Innovative Faith Working To Dismantle The Cradle To Prison Pipeline In Baltimore City

Feb 19, 2013 by

Baltimore City, MD was ranked as the fourth worst city for urban youth, specifically African-American males. The city’s school district has a 41% high school graduation rate, yet African-American youth make up 43% of the juvenile detention population.  In 2010, hundreds of grassroots activists and youth protested the construction of another $104 million dollar youth prison; demanding that those monies be redirected toward educating, not incarcerating Baltimore’s youth. 

Based on the 2010 Census Bureau report, the average funding spent nationally to educate America’s children in public schools was $10,615 per child.  The per-pupil cost to educate a child in Baltimore City Public Schools, as reported by the school district, was recently increased from $5,000 to $5,155 per student in 2012; half of what the national average is.  As of 2010, The American Correctional Association estimated that the average cost to states to incarcerate a young person is approximately $240.00 per day, which results in an annual cost of $88,000; over eight times the national average invested in educating our youth.  

Sending a young person to Harvard University for the 2012-2013 academic year is a total cost of $63,000 annually.  The cost of attending Princeton University is $53,000 annually.  For half the cost of the national average of incarcerating a young person each year, they can have their choice of Columbia University, Wesleyan University, or Yale Law School.  Two young people can even be sent to The School Of Medicine at John Hopkins University for the average cost of incarcerating one young person for twelve months.

In addition to the fact that, as a nation, we are wasting monies “warehousing” our at-risk youth in ineffective and punitive systems, as opposed to nurturing and rehabilitating environments; there are glaring disparities that guarantee the continued flow of the pipeline for our youth of color, specifically African-American males, and more increasingly Hispanic males. One major contributing factor is the unwarranted and systematic criminalization of youth of color within the public school system, which often serves as a precursor to their entrance into the pipeline’s paradigm for black male students as early as kindergarten. 

Those of us that are grassroots advocates fighting to snatch our youth out of the vicious jaws of the pipeline, have come to accept the reality that the institutions that were created to save our youth from the pipeline are doing just the opposite by creating and sustaining policies and cultures that are conducive to allowing it to overtake our youth, with no hope for escaping the path to prison once they have been profiled for it. 

So, who is left to engage in the extraordinary task of dismantling this detrimental pipeline that is devouring an entire generation?  Enter faith-based leaders. Traditionally, since the era of slavery, the “Black Church” has been considered one of the most imperative and impacting moral, economic, social, academic, emotional, and spiritual forces throughout the community; often serving as the compass and catalyst for social justice and equity. There is a resurgence of this same spirit in recent years to address social issues such as the Cradle-To-Prison pipeline as well as other injustices and disparities facing our communities.

prison piplineOne of the more progressive leaders that is taking the Cradle-To-Prison Pipeline head on is Dr. Jamal H. Bryant of Empowerment Temple, a faith-based community located in Baltimore City.  Dr. Bryant founded Empowerment Temple in 2000 with the purpose, as stated on the church’s website, of “empowering believers spiritually, developing them educationally, exposing them culturally, activating them politically, and strengthening them economically.” (  As a third generation member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African-American Protestant denomination in the nation, he has pursued the vision of empowering the “whole individual.” Dr. Bryant and The Empowerment Temple faith community have actively sought to reach those directly and indirectly impacted by the Cradle-To-Prison Pipeline.

Their efforts to put faith into community action throughout their communities and our nation have led to actively engaging in social issues involving the Trayvon Martin assassination, tackling high unemployment trends, and holding parents accountable for their role in the education of our children.

When asked if he feels as though faith-based organizations have a responsibility to address the factors that contribute to the Cradle-To-Prison Pipeline, Dr. Bryant responds, “every Christian should be compelled to take action in Christ-like manner to disrupt the criminal system because of its moving from being a rehabilitation system to a more punitive system.  We are anointed to set the captives free, as a result, we are obligated to address this issue through the church.”

Dr. Bryant went on to state that there are immediate steps that faith-based organizations must implement in order to dismantle the pipeline and its influences; which include working to develop relevant and meaningful youth ministries whose goal is to reach our most challenging youth.   He also shares that instilling fundamental biblical principals into the next generation to enable them to make educated decisions about real life is essential.  Along with these approaches, he emphasizes the need for churches to be intentional in improving their Men’s Ministries.  He provides this commentary regarding the African-American church:

 “…the (black) church is overpopulated with women as a matter of history, as a result, the church must intentionally reach out to men because when men attend church, the chances of the entire family attending church are much greater than if the woman attends alone. Our young people want to belong and want to feel protected, that is why they gravitate  toward gangs.  The goal is to provide these things for them within the confines of the church, and to bridge the disconnect that presently exists between the church and the community, specifically as it pertains to our African-American males, young and old. We must reach them.”

th-11When presented with the question as to what responsibility elected officials have in the national narrative involving the Cradle-To-Prison Pipeline, Dr. Bryant states, “politicians will only do what they are allowed to do. Pastors have influence due to the voting blocks within their congregations. If a politician can be elected, he can be unelected.  It is time for churches to use their influence in our communities to act in the best interests of our communities by educating our people about the issues and candidates, then allowing them to make educated decisions regarding who they want to be their leaders and who will act in their best interests.”

Dr. Bryant does not believe that churches should necessarily go into the schools due to separation of church and state issues; however, he does subscribe to the concept of churches being instrumental and vocal in supporting after-school and mentoring programs throughout the community. He also stresses the importance of the church having a visible, meaningful, and impacting “presence” throughout the communities in which they reside. 

As a faith-based leader that is actively involved throughout all aspects of the community and society at large, Dr. Bryant shares that one of the major obstacles to engaging the African-American community, specifically “The Black Church,” is the illusion that being in the church gives you “diplomatic immunity,” allowing Christians to escape reality just by coming to church, and feeling as though they have no responsibility or accountability to deal with the realities of the world, or work to change the circumstances of those around them.  Dr. Bryant’s observation is supported by the claims of many grassroots activists that identify the greatest enemies of social justice as apathy and indifference among those that are subject to oppressive life circumstances.

Dr. Bryant also offers accolades to Dr. Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness;” characterizing her as a “prophet that has pulled the band-aid off; exposing what we have chosen to ignore and forcing all of us to deal with this issue, our part in contributing to it, and our role in solving it. ”  He went on to share, optimistically, that, “I see pastors moving independently, at the grassroots level, throughout the nation, based on the needs of their communities, doing what needs to be done to support their communities and doing what needs to be done to effectively and permanently dismantle the pipeline.”

Empowerment Temple, under the passion and vision of Dr. Bryant, is just as intentional and systematic in dismantling the Cradle-To-Prison Pipeline to save our youth and communities as those that strive to keep the pipeline in tact.  While we know that Empowerment Temple is, by far, not the only faith-based organization that is actively targeting our youth for success, many would agree that our youth need many more organizations; faith-based and otherwise, to return to their grassroots of community outreach in an effort to reverse the impact of the Cradle-To-Prison Pipeline, and eventually, dismantle it completely. 

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