Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Prevention is Hard: A prison pipeline story

For over 20 years I have been working in the nonprofit sector youth development space.  Over that same span of time my brother has been working in the federal prison system.  He says his side is winning. 

What he means by that is that he wins in the revenue department.  His system is more well funded than mine. Way more.  He recognizes this despite the fact that he is constantly lobbying to stop cutting federal funding for the prison system.  So here we both are:  Me struggling to find revenue to keep kids out of prison, and him struggling to find revenue to adequately care for them when they ultimately get there. 

Isn't that a happy family story?  

My brother (left) in a picture not involving work. #gospursgo
We came to this realization sitting around a bunch of beer coolers in a parking lot about 7 or 8 years ago.  The story is fuzzy in my memory* except for that vivid illustration of the consequences of a lack of funding for prevention in the youth development space.  My brother's union had a conference and the hotel they stayed in was right across the street from my nonprofit.  They basically packed out the hotel and one night they brought a barbecue grill across the street, and the prison guards and social workers had themselves a party.

We told them about our waiting list of kids needing mentors.  They told us about guard to prisoner ratios and how often that rule is broken. We talked about the challenges the kids in our program face, and how long they stay on the wait list; some til it's too late.  They were familiar with the dysfunctional cycles that plague the families of kids who end up in jail; they knew how common it was for multiple family members to all end up in prison.  We talked budgets and they laughed at ours (around $2 million).  They said the cycle of incarceration was inevitable and it was "nice of us" to try - but we would lose way more often than we win. As the beer flowed, they even laughed at us a little for even trying.

It's not a question of can we prevent kids from going to jail?  At my nonprofit we know that mentoring works.  There is both anecdotal evidence and research that it does. But as I wrote about before, outcomes don't really matter in the current system.  One of the craziest things I have ever experienced in my professional career was when a state government department-head told me that it didn't matter that we were 100% successful in our program, and that had nothing to do with being funded.

A year or so ago we got a list of kids from our local probation department referred to us for mentoring services.  They were all between the ages of 14 and 17.  Most of them were already in our system - un-served back when they were 7,8, or 9 - what we called "file closed, unmatched." They were unmatched because we have around 1,000 kids on the wait list all the time and never enough  funding to meet the demand. You have to wonder if those 7,8 and 9 year olds had had mentors back in the day, would they have gone down the same path?  Probably not. 

Recently I spoke with a juvenile court judge and told him that getting kids in our program graduated was not a challenge.  He said that "can't be true," or he "would have heard about it.**  Why is it so hard to believe?  Because it sounds too easy?  Well, it's not easy. Running a quality mentoring program is very difficult.  Human relationships are complicated, and a quality mentoring program is a massive challenge to implement.  Part of the problem is that many mentoring programs are not quality, don't even track outcomes, and everyone assumes we are as marginally effective as they are, if at all.

Prevention is hard to measure. It's a challenge to prove that something that didn't happen might have happened if not for that intervention. But preventing the problem from happening is arguably less expensive - and easier- than fixing the problem once it's occurred. Those teenage boys referred to us from juvenile probation are now criminals.  Changing who they are now is a far greater challenge than teaching them to avoid that path when they are 7, 8 or 9. 

Just when we thought the situation couldn't get worse, along came the proliferation of for profit prisons. That's one way to solve a problem. There's no doubt in my mind that decreasing funding for juvenile delinquency prevention is related to the increase in for profit prisons.  When the future is all about keeping beds filled, why in the world would we invest in preventing it now?

So what's the point of this post?  I'm not sure, but I wrote it while on vacation from my nonprofit work.  The lack of investment in the prevention of juvenile delinquency weighs on me. One of the ways I cope with things that bother me is to write them down.  It doesn't solve anything but it tames the chaos in my brain, perhaps preventing madness. The situation is enough to drive anyone crazy, so you never know. I'm pretty sure that it would cost more to admit me. 

*there was a LOT of beer
**as if I have the funding to make sure everyone hears about my program! Can you say "nonprofit overhead?"


  1. Thank you for an insightful yet frustrating blog post. I recently saw a 60 minutes on prisons in Germany. Nothing like prisons here. I'm so glad to be doing my part to Mentor now.

  2. It's so awesome that you're a Big Sister!!!!