Today’s New York Times publishes a new and confidential report, released by an unnamed “state agency,” that substantiates the shortcomings (to use a generous word) of the New York juvenile justice system.

Though little of it would surprise anyone who’s ever worked with the American juvenile justice system, it’s hard to know what horrifies me most about the new report’s findings. Is it the fact that an estimated half of these young people suffer from diagnosed mental illnesses, one-third have developmental disabilities, and the system fails to employ a single psychiatrist who can issue medication?

Is it the 15-year-old boy who died after being restrained by the prison workers employed, at least in part, to protect him, or the other reports of shattered bones and teeth inflicted by these state employees? Is it the stunning racial disparity of the inmates? Is it the fact that the article didn’t breathe a word of the violence against GLBT and transgender youth in prison?

Though I’m outraged by the injustice of those facts, they’re actually not what I find most appalling about the report, and its reflection upon how we as a culture are regarding our youth.  The NYT article cites:

...though the median age of those admitted to juvenile facilities is almost 16, one-third of those held read at a third-grade level.

Much is implied by that fact: that our schools are underfunded and faltering, that standardized testing is an imperfect rubric, that high school dropout rates especially among Black and Latino communities are at a crisis point, that low-income communities of color are still disproportionately illiterate or low-literacy (or at least disproportionately to the New York Times’ readership).

As a writer and educator, though, all I can infer from that statement is that many of New York’s at-risk youth have never been able to enjoy a chapter book.

To me, this is not a small problem.

I don’t presume to know how to solve the problem. Neither does The Beat Within, a NAM youth initiative that facilitates weekly writing workshops in juvenile halls in Northern California, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., and publishes a weekly magazine of those young peoples’ written work. But by engaging our students in reading and writing, as well as providing high-performing students with transitional job opportunities upon their release, we are addressing it.

There are many in America today who believe and propagate the belief that that kids in juvie are dangerous, recidivists, lost causes. It’s convenient, for many, to believe that, to keep them far away from their comfort zones. But I’m reminded of the words of one of the Beat’s longest-serving veterans, Michael Kroll (and Michael, I’m paraphrasing):

I’ve noticed many things about the children I’ve worked with in juvenile halls. But what I have noticed above all other things is that they are, primarily, children.

The value of literacy is impossible to appraise.  A few weeks ago, I was with the Beat in my usual second-hour unit, B8, a max-security boys’ unit in the Santa Clara county hall. December is a tough month on the inside; it reminds the kids that another holiday is approaching that they won’t be able to celebrate with their families. They were quiet during the class discussion.

I walked around the room to speak with students individually, and landed in a longish conversation with a 16-year-old student. He’d had a hard week, he told me. It was his little brother’s seventh birthday, and he’d wanted his mom to bring his brother to visit so he could wish him a happy birthday. He’d sent his mother a letter telling her when she could come and see him. The birthday came and went without a visit. Later, he found out that his family hadn’t visited because his mom can’t read, and no one had been around to help her.

I’m happy to report that this particular student reads quite well, though his confidence in reading is low. Unfortunately, in this context he serves to illustrate a point too rarely examined: that illiteracy has consequences beyond education level and job viability, that it affects families and children, and that it by itself has the power to relegate a person to the underclass—and also that it is an eminently treatable affliction. America has no excuse to be 19th in the world’s literacy rankings.

I thought J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians was a good book when I read it in high school. I remember one passage in particular, one that occurs while the book’s narrator is imprisoned:

…my torturers were not interested in degrees of pain. They were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only when it is whole and well, and very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it. ... They came to my cell to show me the meaning of humanity, and in the space of an hour they showed me a great deal.

Perhaps we have forgotten the bodies of the young men and women we stash upstate, far away from your children’s parks and playgrounds and schools; certainly the bleak report released in the Times demonstrates we have done those bodies no justice. What are we teaching those children—in effect, by failing to teach them—about humanity?