Why doesn’t he pull his pants up, we wonder inwardly, as the young teenager passes us by on the Atlanta streets. Doesn’t he know that he will never get a job, dressed like that? Furthermore, he looks so sinister and angry, as if he would harm me for no reason at all. But as we pass on down the street there is no confrontation between us. What a relief.
But suppose this young teenager is a member of a gang? Suppose he has spent time in jail? What does he think about himself or me? Who does he see when he looks in the mirror? Does he have positive community support from any of us? Probably not!
On a typical day, more than 105,000 of our youth are behind bars. Even more alarming, 11,000 of these teenagers are being held in adult prisons. Older prisoners are their educators, their role models.
But why the low hanging pants? In prisons, belts are taken away from inmates, for their own safety. For belts can be used to inflict violence on other prisoners, as well as on oneself. “Don’t challenge me, mister You’ll regret it” is what they seem to say. His pants want to communicate, “after serving my time, these hanging pants let you know I survived prison.”
Yet the issue is more complex than this. Arty Michelle Alexander drops the other shoe, in her highly acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She alleges that in the last 40 years the war on drugs and crime has been somewhat successful. But at what a price!
Recent prison policies have become more severe and have created a permanent underclass of disenfranchised, convicted felons, who are Black and Latino. Finding employment after prison is not just difficult, it is almost impossible. She further alleges that our criminal justice system functions more as a system for racial control than crime prevention.
Back to the young men we see with pants hanging down. What chances do we create to listen to his story about desires for a better life? Will they hear our story also? What can we learn about ourselves and our parochial identity by listening to them and talking with them?
Next time, let’s provide concrete examples used by some communities to approach these challenges. What do you think?