By HEATHER HERMAN
Often when I return from a night teaching at Auburn Correctional Facility, I’m caught raving about my students for their intelligence, wit and insightful comments. This semester, I’m a TA for an English class through CPEP (Cornell Prison Education Program).
My adrenaline-fueled excitement near midnight upon returning is generally countered by my parents scoffing over the phone, or friends rolling their eyes and commenting, “Oh yeah? What crime did this one commit?”
This one’s a murderer. That one’s in for armed burglary. Another one was sentenced for illicit drug use.
“These are bad people,” my parents remind me.
What makes an individual good or bad? One of my former students, detained with a life sentence for armed burglary, is one of the most brilliant individuals I have ever met. Charismatic, intelligent and now socially driven, he has started several organizations behind prison walls including a theatre group, a poetry group, a lifer’s organization and he also helps facilitate a program to bring youth into Auburn to show them “what happens if you don’t get your shit together.”
Crime mandates judicial retribution, and I do not want to be mistaken for pardoning individuals’ crimes or making light of crime. Auburn is a maximum-security state prison, and violent crimes demand serious penal action. I see these inmates only for the brief, most positive snapshots of their time in Auburn, comforted by the protection of classroom walls. I don’t deny many might often be putting on a facade – trying to impress us, the civilians, with their intelligence and mild-mannered demeanors, treasuring their highly coveted spots in a prestigious program.
But some things said in that classroom ring with undeniable truth. The brief glimpses we receive into their pasts through class discussion reveal many similar upbringings with context ripe for criminal activity. Many were raised by single parents or parents previously convicted in a home with drug addicts and in close proximity to gang activity. Several have remarked that the only way to stay safe and survive housing projects is to join a gang for protection since they target outsiders. And poverty is nearly always an influential factor.
On the cycle of poverty and crime, a former student noted the history of male role models in his life. His great-grandfather was a slave, his grandfather was a slave, his father served time in prison, he himself served time in prison and recently, his son served time in prison. This is the same charismatic student mentioned above, who regrets not having the opportunity to exert a more positive influence on his son’s life. Now, however, his son is breaking the cycle – he is the first in his family to attend university.
One could argue that these individuals have failed society by handling their problems with crime. On the other hand, one could argue that society has failed these individuals initially as children. In his book Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, Jonathan Kozol explores the poorest urban neighborhood of the South Bronx, illustrating over-packed schools, ill-equipped hospitals, dangerously unsanitary housing projects and an overall theme of depression, drug-use, violence and disease. At one point, Kozol meets with a pastor who explains that one specific children’s park is where “volunteers arrive … to give out condoms and clean needles to addicted men and women, some of whom bring their children … [who] play on a jungle gym while their mother wait for needles.” Although Kozol’s examples seem melodramatic, they depict the gruesome reality of these children’s upbringing: persistently negative exposure, lack of strong educational funding and inconsistent government support provide an environment from birth that is highly conducive to crime.
We’re beginning to see some change. Prison sentencing reform has entered political discussion to reduce sentence for illegal drug use. Ever since the War on Drugs, incarceration rates have been disproportionately high for African Americans hailing from inner cities where drug use is concentrated. Although many dispute the charges that the penal system is discriminatory, Michelle Alexander highlights in her novel, The New Jim Crow, a most forthright example: the disproportionate sentencing for cocaine and crack cocaine. The former, a popular drug among the wealthy, faces lower charges than crack users, much more commonly found in poorer communities. And once labeled a convict, regardless of whether it was a one-time use, housing and employment opportunities become sparse and the cycle of poverty and crime perpetuates.
Beyond sentence reform, we need to evaluate the roots of criminal activity: poverty, insecure housing and inadequately funded education. What should society expect with over “3,000 homeless families dumped in this neighborhood … clumping so many people, all with the same symptoms and same problems, in one crowded place with nothing they can grow on”? As a child like Cliffie, the one who guides Kozol around a few streets of Southern Bronx, growing up next to a medical waste incinerator “burning bodies, amputated limbs, and fetal tissue,” and witnessing murder without police response, how could society expect him to establish a firm grasp of what is violent or criminal?
Again, Kozol’s examples highlight the darkest possibilities, “the deadliest blocks in the deadliest precinct” of New York City. While many cases don’t bear nearly the same morbidity, as I listen to my students’ pasts, I am reminded of much of what Kozol says about society failing the children who grow up in these neighborhoods. Born into an aura of desperation, they face a much more difficult pursuit toward success as adults.
Instead of fueling all our energy toward hating criminals, maybe we should invest more effort in saving children before they become criminals.
Heather Herman is a senior in the college of Human Ecology majoring in Human Biology, Health and Society. She’s a self-proclaimed animal whisperer and can often be found scooping up after the puppies in Guiding Eyes for the Blind. She also enjoys volunteering at a maximum-security prison and wants to live in South America after she graduates. Heather’s posts appear on alternate Thursdays this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.