LIVE-BLOGGING: Dismantling the cradle to prison pipeline

The Children’s Defense Fund’s New York chapter is holding a one-day summit in Central Brooklyn called “Connecting the Neighborhood Dots: Promoting Solutions to Dismantle the Pipeline to Prison.” Hosted by CUNY’s Medgar Evers College in partnership with the Casey Family Programs, the day has been scheduled full of panel discussions and presentations by leaders in the children’s advocacy and juvenile justice organizations.

I will be chronicling the start of the conference and the back-to-back morning sessions that focus on the disproportionate impact of prison and the criminal justice system on specific communities in New York City, mainly in the Bronx and Central Brooklyn, and how community-based strategies can promote healthy children, families and neighborhoods.

Participants examine and help themselves to informational and event pamphlets at the Pipeline to Prison summit.

8:30 a.m.

Arrived with the help of a student on the way to class. The lobby is full of men, women, young adults, nametags and breakfast. The turnout is amazing, especially considering today is a Wednesday, with what looks like around 100-200 community leaders, educators, legal officials and students from around the city. Pamphlets from the various programs and institutions present are on a table for anyone to take. There are people from the Juvenile Justice System, the Administration for Children’s Services, Harlem Children’s Zone, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, religious groups and many local organizations.

8:45 a.m.

Medgar Evers College President, Dr. Edison Jackson, welcomes and thanks everyone for coming on a Wednesday. He sounds extremely proud, excited and serious in anticipation of the day’s discussion.

Zeinab Chahine, the Managing Director of Strategic Consulting Services for the Casey Family Programs, delivers the opening remarks on the need for reducing the racial disparities. She mentions several statistics, including that 200,000 women and men now in prison were once in foster care. She lists a few steps towards fixing this:

  1. strategic partnerships with a range of organizations
  2. data sharing across agencies
  3. family and youth becoming meaningfully engaged in positively productive activities
  4. financial strategizing, coordination and communication.
  5. getting policy to be more informed before being enacted

9:00 a.m.

Next up, a slideshow entitled “What About the Children?” and a video presentation about the CDF’s Cradle To Prison Pipeline Campaign and highlights from their work with CDF Freedom Schools, a program of summer and after-school programs for children that include activities emphasizing academics, family, civic engagement and social action, leadership and health. The black and white photos of forlorn, lonely and abandoned children was effectively sombering and heartbreaking. The video was full of life and hope. Nice juxtaposition.

9:30 a.m.

Dr. Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, begins explaining that the pipeline is a set of choices – not inevitable or an “act of God” and that we can change the outcome if we work together. She describes the two greatest obstacles as poverty and racial disparity that exists even before birth. Her advice to combating these challenges are:

  1. to not be overwhelmed by the cumulative risk; instead, we must come together to keep children at the center of all we do,
  2. to have high expectations for ourselves and our children; “those who see [this responsibility] not as a calling, but a job, should find something else,” and
  3. to move beyond a desire for credit. “Just get out there and do the work,” Dr. Edelman advises, noting how the different institutions in youth’s lives – education, child welfare, social structure, justice and support systems – don’t collaborate, thus negating or combating each other’s efforts. “Children don’t come in pieces. We’ve got to address the whole need of the whole child.”

Then, referring to the hope brought to Americans and members of the NYC community by President Obama, Dr. Edelman simultaneously chastised and inspired the audience, telling us to “hold all of ourselves accountable” for lack of progress and that “we’ve got to put some meat on the bones of hope and… give a great education,” as well as health care, to our children.

10 a.m.

we’re on to the first session, which is also the only one all day that will directly address the problem at hand (the remaining sessions focusing on the various methods and means available to tackle or solve the problem).

Map of residential distribution of Non-White or Hispanics in NYC. The heaviest concentration of this demographic is in the Bronx, Central Brooklyn and Southeast Queens.

Here’s a reaction to these maps from Chris Tan with Advocates for Children:

The executive director of Justice Mapping, Eric Cadora, is using Powerpoint to great effect, displaying the correlation between ethnic demography in NYC with areas with high concentrations of poverty, disconnected youth (youth distanced and disenfranchised from positive social, educational and support networks), foster care and Dept. of Juvenile Justice admissions. It’s stunning in its in-your-face quality.

This map shows poverty level concentration in NYC. It connects poverty to issues of ethnicity and other social problems.

Cadora went on to say that the community needs to help the city understand that we’ve begun relying on the criminal justice system too heavily, a mention that would become a theme throughout the day’s discussions. However, he noted, disadvantage coming from entrenched poverty can bring particular opportunities… he suggests targeting neighborhoods where organizations work as teams and collaborate to merge resources.

A map showing concentration of disconnected youth in Brooklyn.

Cadora also threw in a map of 3rd grade math scores, suspension rates and prison expenditures.

A map showing the levels of admissions of Brooklyn youth to the Dept. of Juvenile Justice system.

Following this theme, attorney Juan Cartagena, general counsel for the Community Service Society, discussed the lack of resources being allocated to actually rehabilitating the youth who have aged out of or otherwise not returned to the JJ system (only 7 percent of those who need it are being addressed). He also rips into the inequities, unfairness and inefficiency of arresting people for trespassing in their own apartment buildings, and notes that arrests for trespassing spike in the weeks and months following the graduation of the NYPD academy. Cartagena questions what exactly is being served by our city’s policies to push kids into a system that is proven to hurt more than it helps.

Finally, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund assistant counsel (and Brooklyn-raised guy), Damon Hewitt, starts his discussion by stating:

“We’ve been told that education is the great equalizer. But it is also used as a means of social stratification. … Some people say that the system is broken. But I’d suggest maybe it’s doing it’s job. … pushing people out [through the criminalization of young people]. Why is the system working for some and not for others?”

Here’s an interview with Mr. Hewitt after the session’s conclusion:

Throughout all the panel speeches, audience members periodically clapped, cheered and nodded in agreement to what was being said. It was a very receptive crowd of educators, students, city workers and community activists who are either involved in advocacy and projects or are interested in finding out more about what can be done. Each panelist’s discussion is followed by a question and answer session. There was one woman, Ethel Andoh Menson, in the audience who was enthusiastically nodding and responding to the panel from her seat.

All in all, an amazing morning. I look forward to following the work and actions of everyone involved in this unique, innovative and significantly relevant campaign.

Heather Jean Chin attends the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where she is pursuing an MA in print and multimedia journalism with a focus on health and medicine reporting. Currently an intern at Parenting magazine and co-founder of, she has written for The Philadelphia Bulletin, New York Moves, Roam in-flight book, NY Press and NY City News Service. Some of her work can be seen at her webportfolio.

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