and began to feel as “less worthy.” It became the norm for him to start loosening his belt and untying his shoes blocks before he got to school, so he could more expediently clear the metal detector and make it to class on time.

The picture he painted conjured memories of my own dehumanizing experiences in prison. I too now treat it as routine and normal to strip down, butt naked, in preparation for a strip search, long before I am told to do so. Better to do it yourself than to be ordered; this is how the demeaned remain dignified in face of dehumanization. But it also is a bit like becoming a trained rat in response to stimuli in a devilish lab experiment.

My friend’s experiences, and mine, are common across America. Today is the DAY OF EMPATHY, created by Dream Corps/cut50 to ask society to learn more about the country’s 2.2 million incarcerated people and why they need to advocate for their safety, health, dignity and freedom. This is even more important as COVID-19 sweeps the country — not only because we are so at risk (poor health, unsanitary conditions), but also because this means our isolation is deepening as visits are cancelled.

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At the risk of taxing everyone’s bandwidth to think beyond the current crisis, I think it’s important to consider one of the root causes of our other epidemic: mass incarceration. (It’s not a pandemic; the United States stands out in its rate of imprisonment.) That is the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Most students in urban public schools come from impoverished communities and/or struggling households, and they bring all of the resulting problems to school with them. As my mentee explained: “A lot of times, poverty blocks the mind to learning in a school setting, since you feel as though you need solutions now. It’s difficult to see the connection between your daily pain and what they teach you in school. And when you are constantly treated like a criminal and punished/suspended for every mishap, it pushes you to the streets.” Our kids are crying out for help. But instead of creating opportunities for guidance counselors to help them deal constructively with their urgent reality, our schools rely on police intervention and/or suspension, which only hurts kids further.

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Another way our students are negatively impacted by this system is the tendency to pass kids from grade to grade rather than holding them accountable for learning the curriculum and earning a certain grade point average, along with helping them overcome their obstacles. I have come across several young men in the past few years who have high school diplomas, but clearly had not mastered the required skills. Some can read words but can’t fully comprehend what they read. Others can’t properly structure a sentence and punctuate it. And most can only do basic arithmetic.

I asked my mentee how this can happen, At first, he told me that to graduate from one class to another, “really all you have to do is show up and try to do the work.” But then he thought further and realized this wasn’t always the case. He remembered a guy with whom he attended 12th grade history; the young man never went to class, but the teacher was forced to pass him due to internal politics. This issue was highlighted in an investigation launched by WAMU-FM (D.C., 88.5) and NPR in 2018, finding that one-third of high school graduates in 2017 should not have received diplomas due to chronic truancy and other problems. The investigation led to the firing of several school administrators and prompted a look by the FBI, U.S. Education Department and D.C. Office of Inspector General. The latter found that in 2018, when the school system enforced its diploma requirements, only 42 percent of high school seniors were on track to graduate.

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These schools are failing our children. How can you miss half of the school year and still pass to the next grade? How can a student do the bare minimum and still pass? How can a student fail to take a standardized test that is supposed to be “mandatory” and still be pushed along? How can a student graduate while only reading on a fourth-grade level? These are the questions our educators and we as a society must ask ourselves. This is why the criminal justice system is filled with these types of young people.

The novel coronavirus pandemic will only further marginalize low-income children all over America, because they will not have the same access to technology as their peers, which now is needed to learn remotely, and/or their parents are unable or unwilling to sit with them and help them learn. We know that if teachers can’t teach them while they are in school, it will be nearly impossible for them to do so effectively through a computer.

It is not the responsibility of children to teach themselves how to learn; it is incumbent on our teachers to figure out how to teach our kids. We can’t just keep giving up on them, passing them along and sending them onto the conveyor belt to prison.

I ask everyone to be empathetic to our neediest kids on the Day of Empathy, and year-round.

I’d like to end with a poem written by one of my cellmates, Gary Leaks:

I am somebody…
Not because I think so,
but because I know so.
Simon says…because I say so.

My transition to the streets started
when my ma got kicked off the payroll…
and then she became addicted
to cooked-up yayo [crack].
Stomach balled up, growling,
during winter wearing May clothes.
Ice cold winters made my heart ice cold.

Again, dear world,

We kneel during national anthems
because we believe in liberty and justice for all.
Private-prison owners donate millions,
so Congress can legislate laws.
The murder of a nation has justified our cause.

Again, dear world,
I am free mentally, so I oppose your ‘justice.’
Looking at us like you don’t trust us.
I guess that’s why you kill and cuff us.
If one pays attention to the stats,
It seems like it’s…. “just us.”

Did you ever stop and think:
We old enough to do a life sentence
but we ain’t old enough to drink?
Is it me or do these people want us extinct?
Or stressed out in an orange jump suit
surrounded by gossip and clinks?
Free your mind:
Once you become conscious
it is your duty to free the blind.

Can you image a world free of hate and crime?
…Me neither.
Me either.
But that doesn’t deter me from being a striver.
A striver toward reformation.
Reformation is the activation of education.
Education is the activation of dedication.
Oppressive religions.
Regressive decisions.

I have a vision
…And for that, dear world,
I’m considered an enemy of the public

Be what you experience …
not what you’ve heard.

A note about how this blog is possible: Incarcerated people have no access to the internet. Thus, I am partnering with journalist/storyteller Pam Bailey, who acts as my editor when needed and posts all of my updates. You may contact her at paminprogress@gmail.com.

Written by

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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