Childhood in a Cage

By Matthew Chase

graffiti-527830_640The prison-industrial complex consistently fails to address the relevance and meaningful impact of educating people who are incarcerated. U.S. prisons instead opt for a maximum-security, minimum-education approach to the issues of crime and recidivism. And this failure is perhaps worse still as we consider the youth who are also subject to a similar lack of opportunities to learn and succeed. Despite the evidence showing that incarceration does not deter criminal offenses among youth nor address recidivism effectively, and in some cases even raises the risk of incarcerated youth committing more serious crimes, only some recent literature exists telling how education is implemented under the name of juvenile justice.

Williamson et al. provided a critical introduction into how education is framed and provided to youth prisoners. Their work is particularly interesting as they shared experiences and insights with volunteering to teach an English class for youth in prison. They addressed the issues facing their ability to provide a quality classroom experience for incarcerated youth as students. The goal of the experience being to not only strengthen the students’ reading and writing abilities, but to help them critically reflect and engage their lived realities in the system. Students were provided with sociologically oriented writings by Angela Davis, Katherine Beckett and Theodore Sasson, and Howard Bruce Franklin. These readings presented students with the opportunity to discuss with each other the inequalities of the prison-industrial complex, as well as to brainstorm ideas on how they can address these issues critically and proactively. The students became empowered to own the discussions and organize projects.

graffiti-752333_640Several major student projects emerged as a result. The first was the Garden Project, in which incarcerated young women pioneered a small garden at the center where students can reflect and write. The next being the Alcatraz Project, as students created a series of educational displays for tourists at the Alcatraz Prison to learn about their written and audio-recorded narratives. Yet while these students were able to learn in an institutionalized world where their risk of re-offending remains high and still persevere creatively, they nonetheless experienced a lack of support from the prison and legal systems. For example, students gathered research about the destructive impact of post-release housing programs (e.g., group homes) on their progress and their families’ cohesion. They made an appointment to meet with a judge to present their findings, but the judge canceled last minute explaining it would be a conflict of interest.

3424459386_0ff0f1130e_zWe are facing a disconnect between the real need for correctional education and the deliberate indifference of the system to meet this need. It is not that prisoners, even youth prisoners, are unwilling to learn and progress so much as it that prisons are refusing to learn from its failures. We are talking about a system that continues to cultivate a dangerous world for these youth, even after their eventual release from prison. They are instead exposed to fear, violence, and apathy. We might have the help of volunteers to try creating meaningful educational experiences for incarcerated youth, but this is not enough. The state exploits this volunteer labor so that it can continue to underfund correctional education facilities, redeploying our social wealth toward ineffective and inadequate methods of hyperincarceration and crime deterrence. Worse still as we consider how policing and incarceration tactics disproportionately target youth of color, the poor, and young women who are often denied a quality education out in the free world. These youth are entrapped within a vicious cycle of offend and repeat. What does it say about us as a society when incarcerated youth are learning that they have worth as students and even educators, but the state informs that their childhood is better off spent inside a cage?


2 thoughts on “Childhood in a Cage

  1. I spent 11 years in federal prison and your analysis is right on point. I was among the exceptional few who sought higher education through correspondence while in prison. Since my release 7 years ago, I haven’t had problem finding employment, being a law abiding citizen, and moving on from my mistakes I committed as a youth.

    • Thanks Auden for the great comment and for sharing! It is experiences like yours that tell a completely different narrative than the one being told from the state and its prisons.


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