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Time inside opens your eyes

Michael Poffenberger | Monday, September 13, 2004

Life-changing experiences sometimes come at unexpected times. This one started with a harmless date to a baseball game and ended up in jail.

My date and I met friends for drinks before the game, downed a few beers and headed to Camden Yards in Baltimore to watch the Red Sox dominate the Orioles. Our optimistic attitudes were not drowned out with the rains that poured down in the fourth inning. Even if they cancelled the game, we were determined to have a fun night.

Ready to stir up some trouble, my date turned to me and said that she thought it would be a great idea to play slip ‘n slide on the giant tarp that had been pulled out temporarily over the diamond. With alcohol and testosterone flowing through my veins, I, of course, could not back down from the challenge and soon found myself leaping onto the field and sprinting toward first base, hands pumping in the air as if I’d just won an Olympic medal.

My 15 minutes of fame did not disappoint. There were 30,000 disgruntled baseball fans cheering at their newfound entertainment, and my slip ‘n slide dive was worthy of the record books. When I climbed back into the stands, the stadium police chased me through rows of fans in several sections. I rather inconveniently forgot however that radio waves travel faster than legs and was eventually caught and led to the stadium jail. But I was still all smiles and laughter, high on the experience and wishing that I had thought to run through the dugout to give Pedro Martinez a high five.

The comic nature of the incident came to an abrupt and sober end several hours later when I found myself booked, photographed and fingerprinted in a jail cell in downtown Baltimore. The next 20 hours were long and dehumanizing. But they were also eye-opening.

My time in jail will be looked back on with humor, a youthful folly. But the other 12 people sitting uncomfortably in the two-man cell in which I found myself, all of whom were black and from inner-city Baltimore, will probably have very different stories to tell, stories that challenge the comfortable boundaries of life at Notre Dame.

My cellmates had been in jail countless times. They all grew up in parts of Baltimore where public schooling is inferior, entry-level jobs are few and stable families rare. Pressures and expectations are radically different than in the typical suburban community. For my cellmates, this constructed reality led them to dope use and attempted escape from the cops, while its parallel for most kids in America includes attending school plays and seeing movies.

The cycle of drugs, dependence and materialism in which my cellmates have found themselves is a result of their political and economic marginalization at the hands of our wider society. Bad schools have led to dropping out – only 45 percent of black males graduate from Chicago public schools. Single parents working overtime at minimum wage jobs have led to a relative dearth of positive role models. Discrimination has caused frustration and rebellion. A lack of jobs and income generates crime (In 2002, one in four black males was idle all year long; that, shockingly, does not include the estimated 10 percent of black men under the age of 40 who are incarcerated at any given time). This cycle continually degenerates, assaulting human dignity.

With no options for making a valuable contribution to the greater society, the default reality is deviant behavior, sticking it to “The Man” who never gave a leg up. And time spent in our country’s “correctional” facilities certainly does not help anything. It doesn’t successfully protect the wider society from crime, and it doesn’t correct criminal behavior. It does, however, institutionalize human beings, depriving them of any hope they might have, dehumanizing them to the point where they start believing the message of their own worthlessness that the world has been feeding them.

After a pause in conversation in our cell, the gravity of this crisis and the way it is affecting people was made most apparent by one of my cellmates when he said, “We gotta keep talking. The silence is bad, because then you start thinking. And that just gets depressing.”

Structural solutions that would promote human dignity could include the implementation of a living wage, so that parents do not have to work numerous jobs and can be present more in the lives of their children, and so that crime is not the only way to fund life’s needs. Improving the quality of public education in urban areas would increase the number of individuals who could attain higher education. Job training could provide much-needed alternatives. The list or possible solutions aimed at increasing equality of opportunity and participation in society goes on. Recent legislation from the Bush administration – such as the widely-touted “No Child Left Behind” Act – has only further demonstrated the lack of political concern about the situation of the urban poor.

Until all citizens of the United States experience economic security and a fair shot at life, no member of our society will be secure. Until then, the values that we cherish in America apply only to those of us on this side of the railroad tracks.

Michael Poffenberger is a senior anthropology and peace studies major. He can be reached at mpoffenb@nd.edu.

The views of this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.