The defeat of the Harvard University debate team by a team from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in the Catskills elucidates a truth known intimately by those of us who teach in prisons: that the failure of the American educational system to offer opportunities to the poor and the government’s abandonment of families and children living in blighted communities condemn millions of boys and girls, often of color, to a life of suffering, misery and early death. The income inequality, the trillions of dollars we divert to the war industry, the flight of manufacturing jobs overseas and the refusal to invest in our infrastructure wrecks life after innocent life.
I spent four years as a graduate student at Harvard University. Privilege, and especially white privilege, I discovered, is the primary prerequisite for attending an Ivy League university. I have also spent several years teaching in prisons. In class after class in prison, there is a core of students who could excel at Harvard. This is not hyperbolic, as the defeat of the Harvard debate team illustrates. But poverty condemned my students before they ever entered school. And as poverty expands, inflicting on communities and families a host of maladies including crime, addiction, rage, despair and hopelessness, the few remaining institutions that might intervene to lift the poor up are gutted or closed. Even when students in inner-city schools are not the targets of racial insults, racism worms into their lives because the institutions that should help them are nonexistent or deeply dysfunctional.
I stood outside a prison gate in Newark, N.J., at 7 a.m. last April 24. I waited for the release of one of my students, Boris Franklin, who had spent 11 years incarcerated. I had ridden to the gate with his mother, who spent her time reading Bible verses out loud in the car, and his sister. We watched him walk down the road toward us. He was wearing the baggy gray sweatpants, oversized white T-shirt and white Reeboks that prisoners purchase before their release. Franklin had laid out $50 for his new clothes. A prisoner in New Jersey earns $28 a month working in prison.
Franklin, with the broad shoulders and muscular chest and arms that come with years of lifting weights, clutched a manila envelope containing his medical records, instructions for parole, his birth certificate, his Social Security card and an ID issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles, his official form of identification. All his prison possessions, including his collection of roughly 100 books, had to be left behind.
The first words he spoke to me as a free man after more than a decade in prison were “I have to rebuild my library.”
“You don’t know what to think or feel at that moment,” he said to me recently about the moment of his release. “You are just walking. It is almost surreal. You can’t believe it. After such a traumatic experience, you are numb. There is no sense of triumph.”
When Franklin was in prison, he was a student under the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP). Now, at 42, he is attending Rutgers under the university’s Mountainview Program for ex-offenders. He is seeking a degree in social work and plans to assist the formerly incarcerated. This is an unusual and rare opportunity for a freed prisoner.
Franklin, like many others I have taught, should never have ended up in prison. His brilliance, his hunger to learn and his passion for ideas, if nurtured, would have led him to a very different life. But when you are poor in America, everything conspires to make sure you remain poor. The invisible walls of our internal colonies, keeping the poor penned in like livestock, mirror the physical walls of prison that many in these communities are doomed to experience.
“I started school in Piscataway, N.J.,” he said. “It was predominantly white. There was a lot of space. It was clean. There was order. People walked down the halls in lines. I had been prepared in Head Start.”
When he was in the second grade, his family moved. He started attending an inner-city school in New Brunswick. The two schools, he said, “were night and day.” The classrooms in New Brunswick were shabby, dirty and overcrowded. Many of the children were “loud and disruptive.”
“In Piscataway we were taught how to learn, how to read and scan texts for information,” he said. “New Brunswick was a zoo. It was mostly black and Hispanic. There were fights all the time. I doubt the teachers were even qualified. It was not an environment where you could teach anything. Kids would come to school and slam things down or turn stuff over. They were angry. I remember seeing a girl in my class, a victim of child abuse, with welts all over her. She later became a drug addict. Your fight-or-flight mechanism as a child is activated even before you walk out of the house. Your blood pressure goes up. There are drugs and alcohol all around you. You see fights on the way to school. You see dope addicts slumped over. You see police jump on someone and beat ’em up. You run into gangs of kids.”
“I knew kids who dropped out of school because it was dangerous to be in school,” he went on. “If you had a fight they would find out what school you went to and they would be there to retaliate when you got out. We used to take bats and knives to school and put them by the door when we came out in case there was a confrontation. I got my first weapons charge at 14 for a handgun. You are not in a state to learn anything. Of course criminals have low brain arousal. They have been desensitized since childhood. This is how you deal with constant danger. You go numb. And you become a danger to others and yourself.”
“The students in my third-grade class were tracing out letters,” he said. “They were trying to learn how to write. I was writing in cursive. I could multiply and divide. They did not know how to add and subtract. The two schools were only 20 minutes apart. But in New Brunswick you were not taught how to think. You were taught rote behavior, to obey. I was told to sit in the back of the class, be quiet and wait for the other students to catch up. But they never caught up.”
“There was usually drugs in the homes,” he said. “I had friends whose homes were raided when they were children. Most of the parents were getting high, including my father. I did not know any child who did not have a drug addict in the home. And if a person was not a drug addict he or she was often suffering from some form of mental illness. It seemed everyone was dealing with something. Those who were left with their grandparents were in the best situation. Kids would say they were living with their grandmother. They would never mention their mother or father. I never saw the fathers of most of my friends. They had disappeared or were in jail.”
“I remember when my friend Carl Anderson’s father came home from jail,” he said. “We were in the seventh grade. We were sitting in the classroom. Somebody said, ‘Carl, that’s your father outside.’ We all turned around. Carl was my best friend. I had never seen his father. He looked like [boxer] Marvin Hagler. He had a leather jacket, a bald head and a goatee. Carl was excited because his dad was home. That same year we were walking home from school and this lady who was getting high ran up to him and said, ‘Little Carl, they just locked your father up. He cut somebody’s throat down in the projects.’ You could see everything drain out of his face. He shut everything down. How do you learn to deal with that? You learn not to care. We were using a lot of misplaced aggression. That night we were probably fighting somebody. I could feel his pain. You want to get it out? We will get it out. That’s how you dealt with it. That’s how everybody dealt with it. Take it out on somebody else. When I would get hit in the house I would come outside and the first person lookin’ at me I would say, ‘What you lookin’ at?’ I would jump them or chase them or something. My mother told my father, ‘You can’t hit him anymore. You are making him violent.’ ”
“There is a stigma that comes with being poor,” he said. “If you are poor you are bad. You are worthless. You are ridiculed. You are picked on. Markets are built on this. This is how you can sell a kid from the inner city a pair of $200 sneakers. He is buying his identity. He is buying his self-esteem. And that’s why poor people hustle. That’s why I started hustling [drugs], to buy things. The gratification is immediate. You wear that stuff and it is like you are magically not poor anymore. It is a trigger to go back to selling drugs. I remember when I was struggling. I had grits one night for dinner because that was all that was in the cabinet. I panicked. By the next day I decided I would do something criminal to change my situation.”
“What’s the best that can happen to you, even if you don’t go to jail?” he asked. “Check out bags at Wal-Mart? A warehouse job? That’s as far as you can go in this world if you are poor. The only education the poor are given is one where they get to a place where they learn enough to take orders. They are taught to remember what is said. They are taught to repeat the instructions. There is no thinking involved. We are not taught to think. We are educated just enough to occupy the lowest rung on the social ladder.”
“No one in prison wanted to admit they were poor,” he said. “A friend of mine in prison told all these big-drug-dealer stories. He has been in and out of jail for 20 years. But one day we were walking on the basketball court. He got honest. He told me he had been sleepin’ in his car. Sometimes motel rooms. Basically homeless. No education. No connections. The only people he knows are inmates. He does not know anyone in the working world who can help him put in an application and say a word for him. When he got out he went to the guys he knew from jail still in the streets. That was his network. That’s most people’s network. ‘Can you get me some dope? What’s the price? Who’s moving it?’ That’s your economy. That’s the one you go back to. That’s how you survive. His brother is doing 30 years. His nephew is doing 16 years.”
“One of my four children went to school in New Brunswick,” Franklin said. “And he is in jail. The other three, who did not go to school in New Brunswick, have college degrees or are in college. You go to schools like the one I went to and you enter a pipeline straight to jail. When I walked into the mess hall in prison it looked like my old school lunchroom, including the fights. When I walked into the yard in prison, it looked like my old playground, including the fights. When I was in the projects it looked like prison. When guys get to prison the scenery is familiar. If you grow up poor, then prison is not a culture shock. You have been conditioned your whole life for prison.”
His family moved again when he was a child. He entered Franklin High School in Somerset, N.J., but his years in a dysfunctional school meant he was now woefully unprepared, struggling and behind. “Students in Franklin High School had continued in the pace I had started in,” he said.
He had become acculturated to poverty. He would not go to college. He would, as so many of his peers did, end up in prison. And it was in prison that he, like many others, found refuge in books and the world of ideas.
“You have a lot of intellectuals in prison,” he said. “There are people who think about things, who read things, who try to connect the dots. People read psychology and science to see how things fit together. You see libraries in some cells. You hear people say, ‘I got to get my library up.’ You would go from one cell with a library to another. It was like a cult. When you first loan a book to someone in prison you loan a tester. You do not loan a valuable book. If the person who borrows the book reads it and talks about it, then they get another book. But if they leave the book sitting on their shelf, if it doesn’t get read, they never get another book.”
“There are a lot of guys in prison who read everything,” he continued. “When I saw that those prisoners won the debate with the Harvard team I was not surprised. I took classes where there were prisoners who had read everything the professor had read. I was intimidated to take classes with certain guys. They read constantly. They retained all the information. And they could relate it to whatever we were talking about. On the outside, they never had a chance.”
“Look at the faces of the young kids, when they first start out,” he said. “They have wide, bright eyes. Then look at the pictures of the faces of people in prison. Their eyes are low, slanted, shifty, beaten. They are worn out. How you do you get from that child to that man? Look at the community. Look at the schools. Look at what is done to the poor.”