‘You Visited Me’
On Judgment Day, according to the dramatic narrative in Matthew’s Gospel, the Son of Man will proclaim that every time a person visited someone in prison he or she actually visited Jesus Christ himself. This identification is at the heart of the Christian religion and, in some ways, its most radical teaching. The State of Arizona has made it harder to do the right thing. It now charges a one-time $25 fee to visit a relative or friend in prison.
Although advertised as a “background-check fee” to finance background investigations of the visitors, its real purpose is to help meet the cost of maintaining the prison system, with its over 40,000 inmates spread out in 15 prison complexes throughout the state.
For some visitors, $25 is not a lot of money. For others, many of whom are from poor families and travel long distances to prisons in remote areas, it is. In one instance, a woman spent two months and $200 to arrange a visit of four to her brother.
The fee is a bad idea for three reasons. First, visitors are a vital part of any rehabilitation process and should be encouraged, especially when the prisoner has children. Charged extra, some will not come. Second, for the inmate and the families, it is still another humiliation. Third, prisons protect the whole society, so the whole society should support them with taxes; family members of prisoners should not be required to pay extra. The United States, with 2,292,133 adults behind bars, is already known for having the highest percentage of its population locked up (732 for every 100,000 people). Our society will be judged on how it treats them.
Several U.S. school districts spent the summer embroiled in scandals over cheating on student tests—not by students but by teachers. In Pennsylvania, state authorities tagged 89 schools for suspiciously high numbers of erasures on tests. Erasure analysis is the typical way standardized tests are examined for possible tampering. In tampering, errors are erased and the correct answers inserted to raise students’ scores. In Washington, 41 schools had excessive erasures; in Atlanta, 44 schools were involved and 178 educators, of whom nearly half confessed to tampering.
These scandals raise hard questions that test the judgment and resolve of educators, parents and society at large. Does uncovering cheaters among educators serve the schools by identifying the very employees who buckle under the stress of the job, which includes preparing students for statewide tests? Maybe. Stress does not excuse cheating, a serious act that undermines public trust. Just consider how the public would react to a university, law school or medical school that altered its students’ test results.
Yet the salaries of professors at colleges and professional schools are not determined by their students’ scores. The sheer number of educators involved in the school cheating scandals may be evidence not merely of the moral lapse of a few, but of a system-wide stress fracture. As they make decisions about teachers’ salaries, promotions and future contracts, school districts may be overemphasizing student scores. Given the strong influence of family, language and culture on a child’s ability to learn, it seems unrealistic to hold educators solely responsible. If that is the problem, then school districts ought to find better ways by which to measure teacher performance, adding to student test scores classroom teaching evaluations, peer reviews and more.
An Unnatural Disaster
When Hurricane Irene finished her devastating run along the eastern seaboard, recovery crews from utility companies did not fan out across the region. They focused their efforts on those communities that were hardest hit. Likewise, proportionate attention must be paid to those most damaged by the course of the nation’s ongoing foreclosure crisis and jobless recovery. For African-Americans this disaster has had all the economic and social symptoms of a major depression—without the emergency response such a crisis normally provokes.
The August jobs report of the U.S. Department of Labor indicated zero job growth, a shock even in this era of diminished expectations. But the news was worse for African-Americans. Unemployment hit a 27-year high, surging to 16.7 percent, more than twice the 8 percent unemployment endured by white Americans. The job creation efforts of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act have essentially bypassed African-Americans.
The economic devastation of the last few years has completed a reversal of the historic gains in income, home ownership and employment that African-Americans made during the Clinton administration. In Washington, how to appropriately respond to the nation’s economic crisis should be at the top of every agenda of every meeting. But presuming that this recession is affecting all communities the same way makes a poor beginning. Since African-American communities have been particularly hard hit, the federal and state response—specifically in job creation, mitigating services and nutrition aid—should reflect that reality.