I ran into “Stormin” Norman Bailey the other day. The one-time UConn basketball standout (in the 1980s) is a state juvenile detention officer.
Baily, a man of faith and community-minded, and I usually end up chatting about the plight of urban youth. Too many times he sees the unfinished products as they come out of Juvie. As a journalist and urban school educator, I see them before they get to Bailey.
Frankly, it’s not hard to pick out the ones headed for beds in C Block. They are the ones with report cards chock full of F’s. That’s if they choose to attend class at all.
For the most part, we are talking about males. And if you really want to cut to the chase—black males.
A few years ago, the national dropout rate for African American males was 70 percent. Today, the high school graduation rate for black boys is about 50 percent.
The viability of the multibillion-dollar prison industry is sustained by underperforming urban schools. These dropout factories produce a precious prison commodity: uneducated urban boys.
Connecticut spends about $720 million a year on its prison system. The Department of Correction, despite recent downsizing, has historically been one of the fastest-growing line items in the state budget.
The ethnic makeup of Connecticut’s prisons provide fodder for conspiracy theorists. Blacks and Latinos make up about 25 percent of the state’s population, but they represent 75 percent of the inmate population. Also, 75 percent of the inmates come from the large urban centers—Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven.
The state has the widest academic achievement gap in America between white students and their black and Latino peers. In our prisons, 75 percent of the inmates do not have a high school diploma. Some say poverty (or even racism) is the primary reason for these alarming racial disparities. To me, it is about illiteracy. Education—let’s just start with reading—is the great elixir.
It is no urban legend that many for-profit prison systems base their population projections on third- and fourth-grade reading scores. Or, that there are more African American men incarcerated than there are on college campuses. One in three black males, studies show, will spend time in prison.