Thursday, March 25, 2010

Training Them for Prison at An Early Age: A Playground Jail for Children Stirs Controversy in Brooklyn

My grandmother used to say that you can be born in the ghetto, but the ghetto ain't inside of you.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to see a talk by Khalil Muhammad author of the book
The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. The author's thesis is a powerful one: the same narratives of black criminality; blacks as inherently unfit for full citizenship; and hand wringing over the "ghetto underclass" were part of the public consciousness some 140 years ago following Emancipation and Reconstruction. Ultimately, social scientists have been intimately involved in constructing our understandings of "the ghetto" and those frameworks still dominate our thinking on black poverty and criminality to the present.

Sadly, many of our young people have internalized these norms of black criminality and ghetto pathology. Like you, I can probably highlight the many times I have overheard young men of color bragging about going to to jail, where prison time is a rite of passage and an experience that garners social prestige in their communities. Little did I know that meeting Fleece Johnson in the booty house and tossing salad made one a things change.

From Stagolee, to Scarface, to 50 Cent, it is a given that Americans love the bad guy. I will admit that I love watching shows such as Gangland and Kingpin. I am also a many decades long fan of hip hop--in all its forms (except that Southern, sambo, minstrel-hop, coonery) But, I worry that many of our young men, while idolizing the criminal, don't realize that most of the time their "heroes" end up either dead or in jail.

Question: are criminals made or born? What lessons are the children in this community learning about their life chances from this playground--are things so bad that going to prison is just something one normally does as a career path? To visit mom? To see one's siblings? And why in the name of all things holy did it take 6 years for someone to complain about this "playground?" What does this say about the parents and adults in this community?

From The New York Times:

A Jail for Children Stirs a Ruckus in Brooklyn

Playground controversies usually involve bickering parents, unruly dogs or bullies.

One exception is at the Tompkins Houses, a city housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where an orange jungle gym adorned with the word “Jail,” a cell door and prison bars has, six years after its installation, set off outrage in the neighborhood and the blogosphere, along with a hasty official response.

Children may play cops and robbers all the time, but putting a pretend jail in a public housing playground in a historically black community struck some residents as an insult.

“We started complaining because it was like promoting kids to go to jail,” said Natasha Godley, 37, who has a 6-year-old son.

The prison look, including the offending word, was part of the original design of the playground, which was made by a company called Landscape Structures and erected in March 2004, the New York City Housing Authority said on Wednesday.

But it had not elicited complaints until this week, said Sheila Stainback, an agency spokeswoman.

Lumumba Bandele, a lecturer in black history at the City University of New York who lives nearby, said he began complaining to the housing authority and local officials about the playground this past weekend.

“The fact is that this community along with six others in New York City makes up the majority of the prison population in New York State,” he said. “And to have this here under the auspices of NYCHA is absolutely insulting.”

The jungle gym, tucked behind a building near Throop and Park Avenues, sits across from a handball court adorned with paintings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

On Sunday, the Web site Black and Brown News published a photo of the jungle gym by Mr. Bandele’s wife, Monifa Bandele, accompanying a critical article about it.

“There is no kind, gentle, diplomatic way to describe the offense against a community by this ‘Jail Playground’ on a New York City Housing Authority property,” the article began.

Some residents said that complaints about the play set were actually not a new phenomenon. One Housing Authority grounds worker who declined to give her name said that her mother was so incensed about the inscription that, two years ago, she marched over to the play set and covered the word “Jail” with gold spray paint. It was not clear how the word came to be restored.

But on Wednesday after the Black and Brown News article was picked up by Brownstoner and other sites, Housing Authority workers arrived to paint over the “Jail.” Later, another worker showed up in painter’s pants and began scouring off the word “Jail” and the fake bars, which appeared stenciled into the play set, with steel wool and paint remover.

The authority, Ms. Stainback said, “painted over the equipment as a temporary solution to replacing this part of the playground.” The authority is also looking into who ordered the equipment.

Calls to the main office of Landscape Structures were not returned. A woman who answered the phone at one of its sales offices, in Carle Place on Long Island, said the company provides playgrounds for the Housing Authority, “but only by their approval.” She said she had never seen one of the company’s play sets adorned with the word “jail,” but emphasized, “I’m only answering the phones.”

Somewhere in the city’s public housing universe, the playground has a twin, Ms. Stainback said. She would not divulge its location, but said that its “Jail” sign and bars would be painted over, too.


The Roving Reporter said...

Wow, this is very interesting. The obvious question is why did it take six years for these parents to complain? If something is blatantly offensive to me, I don't think it'll take me six years to express my outrage.

I do think it's telling that this piece of playground equipment can stand for six years without any peep of disapproval. I think it's a reflection of how those in this particular community have become so insensitive about prison. For this to stand for six years without protest makes me wonder if, like you said, going prison has become an "everyday thing" for the neighborhood and for the children.

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

As a therapist, I would like to have studied the play behavior of the inner city children on this jail jungle gym.

Did some use it only as gym, or act out their feelings, fears, anxieties, for family members and teens or adults they know who are in jail?

That no one did this as a formal research project (to our knowledge, so far) was a missed opportunity.