BALTIMORE — "I'm not a former baseball player," Nathaniel Rice tells about 75 teen-age public school students as he strides back and forth across the little stage, warming up his audience for an anti-drug rally. "I'm not a former actor. I'm a former"--and he pauses for effect--"just like you."
The 75 students in the dimly lit little gym are polite and attentive. They are also in jail--and that makes it easy for them to understand what Rice is talking about.
Rice had been in the Baltimore City Jail before--22 years ago as a prisoner. Disorderly conduct--"hell-raising"--was the charge.
Now, he is part of a Baltimore public school program that operates in the jail. The program represents one city's reaction to the disturbing nationwide problem of juveniles in jail, an effort to prepare them for life on the outside and to prevent them from returning.
Most in Juvenile Centers
Only a small percentage of juvenile offenders--those charged with the most serious crimes--are kept in adult jails like the one here; critics of the practice are working hard to eliminate it altogether. Most of the nation's troublesome youths are held in juvenile detention centers, where they attend "halfway schools." Educating them full time is mandatory, even after they go to jail, until age 16 in most states, including Maryland and California.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that, nationally, about 500,000 juveniles spend varying amounts of time in public detention centers each year--133,000 in California, 8,600 in Maryland. And, when private facilities are counted, the annual figure grows to more than 800,000, several non-government research organizations said. On any given day, about 50,000 are in the centers nationwide, with another 1,500 in adult jails.
Experts say that the numbers are holding steady but that the youths' crimes, often committed amid illegal use of drugs, are drawing increasingly longer sentences, making the need for education more crucial.
Some Common Issues
As far as the education itself is concerned, the issues are like those involving teaching on the outside: teacher competence, quality of programs, funding and parental involvement. However, concerns about jail schools are much more intertwined with the larger debates about the nation's chronic crime problem and the justice system's response to it.
Students behind bars present special problems to educators, such as high illiteracy and low motivation. And, of course, they have special problems. These young people face not only the daunting prospect of just growing up in a complex world, but also overcoming the stigma of early encounters with the law.
In the Baltimore jail, Darnell Burrell, 17, a soft-spoken look-alike for basketball star Michael Jordan, said the program here is working. "I have a positive attitude," said the 11th-grader, who last May was accused of attempted murder. "I feel the classes will better my education."
Burrell is one of about 250 juveniles in the jail, including 10 young women. They all have been charged with serious crimes and await trial. In some ways, their academic routine is unremarkable; they attend class from 8:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., studying reading, mathematics, English and computer science.
But, unlike their counterparts on the outside, they are given incentives such as cigarettes and additional visitation privileges in exchange for good academic performance and behavior. And they have daily prayer sessions.
"If we don't correct some of their behavior, then they're going to go back out and rob or snatch purses," said Ernestine Holley, the jail's director of education. She said attendance is not a problem: "About the only time anyone misses class is for a court appearance."
Over the years, experts say, jail schools have evolved from a system that originally emphasized only discipline of unruly youths to one that now focuses on inspiring intellectual curiosity.
This evolution grew partly out of necessity. As rising numbers of adults overflowed the nation's jails and prisons and strained state budgets, educators and law enforcement officials sought ways to prevent youths from joining their ranks.
Thomas J. Johnson, an assistant superintendent in the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District in California, said that a "national push on law and order" began several years ago, leading to longer juvenile sentences, but that a push for better education "lagged behind."
At the Los Angeles County Office of Education, Ira Mattox, area administrator in the Division of Juvenile Court and Community Schools, said that during his 27 years with the agency the number of incarcerated juveniles has "gone up progressively" in the county to about 5,000. During his career, he said, the youngsters "began to stay longer" when they committed crimes, creating a greater need for educational programs.
High Illiteracy Rate