School Discipline And Socialization For The Carceral State

Schools are a buffer zone, artfully, strategically, placed between zones of dysfunction–the homes of ‘broken’ families, populated by the wrong ethnicity and racial category, which produce criminality and social pathology–and the rest of society. Here, a net may be cast, trawling through the swarms of schoolchildren, catching the bad, the misbehaved, the unrepentant repeat offenders practicing the tricks of the trade. Here, discipline may be applied in the name of tough love and muscular pedagogy, all the better to nip future outbreaks of antisocial violence in the bud. Here, police and school administrations may co-operate to give education a much-needed ‘correctional’ and ‘carceral’ edge.  Here, students may learn what fates await them in case they do not heed the warnings–dispensed with appropriate force, of course–that police officers, in co-operation with school administrators, direct at them.

Such, apparently, is the vision of school that underwrites school discipline today, one in which administrators, under the sway of a relentlessly constructed and reinforced vision of their wards as potential criminals, not only hasten to call in for armed and uniformed help on all too many occasions, but also demand the constant presence of the constabulary on campus.  In this vision–one that supplements the ‘teachers are babysitters’ one which is trotted out when school teachers go on strike–the burdens of disciplining the unruly can now be shared between the adult penal system and this ‘juvenile education facility.’

Education-shmeducation; reading-shmeading; learn to behave first.

Unsurprisingly, given the animating sentiments at play, students are treated by police–sometimes described as ‘school resource officers’ but always armed and equipped like folks with far less benign monikers–much as the residents of a correctional facility would be. A refusal to leave a classroom pops into focus through the lens of the school-as-prison perspective and appears akin to a jailyard riot; failure to comply entails the death of discipline. The police officers on duty in schools, taught and trained to extend their vision of the streets and neighborhoods outside as war zones into the boundaries of the school campus, respond to reports of such misbehavior with alacrity; it’s a 911, it’s a four-alarm fire, we need backup and possibly covering fire. Their responses and behavior, observed by the other students, inculcates important lessons: do not talk back to authority; comply with alacrity or face the consequences; violence will be visited upon you if arguments are not resolved. The critical thinking and speaking truth to power can come later, much later. Much, much later; once you are done serving time, that is.

The old saw about hammers and nails is inescapable here. When order is judged our supreme value, then all will be bent to its directives and requirements. A non-authoritarian society is a messy, fractious business; its path ne’er did run smooth. But it is the price that has to be paid if our obeisances to a democratic society are to not ring hollow. If the administration of our schools is any evidence, it has been judged too high a price to pay.

Our Police, Keeping Our World Safe From Young Black Women

The next time a video link passes you by on social media stop and take a closer look. Chances are, the dysfunction implicated in it can be traced back to one cause, and one cause alone: teenaged black women. And the police of this nation are on the case, keeping us safe by any means necessary.

Remember that black girl from the swimming pool party in McKinney, Texas, this past summer, the one wrestled to the ground by a brave policeman, Eric Casebolt, the one who executed a smart SEAL move, rolling and leaping into an Action Jackson move on his way to making said maneuvre? (For good measure, that policeman pulled his gun on the girl’s friends–presumably other thugs on the make–and let them know the precise fates that awaited in case their expressions of concern for their friend grew any louder.)

Attack_of_the_14_year_old_girl_Web

 

Well, she has a counterpart in Spring Valley, South Carolina, right down to a policeman with itchy arms and shoulders.

This juvenile miscreant, after committing the high crimes of being disruptive, and indulging in the dangerous activity of refusing to vacate the premises–nothing quite as threatening as a black person that does not leave when asked to–had to be wrestled to the ground and dragged out by a brave police officer.  The escalator to escalation was hailed and used quickly by him; not for him the patient assertion of his authority with judicious application of force. No, this called for application of the Powell Doctrine: overwhelming power, applied quickly and efficiently, with an aim to neutralize any hostile responses. (The application of a military doctrine to community policing is but one of the many talents this extremely accomplished officer of the peace–a ‘school resource officer’–brings to his daily assignments in the war zone, er, local neighborhoods. Officer Ben Fields’ “biography on the [school] website” indicates “he also coaches the school football team’s defensive line and is the team’s strength and conditioning coach.” Strength and conditioning well utilized, Sir.)

As the police officer performs his duties, quietly–except for the one warning directed at some ruffian in his audience that he will be the next person to feel the strong arm of the law on his collar–and efficiently, the other students look on in some awe. They have, in all probability, given their dark complexions, already experienced some of this tough love; they have now received another demonstration that that force may be applied, violently, to their recalcitrant behavior. This too, is education. It too, is dispensed in schools. Those students who will not learn their lessons today–about directing appropriate respect at uniformed armed men capable of exerting deadly force against you–will take their chances in the future, at their own risk. The ‘smart’ ones will police themselves from now on.

Officer Fields was not just subduing one stubborn subject; he was making other subjects docile too. And keeping all of us safe from those dangerous young black folk.

‘Orange Is The New Black’ And Boarding Schools

As I make my way through the second season of Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s original series based on Piper Kerman‘s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison about her experiences at FCI Danbury, a minimum-security federal prison, I’m struck again by how much of the prison experience reminds me of my days–two academic years in all–at a boarding school. In saying this, I do not mean to, even for a second, minimize the hardships of the incarcerated, but rather, to point out how boarding schools create conditions analogous at one level to that of jails. Both are similarly inspired by confused notions of discipline and order; both show what happens when humans are confined and regulated by these.

It is all here: the correctional managerial staff i.e., the faculty; the supervisors and guards i.e., the prefects (drawn from the senior graduating class, thus forming a layer between us and school administration); and the inmates i.e., the students. We were subjected to regulation and discipline from on high, from our waking moments to ‘lights out’; we were subjected to arbitrary, often harsh disciplining from prefects (this included the usual ‘six of the best’ and punishment drills); we had fixed meal-times; our uniforms were prescribed and monitored; we could not walk with both hands in our trouser pockets; we could not complain about the food (the food parcels we were sent from home were quickly consumed by our ‘friends); we had limited allowances that we spent at the ‘commissary’; we could not meet our parents except at prescribed times and places (because my family was away in a distant city, I did not meet or talk to my mother for nine months); ‘sickbay’ was a refuge and relief; our every hour was planned and regulated. Some thirty-four years after I left my boarding school, I can still effortlessly regenerate the daily time-table for a school day, right down to the hours.

But the most interesting parallel for me is visible in the personal and social dynamics. Boarding schools, like jails, featured miniature societies, complete with their own pecking orders and hierarchies on the ‘inside.’ There were bullies and master manipulators–like ‘Red‘–who ruled the roost; they were feared and revered and resented in equal measure. There were weak ones–‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’–who were subjected to bullying and abuse. If you were smart, you sought out and found protection quickly. Some manipulators–like ‘Pennsatucky‘–ruled over mini-groups; their hold over these was–like that of ‘King Rat‘ in James Clavell‘s novel by the same name–a contingent matter, dependent on them being able to continually spin their web of control. The weak quickly came under such influence. Scores were settled by violence and intimidation; sometimes you were cornered in bathrooms, sometimes in a deserted dorm; when a fight broke out, no one intervened till a prefect showed up. And no one, ever, ever, complained about a beating.

When the academic year ended, discipline was relaxed for the last day or so–teachers left campus, prefects gave up the pretense of policing. More scores were settled, more brawls broke out; the buses to take us to train stations and airports for our journeys back home could not arrive soon enough.

And when I got back home, I kept the ‘best stories’ to myself. Folks back home ‘wouldn’t understand’; you had to be on the ‘inside.’ I could write a book about it all; someday, I will.

Debating Teams And The Prison-Industrial Complex

The news that a team of prisoners–incarcerated criminals from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility–had beaten, in debate, Harvard’s team, was not slow in spreading. After the initial informal reactions on social media–many of which expressed glee at Harvard’s comeuppance by plebes–had died down, a more measured response followed, one which stressed that such a result was entirely unsurprising, that to entertain such surprise was to entertain stereotypes of prisoners being merely dangerous and stupid.  (An old friend who teaches at San Quentin told me her students are highly intelligent and motivated, among the best students she has ever had.) Several articles–in The Washington Post, The Harvard Crimson, and The Guardian–made precisely this same point. In these commentaries there is another common theme: that these results confirm the value of reform programs like Bard College’s Bard Prison Initiative, which offers an undergraduate education to about 300 New York State prisoners.

These two issues–the intelligence of the incarcerated and the success of well-planned and executed prisoner reform programs–highlight once again the tragedies of the prison-industrial complex as it currently exists today in the US. The US’ incarceration rates, as of October 2013, at 716 per 100,000 are the highest in the world; with 4.4 percent of the world’s population, the US houses 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. This imprisonment does not come cheap; in 2007, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that its costs ran to an annual $74 billion. (Wikipedia source here.) But these costs are severely understated if one takes the talents of the imprisoned population into consideration.

The grim reality of a stint in prison is that–despite the fact that behind-the-bars activities have resulted in  musical albums and literature–they are finishing schools for criminality. Many an amateur checks in, only to check out as a seasoned professional. His or her time will have been marked–in most cases–by rape and assault, and by participation in criminal activity of one kind or the other. Mild forms may involve the smuggling in of contraband; less benign activities include the remote control of external criminal actions and participation in gang activity–very often violent–within the prison. (Bureau of Justice Statistics reports on the rates of recidivism among prisoners make for depressing reading, indicating as they do, rearrest, reconviction, and return to prison rates at or over fifty percent.)

The net result is the situation at hand today: hundreds of thousands of young men and women, rotting away in jail, tossed into a trash heap of sorts, forgotten and condemned, deemed unworthy of reform, guarded by correctional staff who over the years have had their humanity leached out of them, subjected to violence from within and without, and taught, ultimately, all the wrong lessons. This reckless wastage of ‘human resources’ would be considered profligate and indulgent at the best of times, an indication perhaps that the nation in question had recklessly determined it had ample talent, enough to spare in a gigantic, misbegotten criminological experiment. But of course it doesn’t; no nation can afford such squandering of talent, such locking away of so much potential, often fueled by racist tilting at windmills like the war on drugs.

Not every criminal is a budding debate champion or writer or artist; reform remains difficult, a challenge for sociologists, psychologists and criminologists alike. But whatever those challenges, we also know what doesn’t work: the penal system we have now.

Mass Shootings, Gun Control, And Masculinity

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. There is a great deal of truth in this, er, truism. But having acknowledged that, one can then move on to ask: why do so many people kill people in the US? What are the factors at play in the network of actors and causes and effects that produce, as a grim unblinking result, an epidemic of shootings–two campus shootings so far on this Friday–and a steadily growing heap of corpses?

Gun control advocates–and I am one of them–think that the answer must include the ready availability of guns of all kinds in the US. The NRA and its allies would have us look everywhere but the regulation of guns. I’m going to join them today. What else could it be then?

One pat conservative answer–as typified in Bobby Jindal‘s verbal assault on the father of the Roseburg shooter and Wayne LaPierre‘s response to the Sandy Hook massacre–is the kind of moral degradation conservatives have been bemoaning for years: unwed mothers, children with missing fathers, teenage pregnancy, drug use, video games, the ‘gay lifestyle,’ atheism, premarital sex–the usual harbingers of the apocalypse. In this theoretical framework, the mass shooter is merely the end product of a social pathology which disdains individual responsibility, which is self-indulgent and narcissistic, and which finds ultimate violent expression in nihilistic assaults on the social order. Cure these social ills; bring back prayer in schools; strike the fear of God into all; and then watch these mass shooters fade away quietly, content to read a holy book and go for long walks with their large families.

I agree with this diagnosis in part. Social pathology is to blame for the itchy trigger finger. (The lack of gun control supplies the gun for the finger.) But the pathology I have in mind has other shades to it. There is here, a masculinity that is reared on violence, on an understanding of itself that is dangerously limiting and limited, and which is always fearful of failure in the sexual dimension. The kinds of men this masculinity produces are all too often, angry, lonely, misogynistic, resentful, and scared.  In the pathology I have in mind, these men see themselves as mere atoms in a sea of other human atoms; they are told, relentlessly, that they must be ‘heroic individuals’ and ‘self-made men’; they are instructed that to take help–or give it–is a sign of weakness; it is not in keeping with the ‘frontier spirit’ which made this nation. Militaristic images surround them; soldiers–men with guns–are heroes; war, just another contact sport, is a testing ground for manhood; combat still a rite of initiation;  violence is pornographic. Their imagination finds ample inspiration in this imagery.  They experience an acute dissonance; this world provides as much evidence for its most sympathetic understandings as it does for its cruelest. They still crave the gentlest of human sentiments, but they know that to manifest this need will be considered evidence of failure as a man.

They have failed; they are strangers in a strange land. They have no more need of it, and those who live in it. They won’t go quietly; they’ll let everyone know how this world failed them. Because it made them feel like failures. And kept guns handy for them.

Note: On re-reading some of my older posts on ‘gun control’ I realize I’m reiterating themes I have touched on before. So be it. These shootings repeat themselves too.

The Children’s Playground AKA ‘The Yard’

Parenting entails many unpleasant duties. Changing diapers and dealing with toddlers reluctant to eat, sleep, or behave like rational human beings–which they aren’t–are often ranked lowest on the scale of parenting unpleasantness. But for my money, little can rival accompanying your child to the playground.

Here it may all be found: a mixed-age, mixed-gender space for interaction, populated by children and their curiously disengaged parents, featuring aggression, rudeness, selfishness, and ample opportunity for traumatic brain injury. Here is a cauldron of class and ethnic interaction and mutual misunderstanding and confusion, of excessive parental protectiveness and its counterpart, malignant indifference.

I was convinced, long before my wife and I had our daughter, that children were not innocent, that they were not unsullied human beings waiting to be despoiled by maturity and civilization. There was always something of the monstrous in them, too many glimpses of the unrestrained Id were all too clearly visible. The memories of my childhood–its bullies, the brawls, the tantrums, the ganging up on the weak, the merciless hunting down of the quirky, the taunting, the teasing, the mocking, the clique forming and exclusions–were still clear; I have had no desire to ever revisit it. Adulthood was not degradation and descent; it was growth in both the physical and moral dimensions. Within reasonable bounds, of course.

My experience at children’s playgrounds has given me ample opportunity to confirm this gloomy diagnosis of mine. Children are monsters. And in a space featuring everyone from pre-walkers to fleet runners, from those wearing diapers to those free of them, the range of interactions on display frequently show them off at their worst. You want your child to learn ‘the ropes’, the ‘tricks of the trade’; you want to be suitably disengaged and yet protective; you want children to ‘figure it out by themselves’ without adult intervention or supervision; and you cannot bring these competing desiderata together into a coherent vision of how to conduct yourself at the playground.

Sometimes you want to tell a parent to stop checking their phone and do something about their child’s selfishness; sometimes you want to tell a child (and his or her parent) to look a little closer at the misanthropic tendencies on display; sometimes  you want your own child to provide a better representation of your parenting abilities. Sometimes you want to make a hard right turn and avoid the playground altogether.

At the playground, you find your vision of the correct moral upbringing of your child dashed against the hard rocks of those Sartre called ‘hell’: other people. They will rapidly reconfigure it all; they will make you say things–if only under your breath–like ‘well, perhaps you should have pushed your way to the front; perhaps you should have shoved that other kid aside; the next time someone blocks the slide, just slide into them.’ Here, it all comes apart; here, you realize where the sophomoric theorizing about the ‘survival of the fittest’ and the invocations of ‘its a jungle out there’ come from.

Many years of this lie ahead. Some kinds of time should fly.