Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Recession on the Inside

We got another glimpse recently of what the recession can look like on the inside. Like many institutions, we have faced budget cuts and possible lay offs. Administrative leadership has, of course, been looking for any way possible to bring more money into our Detention Center. Thus staff hours have been extended from eight to twelve hours and we’ve been opening up to many more non-English speaking ICE (Immigration Control and Enforcement) kids. The reason for this is, of course, that more funding comes for housing those kids. Money’s tight, and can you really justify laying off staff when there is a way to bring in more funding? That’s one argument, at least. I personally believe there is, from a macro, social perspective, always the money and time to achieve what we value the most. One can also argue that if we funded our schools and other public institutions they way we should (and the way that we currently fund Defense), these sorts of choices between housing kids that we are not really equipped for (only a few of our staff speak Spanish, the main language of the ICE kids) or laying off staff when people desperately need jobs wouldn’t be necessary. The lack of Spanish-speakers leaves everyone here, including the kids, less secure because if tension is growing between some kids, and we don’t know about it, we obviously can’t nip it in the proverbial bud as we normally would.

So this is the context in which the racially-charged fight, involving about five kids, happened last Friday. Inappropriate words in both English and Spanish had apparently been passed. A black student had been using some racial slurs over the past day or so; a Hispanic kid punched him and then it was, as they say, on. Several other Hispanic kids, at least two or three of whom are not incidentally members of MS13, joined in. Nearly every staff member available was needed to get things back under control. This was at 8:15ish Friday morning, and we were locked down all day.

We’ve made educational changes to better serve the ICE/ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) kids, but they happen so slowly and at times more on paper than in practice. Some of the extra (part-time, sadly) teaching staff that we’ve brought in find they are required to spend more of their time either being trained to give tests, testing or doing paperwork. Only on a rare day do these specialists actually get to teach students. This is compounded in our juvenile detention setting because when we do get to spend individual time with a kid who needs it, that kid might be with another professional (such as a lawyer or parole officer) or locked down. Budgeting has also meant that it’s been difficult keeping and training detention staff; for some, a twelve-hour shift is just too long, especially if they have another job.

So what then is to be done? In our debrief, I mentioned Dialogue and Difference, which I think is a strong program on understanding cultural differences and the kinds of conflicts they can cause. Unfortunately, our “jurisdiction” as teachers is limited here as we only see the kids during class. Each unit staff is supposed to being doing what’s called “group”, a community-builder in which kids are invited to share their thoughts on being in the unit and discuss concerns. I’ve seen it be quite effective, but it has to be consistent and is far more likely to successfully change prejudiced behavior and thinking if the student has important role models outside of our facility.

We will do what we can, but I keep coming back to the fundamental role of policy and the reality that budgets are moral documents, as I’ve heard Jim Wallis say. I worry that so many of the cuts we are making in social services and education are going to be what my grandma would have called penny-wise and pound-foolish. Part-time teachers means more kids fall through the cracks; extended hours for staff means good staff are hard to find and retain, which means security is undermined and too much time is invested in constant retraining. Hikes in college tuition, especially community colleges, means that kids looking for a way to a better (more legal) life see the first step out of reach, and so taxpayers may need to house them in adult facilities soon. How then are these cuts, from a long-term, big picture perspective, actually saving us money? Eventually, the bill is going to come due and if you put it off too long, it will be due with interest.