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Where I Come From


Between December 2000 and April 2001, representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division made a series of visits to inspect the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC). Many sections of the report that followed read like excerpts from a horror novel. Vermin were common throughout the facility, prisoners washed their clothes in their toilets because they had too little time to do so outside of their cells, and some inmates died unnecessarily because of serious delays and lapses in health care.

Perhaps most troubling was the fact that children were exposed to some of the conditions cited in the report. Juveniles tried as adults made up approximately 5 percent of BCDC’s population, and investigators paid special attention to their experiences. They found, among other things, laughably insufficient educational instruction and significant threats to young inmates’ mental and emotional health. Girls, in particular, lacked the necessary sight and sound separation to protect them from older prisoners, even as some children were placed in solitary confinement 23 hours per day.

As a result of the DOJ report, the state made plans for a purpose-built youth detention facility with space for 230 inmates. Some argued that the large capacity of the proposed facility could make it too tempting to put even more children behind bars. This public backlash against the plan was late but ultimately effective. Supported by an independent analysis, which showed that the projected number of bed spaces needed could be cut by as much as 73 percent with significant policy changes, opponents of the facility convinced the state to redraw its plans. In May, just days after the National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s estimate was released, according to The Baltimore Sun, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said the facility could be adapted to fit fewer beds or be redesigned from the ground up. 

This is a remarkable victory for children and child-protection advocates. Now, as state officials think about what to do next, we have an opportunity to examine the types of opportunities Maryland is offering its children and how quickly those new beds might be filled.

Every year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count project ranks states according to a range of indicators of child and family wellbeing. In 2010, index variables included the prevalence of single-parent households, child mortality rates, teen education and employment status, and parent employment status. Maryland, which has one of the highest median incomes of any state in the country, ranked 25th.This year, Education Week named Maryland’s schools best in the nation for the third year in a row, but the funding levels that support that excellence have been under threat during the slow economic recovery.

Even in the best of times, not all Maryland schools are created equal. For example, in Baltimore City, we take it for granted that instruction will be canceled when older school buildings can’t keep pace with the temperature. And last year, further down the educational line, what had been a four-year freeze on in-state college tuition throughout the University of Maryland system melted.

It’s also becoming harder for many kids to spend time productively outside of the classroom. Baltimore City’s system of recreation centers is struggling, and this year, the city cut funding for 2,000 youth summer jobs.

So the message from adults in Maryland to kids in Baltimore and, perhaps, other poorer parts of Maryland seems to be this: Many of you live in dangerous neighborhoods. We cannot guarantee your safety. Nor can we promise you a decent education. When you’re not in school, you will have limited opportunities for recreation and employment, and, if you somehow make it to college despite these difficulties, you may not be able to pay for it. We promise, however, that if you break the law, we’ll have a cell waiting for you.

Here’s what some of these kids are saying in return: Fuck you!

This larger conversation reminds me of my own time as a student at one of the worst schools in the city, Lombard Middle School. Despite the metal grating over the first-floor windows and the sometimes awful instruction, I was a diligent pupil. But years later, I got the feeling that the troublemakers, the kids who stood up, protested, and got thrown out of class, might have been on to something. Intuitively, they recognized that, by and large, the grownups in our lives weren’t holding up their end of the bargain, so, quite reasonably, they opted out. I can’t help but think that kids like these will be among those filling that new jail.

An audit is coming. Recently, we adults have been guilty of some very bad accounting, investing too heavily in punishing children and too little in providing opportunities. I don’t think we’re going to like what happens as one by one these kids check our math.

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