by Marcus Altheimer
The conclusion of Cypher’s breakdown brought an immediate round of applause from everyone in the room. They all knew Cypher was well versed in such subjects, even Jake had to admit to the truths spoken.
“A’ight, I’ll digress for now.” Jake conceded over the claps of the group.
The Professor patiently waited for them to settle back down before picking back up where she left off. “Now.” She continued. Refocusing her attention on Cypher. “You’ve proven how proficient you are in the subject of race, however, let’s see how you do with all the many sociological explanations of criminal behavior. So tell me … Sociologist Robert Merton developed what theory?”
“Anomie Theory.” Cypher quickly responded.
“Define ‘Anomie’ and describe the theory.”
“An ‘Anomie’ is a loss or lack of purpose & values in a person or society. Mr. Merton theorized that because the U.S. places so much value on success, poor people become increasingly frustrated since that success usually eludes them. Mr. Merton described this failure to obtain success through hard-work as the anomie.”
Nodding her head in agreement the Professor was pleased to hear Cypher’s correct breakdown, however, that did not mean she was ready to let him off the hook. “Excellent!” She encouraged. “And as a response to this ‘Anomie,’ Mr. Merton concluded that there are a possibility of five adaptations. Please name and describe them.”
The air in the room seemed to still as the men breathlessly watched the intellectual combat unfolding in front of them.
“Can we just skip to the part where you tell me ‘Good job’ and we move on?” Cypher arrogantly asked.
The Professor had to smile, these men’s intelligent confidence was impressive to say the least; it just saddened her that it had obviously gone overlooked through their younger years, leading them to use it in destructive ways. Thankfully though, this University had been tailored for men such as them.
The University Beyond Bars, or U.B.B. for short, wasn’t a University founded on some historical campus with meticulously landscaped lawns and shrubs. The Professors who taught there were not high-salaried faculty members. The Alumni who attended the classes were not there on some highly awarded educational or sports scholarship, but had earned their way through more felonious degrees.
Chain-linked fences topped with razor wire ominously surrounded this University. Its halls were constantly under the watchful eyes of prison officers and 24 hour digital surveillance. The Professors were highly appreciated sponsors who volunteered their time out of the sheer love of changing lives and making a difference and the men were convicted felons serving time for a number of reasons.
The U.B.B. was a fairly new program created by the men of the Black Prisoners Caucus, also known as the B.P.C. The B.P.C. was a grassroots prison organization geared towards the improvement of incarcerated men in an attempt to ensure their success upon release. These men understood that it wasn’t in the Department of Corrections best interest to actually ‘Correct’ or ‘Reform ‘ them. For the sake of themselves and the families they were working so hard to get back to that task was their own duty to complete.
The B.P. C. created the U.B.B. through the recognition of an educational void, a need to learn more than the bleak opportunities afforded through regular prison channels. The B.P. C. funneled most of their own membership through the U.B.B. classrooms and recruited educators through eye opening social summits they held yearly at the prison. Summits that shed light on a number of issues such as recidivism, education, mental health, and juvenile delinquency.
For most of these men the U.B.B. was the final hope to salvage some of the shattered pieces of their past choices had left behind. It was an opportunity to show and prove the redemptive qualities most of society didn’t believe them to have, by excelling in an unorthodox classroom setting, one that directly catered to the same eccentric learning styles which had gotten them labeled ‘At-Risk’ in regular public schools.
Most of these men were high school dropouts who never expected to see the inside of a classroom again, however, they were far from dummies and the Professors who volunteered their time had made it their personal mission to push these men towards recognizing their own intelligent potential.
“Just answer the question please.” The Professor prodded.
“A’ight.” Cypher continued. “I’m jus’ trying to prevent us from wasting any more time, cause you ain’t goin’ to catch me up in the wrong answer Professor.”
“You better not have us start all over.” Lucci remarked. Cypher and he were close friends.
“Man I got this. ” Cypher continued. “So … In no particular order, the first response to Mr. Merton’s ‘Anomie’ theory is Conformity. This is when people continue to believe that they will eventually work their way out of being poor. Second is Innovation, these people reject the status quo and come up with new means to gain wealth. Third is Ritualism, where people continue to go through the motions of working even though they’ve lost any ambition of becoming wealthy. Next is Retreatism, which describes those individuals who have given up in life leading them to turn to heavy drug & alcohol abuse. And last would be Rebellion, where the person rejects society goals and attempts to create their own societal norms.”
“OOOOHHH!” The class went wild with encouragement. “You did that homie!”
“Yea, look at the big brain on Cypher!”
“Come on Professor, you gotta give him his props!”
Blushing with pride the Professor couldn’t contain her smile. Having the pleasure to witness this young mans growth over the past few months had been truly inspiring.
“Yes, yes.” She waved her hands to hush the room. “You are correct sir, very good job.” She kept her praise modest.
“I tried to tell you.” Cypher beamed, basking in the attention.
The Professor had taken her place back at the front of the class once again. “Ok, great job gentlemen, you have survived my rapid-fire review, that wasn’t so bad. Now, I want to have a group discussion to shine a light upon the dirty truth of the Criminal Justice System.”
Liking the sound of where the Professor was going the men sat up attentively in their seats. “What you mean by the dirty truth?” Tre-Dub asked.
“Well.” Began the Professor. “As mentioned before, the general public is led to believe many misleading facts concerning crime and punishment. We assume that a crime gets committed, the police responds and collects evidence that lead them to a suspect, the suspect gets charged with a crime, goes through a lengthy trial and then gets sentenced to prison. It all seems so cut and dry to a normal citizen’s point of view. However everyday citizens have absolutely no idea about the discretion that goes into every decision, the racial disparities between sentencing, the consensual relationship the police have with the courts and the consensual work-groups the agents of the courts have with each other. So what we will do now is to pretend you are breaking down the System to a group of voters who have the power to uphold or change legislation which will in turn affect the law. I want you to break the System down according to your own experience, however, I want you to simultaneously relate your experiences to the lessons you’ve learned within this course so far.” She could see the men’s wheels already spinning as they listened attentively.
“Well!” Lucci began, living up to his reputation. “In order to give you the ‘REAL’ about the System we have to begin with how we get trapped in it to begin with.”
Agreement from the other men accompanied this statement.
“Ok then, let’s proceed.” Granted the Professor.
“First of all, it starts with the failing of the public school system.” Lucci continued. “I mean all of us here know about the ‘School to Prison’ pipeline. There was even an article in the Newspaper that wrote about how the State projects future bed space the prisons will need.”
Being caught off guard by this comment the Professor took the bait. “And how do they get their numbers?” She asked.
“From the States mandatory fourth grade standardized test results!” Lucci stated.
Even though the Professor knew of this practice she gasped incredulously feigning shock. “I don’t believe it!”
“I’ll get you the article.” Cypher interjected. “I kept a copy of it for moments just like this.”
Glad to see his homie backing him up, Lucci continued. “And in it you’ll see that the State uses the results as a type of predictive tool, one which they believe determines how much space prisons will need in the years to come. The more fourth graders that fail the test, the more prison bed space they’ll eventually need”
The Professor sat heavily into a seat of her own with the weight of this news. “I had no idea!” She noted, sickened by the thought.
“That’s just the beginning!” Tre-Dub added. “Once the results of those tests come back, the kids who failed are automatically stigmatized as ‘At-Risk,’ a label which sets them up for many years of systemic injustices by the schools and staff. They are basically criminalized from that point forward.”
Gaffing in disgust Jake had to interrupt. ”Yea right! I have a hard time believing lower test · scores are responsible for the way school teachers and officials treated me growing up?”
“Do you remember your state scores growing up?” Asked Phon.
“Wellll, spit em out.” Phon prodded.
Jake had backed himself into a corner while the rest of the men watched him in anticipation of his answer. “So they said I was below average, so what. That don’t excuse the fact that I was ignored and deemed a distraction.” Retorted Jake.
“So why do you think you were ignored?” Countered Phon.
“The teachers didn’t like me.” Jake shot. Snickers from the other men exploded in response to his feeble attempt at an excuse.
“No.” Phon plainly stated. “They labeled you a dummy, deemed you not worthy of teaching and focused their attention on the brighter students. Accept it.”
The class burst into a fit of laughter as Jake’s cheeks turned a bright ruby red.
“I mean .. ” Phon began through chuckles of his own. “Cypher, Tre-dub an Lucci have accepted the same fact!”
“WHAT!” Tre-Dub and Lucci echoed, shocked at Phonsavanh’s implication.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Cypher exclaimed loudly. “I was born with infinite intelligence so watch how you handle me son. I jus’ didn’t exercise my brain as a troubled youth.”
“Yea,” Emilio began through laughs of his own. “You was so intelligent that you sittin’ here wit us.”
“Alright gentlemen, let’s continue moving forward.” The Professor prodded.
“Ok, so check this.” Tre-Dub continued. “Once you’ve been labeled in school, been ignored and tossed aside, its only natural for a young kid to get frustrated and say ‘Forget it!’ That’s about the time we start kicking it around the bigger homies in our neighborhoods, we start getting more involved in the activities they are involved in rather than school activities and we start having run-ins with the law.”
“Yep!” Seconded Cypher. “And as a minor, the time being passed out for crimes is minimal depending on the seriousness of the crime and compared to the time they handing out as an adult. However, to a kid not used to serving time, ANY amount of time locked up seems like an eternity. Therefore kids and their unsuspecting parents, are easily persuaded into taking preemptive plea-bargains which allow them to quickly get out of jail yet begins the process of stacking their criminal records.”
“And why do you say ‘Preemptive?’ That’s a term usually reserved for actions taken to prevent another action from happening.” The Professor was speaking out loud, trying to comprehend Cypher’s use of the word. “Which seems to be the same argument a prosecutor would make.” She noted. “Saying that these plea-bargains serve as a deterrent to prevent the individual from committing future crimes?”
“Far from it.” Cypher continued. “These plea-bargains are meant to deter the individual from taking their chances at a trial, if they do get in any trouble in the future.”
“Interesting. Please explain.”
“Well, most State Judicial systems take an individual’s criminal history into account when factoring in how much prison time a crime deserves. For instance, a person who has three crimes on their criminal history will receive more time then the person who only has one. So the System attempts to build that history as soon & fast as possible.”
Nodding his head in agreement, Phon interjected. “Yep, cause when I was fourteen they caught me up for taking a motor vehicle. The car was my moms and she wasn’t even trippin’, but the prosecutor pressed the issue by threatening me with months in a juvenile prison if I didn’t take the plea-bargain. I had a court assigned attorney since I didn’t have the funds to get a hired one and everyone knows that the court appointed attorneys have way too many cases to handle. They don’t have the time to actually prepare and fight for each case so their main goal is to get as many of their clients to plea out as possible. Knowing what I know now, or if I had a paid for attorney, I could have beat that case in trial or maybe the prosecutor would have eventually dropped it before it even got that far and it wouldn’t be apart of my record. But being a kid who wanted to go home, they played on my inability to delay instant gratification, leading me to take the deal.”
“And that’s what they do.” Tre-Dub cut in. “They dangle the threat of prison time or freedom in front of our faces, which one you think a kid is goin to take? They know you’re a school flunky with limited opportunities so you’re bound to get caught back up, therefore getting us to take a bunch of small plea bargains at a young age is a small concession setting up the bigger play.”
“And what is the bigger play you believe the System is after?” Asked the Professor.
“Mass incarceration!” Tre-Dub threw his hands up as if the answer was obvious. “They stack our history when we’re younger so when/if we actually do mess up badly enough, they can bust us over the head with football jersey numbered sentences.”
“What do you mean by that?” She asked
“He means double digit years Holmes.” Emillo remarked with all the swag of a Mexican cholo. “Time that makes a few years seem like a walk in the park.”
“Sho ’nuff.” Tre-dub agreed. “You might not have ever committed a violent crime in your life, then you do something stupid like firing a pistol when you’re in the middle of a crowded area. This State is going to charge you with Assault in the first degree for everybody that was in the area, even if nobody got hit! Then, they’ll give you a five-year gun enhancement for every one of those assaults. And now, because you have been taking all those ‘Catch an Release’ deals, you have an extensive criminal record, therefore the prosecutor makes it clear that you’re facing sixty plus years if you go to trial and lose. So you’re forced to take a deal for twenty years! That’s the definition of an ‘Implicit’ Plea-bargain.”
“Very good point sir.” Professor praised. “And please explain ‘What’ an Implicit and Explicit Plea-bargain is and the difference between them.”
Tre-Dub shrugged his shoulders at such an easy request. “There are two types of Plea-bargains, Implicit and Explicit. The Explicit ones are usually discussed between you, your attorney and the prosecutor. While Implicit deals are usually ‘implied’ threats from the prosecutor saying ‘Take this deal or risk losing your life by going to trial.’ It’s a no win situation.”
”Well the public would say you put yourself in that situation by committing crimes in the first place.” The Professor began to play devil’s advocate.
“And to that point I’d partly digress.” Tre-Dub replied. “I do have to take responsibility for ALL my choices regardless of the consequences. However, as Robert Merton theorized, the inability to accomplish economic success through legitimate ways led me to innovate illegal means of doing so.”
… to be continued …