*The following is adapted from an unpublished manuscript.*
The Youth Leadership Academy is located in a remote corner of my Upstate New York county with as much pastoral beauty as any farmland I’ve ever marveled at for its lushness in Italy or France. The terrain is hilly and as the road dips the fog is thick on summer mornings. Tidy rural homes and farms line the approaching road and at 7:20 AM in early July there are already men out working on their home construction projects and car repairs. People don’t live close together here, preferring their privacy and quiet. Entering the grounds of the facility, a fifty-foot-tall alpine tower standing in the field to the left captures the driver’s attention. It’s a remnant of the days when the facility was run as a military-style boot camp and was used to overcome fear and promote problem solving and self-confidence among the incarcerated youth there. Now the tower is mostly used for weekend programming. It looks like a giant teepee frame festooned with hanging ropes, nets, trapezes, suspended rings and tiny platforms. The object is to climb to the very top platform and requires considerable upper body strength and physical dexterity and courage. One afternoon when school is cancelled for staff training I’ll get the chance to watch a few boys climb. They don red helmets and lock into harnesses manned by high ropes trained staff and climb the impossibly difficult tower one at a time, the boys and staff on the ground shout encouragement and advice to secure success for the climber.
To enter the school grounds you approach the thick, brushed aluminum gate and look through heavy gauge wire mesh to the Central Service Unit (CSU) that serves as the tactical heart of the facility. After pressing the silver intercom button a perfunctory voice crackles,
‘Welcome to the YLA. State your name and the purpose of your visit.’
Then, ‘Is your vehicle secure?’
Then, ‘Do you have any weapons, cell phones or other contraband?’
It’s the same routine every time you enter, even though the staff in the CSU can see you perfectly well through the mirrored glass windows.
After giving the appropriate answers, a thunderous buzz is followed immediately by a sharp metallic ‘kachunk’ as the lock releases and signals you to pull the heavy door open. I vow to myself that I will practice non-reactivity until I can get through this process without visibly startling. In the CSU you sign in, go through a metal detector, get wanded if it buzzes, give up your car keys in exchange for facility keys, and have your clear plastic lunch bags examined. I will go through this routine every weekday for the six weeks of summer school social studies and art I will teach here in July and August 2015.
The Youth Leadership Academy, or YLA, as it colloquially known, is a facility under the Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth, both names heavy with irony. The YLA serves up to twenty-five males, between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, who have been placed in detention after being adjudicated by NYS Family Courts as juvenile delinquents. Youth are placed according to their crimes and the level of danger they are determined to pose to themselves and their communities by the courts. Most of the boys come from the five boroughs of New York City, but a few come from Poughkeepsie (‘PK’), Utica, (‘Shootica’), or Long Island.
I have four groups, membership in each nominally determined by age and grade level, but frequent reassignments are made in response to fights, complaints, etc… so they are mixed. During school the two housing units are combined. I teach four social studies classes in a row, then lunch, followed by a class called Group then two art classes, one with the youngest kids and one with the oldest, and finally two planning periods.
By 10:15 on my first day I had taught three full classes, the first was reasonably successful, the students opting to go along for the ride, but the second was complete chaos. Three disgruntled looking staff banged into the room with a group of five students, and one, a short skinny white guy named Wellman, with a grizzled beard and a smoker’s wheeze seemed to be instigating a fight with a boy named Kalil and actually started a shoving match with him. Kalil is small and slim with wiry muscles; he is very dark with furtive eyes that signal deep distrust. His hair is short so that you can see a long pale scar that stretches over his left ear. The two of them, Wellman and Kalil, were butting chests and yelling unintelligibly in each other’s faces. The other staff and students all seemed to be shouting, getting up and pacing around the room, scraping desks to move them to new locations on the margins of the room, turning on the Smartboard, or pounding a fist on the door to the outside. The sound bounced off the empty walls and the volume was almost unbearable. A newly arrived boy named Banks, a big stocky fifteen year old who could be taken for white, was barking as he paced back and forth, “I do what I want nigga. Ain’t nobody in charge of me nigga. Don‘t talk to me cause I’ll violate if I need to nigga.”
The boys wear red polo shirts with white t-shirts underneath, tan khakis and black Velcro high-tops. Most have tattoos and they express themselves through their hairstyles. A barber comes periodically and these visits are a topic of endless discussion. Like most teenaged boys I’ve known they think about their hair a great deal. Unlike other boys I’ve known, barbering becomes a catalyst for resistance. A number of boys want to train ‘waves’ into their buzzed hair, which requires constant brushing with small rectangular brushes that to my untrained eye look like shoe brushes. With persistence their hair will grow out to produce handsome concentric circles that look like ripples in the sand at low tide. Several of the boys are constantly taking them out of their pockets and running over their heads from crown to forehead and nape. Brushes, however, are contraband because it’s a short trip from personal care item to a weapon in a knotted sock.
The boys are keen on every nuance of every rule, they know that a staff person can’t look at or touch their crotches so they stuff the brushes into the front of their pants. For a couple of kids the brush becomes an absolute line in the sand with regard to their personal dignity. One student, Future, would rather suffer any punishment than give up his brush. Periodically some staff or teacher tries to enforce the no brush rule with him and he angrily resists. The staff eventually drops the demand and Future is written up for non-compliance but he always keeps his brush.
The zero tolerance policies that started many boys on their road to incarceration seemed to be incredibly fluid here. Though teachers, administrators, case workers and judges held these boys to inflexible standards while overseeing their transition from child to inmate, the rules at the facility seemed to always be shifting. Zero tolerance policies were implemented in the 1980’s in tandem with tough on crime policies associated with the so-called war on drugs. These policies were implemented in reaction to perceived, though not actual, rises in school violence (Skiba and Losen, p. 5) and were promoted as a way to standardize the meting out of punishment as well as to protect students from being distracted by poorly behaving or dangerous peers. It might sound sensible for the most egregious offenses involving guns, gangs, and drugs, but they were also applied to less serious rule breaking such as smoking, school disruption, and dress code violations. Out of school suspension came to be the go to punishment and the number of students who were excluded from school skyrocketed. Unfortunately, out-of-school suspension and expulsion have fallen much more heavily on historically disadvantaged groups and has resulted in what has come to be known as the discipline gap.
School exclusion has ramifications far beyond an individual disciplinary incident. Students who are suspended are much more likely to drop out and suspension actually seems to accelerate the process of alienation from school and pushes them toward deviant peers, particularly when poor parental supervision is an issue (Skiba and Peterson, 1999). School exclusion becomes a mechanism by which schools can rid themselves of the so-called ‘trouble makers’. Once a young person begins differentiating himself from his more conventional peers, it is often just a matter of time before he becomes alienated from school altogether.
In response to a fight between boys in the two housing units, the center director dictates that student groups, who move from place to place like little platoons, must be prevented immediately from encountering each other in the hallways, grounds, or classrooms during the school day.
My impression is that while there is a pretense of rigid order, the parts and pieces of the facility’s machinery are all in a constant state of flux in reaction to moment-by-moment events. Decisions are made and systems are put in place without serious consideration for the repercussions. It’s amazing how often staff say that the kids thrive on order and predictability, but then constantly create situations of disorder and unpredictability for them.
At lunch, I come in on a loud argument in the Education office between the school director and the Official on Duty for the day, who were tasked with coming up with an actionable solution to hallway fights for the following day. It was amazing how often, simple discussions devolve into shouting matches between people who work here. In the end they devise a scheme whereby groups will move consecutively, each waiting until the previous group is secured, as they transition through the nine periods of the school day. The goal of avoiding fights in the hallway had been achieved but it means that classes often don’t get started until fifteen or twenty minutes later than scheduled.
There is a powerfully dynamic struggle for power between the staff and students around movement. And the movement has a performative aspect. Students regularly beg, demand, and cajole staff to get them out of the classroom. Any movement must be accompanied by radioed permission from the CSU which has multiple screens showing the rooms, hallways, and grounds. Most of the chatter on the radio is announcing or asking to take a student somewhere – to their room, to medical, to their on-campus jobs, or to see Mr. so-and-so. They can’t go anywhere alone, ever, and everyone knows who’s going where with whom. There’s a daily struggle around getting out of the room, whichever room, to go someplace else, at least partly because it means that the staff have to accommodate the students’ demands. When they get out, they win a small battle.
Besides my sister’s tales of visiting a prisoner at the MCI Framingham women’s correctional facility near Boston, MA, my exposure to the criminal justice system has been mostly through articles I’d read in the Atlantic Monthly or New Yorker magazines, generally muckraking expositions on its social, economic, and historical features. At one point during the summer, one of the boys, Michael, asked me,
“Ms. Bloom, do you know anybody in prison?”
And I had to reply, knowing full well that my privilege conferred this good fortune on me,
“No, Mike, I’ve never known anyone in prison.”
He looked at me with a wondering smile and a shake of his head and said,
“Damn, you people is so sheltered.”
I was confronted many times during the summer by what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls The Dream that I, as a middle class white person inhabit. He sees where I come from as a Disneyfied version of reality and I think the students I teach here would surely agree.
Elizabeth Bloom is a teacher educator at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. She is a life-long social justice activist, writer, gardener, and world traveler. Elizabeth lives in upstate NY with her firefighter husband Jim, artist daughter Fiona, cats, dogs, and chickens.