Carceral Educations

Re-entry programs can’t fix the problems of the systems they replicate.

For two years, I commuted to a ground-level room in a building in the Bronx a few days a week to teach GED preparation courses. My students were 17-to 24-year-olds with some sort of criminal record. We used to make jokes about the mice running across the ceiling tiles above us to lighten the mood. But we were hidden under an apartment building. I was teaching and my students were learning in a shithole. The clouded windows were covered by cracked venetian blinds and there was a poster on the wall with a handsome young man holding a baby that read, “Today’s a good day to be a dad.”

I taught in one of the many social-service organizations known in the nonprofit industrial complex as “re-­entry.” Re-entry’s primary goal is to induct people back into the workforce once they are released from prison or are mired in the bureaucracy of one of the state’s “community supervision” programs, which include jails, probation, parole, or ATIs (alternatives to incarceration). In practical terms, re-entry provides “services,” broadly construed, to economically disenfranchised people who are targeted by the police and as a result are under some form of surveillance by the carceral network.

Re-entry services can range from drug-rehab programs to anger-management classes. The most widely implemented programs for younger adults assist participants in getting a job to prevent recidivism. This was the program that I worked on. In the nonprofit world, employment is regarded as the solution to the fabricated crimes of belonging to a surplus population: loitering, vagrancy, graffiti—the reasons the state gives for its seizure of youth who are criminalized by birth. Other goals include helping the young people find affordable housing despite the paucity of available options and accessing social services like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and other government benefits.

During their six months in the program, participants pursue educational goals while working and receiving a weekly subsidized paycheck. They also receive work-­related training that is intended to make them more employable, but there isn’t much training dedicated to any particular skill. One consisted of teaching participants how to remove latex gloves after handling toxic waste.

I was assigned the task of creating a “job readiness” curriculum for my 17-to-24-year-old students, something I found disingenuous because I have never felt ready for a job myself. Mostly, I had to prepare my students for the drudgery of underpaid labor in entry-level positions. The curriculum’s goal was to teach students to get and hold a job. I planned lessons to cover “soft skills,” teaching etiquette that includes a gendered framework for behaving during interviews or while you stock inventory overnight in large chain stores. Soft skills—unlike specialized “hard skills” to be applied in a profession—refers to the behavior modifications necessary for a person to succeed in selling their low-wage labor, the projected horizon of these students. Students received checklists with such interview tips as “no sagging pants,” “no low-cut shirts,” and “turn your cell phone off.”

The first stage in the six-month program is devoted to “community benefits.” For three months during this stage, the participants form a team and perform maintenance on a building in the neighborhood of the re-entry organization. They revitalize the space by re-tiling the floor, painting the walls, or caulking up its holes. The principle behind “community benefits” casts the problem of their criminalization in terms of personal responsibility: These youth have failed their community by committing a crime and must therefore make it up to their community.

The final three months of the program are dedicated to individual “internships” at local businesses. Employers don’t have to pay their interns while foundation, state money and other grants subsidize the participants’ labor, ensuring the employers’ complete control over their “interns.” The internships consist of the menial labor typical of entry-level jobs. Participants were especially vulnerable to their employers’ exploitation during this period because the participants’ success in the program required they successfully complete the internship. Like interns everywhere, participants often expressed that they felt taken advantage of. My students provided free labor for the entry-level low-paid jobs that we were training them for, which they might not even be lucky enough to land once they’re done with the program because of the stigma of their record.

Re-entry programs aim to prevent recidivism despite the insurmountable bureaucracy of extra-penal surveillance that lands someone back in jail for technical violations, often as arbitrary as being arrested for not carrying an ID. The emphasis on “workforce development” as a solution to the crime of belonging to a population that suffered from widespread unemployment even before the recession is a type of victim-blaming sleight of hand, because the work that individuals within this “workforce” are trained for no longer exist or remain scarce in a postindustrial society. More troublesome is the fact that these few jobs remain off limits to people who must check a job application’s felony box, which has the same effect as a giant, flaming red A on their chest. Copious research shows that even black men without a criminal record are employed at a lower rate than white men with one.

Re-entry programs are not an example of the state’s generosity, let alone a revolutionary concept in a society that has 2.3 million people locked up and a further 5.1 million people under the form of surveillance called “community supervision.” The U.S. Department of Education published a guide in 2012 on educational models in re-entry programs entitled “A Re-entry Education Model Supporting Education and Career Advancement For Low-Skill Individuals in Corrections.” The guide portrays the problem of re-entry in this question and answer:

How can we solve the re-entry challenge and ensure that incarcerated individuals and those under community supervision become productive members of society? Although there is no one answer, a growing body of evidence shows that providing offenders with education and training increases their employment opportunities, addresses their cognitive deficits, and helps reduce their likelihood of recidivating.

The challenge of re-entry, framed as an individual’s problem that requires an individual solution obscures the aggressive police practices and educational structures that have produced unemployment among those targeted for violent passage through the criminal-justice system. The depiction of incarceration, “cognitive deficits,” and unemployment as an individual problem reduces criminalized people and their educational opportunity to a market-based logic that denies the reality of structural racism. By focusing on re-entry to the job market as a solution, nonprofits and the Department of Education promote low-wage labor and remedial education as a way to reject the need to reform racist institutions because of their racism.

The framework of remedial-style learning, which guides re-entry education for “low skill” learners, maintains the inadequate and numbing conditions of teaching and learning that occur in the schools that had already failed the people in these programs. Regardless of effective and well-intentioned teachers, re-entry education, like schools in economically disenfranchised neighborhoods, are designed to continue the coercive disciplinary technology of the carceral network its students are supposed to learn how to escape or transcend. Schools, like prison and re-entry programs, seek to prevent their students’ self-determination and cement their place within a politically and economically disenfranchised underclass.

Education in the United States has always functioned as an institution transparently premised on the idea that a person’s education justifies and can perpetuate class divisions. In racially and economically segregated areas it serves as a violent structure that measures and codifies humans the way cattle are counted in beef farming. Respect for authority and deference to police dominate the educational goals of this violent educational system that measures success through standardized testing and student interactions with an omnipresent security apparatus. For the program I taught, we were told that we had to keep the participants’ schedules full so they had “no down time” and therefore no time to get into trouble or have run-ins with the police.

The rhetoric of re-entry relies heavily on the enforcement of masculinity and the prevention of “idleness.” When youth are free to do as they please, it’s assumed they will commit crimes. Indolence and idleness, the fantasized infractions that brought punishment on young black men and women during slavery and Jim Crow, are the same behaviors that re-entry considers to drive the crimes of youth today.

In order to “reform” and teach participants to become men, the program where I taught had a strict code of conduct with arbitrary rules that begin to disappear the higher up you climb up the income ladder. We regulated behavior on the principle described by Foucault and practiced by Bratton: “The least act of disobedience is punished and the best way of avoiding serious offenses is to punish the most minor offenses very severely.” If a participant came 15 minutes late to class or to a worksite, they were sent home without a paycheck. Instead of fulfilling the primary function of teacher, which is to educate, or case manager, which is to help connect people to social services, we became what Foucault called “technicians of behavior: engineers of conduct, orthopedists of individuality. [Our] task was to produce bodies that were both docile and capable.” We were training students to become capable employees, emphasizing “skills” such as lowering your cell phone ring in public or avoiding certain tattoos. We were training them to become employable by teaching them to follow the orders they would be subjected to as “low-skill” and low-wage workers.

Within extra-penal zones such as urban public schools and alternative-education programs, any misconduct is equated with criminal behavior and invites the same consequences. Many teachers in segregated urban public schools despise their students for talking too much in class, failing to raise their hand, putting their head down during a lesson, coming to class without a pencil, chewing gum or for demonstrating the typical obstinance of American teens in every community. At one public high school where I taught English literature, students had no lockers and were given only three minutes to move to their next class in a four-story building. The school’s rationale was that they had to curb the opportunity for fights among students. Students were constantly silenced as they moved through the hallway to their next class and prodded to keep moving by hall monitors with long poles.

Schools serve as one of the essential institutions of surveillance intended to criminalize children in economically disenfranchised communities. They can be miserable places for young students, who are gratuitously yelled at by teachers for not getting to the classroom rug fast enough for reading instruction, or for not “tracking” (a term that means follow with your eyes) their teachers when spoken to. Hallways are unnaturally silent and filled with ­military-style straight lines of small children forced to keep their arms rigid against their sides. Rather than academic discipline, obsession over students’ conduct forms the dominant attitude that controls these learning environments, which are often staffed with inexperienced teachers. Students’ home issues and the stereotypes of poverty supply the fictions by which teachers can excuse ourselves for our classroom failures. Even restorative-­justice models of discipline, adopted in some public schools as a more humane alternative to school suspensions and student arrests, signal a system fixated on behavior and control versus learning and exploration. The language of “harm” and restoring justice should not be necessary over infractions that occur in school.

During my first years as a teacher, at a middle school in Oakland, other teachers tried to console my dismay at failures in the classroom with this pervasive, absurd myth: “These kids don’t want to learn.” Rather than recognizing the role of administrators and policymakers who create the environment where children are punished for not holding themselves with the stillness of a cadet, many teachers lay the blame on the children at their feet.

Re-entry is simply the continuation of this system of education that fails students who are condemned to an underclass. These students, eliminated from public schools and sent to prison or trapped in the bureaucratic web of probation, are forced to take personal responsibility precisely for their conformity to an American working-class ethic that is based on their exclusion. They are punished for being the truth about institutions that want to believe they would have—if the students had just followed the rules—­accepted them with open arms, launching them upward toward class mobility.

After completing the re-entry program, my former students would often return to me with stories of failure. Many of them could not find work because of their criminal records. One participant was fired after three months when his boss found out he had done jail time. The demands of poverty and unemployment take over, and—as is only natural—youthful behavior does not leave their lives. Like young people all over the world, they fall in love, they have to take care of younger siblings or parents, they attend parties, they want to live and be part of their neighborhood. A precondition to entering the program is an agreement that they want employment, that they are ambitious and ready to overcome the obstacles in their lives that landed them in handcuffs in the first place. In the end, they can’t change being a target, and I can’t blame them for living.

I am not interested in concepts of guilt or innocence when it comes to educating children. The domain of learning in the classroom should be unhinged from the racist ideologies that have separated students into those who want to learn and those who don’t; those who are throwaways and those who are promising; those who are criminals and those who are innocently acting their age; those who go to prison and those who don’t. Re-entry exists with the abundant funding it has today because of the racist carceral state. Though it does ensure placement for one sort of job­seeker: well-intentioned (white) college graduates looking for work.