Jason Kamras and The New Jim Crow

Last week the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools tweeted praise of Richmond’s local jail, the Richmond City Justice Center. This tweet landed in a moment when Richmond’s attention is turned toward school funding and school facilities, and Karmas’s tweet notes that our jails receive funding that our schools do not.

Screenshot of Kamras's tweet.
“Just leaving excellent meeting about trauma-informed care at Richmond Justice Center (jail). So grateful to everyone whose leadership made the construction of this modern facility possible. As I left, I was struck by how much nicer it is than some of our schools…”

Kamras’s message, in part, is correct: we spend far more on incarceration than we do on education. His praise of the jail, however, cloaks the broader structural problems problems we face in Richmond. We know, for instance, how important parental involvement is promoting learning and student achievement. I think it’s safe to assume parent involvement is much harder when parents are locked away.

Mr. Kamras’ track record in D.C has left many of us with deep reservations. D.C has been put forward as the premier case study in advancement of school privatization, and his selection hiring was lauded on Twitter by corporate ed reform heavy weights like Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee. His selection was lead by the same local corporate elites, including Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, who attempted to remove an elected school board years earlier. Karmas’s signature program of teacher evaluation in D.C, IMPACT, used privately raised funds as a way of avoiding public oversight, and resulted in the loss of talented teachers, hostile working conditions, and teaching to the test. He looks to be abandoning IMPACT in Richmond, but he has not made it clear he understands his responsibility to work under a democratically elected school board, and allocate funds based on democratic will.

Mr. Kamras’s advocacy for the meals tax was important. His public support of the planned teacher walk-in is encouraging, and I hope that support of teacher advocacy continues. Mr. Kamras is reading The New Jim Crow with his student advisory group. This is exciting, but should indicate more awareness on his part of what it means to praise a jail in the context of mass incarceration, or to praise investment in high-capacity facilities over diversion programs and schools. Just last month advocates for youth from across the region gathered at our city capitol to oppose Virginia’s high rates of juvenile incarceration. This vigil grew from a statewide effort to fight the construction of new incarceration facilities for children; for our superintendent to praise such a facility represents a failure to understand what substantive racial justice means in our current context.

Incarceration is not trauma-informed care. I know first hand. I am a long-term volunteer in reentry services and correctional education. I worked at the old jail and later at the new facility. The old facility’s death rate exceeded the national average. It was dangerous to occupy; more than that, it was a profound human tragedy. This new facility is certainly safer. Unlike a fully funded and renovated school, however, this new jail is no less a human tragedy. The new justice center was built in the high water mark of mass incarceration, and it carries with it all the hallmarks of that national moral failing that has made the US a global leader in profit-driven human confinement. Despite being a jail, housing primarily individuals who are not yet convicted, or are cited for low-level offenses, it was designed as a strictly-controlled, low-movement structure. Inhabitants are forced to live, eat, and exercise in the same pod. They are rarely permitted to leave that space, even for family or legal visitation. Family visits now happen over a screen monitoring system that has been widely criticized as both unnecessary and detrimental to incarcerated people and their families.

These are architectural reforms, hailed by prison profiteers as “modern.” Rather, they are regressive, harmful, and benefit only those who seek to expand the profit-oriented foundations of our carceral system. Venture capitalists, prison architects, security specialists, food service and communications companies benefit from new jails; people would benefit from the end of mass incarceration. Across the US, people confined in prisons and jails receive very little in the way of meaningful services, while their incarceration generates a great deal of money for the shareholders and CEOs Corporations embedded in our justice centers charge for basic necessities like toothpaste, underwear, menstrual products. Phone calls are prohibitively expensive. Trauma goes untreated. People continue to die.

Rise in incarceration rates.

We talk a great deal about trauma-informed care, both in school settings and in criminal justice reform. Both industries, once democratically governed as part of the public sector, have been colonized by private interests. This colonization is clearest when our administrative leadership speaks to human needs while undermining their realization. Across the state correctional officials run hefty PR campaigns detailing their approaches to trauma, while our elected leadership does nothing to empty our jails and prisons of the many many people who do not need to be incarcerated. Meaningful trauma-informed care is available to very few people who cycle through the system. Real, scalable diversion programs are widely neglected.

The truth is, our system of multi-generational incarceration *is* trauma. The same is true for disinvestment in public schools. True trauma-informed care would break those cycles. If we were informed, we would not build jails that increase our carceral capacity and decrease family access to their loved ones, despite widely-available evidence against these practices. If we care, we should push against corporate encroachment on our school systems, demanding robust public funding and uncompromising public governance. Under corporate influence, neither our prisons nor our schools will be able to offset the legacies of structural racism. This project must be done democratically, without concern for the profit margins of limited stakeholders.

1 in 14 children have an incarcerated parent.A real conversation about trauma, one informed by the realities of mass incarceration, would never see incarceration as care. No human with any eye for human rights could leave a jail with enthusiasm for the sleek architecture. As we approach mothers day, and organizations across the city raise funds to bail out RPS mothers from that same jail, I encourage Mr. Kamras to embrace a model of school advocacy that does not praise prisons. Virginia leads our nation in school referrals to law enforcement; that legacy thrives because we have failed to sufficiently account for and resist mass incarceration as part of our schools’ context. It is my hope that, as the superintendent of a majority black school district, Mr. Kamras will focus his work on disrupting those legacies.

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