By Matthew Chase

social justice_0To conclude this miniseries on correctional education, I thought to change things up a bit and go outside the prison walls, and reenter the free world. We have been discussing a great deal about the serious disparities in the prison education system, the lack of judicial intervention to address these issues, and seeing instead a pattern of silencing and censorship. These issues speak to the real need to dismantle the prison-industrial complex and reconsider how we address the problem of crime and punishment. But the question emerges as to where exactly do we begin. As Erin McClosky‘s research might suggest, perhaps we can intervene as early as preschool. Her experiences teaching a preschool-age writing group provides very interesting insights into how our youth, whose voices are mostly left absent in the conversation, come to see crime and prison in their everyday lives.

 It all started by accident, when two young boys wrote and drew picture books portraying another classmate inside a jail. McClosky expressed her discomfort with handling the situation, unprepared for the conversation, as the other children grew interested in the books and remarked on them. The popular conceptualization among the children being that jail was a place for “bad” people, where the “good” police officers put them. The teachers and parents of the school became concerned as the kids would often bring these discussions back home. The adults pushed for censorship, informing McClosky that she needed to stop the kids from discussing jail further. She tried to do so, until one of the girls in the program spoke up. The girl, Mila, spoke to how her own mother had been incarcerated. The following is the transcript of the conversation between the girl (Mila) and the two boys (Bill and Danny) who wrote the picture books.

Bill: I am going to be a policeman… And I am going to put people in jail, just like the game [that they played on the playground]

Mila: That’s not funny because my mom went in jail and that reminds me of-

Bill: Why did she go to jail?

Mila: She did go in jail once because she was fighting for justice and they had to break up the row and the police put her in jail.

Bill: What?

Mila: They put my mom in jail.

Bill: Why?

Mila: Because she broke the row and she was fighting for justice.

Bridget (one of Mila’s classmates): They can put them in jail?

McClosky: Sometimes. People can be in jail for all different kinds of reasons. Sometimes it is fighting for justice, right?

Mila: Uh huh, right, but not forever.

McClosky: No, I bet your mom wasn’t in jail for long.

Mila: Now she’s out.

Danny: Your momma was in jail? Mila, who took care of you?

Mila: I wasn’t born yet so, I wasn’t born so no one took care of me. I was in my mom’s tummy. Some people think that the baby is in some people’s tummy but it’s really in their uterus.

sjs_logoIt is here that we see a remarkable shift in the children’s thinking, as the boys who wrote the picture books began portraying jails as housing people who were “fighting for justice.” I thought it was incredibly powerful to see these kids being able to apply themselves critically to topics we normally consider too mature for them to understand. It offers hope to the idea that youth should not be silenced when it comes to having conversations about jail and the prison industrial complex. Even more important since these youth are far from immune to the consequences of incarceration. There are adults who feel uncomfortable with such conversations, educators and parents alike. It’s understandable as who wouldn’t want to shield a child from the grim reality of prison?

Yet at the same time, it does not really help anyone in the long run. We will not be able to discuss with our children the media representations of crime and prison that they consume in their Saturday morning cartoons, on the Internet, and in the books they read. We will not be able to help children like Mila examine the contradiction of her mother being sent to a place where “only bad people go” even though she had been fighting for justice. We will not be able to fully reconcile with our children that the police and the courts are supposed to be good, and yet struggle with the idea that they can be criminals too. In the end, we will not be able to address the problem that perhaps the world isn’t as free we would like it to be, that there is more work to be done.

Children might be considered too immature or innocent to discuss the reality, yet the judicial system sees no problem sentencing youth to that very fate. As with any conversation, however, these conversations must be treated mindfully so as not to incite fear or prejudice but rather as opportunities for preemptive social justice. And as opportunities, they shouldn’t be forced either, and instead remain an open and inquisitive dialogue between adult and child. How can we expect the next generations to grow up to be free-thinking citizens when we are so ready to censor them as children? We need to educate our children that fighting for justice is a right, not a crime.ACT

Prison education isn’t just locked up in a cell. It reaches out to all of us, in our schools and in our homes. It is up to each of us to practice the freedom that we want our children to inherit. We need that open dialogue so we might finally come to terms with the well-researched fact that more classrooms, not prison cells, serve the greater public good. Perhaps then we can create a world that doesn’t need prisons to make us feel more free.