I am auditing a law school class on Juvenile justice and Special Education– and the link between them. Special Education issues were prominently at the edges of the job I’ve just been laid off from (if you know what I mean by prominently at the edges) which was doing advocacy for adults with developmental disabilities. When I was laid off, a friend/colleague of mine who teaches and runs a clinical program supervising law students to provide representation on these issues, offered me the opportunity to audit his class. I jumped at the chance, because so much of what captures my mind and heart has to do with the circumstances of young people– all young people.
On the Tuesday, before my Bat Mitzvah, an overcast but beautiful fall day, I drove to our jurisdiction’s jail and met a small group of my fellow law school class members and my three professors for a tour of the facility that houses young people and a tour of their inside-the-jail school.
This will not be a long essay on any aspect these subjects. But there is a link that no one can miss between racism and incarceration in the U.S. This is true for adults who are incarcerated and true for youth who are incarcerated. Among youth who are, in some form or another, incarcerated– there is a connection between unmet special education needs and incarceration. Although it only takes a certain kind of exposure to know these things in a common sense sort of way, there is quite a bit of research and academic study demonstrating these connections.
Here where I live, like in all of America, a greatly disproportionate number of young people of color– young black people– are incarcerated. Of these young people, many have previously unmet or undiagnosed needs for special education. How to get the school system and jail to provide the appropriate, legally mandated education to these young people who, hopefully will make it out of these systems is, in part, the subject of the law school course.
I have spent time, not as an inmate, but as a lawyer, inside the jail before, though it has been a very long time since I did. When you tour a jail you never really know whether you will be touring parts of a facility that are empty of people at the time (generally the preference of prison administrators) or otherwise.
When our small group finally made our way in (“getting processed” always takes forever– the showing of i.d., signing in, etc.) we were met by nearly as many jail personnel as there were among us who had come for the tour. Literally. We walked a hallway, took an elevator and then entered the day room where the young men who are incarcerated there– 37 of them was the count on that day– were hanging out finishing their lunches and talking, playing cards and ping-pong.
I sucked my breath in and looked around– looked at these young men– boys really– the age of my older nephew. The young men on this unit are 16–18 years old. All in the unmistakable orange jumpsuits of our jail system here, all with white standard issue slip-on sneaker-style shoes. All young black men except for two or maybe three. Some of them truly beautiful young men.
On the outside, in the phone book and for professionals they do not actually call this jail– it has a fancier name with the word “treatment” in it, because as a result of some of the litigation my colleague/ professor friend and others have done, things are better than they used to be, and there is a greater focus on rehabilitation for these young people and a lesser focus on punishment. I don’t know what the young men who live there call it.
I do not make light of the things that have landed them where they are. The things they have done or are alleged to have done; armed robberies, armed car-jacking, murder, other violence– are things that I too would be terrified and would never want to be on the wrong end of. (Well on any end of, actually.) I also know enough about some of the individuals there (because they are clients of the legal clinic) to know that for most, there is a story that would break your heart, of the things that have happened to them in their lives prior to landing where they are now. Things that no one could ever argue were their responsibility or doing.
As I said hello to one or two, my thought was, “you should be home, home with your mama, going to school, trying out things that interest you, shooting hoops, hanging with your friends.” I could see them as boys, just boys. Boys just the age a boy would be if I had had a son at the very beginning of the time I started trying to become a parent.
The noise on the unit was mindbending. Cinderblock and no carpet, no upholstery, nothing soft or cloth coupled with so many noisy, talking, laughing boys, and the wide, wide open, easy to observe spaces of a day room in a jail. The noise just bounces off the walls and seems to reverberate indefinitely. And it was hot and stuffy. They were lovely to watch. I have been, as I said, around other prison populations before but despite the horrible circumstances, and different from adult populations, the room had the feel of many rooms full of young people– alive and even hopeful in the way young people are. Playing, kidding, smiling big smiles, laughing and talking.
I was touched by them, heartbroken, and liked them all at once. I could see in many of their faces, the faces of other boys I know and love. And since I am on a quest to figure out something about what kind of work would fill my heart– I wondered– would I like to be a teacher in the schools these boys attend before they are in prison? Would I like to actually be one of their classroom teachers in the jail? A social worker listening to their stories? A lawyer, litigating their special education claims?
Although I was touched while I was there, I was also very glad to walk out the door onto the relative quiet of the street and the movement of air. I hope each of them gets that chance too. I hope for each of them that they can walk out into the same beautiful world we all live in, unbroken. And soon.