The Handwriting on the Wall: A School to Prison Pipeline
Jeffery and his wife Katherine of 23 years have a son Calvin who is attending college.
Jeffery has published short stories in literary journals
such as the San Joaquin Review and Epiphany, earned a master´s degree
in creative writing at California State University, Fresno and last year
published his first novel PIRATE SPIRIT: The Adventures of Anne Bonney.
The novel is a book club selection for CatholicMom.Com. a winner in the
Readers Views Literary Contest is currently being written into a movie
Jeffery S. Williams
California´s Central Valley Prophet of Doom, Seer of Gloom and, well, that´ll do. Abandon all hope ye who fail to read on.
One Sunday afternoon a maniacal urge stirred me to throw on my sackcloth and ashes, don my tattered cloak and slip on my worn sandals. I grabbed my crooked staff and waited for darkness – for my prophetic eyes see better at night. At dusk I emerged out of the smog and fog and climbed Table Mountain (which may be the very centre point of the San Joaquin Valley) and peered into the abyss — but not before I tripped over a cross that bacchanalian revelers had knocked down years ago.
I looked upon the Great Valley, searching for answers to my troublesome questions.
And I saw the answer in the lights.
Isolated from the major urban centers, new complexes shined brilliantly — like beacons of hope?
No. Prisons of Punishment — seven by my count — gleamed near small towns throughout the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley. All built in the past two decades.
With the third eye of my soul, I gazed back on California prison history.
In 1980, the state spent $300 million on its 22,500 prisoners. Twenty-five years later, more than $10 billion is spent on its 32 prisons and 175,000 inmates (1 in 200 citizens) — a prison population that exceeds every country except China and India. Another $7.9 billion is earmarked to make beds for 40,000 more criminals.
Governor Schwarzenegger recently asked for $6 billion more, even as the state budget demands deep cuts in all other categories. All that investment, yet the seventy percent recidivism rate ranked the highest in our nation.
Our rehabilitation system needs rehabilitating.
I raised my eyes and saw that the Central Valley is only a microcosm for the rest of the country – a nation that has a prison population of more than 2.3 million, a figure that far exceeds any other nation in the world. In 1980 the U.S. prison population was less than 400,000. Twenty-five years of burgeoning growth that buckles the prison bars and walls.
So I raised my hoary fists and called down a fiery torrent of brimstone and damnation first upon the Great Valley for letting things reach this tragic state. After I had condemned the Valley, I would wait and watch to see how the rest of the nation would respond.
The cows lowed unhappily. But nothing happened. There must be more, I prophesied.
I turned my soothsaying eyes back to the Great Valley, searching for balance and hope. Nestled in the center of the valley, I spied one new university glowing dully – the only one built in the past two decades.
And if the political trends continue, prison spending will zip past the higher education budget in a couple years.
I called for a scourge of shame to smite us. Still nothing happened.
From my perch, I saw what was crystal clear. An unquestioned correlation between a weakened education system and a growing prison population exists. Nearly 100,000 students drop out of California schools each year. Dropouts are almost 4 times more likely to be incarcerated than high school grads, and 31 times more likely than four-year college grads.
Seventy-five percent of prison inmates are high school dropouts.
The handwriting is on the Wall: a school to prison pipeline is undeniable. No Child Left Behind? We replace the tests and a desk for three hots and a cot.
Our school and prison systems are perfectly suited to create the results they continue to achieve.
On that lonely mountaintop I rubbed my ancient brow and shook my wooly jowls in troubling disgust. I assumed my prophecy of doom and gloom would end predictably: paralyzing hopelessness and searing judgment. So I started to call down pestilential plagues of chastisement, but then a fresh vision broke through:
IF we rebuild the education system and mandate practical, vocational and meaningful learning (not the absurd state exams schools are compelled to give), then the prison pipeline could be severed. Crime rates would fall. Graduation rates would rise. Demand for higher education would escalate. Funding would be redirected, drained from prisons and funneled to schools. I don´t mean just throwing more money at the school system; it needs significant changes. In 2006, it was recorded that the U.S. ranked globally 37 out of 57 in mathematics, 29 out of 57 in science – and because of printing errors on the reading test, no comparison could be made. The laws of irony are strictly enforced in America, even though our education budget exceeds most nations.
But what were those other shining lights illumining the landscape, blurring my vision? Could they be the very harbingers of change I hoped for?
No. Just Indian Casinos — seven by my count — glittered with promises of great winnings and gaming addictions in the Great Valley. All built in the past two decades.
My third eye backpedaled. Since the 1987 Supreme Court decision, 51 Indian Casinos have sprouted in California. While Indian casinos report billions in revenue, the state reports that 1.5 percent of the population now has a gambling addiction (1 in 70 citizens).
Gaming addiction, crime rates and dropouts — all linked.
I tried to block out the lights of the prisons and casinos, and focus on the dimly lit truth: Education, financed properly and performed professionally, can reform an individual, a family, a community, a state.
But the Mountain began to shake with laissez-faire rumblings. The mighty winds of status quo blew hard. My head swirled, I lost my balance and fell like thunder, landing among the weeds and cow pies. The cows lowed happily again.
The Valley had spoken. I limped for home, my voice silenced.
No one was listening. The present course would be stayed.
Besides, I had to wake up early the next morning.
When I am not fiery Jeffaniah, I am Mr. Williams the English teacher
– trying to educate students within a disintegrating system.
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