A few weeks ago, College of Charleston professor Ade Ofunniyin and a group of his students spent a Saturday touring the Charleston County Juvenile Detention Center. When they entered the lockup’s library, they were shocked by what they saw: The facility’s paltry book collection was disorganized and dilapidated, with some torn-up titles dating back to the 1950s.
“We saw the library and we started thinking, ‘What could we do to improve this?’” said College of Charleston junior Mark Kukoda. When they met for Ofunniyin’s African American studies class the following week, they devised a plan. They posted fliers, started a Facebook page, organized a book drive and placed collection boxes in various dorms and buildings on campus.
On Tuesday afternoon, more than a dozen students came back to the center — this time, with roughly 150 books and magazines in tow. One student received a $500 grant from the College’s Center for Civic Engagement, which she used to purchase brand new editions for the library, including the “Hunger Games” trilogy, a “Harry Potter” box set and President Barack Obama’s memoir, “Dreams from My Father.”
This is the first time Ofunniyin, an adjunct professor of anthropology and African American studies, has offered this course, focused on the “school to prison pipeline,” a nationwide phenomenon where students, particularly minorities, are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile justice system.
As an educator, Ofunniyin, or “Dr. O,”as he’s known to his students, draws from his own experience in the juvenile justice system. When he was 12, he got in trouble for truancy and in 1966, was sent to the New York State Training School for Boys, an upstate reform school. Then when he was 16, he was arrested and detained for purse-snatching. During that time, he read “The Autobiography of Malcom X,” “Down these Mean Streets,” and “Manchild in the Promised Land” — memoirs written by men of color who led troubled lives as young people and found solace in books. Their stories resonated with Ofunniyin, who turned his own life around.
“It was books that gave them the awareness, that gave them the hope, that they can better their own lives,” he said.
The Charleston County Juvenile Detention Center houses 18 students, both girls and boys, between the ages 12 and 17. Its library, composed mostly of donated books, is half the size of a typical classroom with just one table between barren white walls. Hardcover titles like “The Politics of Inclusion,” “Contemporary Astronomy” and “The Complete Guide to Allergies” fill the shelves in addition to dozens of bibles and decades-old encyclopedias. “They have a lot of downtime,” said Sgt. Michael Krawchuk, a shift supervisor at the detention center. “These kids are always reading.” The most popular book is “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“They’ve worn it out,” Krawchuk said.
Luckily, Ofunniyin’s class has brought an extra copy of Harper Lee’s classic novel with them. Kukoda, followed by his classmates, pushes a rolling table filled with books past the metal detector and into the detention center’s large classroom adjoining the library. Teenagers in striped jump suits giggle and watch as Ofunniyin’s students squeeze into the small library and load up an empty shelf. “We’re thankful!” one girl squeals.
A sociology major who dreams of working for a federal law enforcement agency, like the FBI, Kukoda said the experience has removed his “horse blinders” about the realities of the juvenile justice system. He and other students hope to form a school club, so they can continue collecting books and eventually, “makeover” the detention center library.
“People might stereotype the kids in here, but they’re still kids, and we want to make sure we can do whatever we can for them,” Kukoda said. “If one kid reads a book and gets up and out of here, we’ll chalk that up as a win.”
Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.