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Out From Behind Bars

Out From Behind Bars

***Names of individuals in this article have been changed to protect the privacy and safety of those involved.***  

Reporters have it simple: we research, we document what we observe, we write the piece, and we go on to the next one. But occasionally, you get a story that becomes something different—very different—than what you expected.

PressureLife editors assigned me to a story about teenage gang members in prison and the education they can obtain there. They felt I was the best fit because my day job is in social services. I had an idea of what kind of story I wanted to tell, but after I documented and observed, I ended up with a story that raised many questions but provided few answers.

Richard Gooden is a teacher at a juvenile correction facility near Cleveland. Ohio mandates imprisoned youth must receive education while incarcerated, hence the development of high schools within the prisons. They operate just like any typical high school, though the students are anything but.

“My best classes, we don’t even talk about school. We just talk about stuff,” says Gooden. “Life, things they don’t understand like applying for credit, student loans, trade school. Many of them have never left the state, so we talk about what it’s like to travel, have relationships, how to talk around adults and women.”

Gooden’s students occasionally have rap battles, which he says are both impressive and genuinely enjoyable. “It kind of sucks though, thinking about how awesome they could be if they had a different support system. Some of them could have scholarships. [They are] smart guys who could do academics or athletics. They have no support system at home that will teach them a work ethic. It’s like, going to jail is just an expectation for their lives.”

Gooden’s high school graduates about 25 students per year. Though graduation days are rewarding, Gooden’s biggest reward comes from the connection he makes with his students. “I’m a bit of a misplaced soul. I was that kid that didn’t give a fuck. I cared about school, but I did bad things. Being able to relate to these guys and having them treat me as I’m one of their own—where I came from, I actually understand them. They embrace me, rather than seeing me as just some white dude that comes from wherever. They talk to me. They ask me questions.” Gooden adds, “They don’t trust people, but they trust me.”  

Gooden invited me to a show at the Agora—one of his most promising graduates was opening for a national rap act.  

Chris Rodgers, 19, completed high school in jail just last year and is starting school at a four-year university this year. In person he is astute, energetic, and cerebral.

“I knew Chris should not have been there,” says Gooden. “With more direction and support, he could easily have been an honors student. He understands life and the importance of education, but was just caught up in not understanding the gravity of his actions. When the status quo abandons you but wants you to be an upstanding citizen, it’s a paradox that is difficult to overcome. I have nothing but admiration for Chris and his ability to learn, adapt, and change.”

Rodgers is an aspiring rapper, defying cliché by being actually good. Think a Cleveland-sized variant of Big L. The lyrics of his signature song are gritty and in-your-face, his delivery of them is clean and on-point, and the music is minimalist—it sounds Cleveland. “I wanted to wake up the current generation,” he says. “Our generation tends to hear what they want. I felt like if I put it in a song people might receive it more strongly.”

About a month after the Agora show, I was covering a local hip-hop festival for PressureLife and thought of Chris. My media contacts occasionally become social work contacts, usually through a simple, casual conversation about my “other job.” Chris isn’t on my caseload, but for many of us working in social services, we occasionally find ourselves assisting in situations outside of the efforts we earn a paycheck for—it’s all in a day’s work, really. I took a shot in the dark and asked about putting him on the bill and the promoters agreed.

Gooden, Rodgers and I were all excited about the gig. It would be an opportunity for Chris to promote his music and network with the local hip-hop scene. That day, Chris texted me and Gooden and told us he wouldn’t be able to make the show for reasons social service providers call “barriers to equal access.” The three of us were then just as disappointed as we had been excited.  

So now what?

Gooden says Rodgers has reached out to him for everything from general encouragement to advice on buying a car. “Their families are either absent, in the same shit because they also don’t have any life skills, or too busy working two and three jobs just to survive,” Gooden tells me. Rodgers currently lives with his sister in a suburb far from the environment that helped land him in prison, but the location makes transportation difficult and his sister works enough that she is unable to devote all the time and energy needed to support him. Chris would not have made it to his first show at the Agora had Gooden not driven him. His social worker from the prison and his parole officer have also assisted Rodgers outside of their professional realm of services.  

“Equal access” means everyone has the same opportunities to gain access to what they require to live successfully. Not having life handed to you, but having the knowledge and resources in place to be able to obtain success independently.

“These kids get released,” Gooden explains, “and they go right back to the same neighborhood with the same people and pick up where they left off. Even if they want to do better, they have very limited resources. They need a life coach, honestly. Someone living with them. You could say ‘Well, they should be responsible for themselves,’ but it doesn’t work that way. You need someone waking them up and telling them, ‘Go to your fucking job’ every single day until they get it. And they probably wouldn’t have any high school education at all if they didn’t go to prison.”

The unwritten rules most of us take for granted—like understanding the importance of being to work on time, how to use public transport when you can’t afford a car, or why you shouldn’t get a neck tattoo—we learned them from family members and mentors that many of these kids don’t have and through life experience you can’t get when you’re in prison.

I was able to get Chris connected with the promoters of the show he missed and we may get a do-over. I’ve since helped him with writing professional emails and offered him advice. He knows his limitations and respects all he still has to learn. He’s very self-aware, having once admitted to me that he doesn’t manage money well. He’s wise for his age and quite thoughtful.

Musically-speaking, he’s talented as fuck and has real potential. My initial motivation to help Chris came from being blown away by the YouTube clip of his track Gooden had sent me for my story. This kid deserves a chance to be someone better than who he was and he can’t do it alone. None of us can, really. In social services, the difference in the amount of success between those that have support and those that don’t is stunning. I have the knowledge, the resources and the experience to help.

And if I don’t, who will?

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