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Notes From The Field: A Different Kind of Prison

That afternoon, we found ourselves bumping along a remote, dusty road in South Carolina. And though Merritt and I were determined to visit this particular compound, I watched with grief as my phone gasped for its last satellite signal.

Finally, the premises were in sight, and we turned into the parking lot.

We were startled to be met with the hard gaze of an armed guard. He stood cowboy style, hand on gun, behind a cold metal fence. When we made our way past him to the security door and pressed the button, things came into focus.

The students were sizing us up. In turn, we probed their black faces and even darker eyes.

A lady sporting an old sweater was sitting sentry at the front desk. She checked our credentials, buzzed us in, and led us down the hallway.

The walls were plastered with glossy posters exclaiming how good life could be once you got beyond them. There was a Dr. Seuss poster with the message “Oh the places you’ll go” printed across the bottom in sparkling, rainbow colors.

“Wait here,” Sweater Lady said.

We thought about the contrast between the walls and the reality we had researched.

At this school, only 15.6% of students apply to college. That’s well below not only South Carolina’s average but also the national one. Most of these students would not be getting technical training. Some might work at a clothing factory down the road, earning a little more than minimum wage. Some would work at the plant the opposite way down the road, and some would continue their internment in an institution that looked much like this but without the promise of a better life.

Sweater Lady came back with a group of six.One was especially big and held some sort of power over the others. They waited for him to select his seat before they took theirs.

There was also a funny one. “Can you make sure this lasts at least an hour?” he cracked. “We are missing class and I want to keep it that way.”

Everyone except Big One laughed on cue. We sat down to begin our conversation.

Andrew: What can you tell me about your school that you think the adults in your school don’t know?

Big One: To be honest, I think this school should be shut down.

Merritt: Wow that’s a bold statement. Why?

Big One: I’m serious. I’m serious, no one here, not the principal, not the students, not the teachers, cares at all. For example, there is a class that I need to have in order to graduate and the teachers that we hired to teach it this year quit after two weeks. So now we have a sub that just sits there and does nothing all day. And I mean, I’m okay with that but I better still be able to graduate.

Funny One: I don’t know, I like school. Last year we picked up a snapping turtle on the way to school and let it loose in the girl’s bathroom. It was hilarious.

Merritt: For your senior prank?

Funny One: No, just because we wanted to. We knew we wouldn’t get in trouble.

Every few minutes, Sweater Lady would make rounds. She’d come to the window and peer in. Our backs were to her, but the students would repeatedly catch her eye and make some sort of grimace or gesture as she glanced into the room.

Andrew: Why do these adults keep coming by to check on us?

Funny One: Because they are wondering what we are saying to you.

We pushed the students to share with us their plans for after they were released. One had plans to be a dentist after going to a four-year university. One wanted to study Marine Biology. Another wanted to make money as an electrician. They told us that while some of their parents worked at the factories one way down the road, others worked in the plant the opposite way down the road. Life after high school didn’t offer many options.

Andrew: Do any of y’all know how you are going to pay for your education once you graduate?

Big One: No

Funny One: No

Students 3,4,5 and 6: No

It was February and most of the students were seniors but still without any practical ideas for how they would afford to continue their education.

As we left the grounds a short while later, I felt a surge of outrage as I tried to make meaning of it all.

The security buzzers. Sharp fence. Armed guard. Surveillance. The monotony. Resignation. Grim prospects.

How could these elements possibly be conducive to strong schools?

And why is it that the very institutions charged with preparing our country’s citizenry and workforce bear such a striking resemblance to the institutions in which we imprison people?

We hear all the time about the “school to prison pipeline”. After visiting this compound I’m not surprised. When we subject students to the monotony, bleakness, and surveillance that seem to be staple in American high schools why are we surprised that when released into the “real world” they are unsure what to do and resort to what essentially amounts to recidivism. We know that once in jail, your chances of going back are exponentially higher. That same logic seems to apply to the jails we call public education in America.

But these were just the black kids.

Down the road was the new high school. 108 million dollars. Four Gyms. Two Mac computer labs. At least, some kids have a chance. Andrew Brennen is a student, advocate, and consultant at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. You can learn more about his work here.

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