Harriet McDonald on Incarcerated Youth, Education

In this week’s City & State magazine, The Doe Fund’s Executive Vice President, Harriet McDonald, advocated for a fresh approach to helping formerly incarcerated youth complete their educations and restore their lives.  From the June 8th print edition:

We tend to think about a young person’s education as a straight line; a series of steps measured in grade levels and ages. But for young people who are exposed to the very adult world of criminal justice, things aren’t so simple. Their educations aren’t just interrupted— they’re stopped dead. And a terrible cycle begins. Recidivism becomes the rule rather than the exception; and poverty, drug use, and homelessness are more likely outcomes than a diploma or employment. The school-to-prison pipeline is real. Our society built it. And yet we’ve given virtually no thought to the return trip.

When they do make it home, they exist in two worlds: the outside world of adult expectations and the internal world of adolescent pain. And we haven’t equipped them with the tools or resources to manage either.

We see the consequences every day in our Young Men’s Program. The 18-26 year olds we serve may be past the threshold of adulthood, but in many ways they’re still children. Their personal and social skills resemble middle schoolers’. 1 in 5 reads at or below the fifth grade level. 70% have abused drugs or alcohol. Yet a quarter have kids of their own. When we look at the data, it’s clear that society failed these children long before their first arrest.

We already know what the consequences will be to society if we don’t intervene on their behalves, repair their broken educations, and provide a pathway to employment. Their children will grow up in poverty. They’ll drop out of school. Then prison. And the cycle will start all over again. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In New York State, we already have some of the infrastructure and mechanisms in place to care for and restore these young people’s lives— we just haven’t used them creatively enough. We need the education community, the criminal justice community, and social service agencies to work together and address their needs holistically.

Charter schools, for example, show enormous promise. Augmenting an existing model with a residential component, vocational training, and wrap-around social services would provide the intermediary step these kids need. In a specialized, immersive environment, we could repair the damage of incarceration, complete educations, and truly prepare them to enter the workforce and achieve what every young person aspires to: independence and self-sufficiency.

If we’re serious about permanently breaking the cycles of incarceration and poverty in our communities, it starts with young people returning from prison. But they don’t just need a path home, they need guides along that journey. That can only happen when we, as a community of education, criminal justice, and social service professionals, come together to light the way.

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About Author: The Doe Fund

Founded in 1985, The Doe Fund provides life-transforming services for the homeless, the formerly incarcerated, disenfranchised youth, and people living with AIDS. The organization's flagship Ready, Willing & Able program has helped tens of thousands of individuals achieve permanent self sufficiency through paid work, transitional housing, and employment training.