Editorial | Myrtle Beach-area group aims to cut off pipeline to prison for young men

Patrick Richardson, now a barber in Myrtle Beach, knows exactly what it’s like to try to find a job when you return to a community from prison. It isn’t easy. “I am a convicted felon. I was at my lowest point -- at my bottom, willing to work for free,’’ Richardson says.

Out of prison, Richardson was helped by a New York law that prohibits discrimination against felons and a provision that a barber’s license may be earned by working under a master barber, instead of attending barber school. In South Carolina, the learned license is not an option. Perhaps more significant than a license, Richardson told The Sun News Editorial Board, “It was in my heart not to give up.’’

Moreover, Richardson is eager to help young minority men avoid behavior that keeps them in what the Children’s Defense Fund terms a “Cradle to Prison Pipeline.’’ Richardson, who works for Sam “the barber” Gore, is part of a diverse group of citizens working on formation of a blue ribbon commission to improve summer employment for minority youth who are first-time, non-violent offenders.

The two barbers were among eight people, lead by Bennie Swans of Carolina Forest, who met with the editorial board. Others included Jackson Gregory, a retired Navy captain and Judge Advocate General officer; political activist and commentator John E. Bonsignor; Dennis Salerno, a former judge in New Jersey; Jerry Faulk, pastor and former moderator of the Kingston Lakes Baptist Association; Doris J. Gleason, community outreach director for AARP South Carolina.

The United States is the world’s No. 1 jailer, with 750 inmates per 100,000 population. By stark contrast, Canada’s ratio is 100 per 100,000. Many of those in the U.S. prison population are non-violent offenders, perhaps having been guilty of possession of illegal substances. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, minority youth represent about 60 percent of juveniles committed in the juvenile justice system -- although minorities make up about 40 percent of the U.S. juvenile population.

“In 2006, two-thirds of the 92,854 youth in residential placement were there for non-violent offenses,’’ according to a Juvenile Justice Factsheet of the CDF. “The Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign is a national and community crusade to engage families, youths, communities and policy makers in the development of healthy, safe and educated children. Poverty, racial disparities and a culture of punishment rather than prevention and early intervention are key forces driving the pipeline.’’

In South Carolina, more than 20 percent of the state’s 218,250 children were classified as poor (2009 figures). That’s 1 in 5, overall. For white, non-Latino children, 1 in 8 is poor. Latino children, 1 in 4; black children, 3 in 8. So poverty, health care, early childhood education, secondary education, child welfare, and community violence are all factors explaining the disproportional numbers of minorities in U.S. prisons.

For Swans, that fact is “the elephant in the room, on the table. We must break the cycle.’’ To that end, Swans says, “what we’re looking to do is create a blue ribbon panel, as a first step.’’ He’s hoping for wide support from local governments, business organizations and educational institutions. And he emphasizes the continuing need for age, gender and racial diversity. “It’s not going to happen with black folks alone.’’

Faulks, who is retired from the S.C. juvenile justice system, underscored that there are many pieces to the puzzle. “It is a tremendous task’’ to begin to turn around situations such as the high numbers of blacks behind bars. Such change comes by going after one problem. So the first step, as Swans says, is “look at the short-term goal of summer employment, [and] first-time, non-violent offenders to not be discriminated against.’’

That’s a big project, but it’s an important first step. If it were easy, change such as this “would have been done long ago.’’ Swans alludes to Richardson ... “being down and being able to rise up. He’s a poster guy.’’