Do Incarcerated Youth Have Equal Access to Quality Education?

My common sense response is, of course, they don’t. I don’t need a research study or special report to tell me that. If you do, you should read Alexander Brand’s article, which takes a data-based approach to this issue. As for me and this piece, I want to provide a more experiential and observational approach to answering this question.

In areas all over the U.S. and the world, it becomes necessary to detain juveniles that engage in criminal or delinquent behaviors. This can range from theft to aggravated assault, to more heinous crimes like rape and murder. Although restorative justice can be used for some of the less heinous and nonviolent crimes, more serious ones may require incarceration and rehabilitation.

The problem with this approach is that youth detention centers and prisons all over the world do a very poor job of rehabilitating young offenders. Their stay in jail becomes more akin to crime school, where their conditions, treatment, and influences turn them into hardened criminals, who learn new antisocial behaviors and criminal strategies while they are separated from the rest of society.

They never receive the rehabilitation that they were promised and their access to quality education is nonexistent. I have observed and studied the youth detention programs of several states, such as California’s YA, and what I discovered was sickening. These young people live in atrocious conditions and are subjected to unbelievable acts of cruelty.

Because of this, I find the idea of incarcerated youth having access to quality education to be laughable. Many of the young men and women who are incarcerated in youth detention centers and prisons came from poverty-stricken neighborhoods and attended schools that were staffed by teachers and education administrators who were not highly capable or qualified. Many of them treated teaching as if it were a babysitting job that allowed them to just ride the clock, without doing any real work. The students that they failed end up being passengers in the school to prison pipeline.

At the end of the day, these young men were originally failed by society and the public schools that they attended. Once they become incarcerated, it’s the same story all over again. The only difference is that the teachers are of even lower quality. Ask yourself, what highly qualified teacher would choose to work in a youth detention center or prison, instead of the best schools in the world?

Teaching at one of these facilities usually means instructing your students from behind a clear partition of some kind, to protect your safety. At the end of the day, these students are given subpar teachers, who have found it hard to secure employment in a traditional educational setting. Youth prison education programs are not held to high standards, and no one loses their jobs if the students fail to show growth. Prison officials are just happy to satisfy federal and state requirements, and at the end of the day, these children are failed by the system again.

If they are released as adults, they leave without a quality education; the very thing that could have made a positive impact in their lives and placed them on the straight and narrow path. Without a high school diploma or GED, and sometimes on their own, they will find it difficult to find gainful employment. If they do, they will soon find out that the job will not sustain them financially. In response, they end up reoffending and headed back to prison. A life of recidivism and incarceration awaits them, and the prison gets another slave.

Maybe the system failed these young men by not giving them access to quality education or rehabilitation. Or maybe we are all naïve, and the system is working as it is intended to work.

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