Education Opinion

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

By Anthony J. Mullen — December 23, 2009 5 min read
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The air is stale inside the visitor waiting room at Manson Correctional Facility. The room is filled with mostly women and young children and I notice a few drops of dried blood on the floor. One young boy keeps pressing the buttons on a candy vending machine. The women seem to know each other and talk about the weather outside the prison windows. The rolling hills and tall evergreen tress that surround the level 4 high-security facility are covered with an early Christmas snow. The landscape is a picturesque place more suited for the inside of a snow globe rather than the site of a prison. A correction officer enters the room and informs us that the men’s bathroom is out of service. He admonishes an anonymous previous visitor who stuffed too much paper in the toilet.

The officer resembles an aging Charlie Brown and carries a set of large keys. “You can’t go inside with a hooded sweat jacket,” he says, pointing to me.

“What should I do with my jacket?”

“You can place the jacket in one of the wall lockers,” he replies. “Go to the registration desk and ask for a key.”

I do as I am told and trade my driver’s license for a small key attached to a large metal ring. I locate my assigned locker and stuff my jacket inside.

“You can’t go inside with a wallet or keys, either,” the officer adds.

I feel uncomfortable leaving my wallet and car keys in a locker that could be easily pried open. I look around the room and gauge the faces of my fellow visitors. Most of the women seem to have honest faces but I’m not too sure about the heavyset man who is staring at me. He has tattoos around his fleshy neck and is wearing a stained sweatshirt. I feel he could be comfortable on either side of the prison’s walls. He is staring in my direction as I place my wallet and car keys in the locker. I walk away and notice that he is still looking intently in the direction of my locker. And then I become aware of the true object of his attention- the candy machine next to my locker. I feel relief.

I am waiting to visit a former student who will be spending Christmas in an eight by six prison cell. He has been incarcerated since July and is serving an 18 month sentence for mostly assault related offenses. The judge called my ex student “a maniac” and then sent him to the state’s toughest youth prison. The judge was only half correct. Mania and depression swing back and forth in people suffering from bipolar disorder, and I believe my ex student’s behavior is rooted in this illness. I last visited Kaz during October and he seemed to be adjusting well to the monotony and boredom of prison life. He was growing a beard and considering getting a “prison tattoo” on his left arm. I told him about the risk of contracting hepatitis from a dirty ink needle and that his beard looked ridiculous. I could not blame him for trying to age quickly in a place that preyed on youth.

I glance outside the window and let streaks of sun warm my face. I think about snow, icicles, sleigh riding, and Christmas morning. A Christmas Carol suddenly enters my mind and returns my musing to Kaz. Charles Dickens divided life into three parts-past, present and future- and understood both the worldly and spiritual value of time. The past is but images and shadows of things gone by, the present but a time that appears in our grasp until inevitably let go, and the future but a consequence of what went before and the present day. I am familiar with the past and present tenses of my student’s life but worry about his future.

On any given day, about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates, according to a new study released by researchers at Northeastern University. “The dropout rate is driving the nation’s increasing prison population, and it’s a drag on America’s economic competitiveness,” said Marc H. Morial, the former New Orleans mayor who is president of the National Urban League, one of the groups in the coalition that commissioned the report. Additionally, a 2007 study by Teachers College, Princeton and City University of New York researchers estimated that society could save $209,000 in prison and other costs for every potential dropout who could be helped to complete high school. The United States incarcerates more of its youth than any other country in the world, a reflection of the larger trends in incarceration practices in the United States. What to do with juvenile criminals has been a source of controversy for centuries, but we haven’t made much progress dealing with this issue. Prisons are filled with some young people who need to stay behind bars, but the majority of youthful offenders are dropouts afflicted with substance abuse problems or mental illness.

Our nation spends an estimated $60 billion each year on corrections. While cost varies from state to state, in 2005, the average cost of incarceration per prisoner in the United States was $23,876. The cost to incarcerate prisoners under the age of 21 is often over $40,000. Now consider the cost to educate a child. The average cost to educate a student in the United States, in 2005, was $8,486.

Ebenezer Scrooge feared most the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come because the miser was good at counting, and the sum of his past and present deeds did not portend a happy ending. The ghost does not show its face or speak a single word but it possessed the supernatural ability to reveal things to come. Images of loneliness, misery, and death are revealed to a man seeking redemption. Ebenezer’s fate is shared by the many inmates housed in this awful place.

The correction officer returns to the waiting area and instructs us to proceed to a security check point. One by one we walk through a metal detector and then are herded inside a small chamber. We are cramped together but careful not to push and shove each other. The correction officer enters the chamber last and locks the door. “Go to the cubicle assigned to your inmate,” he says.

I see Kaz on the other side of a Plexiglas barrier; we talk with each other using a set of phones. I am happy to see that he shaved his beard and did not get a prison tattoo. He no longer spends 22 hours each day confined to his prison cell since earning the privilege to be part of a work crew. Kaz always enjoyed physical labor and he enjoyed spending the last few days shoveling snow. He is not looking forward to Christmas Day because all prisoners will be in “lock down” for 24 hours. My Christmas gift to him is news about friends and school.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is the most frightening yet benevolent of the three spirits. The spirit behind the dark robe offers Ebenezer a second chance to change his ways and re-enter the world of humanity. The inmates housed at Manson Correctional facility could benefit from a visit by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

I wish all my readers a joyous holiday season and look forward to a future filled with redemption for all students.

The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.