The University of Prison

Thereports that black men like me are doing steadily, dangerously worse.
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"Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn" was the latest headline to depress me. The New York Times article reported that black men like me are doing steadily, dangerously worse. Here are just a few of their statistics:

"The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless -- that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000."

"Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990's and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20's who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30's, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison."

"In the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school."

All this made me think back to W.E.B. Du Bois and his masterpiece, "The Souls of Black Folk," where he wrote, "Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience..."

I've been wrestling with this issue all my life and have written about it from time to time. Back in 1992 for the Los Angeles Times I said that since so many black men are going to prison why don't we compel them to get the education inside that society has so failed them on the outside?

"It costs more to imprison someone than to send them to Stanford. What if we turned prisons into last-resort institutions of higher education? Sentences would be given out at their maximum but if the inmate finished high school, a year might be taken off; graduating college, becoming a licensed contractor, plumber or electrician all might shave three years off his time. You wouldn't be freed from prison until you could prove you could add something to free society.

"Of course, my naive idea would cost a fortune and the newly educated ex-cons would have a hard time finding employers to trust them. Perhaps, the state could offer tax credits to the employer for every ex-prisoner hired; perhaps also, the new employee could have a small percentage of his wages garnered to pay back the state some of the cost of imprisoning and educating him."

Something has to be done and it should have been done decades ago when urban small manufacturing was going the way of spats and the Victrola and inner-city unemployment began to skyrocket.
Is there a politician out there with the will to innovate? John Edwards? Maxine Waters? Anyone?

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