The Hardest Lesson on Tier 2C: Can a violent adult jail teach kids to love school?
For The Marshall Project/This American Life
It was Juron’s second day in the New Orleans jail and he was bewildered. At 17 years old, he had been arrested for the first time and charged as an adult for allegedly taking a woman’s cell phone during an argument and firing a gun into the air, which he denied. His mother couldn’t afford bail, so he would be locked up for months until a trial, sleeping on a hard slab. If he was convicted — a possibility he could barely acknowledge — he faced 15 to 104 years in state prison.
Yet there was a deputy, waking him up on a Monday morning in February, telling him he had to go to school.
“I was like, school? I'm not going to the school,” Juron said later. “I go to school in the world. I'm not about to adjust to no school.”
Being a teen charged as an adult is a lesson in dizzying mixed messages. You’re too young to vote or drink, maybe even to drive, and you’ve been told that kids can grow and change. Yet your own future is set out in the starkest terms: years or decades in prison followed by a lifelong criminal record.
It’s even weirder to hear that you still have to learn trigonometry.
In the U.S., there is adult jail and there is school, and the two rarely go together. Most juvenile detention centers have educational programs, and prisons often have GED or college classes. But since August, the New Orleans jail has offered something unusual: a full-day high school that’s part of the public school system and offers real credits. The only others are in the nation’s largest cities, such as Chicago and New York.
The Orleans Justice Center is as adult as an adult jail gets. It has a death rate four times the national average. Federal monitors have overseen it for half a decade, trying to limit the scope of its violence. Over a period of three months last year, there were about 300 unreported fights, suicide attempts, severe head injuries, and incidents of ingested pills or heroin at the facility, a January status report said. The report called the jail “critically unsafe.”
It doesn’t seem like a place for children, but Leon Cannizzaro Jr., the Orleans Parish district attorney, aggressively prosecutes juveniles as adults rather than steering them into the juvenile justice system.
Under a new state law that kicks in next year, 17-year-olds in Louisiana will not be automatically prosecuted as adults for certain crimes, although they still can be. Until then, there are between a dozen and 50 juveniles at the jail at any given time — and they needed a school.
The Orleans Parish School Board signed a contract last year with the national nonprofit Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings to start the Travis Hill School, named after a local trumpeter who was incarcerated as a teenager. It would educate both juveniles and any 18- to 21-year-olds who were close to getting a high school degree.
The inmate-students would rotate among math, science, social studies, English, art, and, if the school could swing it, a music class taught by the Preservation Hall jazz band. They would take the same standardized tests as every student in Louisiana and could earn a diploma, not just an equivalency degree.
So the experiment began. Could a violent adult jail contain an aspirational school? Every day, its students, all of whom are black, would ask themselves whether they were defined by their classroom or their cell.
The school would have two years to find out.
Text by Eli Hager