Anthony Farley is Associate Professor of Law at Boston College Law School. Anthony Paul Farley is an expert on Constitutional Law, Criminal Procedure, and Legal Theory. Farley is also an affiliated professor with the Graduate Department of Sociology and African & African Diaspora Studies at Boston College.
Over two million people are imprisoned in the United States. Most of them are black. This is slavery in a new form, as is the scandalous quality of the educational resources meted out to the heirs of Brown v. Board of Education. The attack on freedom and the attack on literacy are, of course, related. Among the many thousands gone the way of incarceration are few, very few, who ever had the experience of a decent school.
Many, far too many, of our urban schools resemble prisons. Visit one of these schools and you will see how dreams are killed at an early age. Dreams are killed by educators who do not love the children they have promised to educate. Dreams are killed by an educational-industrial complex that creates conditions that make such love impossible to imagine. Dreams are killed as an ever-greater color-lined nation abandons the twin dreams of education and emancipation altogether.
Failing schools produce illiteracy just as surely as failing prisons produce recidivism. The failure of these two institutions seems always to escape serious examination. In the Antebellum South, the dream of the literate slave was always emancipation, just as the dream of the emancipated slave was always literacy. Reading and freedom have always been connected in the minds of former slaves and former slave masters in the United States. Witness the trials and tribulations of Frederick Douglass in his struggle for both mental and physical liberation, for freedom from both illiteracy and the plantation.
Our schools fail. Our prisons fail. The former produce illiteracy, while the latter produce recidivism, and both kill dreams of an emancipated future in the United States. When institutions fail year after year, we must re-examine what we mean by failure. When the reformers respond to this year’s failure with last year’s failed solutions, we must examine what we mean by reform. These failed prisons, these failed schools, and all these failed and endlessly recycled reforms actually succeed in continuing the color line’s division of the United States into two nations: black and white, separate and unequal. And there seems to be no exit from this cycle of failure.
What is to be done?
We should turn the prisons into schools.
We can begin by remaking the probation system. This is being done in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Since 1994, we have conducted a literature program for women and men who have been convicted in the Dorchester District Court for various offenses. The program has been an outstanding success.
Many of the participants experienced the program as the first time that they ever read a book from cover to cover. Many have confessed to me their late realization that reading could be liberating and enjoyable. They speak of joy in discovering the pleasures of the text and of anger because the doorway to the world’s imagination, the book, was hidden from them in school. They look back in anger at the ways that their schools succeeded in causing them to fail themselves by producing failing grades. They realize, more importantly, that they can read and that they have ideas about great literature. And this causes them to look forward with hope.
A literature program is just the beginning. If a university-level course can be taught as a condition of probation, then anything can be taught anywhere to anyone. Probation offices all over the nation can be transformed into schools. Prisons, too, can be transformed, utterly, into places of elementary, secondary, university, and graduate education. And with success in the transformation of our failed prisons into successful schools must come success in the transformation of our failed schools into freedom schools.
Our schools have become prisons. Our prisons, whatever they may be labeled, must be transformed into schools. If this seems like a dream, it is no less real than the collective nightmare that we have made of our schools and prisons. If this seems like a dream, it is no less real than the nightmare we will live if our nation remains half slave and half free.
One program is not enough. All of our prisons need to become schools and cease being prisons. All of our schools need to become limitless palaces worthy of the boundless imaginations of youth. To break the color line, to save our bodies and souls from the nightmare we have manufactured, to renounce the past and create a decent society at long last, we must all join the liberation movement and fight for literacy and emancipation, as for bread and roses. Which side are you on?