Ruben Rosario’s article on the connection between criminal behavior and literacy is stunning in it’s simplicity.

Ruben’s statistics;

85 percent of all juveniles who come into contact with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. So are 60 percent of all prison inmates.

Inmates have a 16 percent chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70 percent for those who receive no help. This equates, according to the study, to taxpayer costs of $25,000 per year per inmate and nearly double that amount for juvenile offenders (California & New York spend over $200,000 per year on juveniles in their juvenile justice systems).

Other related information;

Over 50% of the youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from diagnosable mental illness & fully half that number have serious multiple diagnosis. Today’s

Michael Swanson’s Star Tribune headlines drive home the sad and murderous points that 13 year youth with serious criminal records need intervention and therapy not jail time. The Missouri miracle (juvenile justice transformation) makes this argument well.

Over 25% of American juveniles in the justice system are tried as adults,

Almost all youth in the juvenile justice system have passed through child protection services (MN Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz).

Over 70% of the serious and violent crime committed by juveniles in Ramsey County in the year of the ACE study, was perpetrated by youth from less than 4% of the families in the county.

We know who these children are and we have programs that work to make their lives more successful.

Minnesota spent half a billion dollars on its prison system last year. The money would be far better spent on early childhood programs allowing at risk youth a better chance at leading a normal life.

Ruben Rosario: Troubled youths get a message of hope
By Rubén Rosario
Updated: 11/13/2010 09:58:36 PM CST
Pioneer Press

Award-winning writer Jimmy Santiago Baca recently talked to students at Stadium View School in Minneapolis about the importance of personal expression. He is photographed talking to school administrators about the experience with with this kids on November 11. (Pioneer Press: Ashley Halbach)
He came last week to the little-known jail school with the grand view of the Metrodome, not to preach but to connect.

None of the 52 youths — juvenile offenders ranging in age from 10 to 18, knew who Jimmy Santiago Baca was, and probably many didn’t care at first. They figured he was just another adult authority figure about to bore them with empty rhetoric or tell them how screwed up they are.

To help break the ice and gain some trust, Baca told them a story from his childhood.

He did not begin with tales of his abusive father, who died of alcoholism. Nor did he begin with the story of his mother, later murdered by her second husband, or why they abandoned him at an early age. He did not mention his five years in a maximum-security prison in Arizona on a drug-possession conviction or the guy he stabbed in self-defense inside the joint.

The 58-year-old ex-felon and award-winning poet and author told them about the time he was caught stealing a man’s glass eye at the rural New Mexico orphanage where his grandparents reluctantly placed him.

“There was a marble contest, and as little kids, they thought the glass eye could see,” Lawrence Lucio, principal of the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center’s Stadium View School, related to me Thursday as we waited for Baca to address a group of schoolteachers and corrections officials.

“So they figured if they could cop the eye, they could use it as a marble,” said Lucio, a lifelong resident of St.

Paul’s West Side.
Baca, caught red-handed, swallowed the eye and then humorously recounted what nature yielded a few days later.

“And then he transitions from that to having the kids write about experiences they recalled — good, bad or indifferent — in their lives,” Lucio added. “Getting kids to write about what’s inside — it’s a great tool for kids to release stress and frustrations.”

The ability to write. The ability to read. It’s a power, a freedom most of us take for granted or don’t ponder much. Not Baca, a former illiterate who spent 25 years in some form of confinement — from an orphanage to juvie halls to the big house.


A quarter-century later, the former runaway and street tough is an in-demand speaker, educator, poet and documentary filmmaker. He once held the Wallace Stevens Endowed Chair at Yale University.

“The bad thing about not being able to read and write is that you are not a part of it, of life,” he told the small group of educators and jail officials. “And that’s the horrible thing about it. When you do get the grasp of language and look back behind you, the horror of being manipulated and used by people who were supposed to love you is so overwhelming.

“That’s why I work with people who can’t read or write,” he said.

There’s a strong connection between illiteracy and incarceration.

A recent national study found that 85 percent of all juveniles who come into contact with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. So are 60 percent of all prison inmates.

Another study concluded that inmates have a 16 percent chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70 percent for those who receive no help. This equates, according to the study, to taxpayer costs of $25,000 per year per inmate and nearly double that amount for juvenile offenders.

Other research suggests that 75 percent of inmates are illiterate at the 12th-grade level and 19 percent are completely illiterate.

Most of the juvenile offenders at Stadium View School are three to five years behind their peers in reading and writing levels. Lucio has seen his share of illiterate kids walk through the door.

“I’ve had 18-year-olds in here who are basically nonreaders,” he said. Many of the detained youths are awaiting disposition of their cases. Some will return home or be sent to the juvenile facility in Red Wing. Quite a few will be certified as adults and, if convicted, head to the state prisons in St. Cloud and Stillwater.


Prison life seemed like just another inevitable stop in Baca’s life.

As he writes in his 2001 memoir, “A Place To Stand”: “I had visited it a thousand times in the screams of my father and my drunken uncles, in the tight-lipped scolding of my mother; in all the finger-pointing of the nuns at Saint Anthony’s orphanage; in all the finger-pointing adults who told me I didn’t belong. I didn’t fit in, I was a deviant. … By the time I arrived, a part of me felt I belonged there.”

But somehow, he knew there had to be a way out. He artfully navigated the prison culture of gangs. He carved the respect he needed to be left alone. A letter from “Harry,” a World War II veteran and Christian mission volunteer in a wheelchair, triggered a feverish plunge into poetry and prose. He devoured Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ezra Pound, Walt Whitman and other poets. He began writing poems about his life and times. Mother Jones published three in 1979, the year he was released from prison.

He found the way out. He has won numerous national and international poetry awards. He made it. But he resigned the Yale chair. The ivory tower perch in the Ivy League was quite an accomplishment. But it wasn’t where Baca felt he was needed.

No, it was places like the barrios of Northern Mexico, the kids in the public school in Newark, N.J., with the barbed wire or inside this little jail school in Minneapolis. He has conducted hundreds of writing workshops in prisons, community centers, libraries and universities throughout the country.

In 2005 he created Cedar Tree Inc., a nonprofit foundation that “transforms lives through reading and writing.”

Fame has its rewards. But one of his biggest paychecks came the day he received an honorary doctorate from the University of New Mexico. There, in the stands, were roughly 9,000 young men and women.

“Those are all the people you helped to read and write,” a university official told him.

It brought him to tears.


Five years later, he’s in Minneapolis, trying to light the fire inside educators about youths who some of us don’t care about or have given up on. He believes deep in his heart that youths still have choices to make, no matter how dire their situations appear to be. But they need care and guidance.

“The first day (of a workshop) you have to be prepared to come in and you have to be prepared to go back when you were 18 years old and you believed the world was an open heart and all you had to do was sing and the angels would hear it,” he told them. “You have to believe that; if a teacher is not prepared to go do that, you have no business in that room.”

He tells me about a momentous event in his life. It was the same year he left prison, where he taught himself to read and write.

He attended night school in North Carolina in search of his high school equivalency diploma. His teacher pointed to a book and asked him if he knew the word printed on it.

“I looked and I saw a picture of this monarch butterfly on the biology page and then the caterpillar on the other page,” he recalled. “I had seen that on the farm, that these things change into those things, but I didn’t know there was a word for it.

He asked the teacher what the word was. “Metamorphosis” was the reply.

“And I’m that,” he recalled telling himself. “I better metamorphosis or I’ll die. And I did.”

Rubén Rosario can be reached at 651-228-5454 or

“For every child who is in conflict with society the right to be dealt with intelligently as society’s charge, not society’s outcast; with the home, the school, the church, the court and the institution when needed, shaped to return him whenever possible to the normal stream of life.” — Inscription on a plaque at the Juvenile Detention Center in downtown Minneapolis, from “The Children’s Charter,” 1930

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