Chelsea, 17, and Andre Shorts, 16, leave their home and walk a short distance to a bridge that crosses a creek in their East Austin neighborhood. As they approach, they spot four of their friends laughing and joking on the bridge railings. The concrete creek bed is nearly bone dry. The fragile trickle of water is a grim reminder of the ongoing drought battering central Texas. The banks of the creek are angled. There’s a chain-linked fence, lining the top on both sides of the rivulet to keep people out. Near a pedestrian bridge that crosses the stream, Andre and Chelsea pull back a corner of the fence and climb down into the creek. It’s Saturday, so they go on their ritual walk, which on some days can extend for several miles.
They stop for a break near a place they have nicknamed the “steps.” The creek’s smooth high-angled walls turn into a series of large steps made of small rocks kept in place by a wire mesh. This is where the Shorts and their friends often hang out. It is a hidden place and it offers a refuge obscured from view of the street. Having place like the “steps” is crucial for these teenagers as they navigate their surrounding neighborhood, which they affectionately call the “ghetto.” The groups of teenagers walk aggressively, their heads constantly pivoting from left to right, scanning for trouble. They leave the “steps” to walk to their next hangout place. The sound of a car driving past echoes in the creek. A glass bottle tossed from the car shatters just a few feet away from Andre. Everyone jumps from the sound of the glass exploding on the concrete. “That was crazy,” he says stunned, before adding: “A lot of stuff like that happens.”
The Shorts and their friends experience life differently than some of the their classmates at Austin High School, which is 5 miles away from their neighborhood in a different area code. They live in the 78721 zip code of Austin, which has some the highest prison admission rates and one of the highest concentrations of poor minority residents. Their biological father has been absent most of their lives. They only recently reconnected after his release following a decade and a half in prison.
A website called the Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections produced by the Justice Mapping Center reports that in the 78721 zip code, the prison admission rate is 22.61 per 1,000. Overall for Travis County the prison admission rate is 4.10 per 1000. Across Interstate 35 in the more affluent 78746 zip code, the numbers are very different. The prison admission rate is .19 per 1,000.25 Teens who live in this area refer to it as the “Two-One,” after the zip code.
Chelsea and Andre live with their parents and siblings at their grandparents’ small house near Airport Boulevard and Springdale Avenue. Andre and Chelsea’s mother Janie Perez and their stepfather Joe Perez are very active in their lives. Janie and Joe often have been Andre’s advocates when he got in trouble at school.
Andre and Chelsea are more fortunate than other children in the East Austin community. They have a family unit supporting their goals. Often, that support is only emotional, because the family’s financial resources are limited. But it is consistent and it makes a difference. Andre and Chelsea share a cramped bedroom. Every inch of their room is used. A bunk bed takes up most of the space, leaving a narrow walkway and a corner for the TV and video game system. Their house has become the official hangout spot for their group of friends. Chelsea says that at times they fit 6 or 8 of their friends in their bedroom. Their parents are happy that they gather at home, because they know that they will be safe. Being “here it’s like a vault, so we lock it down and we’re good,” Andre says.
Once they leave their homes and enter the streets, Andre says they have to be more vigilant in that environment. “When it starts to get dark at night you have to kick in your survival skills. My senses just get better because I’m about to go out there and I have to be ready for anything,” Andre says. Safely walking down a street in your own neighborhood, a fact that many teenagers from other parts of the city might take for granted, creates added stress for teenagers in East Austin. They are forced to live in a constant state of hyper awareness, always alert for bad situations that could lead to trouble. “You got to be careful around here because there are people that even see a little bit of money in your pocket will cause a lot of jealousy and hatred,” Chelsea says. “You got to keep two eyes open, one in front and one in the back.”
The kitchen in their home is bright because of the lime green walls. Chelsea sits at a table watching her family members move in and out of the room. She reflects on the challenges that she and her brother face as at-risk youth. “I probably am in the category of youth with a higher statistic [of] being arrested or as a female being pregnant at this age or doing drugs,” she says.
“The hood can be a black hole and if you let it suck you in then you’re just going to come out like everybody else. Stuck,” Chelsea says. “It gets harder and harder for you to dig yourself out of that hole.”
The children of incarcerated parents have a much higher chance of becoming high school drop-outs, committing juvenile offenses, and becoming incarcerated themselves, according to a report from the Sentencing Project called “Incarcerated Parents and Their Children.” The study also concludes that since 1991 there has been an 82 percent increase in the number of children with imprisoned parents. Nationally, 1 in 43 American children have a parent in jail. The numbers become more extreme when they are broken down by race. For whites, 1 in 111 children have a parent imprisoned and for blacks it is 1 in 15.
Chelsea opened the screen of the back door and stepped into the backyard. Twenty steps later she cracks open the door of grey tool shed. There she has constructed a makeshift studio in the old structure that belongs to her stepdad. Inside she has set up a blank paint canvas, an airbrush kit and a few other artist supplies. Chelsea dreams of being an artist and owning her own business. “When you’re painting, you can paint the world however you want the world to be. I feel like when I’m creating art there are no limitations, I just have unlimited freedom,” she says.
Andre has dreams of life 3,000 feet above ground, as a pilot. He imagines that flying a plane would be like crowd surfing at a concert. “When you’re in the air nothing can stop you. It feels like your on top of the world literally cause you’re just so high and you can see everything and there nothing in the way up there,” he says. Feeling constrained, their dreams reach for freedom. Andre stays connected to his dream through the Internet. He watches the web stream of students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida training to fly. But he feels alone in his dream about becoming a pilot. As he sits on his bed near his laptop he laments, “no one is really mentoring me or helping me to get to that goal. It’s just me.”
His parents wish the best for him but do not have a lot of experience with attaining the advanced education needed to become a pilot. Andre’s stepfather did not go to college and is busy trying to help the family survive. His mother just wants him to graduate from high school and go to college. “They’re coming from a neighborhood where opportunities are easy to see when you’re at school. You have other folks that are trying to support you. When you see that and come back to a neighborhood where the environment is not so good, they loose sight of that,” Joe stepdad Joe laments. says.
The lack of support and social and cultural capital can leave children without the resources and information needed to thrive in American society. “You see it a lot in kids just giving up, they don’t understand exactly how the [environment] affects you, they just assume that I’m done with and that there is nowhere for them to go,” Janie says reflecting on the struggles that her children and their friends from East Austin face.
A child growing up in a community trapped in the cycle of incarceration is damaged in many visible ways. They are also hurt in psychological ways, including a low-self esteem. Judge Charlie Baird says that mass incarceration has had a devastating effect on the young men and women from poor African American communities that are the frontlines in America’s War on Drugs. “I think they sense that their value to our society is not great as it is for an Anglo child. I think it demeans them, I think it demoralizes them and I think that their attitude rather than saying I’m going to prove society wrong, could be just to capitulate to what society expects” he says.
Their American Dream denied, they have low expectations for themselves and even less for their community. This lost generation of young people is being targeted for failure before they can even get a start in the world.