The Jail Teacher’s Lesson: the War on Drugs drives violence and criminalization

By Joshua Conner


“A square peg” in a proverbial round hole. Someone who “is highly passionate about serving others.”

That’s how Donielle Lawson describes herself.

On April 24 at the Medill downtown newsroom, I spoke with Lawson about her take on life, education, politics and the war on drugs.

A former Chicago Public Schools teacher, as well as an Aldermanic candidate, Lawson is widely known for her experiences teaching in the Cook County Jail – earning her the nickname “the Jail Teacher.”

I asked Lawson about her animated personality.

“Personally, I use my faith, you only have one life to live,” she said.

She sees her mission as “fighting for the rights of the underdog.”

Early on Lawson never thought she would be an educator, however after being a substitute teacher she fell in love with the profession. Her career-defining moments all occurred while she was a teacher.

Her first such experience occurred during her first year of teaching. She taught a student named S. Williams in 1993, who she said gained two and a half years of learning in just a few days as they worked closely together.

Lawson’s second career-defining moment occurred while she was teaching at Orr Academy High School.

Lawson taught 90-minute blocks at Orr, and she managed to help students raise their test scores.

A third defining experience was the opportunity to serve children incarcerated by the Department of Corrections. Lawson is especially motivated to work with the hard-to-reach children.

“Planting a seed in the jails, you just don’t know how it grows,” said Lawson.

Lawson also gave significant commentary on how women, especially women of color, are viewed in society. Lawson is doing her part to present a new model in a patriarchal society.

“Men want to dominate and control, they want someone or something to control,” she said.

Lawson says the undermining of women is a societal issue. She sees single women viewed as damaged goods or rejected. It is never taken into account that spouses could have died or someone may be a single woman by choice, she said.

“Women of color cannot be a single mother by choice,” in society’s view, said Lawson.

In 2010, Lawson ran for alderman of the 24th ward on the city’s west side.

She would walk the streets, even when she was temporarily disabled, and help provide employment opportunities to the people in the neighborhood. She noticed that there were distinct differences between health and quality of life on different blocks in the neighborhood, which helped give her insight into how to solve local problems.

Social media was central to her Aldermanic campaign, and her work in general. After the campaign she took a two-and-a-half year hiatus from social media. But now she is working on building her social media presence back up.

“I’m building audiences slowly but surely, it’s important for me to keep people informed,” said Lawson.

Her most memorable year occurred this year.

“I thought it was when I ran for Alderman, but it actually is this year, meeting other people, taking risks and working with different entities,” she said.

Meanwhile Lawson has big goals in mind. She hopes Hillary Clinton will run for the presidency in 2016 and become the first woman president. If so, Lawson would like to work in her administration. Specifically, she wants to work on school discipline initiatives, addressing the school to prison pipeline.

Lawson thinks the war on drugs is a major cause of the high rates of criminalization of youth.

“I am convinced that the reason we have so much violence in Chicago is because of the drug wars,” said Lawson.

During her time at the Cook County Jail, Lawson encountered many young men who used and sold drugs.

“If selling drugs is a crime, there is no victim, it’s a consensual act,” she said.

Lawson explains how the main culprit in the drug war is greed as well as the ideal of easy money.

“Lack of learning, delayed gratification, they wanted it now, they rationalized why they wanted it,” she said. “Violence will not stop until the young men become educated, with a culturally proficient school system. But we don’t have that yet.”

Without more attractive alternatives, “Selling drugs is addictive,” she added.

I think Lawson’s experiences teaching in Chicago Public Schools and Cook County Jails as well as her passionate, animated character make her a unique and important political and social leader in Chicago.

“I thrive in the environments,” she said, “When there is a calling.”




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