Water Man Spouts

Monday, August 13, 2007

Incarcerated Youth

"We are faced with evil. I feel rather like Augustine did before becoming a Christian when he said, ‘I tried to find the source of evil and I got nowhere. But it is also true that I and a few others knew what must be done if not to reduce evil at least not to add to it.’ Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you believers don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?" – Albert Camus

My younger son recently started a job in a "youth facility" that houses about 150 young men, ages 12 to 18. It is a challenging job, and he is finding the nothing from a class room or text book fully prepared him for what he is encountering inside the institution. My son is intelligent, compassionate, and focused on doing his job in such a way that he helps those who he works with; those same qualities, of course, can make his line of work an eye-opening experience.

As his father, and as a retired social worker, I’m confident that my son is the type of person who will do very well at his job. But I did like when he called me one day to discuss some of the concerns he has, not so much about his particular job, but rather, about the "system." He noted, for example, that a some of the young people who have been sentenced to spend their teen-aged years in the institution probably would not have been there, had they come from a family that provided any type of support for them.

For longer than my son has been alive, the number one growth industry in New York has been its prison system. I tell him that the connections he sees between the culture’s family systems, it’s penal institutions, and the economy is not that long arm of coincidence, wrenching itself of of socket, but is the hard, cold reality of a system that for a variety of reasons, requires a growing number of human beings to spend much of their lives incarcerated.

Part of the reasons that we have arrived at this point, can be viewed as we travel on the roads between our house and that institution where my son is employed. My driveway is part of an old Revolutionary War era turnpike, that led from what was the "western front" of the 13 Colonies to Ithaca. The first place it went through was one of the hamlets made up largely from an extended family. The name of this type of farming community is usually based on the family name; hence we find that around the late 1700s and early 1800s, there are places with names like Smithsville and Knapps’ Settlent.

When you drive by the oldest farm houses, they usually will have additions built on. That is because they housed extended families. When the children grew up, one would get married and remain in the central house. The parents (now grandparents) would live in the addition. Other adult siblings would build houses close-by. This provided a strong support system for each child growing up in the community. They had not only their parents and siblings, but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a network based upon the extended family to provide support for them.

A little further away, we come to where there was a canal in the early 1800s. The canal system opened the upstate to a level of economic influences that the turnpikes had not. Some of the young adults from the farming hamlets began to move to the villages along the canal’s path, in order to find employment. Their children would still be attending small neighborhood schools, and were in close contact with their extended families. The village was a network of extended families, and it provided a strong support system for the young people within it.

Soon we cross an old railroad track, built shortly after the Civil War. The railroads ushered in a new era. Farms went from being largely self-sufficient, where a small amount of a surplus of beef , garden produce, or fruit was used to trade for the few things the extended family required, to part of a larger economic unit that was focused primarily on producing milk products for distant cities. Because dairy farms required more land but less workers, more of the young adults left the hamlets and moved to towns that grew along the railroad tacks. The extended family was transitioning into the nuclear family. They got together for holdiays and other events, but the primary influences in the children’s lives was shifted to first the parents, and then the community. Schools were growing, and the young people were seeing options other than farming or the trades of their parents.

After crossing the railroad tracks, we come to a highway. It was built after WW1, and it allowed the towns with greater access to the distant cities. This opened the era of the suburbs and nuclear families. It was still common to pack the car and drive out to see the extended family in Hooterville on the holidays, but the kids were in less contact with the grandparents and aunts and uncles. But for most of the year, it was a very different lifestyle, with dad in an office or in a factory from 9 to 5, mom at the white picket-fenced home, and 3.5 children going to larger schools that prepared them to be office workers, cogs in a factory, or good housewives.

Although real life after WW2 was not a series of episodes of "Father Knows Best," the majority of middle class Americans had little idea of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan was speaking of when he warned about the problems that were associated with single-parent families. But they were soon to find out. As the industrial age gave way to high-tech society, business needed workers who were not shackled to annoying things like family commitments. They needed workers who were ready and willing to spend long hours at work, and who put their "careers" first.

The nuclear family was shattered, and single-parent families became far more frequent. For many of the parents who headed these families, that house with the white picket fence was not an option. They could only afford an apartment in a town or city, often in a building that had previously housed one family, but which had been converted into numerous apartments. The children from single parent families often miss out on healthy relationships with the non-custodial parent, and on the stability that half of their extended family might provide.

This is not intended to "point fingers" at single parents. Indeed, for several years, I was a single parent with two little boys. It is a difficult circumstance to be in. However, statistically, the children from single parent families are at increased risk of experiencing difficulties at home, in school, and in their communities.

One option our society has is to build more prisons for adults. And that requires that there be more youth facilities built as a sort of prep school for future prison inmates. It is a big business nation-wide.

Another option is to address the issues that are at the root of the problem. I am not suggesting that we do away with individual responsibility – quite the opposite, we need to not only hold "criminals" responsible for their action, we need to become a more responsible society.

One political party believes that we are our brother’s keeper. And I’m not talking about keeping your brother in behind bars. One political party recognizes that single parents need and deserve the support of their community when they try to raise their sons and daughters. One party believes that our society is enriched when it invests in education, and in providing each child with a quality education. It is the party that believes that it takes a village to raise a child.

The other party doesn’t share these extended family values. Too often, they are only concerned with the lives of their own children or grandchildren, and do not appreciate the connection to others in the larger community. And their leaders view other people’s children as mere cogs in the money-making machine. There are examples other than the institutions that house the hundreds of 12 to 18 year olds: each day, we hear about more American youth, ages 18 to 25, dying in Iraq in what can only be viewed as a republican business investment.

The 2008 elections will have consequences for every family in America. We do not have the option of going back in time – but we can learn from the past, and apply those lessons to our current conditions. I do not think that we can afford to continue down the path that we are on now. I am intent on doing my best to be sure that we elect the officials who can begin to institute real change, so that fewer kids get caught up in a penal system that capitalizes on man’s inhumanity to man.


Post a Comment

<< Home