Monthly Archives: March 2011

Free preschool

Turnover in the last state election, combined with the recession, means our legislature is struggling with some tough financing decisions lately. One big item on the chopping block is free preschool for 4-year-olds.

I can see why people think that is a good thing, and some of my Facebook friends have posted about how they find it so incredibly important that they can send their kids to these programs.

No matter what you think about the value of early childhood education though, what had me immediately scratching my head was the perceived list of benefits gained from the program to date.

The spokesperson for the faction fighting to save free preschool lauded the program for making marked improvement in kids’ readiness for Kindergarten. In her speech, examples given included that the children showed measurable improvement in the areas of listening to authority, lining up and doing what they were told.

Thing is, I don’t see how these are truly related to than the actual academic progress of a student!  Do these skills really give them a leg up when they learn to read or add numbers? Doubtful. Does it speak to classroom control and make things easier for the Kindergarten teacher and get students ready to spend their whole days doing something other than playing? Yes, absolutely.

And while I’m sure those things play a roll in how effective the learning environment is, and how likely a student is to succeed in that environment, it also speaks to a much deeper issue with our education system. The purpose of school these days seems not really to be for kids to learn, as much as it is to train them to function in our bureaucratic system!  It’s more important for them to fall into line than it is to think critically or acquire knowledge.

We tried our lad in preschool last year, and it didn’t work out well. We pulled him out with few regrets. And now I’m actually glad things turned out this way. Due to some of our other life plans, we’re most likely going to be homeschooling. Not sure how this will play out yet, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading and have some ideas. What exactly will his education look like? Not sure, but I know some things that it will not encompass.

Are we worried he won’t learn the aforementioned critical life skills? Well, he can learn to stand in a queue at the grocery store; to listen to non-parental authority at his swimming class; to socialize with others (of a much more diverse age group!) at the library.  Nope. not worried.

Non-violent protest is not terrorism; CMUs are political prisons

Free speech is proclaimed as a protected right in this country. However, given recent events I’m beginning to think that it’s actually conditional, more of a privilege than anything.

Last week, the Supreme Court protected the ability of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest military funerals. As much as I dislike what the church members have to say, I can understand why the court ruled in their favor. However, I’m disappointed by an action the court took today – refusing to hear the case of SHAC 7, a group of seven people convicted of terrorism for running an animal rights related web site.

The members of the SHAC 7 group took no illegal action themselves, but hosted content on a web site that talked about illegal activities others had taken (like releasing animals from labs). The Third Circuit Court had ruled that while they were not a threat and had not done anything illegal, they could be convicted because they supported illegal actions and by doing so might have incited people to participate. By associating with people who had taken part in illegal activities, the rights of the group were no longer protected.

As Will Potter from Green is the New Red said at the time-

“To put it more plainly: Vocally supporting civil disobedience, explaining what it involves, and encouraging/facilitating people to take part is not protected speech.

This is so important let me say it again, another way: People who write about civil disobedience and encourage people to take part can be found convicted of a crime even if they do not take part in the civil disobedience.

So the fact that the Supreme Court choose to let this ruling stand means that the Third Circuit’s decision is allowed to serve as precedent. Even if you don’t support causes like the ones the SHAC 7 were promoting, consider the danger that this presents to free speech. This has major implications for activists of all stripes.

Some might consider this proof that if your cause is unpopular enough, you will be silenced. And some are silenced in the most absolute sense of the word you can imagine. Domestic terrorists, including those convicted of “eco-terrorism”, are often held in something called Communications Management Units (CMUs), instead of traditional prisons. CMUs radically restrict prisoner access and communication to the outside world. They’re said to “rival, or exceed, the most restrictive facilities in the country, including the “Supermax,” ADX-Florence” where the Unabomber is held.

Prisoners in CMUs are virtually cut off from the outside world, kept in isolation. All prisoner communications and interactions are live-monitored and subject to recording. Letters are photocopied and the delivery is delayed. They’re only allowed two phone calls a week (recently increased from one) scheduled well in advance and up to 15 minutes long. That can be reduced to three minutes at the warden’s discretion. If their family members make the trek to see them in person (there are two CMUs in in the US), they can visit a maximum of two hours (where most inmates are allowed all-day visits), twice a month. They are not allowed physical contact. This is worse than even the most stringent rules for high-risk offenders– something many of these prisoners are not.

Last year the government acknowledged these secret prisons and proposed making them permanent. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU both filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the facilities, their policies on prisoner treatment, and violation of due process rights. This is in part based on the practice of transferring a prisoner into a CMU, or from one to the other, without prior notification and without a chance to appeal.

It’s a commonly held belief the reason the CMUs hold these types of prisoners are to shut them up. Removing their access to their family members, the media, and pretty much everyone means that their messages cannot get out. However, the isolation also has the capacity to destroy the prisoners psychologically and serve as a reminder to other activists of what could happen.

The fact that these political prisons even exist should serve as reminder that free speech rights don’t make a difference if you’re not otherwise free.