Word from Lowell: Locked in, locked up, and locked out

Lowell Perry Jr., Executive Director

Ever since I embarked on my own personal journey over a dozen years ago to do my part to make a significant difference in the world in which I live, I have been both intrigued and incensed by a phenomenon primarily affecting children and families facing significant adversity in our cities. Too many of our young people in communities like the Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood were born into, and are growing up in, a generational cycle of poverty that is much akin to an ever spinning hamster wheel which becomes increasingly more difficult to get off of with each successive generation.

Cleveland has the dubious distinction of erecting the first public housing project in Central, when some city “genius” had the bright idea of trying to jam as many poor families into a roughly 1.3 square mile radius. There are approximately 10,000 residents in this area, 43 percent of whom are children under the age of 18. Of the families in the neighborhood with children, 89% are female-headed households, 82 percent of children in Central live in poverty, and only 32 percent of residents are high school graduates. Decades of intentional and structural racism have served to keep many members of Central locked in to their current circumstances. Eventually, any of us would become weary of the daily battles, and without some form of hope at the end of the tunnel, start to accept those circumstances.

This induced complacency can lead to other difficulties that make the hamster wheel nearly impossible to escape. In these communities, too many young African-American men in particular are inserted into the juvenile justice system and ultimately the criminal justice system. This is not by accident.  In her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, Michelle Alexander recounts  how Ronald Reagan’s escalation of the so-called “war on drugs”was a primary catalyst behind why there is such a disproportionate number of men of color locked up in this country, primarily for non-violent drug related offenses.

We have an apparent affinity for incarcerating people in this country. A Washington Post article done in July of 2015 confirmed that we lock up more of our fellow citizens than any other country in the world. This national disgrace is bad enough on its surface, however, the way we permanently disenfranchise these individuals after they have “paid their debt to society” is equally despicable. Having a felony on your record, means you are unlikely to ever be able to get a decent paying job, to buy a house or car, or to even exercise your right to vote. For those who enter juvenile and criminal justice systems which have historically not been equitable for all people, this becomes a life sentence.

The new Scarlet Letter is now “F” for felon, signaling that you have been locked out of society. The pursuit of the American Dream,which is supposed to be a right of citizenship in this country, is dead.  This amounts to a form of cultural genocide for communities of color in particular. When we also overlay unequal access to a quality education, it is probably fair to say that the likelihood of being permanently locked out is significantly increased.

The good news is that there is something we can do to change this sad situation.  It begins with the kids.  Children and families in danger of suffering the fate of being forever locked in a cycle of poverty, and part of a cradle to prison pipeline, must be instead introduced into a collaborative cradle to college and career pipeline like the one being fostered by the Promise Neighborhood initiative. If every child is involved in early learning and has access to quality K-12 education, it increases their chances for success.  If residents lead the change in these communities and parents are supported to engage in the academic journey of their kids, and the neighborhoods are healthy and safe, we all ultimately win.

If we have the moral and political will to actually do something about it, we might then perhaps enact more common sense policies,and eliminate the Prison Industrial Complex which has fostered a form of profit that preys on the misfortunes of those locked up in the criminal justice system. The answer is definitely not to embrace more punitive measures.  This philosophy has shown to be grossly ineffective and costly to us as taxpayers.  Now don’t get me wrong, there are certainly some who need to be behind bars.  But those who have been locked up and locked out of society for a non-violent mistake should not be permanently branded with an “F” and therefore denied their “certain inalienable rights” to a fair shot at pursuing life, liberty, and happiness.

The bottom line is that we might virtually eliminate a world in which too many of our fellow citizens are locked in, locked up, and locked out as adults by asking ourselves a very important question when making decisions and policies in this country – will it benefit our children?  We have to set aside greed run amok where shareholder dividends have become more important than whether each of our neighbors, no matter their current circumstances, is able to access the path leading to their reaching their full God given potential.We must be of great courage and not waffle on what needs to be done if we are to live up to the ideals of what this country claims to have been founded upon.

This is not about red or blue, conservative or liberal, or Republican or Democrat.  It is a responsibility of our basic humanity to work together for the good of all of our citizens to ensure that everyone has his or her fair chance to succeed in this world.

Are you up to the task of doing your part?