Jail is the New Welfare: Education in a Culture of Mass Incarceration

When Ta-Nehisi Coates says that, at a cost of “$80 billion a year, American correctional facilities are a social-service program—providing health care, meals, and shelter for a whole class of people…” he isn’t exaggerating. The increase in funding for police, courts, jails, prisons, halfway houses, and parole offices is directly connected to the way in which America has systematically cut welfare and educational opportunities for the poorest among us.

The phenomenon of mass incarceration has, in many ways, replaced the traditional welfare system. The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

When he was Assistant District Attorney in the Juvenile Division of Suffolk County, Adam Foss became a leading voice for compassion in criminal justice. He urges people to understand that prosecutors are not only instruments to doll out punishment and imprisonment but, rather, have a unique opportunity to intervene in offender’s lives.

Foss co-founded the Roxbury CHOICE Program, a collaborative effort between defendants, the court, the probation department, and the D.A. to radically disrupt the idea of probation. They see it as an opportunity for transformation rather than a banishment from civil society. Foss is also the founder of the SCDAO Reading Program, a project designed to bridge the literacy achievement gap that hinders poor elementary school students and students of color.

In the interview that follows, Foss challenges educators to make an early push for childhood literacy, to directly mentor at-risk youth, to help them cultivate a sense of self-respect, and to radically disrupt the system that keeps so many black and brown kids in perpetual bondage.

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What is the relationship between poverty and early interactions with the criminal justice system?

The lack of access to basic human necessities like food, healthcare, and education funnels people right into the criminal justice system. In Massachusetts they just did a study of 1000 kids incarcerated in the department of human services. 75% of them had some contact with child welfare services between the ages of zero to three. On average, incarcerated kids have three contacts with the child welfare system between the ages of zero to three.

So the child welfare system is something like an extension of the criminal justice system?

Think of it as a farm league. Sitting in the courtroom as the Assistant District Attorney I’ll be on the criminal side and I can actually see the child welfare cases happen in the courtroom. These are kids I’ll see again later in criminal court. It almost feels like I’m a pro scout waiting for the next kid to come up to the big leagues.

What is the connection between the early childhood learning and mass incarceration?

They call it the “thirty million word gap”. What this means is that if kids aren’t hearing words or experiencing words at an early age they’re pretty much marked for failure right from the get-go. And this make sense with what we know about brain development. In my county I started a reading program to combat that very thing. Just reading to kids in those early ages can make a world of difference.

What is the relationship between illiteracy and incarceration?

It starts in young people when you get disengagement in schools–kids manifest their difficulty in school in different ways— so then you’re talking about school discipline policies because of ‘zero-tolerance policies’ where kids are getting suspended, getting expelled, so they go to the street and starting hang out with other kids who are also disengaged from school, committing crime, touching the criminal justice system, and at that point they’re locked in.

So it’s a vicious cycle: removing those who are disruptive in a classroom puts them into an even higher risk situation.

Yes, you’re saying: “you’re not our problem anymore. You’re someone else’s problem.” They become my problem. They become the problem of the justice system. They enter our system having never achieved any level of literacy so when they are released and they go to get a job they are not employable and when you’re not employed you commit crime.

What is importance of literacy in disenfranchised communities?

There is no amount of money, no amount of time or effort that excuses not making sure all of our kids are reading at a level that is age-appropriate for everyone. Honestly, if every person, on their way to work, just stopped into a classroom or a literacy program and read a book, imagine the impact that that could have

 Where is the critical place we should be investing to prevent high rates of incarceration and criminal activity? Where is the most effective place to allocate resources to stop the cycle?

From ages zero to five. Early, early years. And then again in adolescence. Call it twelve to twenty-five. I pick those two cohorts because brain science says those are the opportunities when the brain is growing, the most malleable, to learn to make better decisions. Imagine you’re struggling to learn Spanish at age twenty-five versus a child at age five years old speaking fluent Spanish because that’s when brains are ready to develop new abilities.

What is the importance of mentorship in preventing mass incarceration?

Being told that you’re an idiot or that you suck or that you aren’t achieving manifests itself directly in behavior that we’ve criminalized. If we can remind every kid—regardless of their difficulty in school, in the streets—that they are worth something, that they are worth my time, a laugh, a hug (whatever it is) that will supplant they need to go out and find the kind of validation that leads kids to eventually end up in gangs.

So an institutionalized lack of self-respect—the fact that we don’t tell every kid that they are worth something—directly contributes to the phenomenon of mass incarceration?

Yes, they don’t have respect for themselves. They see their peers treated the same way so they don’t have respect for their peers. They’ve generated a twisted definition of respect: if I’ve stepped on your shoe I’ve disrespected you. Any bodily slight has to be responded to in kind.

Lack of self-respect produces a kind of street respect?

Yes, it’s a maladapted response to conflict. And just furthers the cycle of violence.

How does mass incarceration effect the schools and homes of impoverished communities?

First, there’s just the absence of adults in kids’ lives. We’re taking fathers, mothers, cousins, grandparents and putting them in jail; so, these kids don’t have a solid foundation in the home. When people come out of prison they’ve gone through trauma and what they’ve learned is maladapted responses in dealing with violence and conflict. They have maladapted responses in how they deal with their own feelings; having a tough veneer and reacting with conflict and violence are very adaptive responses in prison but are completely counterproductive when you’re back in the street and trying to get a job. So they go back to their communities, they teach these maladaptive behaviors, and that’s how kids learn a lot of this stuff.

How would a change in education effect the rate of incarceration in certain communities?

The criminal justice system is a lot like the education system in that it was invented a long time ago by a bunch of white guys. They did so without any real analysis of whether or not they were achieving any goal worth pursuing. We teach to a test. There’s nothing that says we should be teaching kids this way. So we really need to learn to take risks, blow up the education system, and listen to other disciplines about the best way to teach and kids.

We need to ask ourselves: is the way we currently structure education really the best way of achieving our goals? If not, we’ve got to figure something else out. We have to do something different because what we’re doing now is not working.

For more information check out Adam Foss’ TED Talk  on criminal justice reform.

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