We cannot discuss the prison industrial complex without talking about race. Throughout our nation’s short history, the two have been tangled disproportionately and for many, juvenile institutions become prep schools for a lifetime behind bars.
When I was locked up in the 90’s, I was the white minority by a landslide. While my black and brown counterparts were getting whisked to juvie for status offenses like skipping school and fighting, I kept being sent home with felony charges pending. After exhausting my second and third chance, I was sent to prison and later when I found out I was being paroled to placement instead of home, my white privilege was an express-pass to skip months of waiting for a bed to open like my peers of color suffered through. I never shook the survivor’s guilt; it’s what inspires me to do the work I do today.
Twenty years later, not much has changed on the prison landscape. Since I started the workshops at Rikers last fall, I’ve had zero white students. Many are serving more time for petty charges and probation violations than Brock Turner, a white college student, served for rape. In fact, 78 percent of returns to prison were not for fresh offenses but because of parole violations.
The NAACP reports that African Americans and Latinos comprise 58 percent of the prison population while representing approximately a quarter of the US population. Our communities do not become safer in a “correctional” system stratified across race. Until we figure out how to dismantle the machine, we must find ways to intervene and trip the cycle.
That’s what our vision is at The Kite. What if we found a way to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline?
A key component of our workshops is exposure. We bring ideas and talk about alternative lifestyles and thanks to community outreach, we’ve garnered hundreds of books of various natures.
We ask our students, “Who are you today and who will you be tomorrow?”
While some identify as criminal or bad, parroting how many adults described them, none say they want to be criminals tomorrow. They want to be musicians, doctors, fashion designers, construction workers—some even want to be writers.
We bring them information about their desired fields and admission details on colleges and trade schools. We also begin our classes with 5-minute bios on notable people from their neighborhoods.
We’re currently creating a calendar for guest speakers to talk about their professions from song writers to construction workers—are you someone who can hold up a mirror for our youth to see their future selves in? If so or if you know someone, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
We’re waiting for departmental approval to publish the latest pieces by our students on Rikers. Until then, we’ll continue posting about my experiences.