How Amerika Criminalizes its Poor and Creates a Stepping Stone to Prison
“There is a stigma that comes with being poor,” he said. “If you are poor you are bad. You are worthless. You are ridiculed. You are picked on. Markets are built on this. This is how you can sell a kid from the inner city a pair of $200 sneakers. He is buying his identity. He is buying his self-esteem. And that’s why poor people hustle. That’s why I started hustling [drugs], to buy things. The gratification is immediate. You wear that stuff and it is like you are magically not poor anymore. It is a trigger to go back to selling drugs. I remember when I was struggling. I had grits one night for dinner because that was all that was in the cabinet. I panicked. By the next day I decided I would do something criminal to change my situation.”
“What’s the best that can happen to you, even if you don’t go to jail?” he asked. “Check out bags at Wal-Mart? A warehouse job? That’s as far as you can go in this world if you are poor. The only education the poor are given is one where they get to a place where they learn enough to take orders. They are taught to remember what is said. They are taught to repeat the instructions. There is no thinking involved. We are not taught to think. We are educated just enough to occupy the lowest rung on the social ladder.”
“No one in prison wanted to admit they were poor,” he said. “A friend of mine in prison told all these big-drug-dealer stories. He has been in and out of jail for 20 years. But one day we were walking on the basketball court. He got honest. He told me he had been sleepin’ in his car. Sometimes motel rooms. Basically homeless. No education. No connections. The only people he knows are inmates. He does not know anyone in the working world who can help him put in an application and say a word for him. When he got out he went to the guys he knew from jail still in the streets. That was his network. That’s most people’s network. ‘Can you get me some dope? What’s the price? Who’s moving it?’ That’s your economy. That’s the one you go back to. That’s how you survive. His brother is doing 30 years. His nephew is doing 16 years.”
“One of my four children went to school in New Brunswick,” Franklin said. “And he is in jail. The other three, who did not go to school in New Brunswick, have college degrees or are in college. You go to schools like the one I went to and you enter a pipeline straight to jail. When I walked into the mess hall in prison it looked like my old school lunchroom, including the fights. When I walked into the yard in prison, it looked like my old playground, including the fights. When I was in the projects it looked like prison. When guys get to prison the scenery is familiar. If you grow up poor, then prison is not a culture shock. You have been conditioned your whole life for prison.”
His family moved again when he was a child. He entered Franklin High School in Somerset, N.J., but his years in a dysfunctional school meant he was now woefully unprepared, struggling and behind. “Students in Franklin High School had continued in the pace I had started in,” he said.
He had become acculturated to poverty. He would not go to college. He would, as so many of his peers did, end up in prison. And it was in prison that he, like many others, found refuge in books and the world of ideas.