While driving through West Baltimore on a rainy Wednesday afternoon and seeing blocks and blocks of houses that are almost all boarded up, garbage piled up high, people dealing drugs out in the open, it became painfully clear to me what is meant by the phrase “cradle to prison pipeline”. Among all the misery and filth, behind the wooden boards I saw some young children. They are growing up here, in this socially toxic and structurally violent environment. How would this affect their further lives? Would they be able to break free from their surroundings? Would they have a fair shot at life? Unfortunately I knew the sad answers to these questions. By being deprived of access to quality early childhood development, education services and accessible, comprehensive health and mental health services, low-income, disadvantaged and minority children growing up in these neighbourhoods were set up for a life of misery and incarceration. This is America's infamous pipeline to prison — a trajectory that leads to marginalised lives, imprisonment and often premature death.
Dropping out of school and in to prison?
Within discussions on the cradle to prison pipeline, explicit attention is drawn to the importance of preventing teenagers from dropping out of school. Over the past couple of years U.S. schools have increasingly defined and managed the problem of student discipline through a prism of crime control. Lacking resources, facing incentives to push out low-performing students, and responding to a handful of highly-publicised school shootings, schools have embraced zero-tolerance policies that automatically impose severe punishment regardless of the circumstances. Under these policies, students have been expelled for bringing nail clippers or scissors to school. While punitive school discipline procedures are detrimental to the wellbeing and to the academic success of all students, they have proven to affect minority students disproportionately, especially African American youth, leading to high numbers of school dropouts in these groups. With nearly 70 percent of the U.S. prison population consisting of high school dropouts, and dropouts being at greater risk of having poorer physical and mental health than those who graduate, it is clear why this should be seen as a worrying development.
The importance of community-based recreational centres
Having dropped out of school, teenagers from West Baltimore nowadays are largely left to the mercy of the streets, with all its consequences. Whereas Baltimore used to have a solid and active network of neighbourhood-oriented recreational centres where teenagers could turn in order to have all sorts of needs met, many of these centres with particularly valuable resources for Baltimore’s poorest areas have been closed in recent years. Having a place to hang out while waiting for parents who have to work long hours in order to make ends meet, having a place to participate in useful community activities and learn some discipline, having a place to get some food, etc. These so-called ‘rec centres’ were intended to be a safe and steady haven in an otherwise largely socially disorganised environment. Various research shows that a link exists between the availability of afterschool or recreational activities and juvenile delinquency such as becoming involved in a gang and/or substance abuse. With this in mind, and while seeing the many very young rioters involved in the riots following the death of Freddie Gray, the importance of rec centres seems even more pressing. Some even claim that these riots could have been prevented if the rec centres in West Baltimore were still open.
Martin Luther King Rec Centre
Seeing and experiencing the necessity of recreational centres for the neighbourhood at large, but in particular for its youth, Arthur – “Squeaky” – Kirk has recently revived the Martin Luther King Recreation Centre in West Baltimore. I had the pleasure to visit the centre and to speak with him about the importance of the centre. Being a West Baltimore native, Arthur has seen the neighbourhood change over the years and – alas – not in positive way. With the style of policing and the games on the street changed severely, school dropouts hanging out at the corners are at high risk of being arrested or shot. The MLK centre specifically addresses the local youth. By running an afterschool programme, a GED programme, by taking in school dropouts and by bringing in successful (West-)Baltimoreans as role models. Besides this, the rec centre provides a range of basic needs, from handing out winter coats, to giving out toys for Christmas. All this is aimed at empowering the local youth by encouraging them and helping them to exploit their full potential in order to get a better future and to break the pipeline. With all the evidence showing the workings of the cradle to prison pipeline and the importance of rec centres for impoverished and deprived neighbourhoods, it seems absurd that the city of Baltimore is not investing in locally initiated rec centres such as the MLK centre. So far, the MLK centre is completely privately funded by Arthur Kirk himself. While investing in human capital has always been one of America’s great strengths, in Baltimore somewhere along the line the most valuable natural resource to society seems to have been forgotten by local and state policymakers: Baltimore’s youth.