Overture. The Middletown Ct. Police Station—Bartok’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion.
Before beginning my job as a substitute teacher, I traveled to the police department for a fingerprint security check. The officer, a large friendly African American interviewed me.
“Where will you be teaching?”
“Middletown High School.”
“Oh,” he warningly replied. “Do you know that is a dangerous place? I would not let my son attend that school.”
My department chair, an elderly woman who had no interest in leadership but only in control, warned me not to wander in the classroom. “Stay in your chair or next to your desk,” she warned. Wrong: my first two weeks included an equal number of personal attacks: a forceful attempt to steal my phone, and wet spit on my shirt for enforcing a regulation.
I did not report either aggression to the SRO. I had learned that the detention room was just a secure space that fostered antisocial behavior, not remorse. For instance, the students played a blood game. They took turns hitting other students on the knuckles with a quarter. The first to bleed had to put money on the table. The last to bleed collected the money.
I informed the chair about this conduct. Unbelievably, she claimed that during her decades of teaching she had never heard of this. And she advised me to ignore it. After all, this was not a teaching responsibility.
One afternoon, I looked out the window. There were four police cars next to the building. I heard an uproar in the hallway. Several policemen were escorting a gaggle of students back to their classrooms. The students were taking a recess without permission.
For me this educational experience was disturbing. My chair told me to record the answers and grades on a test that was given by a teacher who had to leave for a medical emergency. The students had received credit for remembering that Japan was our enemy in World War 1. I checked their high school text. Their memory was right. But the text was wrong. The students did not care. The test was knowledge of the book. Perplexed, I complained to the chair who said the students correctly answered the question. It was not up to me to question the book. She refused to report this error to the publisher. This, and the refusal to teach evolution and other scientific facts added to my feelings of despair.
Where am I? Is this an educational institution?
Andante. A Low Security Prison for Juveniles—Stravinsky, Symphony in Three Movements.
President’ Johnson’s passage of the Civil Rights Act (1966) officially led to desegregation reforms through the country. The American Friends Service Committee took advantage of this funded federal program to send community workers to report on prisons behavior.
I was the leader of 10 college students sent to the prison in Lexington Ky. We were to live a few weeks there to observe desegregation progress. Unknowingly, the AFSC chose poorly if they were seeking infractions. The juvenile center was a model prison. We had few negative observations. This facility was a shining example for the reforms. The staff included many social workers and counsellors who worked with the youth to change their behavior. Furthermore, it had a low percentage of black prisoners. Unfortunately some were in maximum security cells.
For me, the most disheartening discovery was in revelations about the background of these youth. During the orientation, older residents interrogated the newbies regarding about their criminal history. Most of them had committed much worse crimes than they had been convicted for. Those caught for shop lifting or violent behavior had a personal list of car theft, arson, and rape.
While I was observing one such orientation, a resident asked the novice if he had sisters.
The inquisitor’s face reflected shock, hurt, and anger. He never asked a question again.
Later, I asked the counsellor about this behavior.
“Oh,” he answered. “The kid hoped he could rake the inmate over. He himself had been forced to admit that he had raped his sisters. So, he was looking for another victim.”
The negative attitudes toward prisoners seemed more apparent before and after they were confined. Many female prisoners were punished for prostitution. Their prison record would further limit their ability to take part in society.
All former inmates would have difficulty in obtaining adequate employment, they could not vote, and their educational backgrounds and opportunities were squelched. Within the next five years their recidivism rate would be nearly 50%!
One positive escape: boys could enlist in the military. The girls had no comparable alternative to prison.
When the residents were released, they would return to a hostile community. For instance, once I went with a black student coworker to eat at a local restaurant. I had received a list of restaurants that accepted integrated customers. We chose a drive-in. Later, we realized we had not read the fine print that black customers had to remain in the car. Because I was driving an uncomfortable VW bug, we went into the restaurant. We waited for service. In several minutes the sheriff and his crew marched into the restaurant, ordering us to leave immediately. In the parking lot, I referred to President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act which protected integration. The Sheriff, who looked like an extra in a red neck film, pointed to his expansive chest declaring, “I am the law here.”
Without any evidence, I can only assume that if I had not been with him, and not identified myself with the local prison administration, the student would have been abused and even become a captive in the local jail.
To handle our anger, we went to a primarily black bar in a low-income neighborhood. Since we looked young, the bar tender asked to see our IDs. Looking at my driver’s license he informed me that it had expired. Because he had heard the story of my biracial encounter, he warned me that if the Sherrif had seen this ID, I would be in the county jail. For only the first time in my life I fainted!
Coda: Harlem. The Police Marching Band for military and patriotic events. (Never in East Harlem)
I lived at 76 E 111th Street for 18 months. My block was three avenues from the East River and one avenue from Third. The nearest subway station to the south was on 99th St. This Street was on the southern border of Harlem. It acted like a prison wall. Cabbies from Downtown often refused to cross the line when their fare wanted to travel uptown.
What is significant is that each street, like a cell block, had a clear identification. Mine was known for alcoholics; our neighboring blocks nurtured drugs and prostitution. One could usually recognize the various addicts by their violent behavior– the alcoholics engaged in group control, ownership of women, and simple theft. The addicts were dormant during the day. When they needed cash for a fix, they would engage in destructive behavior—breaking into a store crashing equipment and seeking to find something valuable to fence quickly for their addiction.
Harlem’s street grids marked clear boundaries from each other. Residents stayed on outdoor steps; gangs protected their neighborhoods, and police kept order.
The apartment sitters protected their domain. The sidewalks were unattended and often littered with paper wrappers, beer cans, and cigarette butts. Strangers walking past were seen with some suspicion—drug dealers? Police? Gangsters? The locals might yell at strangers. When I walked my girlfriend through the neighborhoods, I positioned her by the curb. I walked in front of the gawkers for her safety.
From my first-floor apartment window, I witnessed pick pockets, mugging, and rowdiness, Violent behavior was rife. One incident which amused me was to find a small washing machine placed on the roof of my VW. My most fuming gang member planted a nickel or dime bag under my door, then called the police. Later he murdered my replacement.
The mafia and police ran protection extortion rackets from the merchants and the vulnerable population. I detected several such incidents: four mafia characters demanding their regular payment from a restaurant owner, police attending a youthful late night party threatening people who were on parole or underage with arrest if they did not pay up.
There were many who isolated themselves. A beautifully dressed young woman invited me to her apartment. The rooms were decorated with bright wallpaper, high quality furniture, photographs, and displays of jewelry. A stunning bedroom harbored a four-poster bed. During our conversations, I learned she worked in Wall Street as a secretary. She was single. When asked what she thought of New York City and her job, she responded that it was the beginning and end of her subway commute. Other than that, her real life was in her apartment.
To me she appeared self-incarcerated.
Conclusion and Credits.
The symphonic program on incarceration was composed of three prominent types of cells: school, prison, neighborhoods.
Thanks to the Kagan Law Enforcement Think Tank for sponsoring this event.
Recent Photo of problems at the Lexington Juvenile Prison