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VOL. 132 | NO. 100 | Friday, May 19, 2017

Burr is Building a Prison-to-Opportunity Pipeline

By Micaela Watts

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Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.

The first time Mahal Burr walked into the Shelby County Jail, she was planning to meet with prison officials. Instead, to her surprise, she was shown into a room with 18 incarcerated kids.

“The sheriff’s office rep said, ‘This is Mahal and Evan from BRIDGES, and they’re going to do an activity with you around youth leadership,’” recalls Burr.

She can laugh about it now, but at the time it was no joke. The kids were minors who had been charged as adults for a variety of violent offenses. (Currently, there are 23 minors being tried as adults at Jail East and over 74 minors in the Shelby County Juvenile Court detention center.)

MAHAL BURR (Ziggy Mack)

Burr and her colleague had no materials or preparation. Fortunately, as a community action coordinator at BRIDGES USA and someone who had spent a fair amount of time working with incarcerated youth, she was able to improvise.

“We talked about our respective communities,” she recalls. “We were trying to create space for the youth to share about what led them to the school-to-prison pipeline, and when they were given that opportunity, I think they exceeded all the expectations of the adults in the room. They all had insights on personal mindsets, seemingly harmless policies and missing support that had influenced their path.”

The conversation that ensued led Burr and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office to start Incarcerated Youth Speaking Out for Change (IYSOC), a BRIDGES program that empowers youth in the juvenile justice system to develop solutions to deter juvenile crime and reduce recidivism. Lately, they have addressed the growing problem of suspensions in schools.

Last year, more than 3.5 million public school students were given out-of-school suspensions, ostensibly to remove disruptive and/or dangerous individuals from the learning environment. But research from the U.S. Department of Education has shown that black students are more than twice as likely as white students to be suspended, and these suspensions often result in encounters with the criminal justice system through school-related arrests.

“For many of these kids, being removed from school puts them even further behind,” Burr says. “They aren’t receiving an education while they’re out, so graduating feels less and less likely.”

Burr’s conversation in the Shelby County Jail had another effect – it caught the ear of Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham. He helped smooth the way for the incarcerated young men to speak at Youth Ignite Memphis, a forum at BRIDGES where young Memphians pitch ideas to improve their city.

At the event, IYSOC members shared insights for schools that want to reduce suspensions and close the racial suspension gap. Their suggestions, which can be found on the group’s website, point up a need for more one-on-one time with students, eliminating suspensions for minor infractions, and making classes more interactive/engaging. They also asked that the community at large become more involved with incarcerated youth.

Raising awareness is important, but Burr and her colleagues know it isn’t sufficient. To that end, they have developed a program to help group members advocate for their needs while preventing others from ending up in their position. They have also identified internships and jobs that are available to incarcerated kids upon their release.

It’s a reflection of Burr’s core belief that the school-to-prison pipeline must be mitigated by what she calls the “prison-to-opportunity pipeline.”

“Obviously, we’re gathering information to address the school-to-prison pipeline,” she observes. “But we also have to identify young leaders who have potential to generate community change.”

Mahal Burr is a graduate of New Memphis’ Embark program. Learn more at newmemphis.org.

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