I would never imagine that an Uber trip to be so interesting and insightful. Last weekend my friend came to visit me and we together went to the Southpoint mall. On our Uber trip back, we were fortunate enough to be driven by a NC high school teacher.
His name was Michael, a high school math teacher working at a local “economically deprived” region. He was a tall, strong, man at his fifties, and decided to drive Uber to gain some extra incomes to support his daughter to finish her education at UPenn. I started our conversation by mentioning the recent protest in Duke University, which was about better welfare and treatment for some non-tenure professors at Duke University. Gradually, the topic of our conversation shifted from that to the topic that I was recently doing research on — the school to prison pipeline.
I raised my doubts and concerns on the existence of the problem, and shared with him about the surprise I had after realizing the degree of the problem has been so grave that we are obliged to change it as soon as possible. Hoping to hear some positive sides of the stories from him, I sincerely asked for his opinion. However, to my uttermost surprise, his answer shocked me. “This is true”, his response was straightforward and clear, “if you are here, and the blacker you are, the higher the chance will be for you to end up in jail. That’s simply the fact.” He then shared with me some stories that had taken place in his school, stories about children directly being sent from school to prison. Most of the stories he told me have similar or identical plots to those I have seen online when I was doing my research, like students with drug issues are punished harshly and are handed over to the criminal justice system straightaway. However, I also heard some uneasy and disturbing stories about how local police force, in order to solve tasks faster, threaten and misguide the teenagers, and leading to a solution that results in faster closure of the case, but a criminal record that those teenagers have to bear with them for their entire lives.
One of his student was once involved in a drug related issue. He was not dealing drugs or buying the drugs. Instead, he was just a bunch of boys helping to deliver the “items”, which they have no idea are drugs, to the costumers. When he was questioned by the local police, the police threatened them with sending them to the jail if they fail to cooperate with them. Since the boy and his family had no financial resources to seek help from a lawyer, he immediately yielded to the police. The “cooperation”, it was then found out, was a confession for them to sign. The police only told them that if they sign the confession, they will no longer go into jail and will be fine after a couple of hours of community services. What they did not know was that after signing the confession, a criminal record will be with them in their entire lives. A record about a crime that he had never committed, but a record that could destroy his future.
The trip got more and more unpleasant and disturbing as he shares more such stories. It also stimulates me to ponder upon who is really causing the high incarceration rate for the ethnic minorities. Why is the police department threatening those teenagers just for the sake of case closure? Don’t they understand the consequences of it? Why didn’t they explain to those children the difficulties they are going to face in the future if they put their signature on it?
Is our criminal justice system, by cornering these young teenagers, by making it extremely hard for them to find a job in the future, by attaching them to a criminal record that they actually have never done, artificially “producing” criminals?