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A cradle-to-prison pipeline?

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, February 04, 2014    

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A black boy born in the United States in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a Latino boy a one in six chance; and a white boy a one in 17 chance. A black girl born in 2001 has a one in 17 chance of going to prison; a Latino girl a one in 45 chance; and a white girl, one in 111, according to the Children's Defence Fund (CDF). Dismantling this cradle-to-prison pipeline is the fund's main priority, it says.

Educators in urban schools in the Unites States understand the pipeline to be "a trajectory that leads to marginalised lives, imprisonment and often premature death, fuelled by racial disparities, pervasive poverty, inadequate health and mental health care, gaps in early childhood development, disparate educational opportunities, chronic abuse and neglect, and an overburdened and ineffective juvenile justice system."

Mitch Savage, the executive director of the advocacy group, Stand For Children -- Dallas, noted that: "Children born into economically depressed areas... face many, many challenges not faced by students in more affluent regions of our city. Solely by virtue of their parents' zip code, these kids start school already on uneven footing at kindergarten, and it is virtually impossible for them to ever catch up."

Last year, Savage's group researched zip codes with high numbers of residents in Texas prisons. It found that 10 Dallas zip codes accounted for the most inmates. Data for high schools in those zip codes showed that of 3,000 freshmen who entered in 2007, only 26 graduated high school college-ready in 2011.

"The correlation between college-ready graduation rates and likelihood of entering into the penal system is glaringly obvious..." Savage said.

According to the CDF: "The United States of America does not provide a level playing field for all children, and our nation does not value and protect all children's lives equally. Failures of our child serving systems, especially when coupled with race and poverty, increase the likelihood of children entering the pipeline..."

Social conditions in Jamaica's urban communities are worse than in similar communities in the United States. We do not provide a level playing field for all our children, and this is especially evident in the education system. The haphazard early childhood structure, and multiple layers at the secondary level, which sociologist Don Robotham identified as problematic years ago, and the marginalisation of modern high schools perpetuate systemic inequities which have not been adequately addressed, and in some ways are reinforced by the Ministry of Education.

The problem began at conception. Although (or because) they were intended to broaden educational opportunities for the masses, they were created to reflect Jamaica's class structure — never intended to be as good as those institutions the society regards as the domain of the elites, and aspirational for those determined to move up.

The schools came on stream in the 1960s and 1970s. Naturally, they could not compete with institutions that were in existence centuries before. They are also located in rural areas or urban ghettoes, which would have been good if the society did not have such clear lines drawn between uptown and downtown and rural and urban; where uptown and urban are good, and downtown and rural mean something else. The schools were not supposed to be the repository of the five per cent, filtered first by the Common Entrance Examination and now the Grade Six Achievement Test, and in keeping with their place as ugly stepsisters to the old grammar schools. The Ministry of Education underfunded them for decades. In short, the schools began with significant handicaps and not enough has been done to address them, commensurate to what is being demanded of them now.

Many of the schools, like my alma mater, Cross Keys in south Manchester, are doing well. True, they reflect the pervasive social decay in the country. But overall they are playing a transformative role; taking the bottom of the pile that the Ministry of Education hands them each year and turning out many college-ready graduates. Principal Ralph Nelson just launched the Caleb and Barbara Walters Scholarship Fund — well deserved recognition for the first principal and his wife, my English teacher, and the absolute best there was. But the fund is not for attending students. It is to help those who pass their eight or 10 subjects but lack the resources to move on.

It is also true that systems designed to serve our children continue to be a bad joke — like the Child Development Agency, which takes so long to process an adoption application that it is not unlikely that even an infant will age out before it is completed. They sell this gross ineptness as due diligence.

The Education and Crime Study, which caused so much chagrin recently, resembles the Texas study. However, beyond major flaws identified by a group from the University of the West Indies headed by Dr Peta-Ann Baker, is, whereas proponents of the cradle-to-prison pipeline are insistent on the malignant societal structures that contribute to significantly reduced life chances for some, whereas the Texas study seeks to isolate one variable — non-traditional high schools — and establishes a correlation or causal effect without controlling for other variables which contribute to deviant behaviour.

Just as the problem in Texas is not the zip codes, but the conditions within the geographic area represented by the zip code, the problem in Jamaica is not just the schools. Every educator knows that schools are microcosms of the society.

Ultimately, nothing about this study is worth the damage done — reinforcing the negative branding just when the schools are coming into their own.

I am keen on a related hypothesis that, like Commissioner Owen Ellington who attended Glengoffe High School, most of the Jamaica Constabulary Force are graduates of these same schools. I await the data from the Constabulary Communication Network.

Assuming this holds true, we could have a real discussion about what it means when the schools most likely to produce deviants are also the same ones most likely to produce members of the police force.

gvirtue@usa.net

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