It was one of those rare afternoons in my jailhouse classroom. Twelve or so teenaged boys dotted around the room, their heads, some shaved bald, others wild and wooly with neglect, bend over their desks doing something. Reading a book; writing an essay--or a love letter to a shorty. Whatever they were doing, they were quiet. It didn't happen often over the ten years I taught high school at a New York County jail, years that I chronicle in my book I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. Usually, chaos rules in jail.
But that day Ms. Polland, the classroom correctional officer, and I were standing at the front of the room looking over the sea of orange jump-suited, brown-faced students, enjoying the peace.
Then, "Do you really think the criminal justice system is racist?" she quietly asked.
I don't know where that came from, but when I didn't answer, she pressed the point.
"I mean, really. Do you think it's racist?"
I didn't know what to say.
You get pretty tight with your classroom officer. The COs who work the school are the ones who like helping kids, and in a strange way become your ally.
Ms. Polland was one of the best. She liked the guys and loved to participate in class. She often jumped into discussions, sometimes shouting out an answer to a question even before the guys had a chance.
They didn't mind. Less for them to do.
Besides, Ms. Polland was hot--short, slim but busty; almond-colored skin and short soft curls. She was one of the few female COs who used make-up, and the guys loved make-up.
But they also recognized her interest and appreciated her willingness to share her own journey: Single teenage mom. High school dropout. GED graduate. Now she was going to community college on track to become a social worker.
I hadn't answered her question at first because I didn't know what to say.
Weren't we were standing in front of the same classroom, looking at the same black, brown and tawny faces? I know we both walked the same jail halls and passed the same coterie of correctional staff. Didn't she notice that, although more and more front line COs were people of color (only after years of extreme civil rights pressure) the prison elite--sergeants, captains, and wardens--were white?
I hadn't answered her because I wasn't sure what she saw when she looked out at the class. Ms. Polland was a bright woman. I knew she must have heard or read the doleful figures on incarceration rates for African American males. Who in the US hadn't?
It seems every day some new report or some news story lays out the worsening racial tilt in our criminal justice system--the PEW Charitable Trust report, "One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008" noting that 1 in 30 whites between the ages of 20 and 34 were incarcerated while the number for blacks was 1 in 9; or the California based Burns Institute findings that black youth nationally were five times more likely to be locked up than their white peers. The county jail where I taught pretty much confirmed those numbers, even more so. African Americans made up only 14% of the county population while the jail was well over 80% black.
Even the US Congress has raised the alarm about this continued inequality. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Reauthorization Act of 2009 which is slowly making its way through the legislature allocates funds to states who aggressively address this racial imbalance.
Nevertheless, when pushed to explain this racial disparity, most people take comfort in the popular myth of American justice--that only the guilty get arrested, charged, and incarcerated. It's obvious: more blacks than whites are arrested and put in jail because they commit more crimes. Americans can't conceive of it any other way because racism is the issue we refuse to acknowledge.
"I mean, if black kids didn't get into trouble they wouldn't be here. Right?" Ms. Polland said, impatient with my silence.
I don't remember what I finally answered. I certainly didn't deny what I knew and what my eyes saw, and told her so with as much honesty as my respect for her allowed.
But I do remember leaving the jail that day baffled and discouraged, wondering how things would ever change when even well-meaning people like Ms Polland--a person of color herself-- continued to believe that justice in America is and always has been colorblind.