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Willie Richardson / Apr. 24, 2019

The Prison Pipeline Phenomenon Starts With the Letter 'P'

If kids don't learn to read, they are statistically far more likely to end up in jail.

The P says “puh”; the P says “puh.” Every letter makes a sound the P says, “puh.” Reading is fun-duh-mental and inspires a child’s imagination. All learning begins with sounds and all sounds come from phonics. If a child cannot comprehend phonics, then he cannot comprehend reading.

I have two boys and a girl. My daughter, who is the oldest, reads above grade level in third grade. My son, in the first grade, is reading above grade level as well. My youngest son, who is three, knows the phonics of all 26 letters and can count to 100 by himself. He exclaims, “Daddy I can count to 100!” This is a result of hard work and intentional training our children for educational excellence. I am not giving society a chance to steer my children off course.

Researchers at Yale found that three-quarters of the students that enter the fourth grade one or two grade levels behind never caught up. Failure to read by grade level at the end of third grade is a strong predictor of high-school dropouts. High-school dropouts are a strong indicator for crime, teenage pregnancies, unemployment, and under employment. Over the past decade a high-school dropout’s median income was $23,000, while students with bachelor’s degrees earned $48,000. This does not suggest that a bachelor’s degree is the end all for American students. This does suggest, however, that education is a key component in this information age. Students need extensive educational opportunities like trade school in order to afford a piece of the “American Dream” pie. Here are some more sobering statistics on high-school dropouts:

  • One in four students drop out in America

  • Every 29 seconds, another student drops out

  • African-American and Hispanic students have a graduation rate of less than 65%

  • Nearly one-third of the American population are high-school dropouts

  • Dropouts are more likely to receive government assistance and become unmarried parents

  • About 75% of all crimes are committed by dropouts

If these statistics make you cringe, take a step further. Inside America’s prisons, 70% of inmates cannot read or write. Let that sink in. In hindsight, this means that you can peek into a pre-K classroom today and point out prospective inmates for tomorrow based on phonics. These children cannot comprehend their names, colors, shapes, numbers, letters, or simple instructions. That might sound defeating, but the numbers don’t lie. According to the documentary, “How Do You Spell Murder?” a New Jersey State Prison is now a maximum-security prison for inmates serving long sentences. Half of the prisoners are convicted of murder, the average sentence is 50 years, and 75% of the inmates are illiterate. The connection between illiteracy and crime is staggering. The next time you see the headlines in news about a senseless killing, don’t think about their skin color; think about their reading comprehension or lack thereof.

Frederick Douglass wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” As a former slave himself, Douglass was speaking to white slave-owners who could not, or would not, comprehend that slavery was morally wrong. One of the most immoral practices of slavery was denying slaves the ability to read. Douglass went on to teach himself how to read secretly and often said, “Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” If knowledge comes from God, reading gives us knowledge, and phonics helps us read, then reading is equivalent to breathing.

I hear so often from the black community that they “build prisons according to third-grade reading levels” or they’re “building more prisons than schools.” When I hear these ideas being spewed, I am not entangled in the conspiracy theory. I see the solution in the problem. For example, if the minority community knows that prisons are being built according to third-grade reading levels, wouldn’t it make sense to ante up on books and bookshelves for their children? Instead of spending $175 for a new pair of Air Jordan’s, invest in a free library card for the whole family. Instead of trying to keep up with the latest fashions, keep up with the latest book clubs. Problem solved, right?

The 13th Amendment of the Constitution states: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Crime is duly punishable by law and turns a citizen into a slave or involuntary servitude upon imprisonment. As mentioned, crime is a strong correlation to poor reading levels. In today’s society, higher reading levels level the playing field. The letter P says “puh.” Instead of Prison, let’s Provide our children the kind of Parenting that Position them for Progress, Professionalism, and Purpose. Make America READ again!

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