Equity & Diversity Opinion

Closing the Incarceration Gap

By Deborah Meier — January 26, 2011 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

It’s interesting to imagine what world view drives my enemies. Reading your piece about economists provided an insight! Maybe. Most of the current members of the billionaire’s club make or produce nothing. None of their friends or neighbors are in the producing classes either. I used to try to appeal to them with the book by H. Thomas Johnson and Anders Broms called Profit Beyond Measure describing why Scania and Toyota reject the kind of data-driven accountability that business has imposed on schools. They were concerned with quality—the long-term viability and impact of their products. Meanwhile, education reformers are interested only in numbers. Even what’s still called “school quality review” is, in New York City at least, now taken to mean how schools use numbers.

The “smart” graduates of our “best” universities are not dreaming of producing a new and better mouse-trap. They can’t point to the highways they built or the dams they designed with a proud “I made it.” To be leaders of finance requires a different kind of bragging rights. Wall Street data may tell us the economy is improving even if more and more Americans face long-term unemployment and lowered wages and benefits, and public pensioners face disaster. “The economy” is an illusive concept. I used to have this New York Times headline on my refrigerator: “Employment Up, Stocks Drop.”

Schools rest their laurels on meeting the needs of students, and that runs on an entirely different track from serving financial “needs.” Schools rest on a different moral base.

Still, I realize that data, used in another way, drives you and me, too—if I can extrapolate what being well-educated means in human terms. Last week, one of my favorite magazines, Commonweal, focused on an aspect of our culture that says perhaps more about our culture than the state of our schools or jobs: justice. I urge you to look at “Cruel and Unusual,” by Robert DeFina of Villanova University (he is also the co-editor of the Journal of Catholic Social Thought) and Lance Hannon, also of Villanova. They write about the impact of our prison system not only on the prisoners, but on entire communities. They remind readers that an unjust system of punishment cannot restore or maintain justice. The connection between means and ends once again raises its ugly head.

In my spare hours I watch “Law and Order” (et al) and realize how “normalized” our view of torture is—how readily it includes bullying others both psychologically and physically. How glibly lying to bad guys is at the core of almost all our cop shows, along with frightening people even if they are innocent. First and foremost, they are reminded that, especially if they are small and well-educated, they will be raped until they wish they were dead if they go to prison. And we accept such cruel and unusual punishment as if it’s a normal part of imprisonment? It’s not then surprising that we have grown accustomed to Guantanamo.

What does it mean that our prison population is larger than those imprisoned in all the modern industrial nations? How can we claim racism is no longer a serious problem when something like one out of every nine young black men are imprisoned, that vast numbers lose their voting rights forever, and more. I keep forgetting the exact numbers because I can’t bear to let it sink in.

The data demonstrates that the cause is not the “violence” of those imprisoned, because in fact most black men are in prison for non-violent crimes, and for crimes more fortunate people often engaged in without consequence. Like shoplifting. I run into white friends all the time who acknowledge their petty crimes as though they were rites of passage!

How can we sleep at night knowing that at the very moment probably some prisoner is being raped by some other prisoner (occasionally by a guard)? How dare we admit we cannot protect prisoners from being subject to a criminal assault.

I want schools to imagine the impact of such a world on those who know it is happening to their brothers, uncles, and fathers, and maybe someday themselves? Yes, we want to teach them how to avoid such a future, to elude the ire of the cops, escape being victimized. But is the answer teaching boot-camp compliance? Is it in designing schools that mirror prisons? Although, of course, the worst are far more benign than most prisons. Or do we want to teach kids in ways that instill a different model of what democratic relationships could be like, what it means to treat each other with dignity and respect, and to expect to be treated the same way. That wasn’t one of our “habits of Mind” at Central Park East Secondary School, but it should have been. We hoped that this would be a habit that was learned in the normal everyday life of the school, as so much else must be (like meeting deadlines, being reliable, and all those other traits that we cannot test).

I’m not planning to lessen my work for education reform, but I do have to occasionally remind myself that what partly drives you and me are so many other crimes being committed against the dignity of grown-ups, including those our students will soon enough become.

There is never a time when we “finally” hit bottom and have nowhere to go but up. We have to take our stand right now, wherever and whenever justice is betrayed.


P.S. Have you read Joanne Barkan’s essay in Dissent?

And, now, dear readers, at long last the answers to the “Education Now and Then” exercise I posted on Jan. 6 in my entry, “Public Education and Fact vs. Fiction:"

  1. “Attack Mounted ...” New York Daily News; June 5, 1986
  2. “New York’s Greatest ...” National Elementary Principal, January 1980
  3. “Diagnostic reading tests...” The New York Times, by Leonard Buder, 1974
  4. “The University of California...” “Education Past and Present,” 1898, from Richard Rothstein’s The Way We Were?
  5. “Hope for ...” The Wall Street Journal; June 7, 1974, by John Rings Adams
  6. “Even Boston’s brightest...” “The Old and New in Education: 1845-1923", World Book encyclopedia, 1924 (from The Way We Were?)
  7. “Tougher Standards,” Better Homes and Gardens, September 1983
  8. “City Pupils Remain Beyond ...” The New York Times; March 8, 1979, by Edward Fiske
  9. “Our standards ...” U.S. News and World Report; Jan. 24, 1958
  10. “During the past 40 or 50 years..” Commonweal magazine; Jan. 17, 1941, by Walter Lippman

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.