Blog · New York City

My Beautiful, Loving Marriage to A Man Who Is Trapped Within New York City’s School-to-Prison Pipeline

A Voice From Within: One Couple’s Story

I’m in a beautifully loving marriage to John Dukes, a man who is truly one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. My husband is also incarcerated. During our friendship, courtship, and marriage, John and I have spent a lot of time tracing his trajectory from the various schools he attended as a boy in NYC and on Long Island  to his current status as an inmate in a New York State correctional facility.

Something went awry.

I want to be clear that by no means is John blaming any one for the decision he made that wound him up in prison. He takes full responsibility for his actions and has used his time incarcerated to do the hard work — the heart and head work,  the introspection and reflection —  that garners authentic rehabilitation.

The more John and I honestly flesh things out, the more light is shed on so many abject failures that took place in his formative and school-aged years that directly contributed to his incarceration. These include societal failures like the school-to-prison pipeline; the disproportionality of Black boys in Special Education programs; the alarmingly high rate of suspension of Black males from as young as Kindergarten; the latent and blatant racism of the public school system; the lack of authentic relationship building between teachers and their students.

I could go on and on and I write not merely as a doting and concerned wife but, more so, as a concerned educator and social activist. It is this part of me that innately seethes with anguish over John and the millions of other Black men who are used like pawns every day to feed an educational system that uses them for financial gain. Special education students bring in a lot of money to school budgets each fiscal year; yet many leave school ill-prepared for either college or career.

Furthermore, Black men almost single-handedly feed the prison system.  As a matter of fact, the research shows that if a black male is not reading on-grade level by the third-grade, a prison cell — not a classroom– is built for him. Such was the case for John.

In a recent letter to me, my husband writes:

Dear Vivett,

“When I think about school, nothing good comes to mind concerning education. School was given to me (a command), not explained to me, and going to a predominantly White school didn’t help…I viewed school as a punishment or a daycare for parents, and I never really felt a part of the education given by staff (it didn’t apply to me, or so I thought). For example, my teachers were of no resemblance to me or to people I was accustomed to being with…School basically became a social club. I was more into my appearance than learning how to enhance my gifts or achieve a pathway to a career…school never monitored children like me anyway. I only received special attention when I misbehaved or acted out on other student


Your Husband

P.S. – …Even eating out of brown paper bags while watching white children have lunch boxes made me uncomfortable.

My goal is to not only reduce the rate of recidivism by providing a viable outlet for sharing John’s story and the story of so many, but to see education from the social activism lens, to see education as a tool for prevention of contribution to the penal system. In the words of Rev. Dr. MLK, Jr:

“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

What do you think?

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