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An Ounce of Prevention

Across the water from the prison island, next to yet another sewage plant and trash-deposit station in Hunts Point in the South Bronx, there's a multistory prison barge that has been used in recent years for children in detention. Several thousand juveniles thirteen years old or older have been held there at one point or other in a given year – about one hundred at a time – while they awaited transfer to more permanent facilities. It's a tremendous structure, with six floating floors of prison cells, one of them under water. From the sky, however, it looks decorative. It's painted in clean colors, blue and white, and looks as if it might be some sort of a pleasure craft, a cruise ship possibly.

The city spends $64,000 yearly to incarcerate an adult inmate on the prison island. It spends $93,000 yearly to incarcerate a child on the prison barge or in the very costly and imposing new detention center built on St. Ann's Avenue. That's abut eleven times as much as it is spending, on the average, for a year of education for a child in the New York City public schools during the last years of the 1990s – eighteen times what it is spending in a year to educate a mainstream student in an ordinary first-grade classroom in the schools of the South Bronx. There are countless academic studies of allegedly "deficient" social values in the children of the poor, but I do not know of any studies of the values of the educated grown-ups who believe this is a healthy way to run a social order.

- Jonathan Kozol, Ordinary Resurrections

The story is repeated in slums throughout the United States. The policy makers who can't find the money to give impoverished kids a decent education must then find a much larger sum to lock the kids away. And yet, there's more to it than that. As Kozol points out elsewhere in his book, it would be worth it to keep the kids in school and away from gangs and drugs and violence even if it were not cost effective to do so. What price can you place on a child's future?

Every human life is precious, and although we'd all like to believe we live in a society where we are all equal, the reality is that kids born into poverty don't have the same opportunities that the rest of us take for granted.

In a neighborhood where the major industry is sewage treatment, it is inevitable that many of the children will develop health problems. Where three square meals a day are not always possible, hungry kids will have trouble learning effectively in school. Where adult role models are few, because many fathers have been sent to prison or have simply abandoned families they were not able to take care of, children are more likely to turn to gangs.

It's true that people ultimately are responsible for their own choices, but people do not make these choices in a vacuum. In a society that increasingly turns its back on its most vulnerable citizens, many children are being denied even the hope that they can escape their circumstances. When everything they see tells them that there is no way out, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How do we break the cycle? Diagnosing the problem is easy; finding a solution—something that can really change things—is hard. I don't have any answers. Do you?

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