It’s about ‘Time’

President Obama’s speech on July 14 to the NAACP Convention in Philadelphia about the failed criminal justice system recalled a commentary I wrote in 1992 when editor of The Keystone Veteran, a quarterly newspaper of Pennsylvania Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). VVA is the only veteran’s organization that advocates for veterans behind bars.

My commentary, ‘Paying Now or Paying Later’ was published after rumors began flying that our Pennsylvania legislators were considering the closure of a hundred year old school that had been graduating students who went on to higher education.

Scotland School for Orphans of the War is located in Franklin County—south of Harrisburg. The school was established as a boarding school to educate orphans whose fathers had ”… died in the War”. My father and his brothers, sons of a deceased Civil War Navy veteran, would attend Scotland, living on the campus every school year through to graduating from the 12th grade. The school was overseen and received funding from the state. However the school also enjoyed support from hundreds of veteran groups throughout Pennsylvania. Because I edited the Pennsylvania’s VVA quarterly newspaper, circumstances in 1991 found me escorting my father back to his alma mater where he’d not set foot since his 1918 graduation.

Open to children across the Commonwealth, by 1991 very few of the students attending Scotland School had relatives with military service connections. Although there was an aggressive statewide recruiting campaign to enroll youngsters from around Pennsylvania, most of the students attending Scotland came from Philadelphia. Back then it cost close to $25,000 per year to educate and house a Scotland School student. The Harrisburg lawmakers were concerned about this yearly cost per child and that a majority of the student population came from Philadelphia. Many of those city children suffered from learning disabilities or behavior problems–liabilities that in any school require one-on-one attention

In ‘Paying Now or Paying Later, I wrote: Students may also carry the additional hurdles of deteriorating neighborhoods or streets filled with drugs. These are the children who are candidates for the next generation of the $80,000 a year inmate.

The following year I attended Scotland School’s 1992 graduation ceremony where 26 of the 29 graduates (one was a Caucasian)  had been accepted at colleges, junior colleges or technical schools. A few weeks after that graduation I attended a similar ceremony—this one inside the walls of the State Correctional Institute at Graterford. One hundred and eleven men (a few were Caucasian) received diplomas for GEDs, Vocational Certificates and Associate Degrees. One inmate received his Master’s; another received his Bachelor of Arts.

Around that same time a segment appeared on ’60 Minutes’ about inmates receiving federal grants to further their education. Within days of that segment federal legislation put that to a stop. Now inmates wanting to further their education must pay for it themselves or with the help from friends or family. Since then, it just got worse. Mandatory Sentencing, as President Obama described, has made America the country with the most imprisoned people—mostly black–who are serving time for offenses that would keep them locked up for years.

I’d heard and read that a “lot of black people” were locked up in prisons. My reality check came in 1989 when VVA held a State Council meeting inside SCI Graterford. The administration allowed 70 inmates (all veterans) to attend the meeting in the prison’s auditorium. There were only three white faces out of those 70 inmates. It was the same at other state prisons I entered: overwhelmingly black faces. Everywhere.

In 1989 there were less than 10 state prisons in Pennsylvania. Now there are 24. The passing of the Mandatory Sentencing law has been a gold mine for the prison-industrial complex. I never understood why they insisted on using the word corrections to define our prisons. They’re not correcting. They’re punishing. A lifer I know when describing the changes he’d seen in his 35 years at Graterford would begin by saying, “Since coming to this plantation …”

Scotland School closed in 2009. A couple years ago I had a conversation with a man who retired after a career in the juvenile probation and parole system. He shared with me that there was an opportunity for Scotland School to come under the umbrella of Hershey School. In 2013 Scotland School was purchased by the Winebrenner Theological Seminary for $1.8 million.

Distressed neighborhoods in Philadelphia continually deteriorate from poor schools, drugs and violence.

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