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Home: The Toast

In the summer of 2011, I had two jobs. One was in the Cook County Jail’s drug treatment facility, Division VI; the other was at a summer school on the South Side for Chicago public schools. The similarities were chilling. The inmates of both places were delivered the same bland, partially frozen food: Bologna in tiny tortillas, waxy apples, and milk that had solidified. Go-gurt, for some reason.

In both cases, the food came off a big industrial truck, all stacked up in little crates. The recipients had no say on what they were given or when they would receive it. Some say that food quality is one of the main reasons behind prison inmate’s religious conversions, and I believe it. If you convert to Islam, it’s said, you get the prison’s vegetarian food, which has actual nutritional value. CPS students have no such recourse.

The jail inmates and the students are both shepherded from place to place in much the same oppressive, suspicious manner. The school’s halls, like the jail’s, were lined with burly, squinting guards who liked to yell and punish. There was no leaving the room of your own volition. The clothing restrictions were similar– no open-toed shoes, no sleeveless tops, even in stifling 90-degree weather. Neither place had air conditioning.

The days started painfully early and ended around 3pm. For those who didn’t have an after-class activity set up, there was nothing else to do with the rest of the day. The students and inmates played cards, or chess, or watched terrible basic television until the day ended.

I came into both these positions at the same time because I’m a psychologist. People hear “psychologist” and they think head-shrinking. They think maybe I’m sitting next to a couch and pushing tissues in the direction of a crying woman with a mood disorder, telling her to describe to me how she feels.

But I’m a social psychologist, a researcher; a field with tendrils that reach far and wide, into education, public policy, social welfare, opinion polling, market research, and many others. As long as you have a group of people who are forced to interact with one another and follow certain arbitrary rules, you have a situation where a psychologist might be employed. Hence both jobs.

In the Cook County Jail, I was taken on as an intern, and my job was to evaluate a court-mandated drug treatment program in the jail’s Division VI. There were four decks, each comprised of forty inmates each, and they all slept on small bunks encircling a larger, two-story communal area adorned with long tables and cheap plastic furniture. Within the space, they could move relatively freely. Therapy, classes, and anti-drug programming was held at odd intervals throughout the day, led by former addicts.

Some of the therapists were former prisoners, too. Their education in drug treatment hadn’t been formal, but their horror stories, scars, and missing fingers spoke to the inmates in ways few shrinks or social workers ever did. These dudes knew what it was like to have children you barely knew, or to never have a father. They had committed domestic abuse and stolen from employers and hated themselves and lifted other people up. One therapist had been seriously wounded and paralyzed in a drug-induced accident, only to have an angel appear to him in his hospital bed, granting him the ability to walk once more. I believed that he believed it, and the inmates did too.

Clients, I should say. We called them clients. Our job was to help, not to imprison. My job was to evaluate the program, but I still don’t know whether it actually worked or not. The department would not grant me access to the clients’ records, so it was impossible to calculate the clients’ recidivism rate. The methods were imperfect and facilities shoddy; the program had no materials, so clients had to sit and watch films like Clean and Sober (starring a very young and coke-addled Michael Keaton) over and over again to pass the time.

But I saw those men sit in circles, express their regrets, and be moved by one another. I saw the old timers give young addicts prescient advice and call them on their bullshit justifications. There was emotional authenticity there, and genuine, boundless contemplation of what it took (and meant) to be a good man. The words that came from the mouths of those clients were some of the most complex musings on masculine gender identity I have ever heard. I believe the program could work, despite its flaws, at least for some of them.

As for the summer school program, it was run by an educational psychologist out of DePaul, who was absolutely convinced that the way to boost students’ achievement was to raise their self-esteem. She brought in the highest-ranked teachers at successful public and charter schools all around the city, and threw them at small classrooms of children who were grades behind on reading and math.

We gave them workbooks, and personality quizzes, and the teachers lectured and tutored. For the especially troubled children, there was plenty of one-on-one time. They read Roald Dahl’s The BFG and analyzed it for characterization and drew pictures. Then we lined them up and sent them down the hall, where they were screamed at by the guards and delivered into a dingy, humid cafeteria with the frozen bologna taken from the back of the delivery truck. One student missed a week of class because the un-air-conditioned 90-degree weather gave him seizures.

There was one kid I absolutely fell in love with. A sixth grader, he was firecracker witty. He noticed and mocked the way the white teachers kept mispronouncing the students’ names. He was an endless torrent of commentary and jokes, cultural references and acerbic freestyle lyrics. The only exception was when someone in class said something homophobic or intolerant. Then he’d sober up like he’d been hit with a bucket of ice water, and explain solemnly why it was wrong.

He scored in the 98th percentile on standardized tests and had a D average. One night after class he had to walk from the school (on 35th) to his aunt’s apartment (over 100 blocks away); by the time he arrived at the apartment, the aunt had already gone to work, so he had to sleep on the stoop until 4am. I don’t know if the program did him any good.

I don’t know, either, whether the summer school program worked or not. I know empirically that it did not boost students’ self-esteem. But then, it is very difficult to alter how people see themselves. A few students passed the standardized tests, a few boosted their grades and attendance records, and a few were quietly expelled from the program for showing up too late, too often, in the same clothes as the day before.

I never saw a single one of the white teachers listen or share with students about their actual problems. No matter how neglected, sleepless, or hungry a child appeared to be, no one ever followed the mandatory reporting laws. If a student was clearly and audibly agitated by something terrible that had happened to them outside the school’s doors, they were either ignored or reprimanded by the principal or the security guards. There was no time for listening or sharing. None of the teachers had grown up the way these children had; they had no common experiences.

When the program ended, my favorite student added me on Facebook. I followed his humorous posts and movie references with some interest for a while until he started posting about his sexual escapades. Eventually I stopped reading his updates. Still, I persisted in the assumption that he’d be OK. He was smart.

Then I got a message saying he’d been involved in a fight at school, had accidentally struck a second grader who’d been caught in the fray, and was being sent to jail as a result. I messaged him. He was flippant about the whole ordeal, and seemed unconcerned. He went to court, he disappeared from Facebook, and that was all I knew. A boy his age would have landed in juvie, of course, not the County Jail where I still worked at the time. Not that I would have been of any use.

Chicago Public Schools is not like other school districts. If a child picks a fight in a suburban school, he or she is likely to be suspended or given a series of detentions, nothing more. However, an unruly CPS student is far more likely to be arrested or assigned jail time following a physical assault, and is unlikely to be allowed back into a school of any quality. This is true of most “urban” schools, or any public school where the student-teacher ratio is troublingly high. When a school lacks sufficient resources, students are expendable.

CPS also differs from suburban schools in its approach to failing students. If a child doesn’t have a good chance of passing the mandatory statewide tests, the child will frequently be held back a grade, sometimes multiple times, to prevent him or her from having to take the exam at all. For example, an underperforming kid might be retained in seventh grade for three years, in order to prevent him from taking the required 8th grade exam and botching it. Low test scores bear a strong influence on school funding and school closures.

These two policies lead to a lot of dropouts. Some of the kids who failed summer school that year might already be on the path to Cook County Jail Division VI. In some cases, that might be the best service the county can offer them. They’ll have food and shelter. They will received GED tutoring, parenting classes, group therapy, and will be enrolled in a career program once they are released.

Of course, these lush amenities are only available in some divisions; much of the jail is overcrowded, understocked, and understaffed– much like CPS itself.

Erika D. Price is a social psychologist and writer of essays and short fiction living in Chicago, IL. Her work has appeared in Whiskeypaper, Literary Orphans, Essay Fiesta, The Paper Machete, and the Journal of Social and Experimental Social Psychology, among others. She writes at erikadprice.tumblr.com.

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