Sitting in the paddy wagon, I was afraid – maybe apprehensive was a better word, since I rightly suspected that white privilege would guarantee me good treatment. Still, I said a prayer of thanksgiving. After years of advocating for people in our carceral system, I was given a chance to develop more empathy.
Together with many other advocates, I’d been arrested for blocking the entrance to the Abraham Ribicoff Federal Building, the Connecticut base of ICE. This was 2018, at the height of the Trump Administration’s criminal separation of families at the southern border. We were protesting that and calling for the elimination of ICE.
“Obama deported plenty of people, too. Why weren’t you protesting then?” you might ask, validly. I should have done more than write the occasional angry letter to my members of Congress. But in fairness, I’d been putting my energy into reforming juvenile “justice” systems in Connecticut and around the country. One of the few joys of 2018, was that the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) was finally closed. For years, every time I drove by CJTS I would pray that we shuttered the place before a child died inside – a very real risk. After it closed, I started saying a prayer of thanksgiving during these drive-bys, along with a prayer that every child be recognized as precious.
That prayer has not yet been granted. We finally built consensus that CJTS was too dangerous for U.S. born youth. But, hey, it might be fine for unaccompanied immigrant children. The merest possibility of this happening is an abomination.
The pictures you see of CJTS on the news are of a brick building that might belong on a college campus. Inside you’ll find cinderblock cells and “pods” where the cells are arranged around a central guard station. There’s lots of monitoring – though there were always blind spots that kids found for self harm. It was modelled on and strongly resembles an adult high security prison. It never was and never can be a suitable environment for young people. It was never fine.
CJTS is a monument to the idea that some kids just don’t matter. In the years that we tried to close the benighted place, we’d hear state officials talk about great programs inside. (Boys learned to make Italian ice!) But never once did I hear anyone argue that CJTS was a place where they’d be fine with their own children living.
Other people’s children matter as much as yours and as much as mine. That should not be a revolutionary idea. But the proposal to put immigrant children in prison – and a prison it surely is – shows that society places no value on some kids. It’s fine “for them.” You could say the same about the way we fund schools, leaving the neediest students with the fewest resources. You could say the same about the very existence of a juvenile “justice” system. None of this is fine.
When these evils whip me into a fury, I often call my friend, Joanne Goldblum. She’s CEO of the New Haven-based National Diaper Bank Network, and we co-wrote a book together about poverty. Joanne gets the it’s-not-fine-for-your-kid-if-it’s-not-fine-for-mine idea. Much of her career happened because she couldn’t stand the fact that one in three families cannot afford an adequate supply of diapers for their children. She was just as horrified at other people’s babies sitting in mess as she would be if it happened to her own. These conversations do not make either of us happier – simply less alone.
Researching our book, we encountered: a family where the baby bathes outdoors in an ice chest because there is no running water in the house; a boy who loves to clean his teeth at school because there is no brush or paste at home; a tween always in the emergency room for asthma because the landlord wouldn’t remove moldy carpet from a Section 8 apartment.
All of these things happen because this, the wealthiest country in human history, says “it’s fine” when it comes to how we treat and care for children, especially those who live in poverty. The Connecticut Juvenile Training School is the physical manifestation of that idea. We should knock it down, along with the big lie that supports it, because it’s not fine.
Colleen Shaddox is the co-author, with Joanne Samuel Goldblum, of Broke In America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty.