So isn’t all the fuss about racism really just about appearances and attitudes and accents? If you look the way we want you to look and talk the way we want you to talk and behave the way we want you to behave then you can live in our neighborhood and go to our school. Kids know all about this and they know that it’s all about how you look and walk and talk and behave. Life is all about fitting in. Yet our society seems to be all about separation, into haves and have nots, have mores and have not so muches, have almost everythings and have just about nothings. Humans have a way about segregating themselves in so many different ways.
When children become aware of this they have to begin to decide where they will fit in and how they will go about doing it. This is how gangs become so attractive and alluring to young people. They allow have nots and probably never will haves a place where they can fit in and most importantly find approval, which is a need that all humans seem to also share.
We had a team of individuals from our county prosecutor’s office visit my school one day and I was asked to videotape their presentation. The team consisted of a county prosecuting attorney, an assistant and a county juvenile corrections officer. The corrections officer did most of the talking and his presentation to the students was along the line of a “Scared Straight” talk or program designed to explain the pitfalls and hazards of gang life and the crime that was associated with gangs. He talked about the horrid living conditions and the difficult everyday monotony of life in the county correctional facility or prison as it were. And he impressed upon the students that should they join a gang then they would someday wind up in prison. It was almost guaranteed he said, and on this point the prosecutor agreed. Join a gang. Go to jail. Sooner or later every gang member gets in trouble with the law and that after all, was the business that they, the county prosecutor’s office, was in…sending people to jail.
Then came the most startling statistic of all, for the corrections officer went on to explain to the students that once you went to prison you would almost assuredly always come back! In fact, he added, and the prosecutor agreed, that fully 80% of all convicted felons would find their way back into jail not long after their release and most of those would eventually stay there.
So once a life of crime was begun, and joining a gang was synonymous with crime in their view, you would be destined to spending most of your life behind bars.
What startled me was how confident they were in their numbers. 80% would return to jail! And I was also startled by how proud they were of that fact, as though it were their badge of honor. Once you check in you don’t check out! They were, I’m sure, intending to scare the students with these boastful statistics but they were scaring me too! They were a “correctional” facility with a success or correction rate of 20%!!! They didn’t correct anybody. Instead with the help of the horrible, dismal, degrading conditions of the jails themselves (which their carefully produced power point presentation was about to show) along with the help of the bullying, profane, institutionalized inmates that a newly arrested juvenile would meet there, (a living example of whom they were also about to introduce) you would be almost guaranteed the beginnings of a cycle of crime and arrest and incarceration for the rest of your life.
These officers and prosecutors of the county correctional facility failed at a rate of 80% and they were practically giddy with the thought of the impact they were having on society, while I was a teacher in a profession where a 25% student dropout rate was being hailed by political leaders as something tantamount to the end of our society as we know it. 75% success stories, 25% failure rate? Dismantle the schools, fire the teachers and run for the hills!
80% failure rate, 20% correction in improved behavior? Hallelujah! Build more prisons. Here comes the answer to our prayers!
And were the students scared? Did they leave the presentation vowing to avoid gangs and a life of crime, forever scared straight? No. They already knew all of this. They had friends and relatives who were experiencing all of this. It was already part of their collective despair and disaffection. They saw that schools were closing or that school budgets were being defeated. Their neighborhoods are crumbling. Was education going to be their way to salvation? As a teacher I knew it was their only salvation and I am sure that the corrections officer and the prosecutors knew it too. But is that where our society is putting its resources? Is it our best bet to be laying our money on the 75% probability of winning with our public schools or with the 20% probability of success with our prison “correctional” system? Putting our money into prisons is a bad bet. We’re going to get more prisoners. Any gambler could tell you that. It’s a mortal lock, a sure thing. We’re drawing to a dead hand.
The lesson to be learned here is that if we want to defeat gangs then we have to invest our money and our resources in poor neighborhoods and communities and in their children and in their schools, not siphon money out of them and into investments that can only lead to more failure and despair and gang members.
Unfortunately that day the visitors from the prosecutor’s office were not scaring the students out of a possible bleak future that might lie ahead for them. They were instead foretelling the bleak and inevitable future that many of my students, mostly of color and “racial” ethnicity, would find waiting for them.
“You don’t fight fire with fire, you fight it with water. You don’t fight hate with more hate. You fight it with love.” And to that I would add… You don’t fight fear by scaring someone. You fight fear by comforting them.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” -Martin Luther King