The cradle to prison pipeline - - Jackson, MS

The cradle to prison pipeline

JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

Almost 800,000 children live in Mississippi. The Children's Defense Fund says, a Mississippi child is abused or neglected every hour and a Mississippi child dies before his or her first birthday every 20 hours.

Eight point six percent of 16 to 19-year-olds are not enrolled in school and won't graduate.

The Children's Defense Fund says the numbers are also staggering for children with the odds stacked against them from birth of being productive, law abiding citizens. They are fighting what they call the Cradle to Prison Pipeline in this state and across the nation.

It has become an almost daily occurrence, young black males committing crimes, some of them as young as 12, 13 and 14. There are drug charges, burglary, robbery, aggravated assault, even murder.

One of the most common questions is, 'Why aren't these kids in school instead of committing crimes?'

"We have children that are coming into public schools not knowing their real names," said Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, Executive Director of the Children's Defense Fund in Mississippi. "Chris Epps will tell you, Malcolm McMillin told us, Tyrone Lewis will tell you, that the majority of people that end up in the prison system can't read."

Fitzgerald says private prisons look at state's like Mississippi with high poverty rates, high drop out rates and zero tolerance policies. She says some look at education scores beginning with the third grade.

"Give me bodies. Pay me money and I'll take these bodies," added Fitzgerald. "It's human trafficking."

Fitzgerald works with Portia Espy traveling across the state to work with parents, students and at risk youth. They are also encouraging leaders to consider other consequences for students who make bad choices .

"1 in 3 of African American boys born in the year 2001 will be incarcerated in their lifetime and personally I have one of those children who was born, an African American male who was born in the year 2001. So it's a personal statistic for me," said Espy.

Marian wright Edelman the founder of the Children's Defense Fund stresses the importance of working with children.

"What is a child going to do in this globalized economy if they can't read or compute," said Edelman. "They're being sentenced to social and economic death."

Edelman says at least three million children are suspended from school each year, and when they can't find support and acceptance in positive environments, they can find it on the streets. Then it is no longer a discipline problem but a criminal problem.

"There is no reason why you should be arresting 6 and 7 year old, on school grounds, handcuffing them," added Edelman. "And the black community, the white community, all of us are taking it. We've got to change."

Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps says right now in the prison system there are 829 in custody under the age of 21 statewide.

There are also 890 who are on probation, and 62 of those are on house arrest.

Epps says many of these young men come into the system without a high school education.

"Today the youngest is age 15 but we can have inmates as low as 13," said Epps.

The commissioner and his staff work to educate and rehabilitate the young men who are sentenced to prison.

"Inmates come in Maggie at the 6th grade reading, writing and arithmetic level. 6th grade," said Epps. "In addition to that 77.6% have an alcohol or drug problem."

Two mothers are concerned and angry. Jennifer Brown says her son who is 5th grade brought a bb gun on his school bus and now attends the Alternative School in Jackson.

"They first tried to arrest him," said Brown. "How you gonna arrest him and you didn't ask no questions. Why should you send him to Alternative School and he ain't never been in trouble."

Brown says there should be consequences but not at the expense of education.

"You gotta give people a chance," added Brown. "You just can't throw people away like that."

Betty Turner says she is a mom turned advocate because of her son. She says the problems started in middle school.

"I've lost jobs, I've been to jail, I've been put out of schools," said Turner.

Turner says it has become too easy to label children as problems and not deal with the real issues. Her son has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"If my child has done something, I'm not saying don't punish him, but talk to me first," said Turner. "Well if you're going to transport him because he got into a fight, or he skipped class or he wouldn't sit down in his chair, so you're gonna put him out of school."

Turner says parents, policy makers and educators must work together to stop the cradle to prison pipeline.

"I couldn't even come to the school at one point, I'm disrupting the school," added Turner. "No, I'm trying to help you help my child. Cause if I can help you help my child, then you're helping me. I can go to school, and I can go to work. If I can't work, I can't eat."

Turner says her son wants to serve in the military, and Jennifer Brown credits an after school program, 21st Century Community Learning Center at Tougaloo College, with helping her 5th grader stay positive about his future and interested in learning.

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