Stemming the Flow of the School-to-Prison Pipeline

There’s a disturbing trend taking place in our public schools, especially in high poverty neighborhoods – where hallways and grounds are patrolled by police and disciplinary problems are no longer handled by counseling and detention but by suspension and arrest. Known as the school-to-prison pipeline, the trend is turning our adolescent students into criminals at alarming rates.

To learn more about the school-to-prison pipeline, NEA Today spoke to author and scholar Byron E. Price, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Business and professor of public administration at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York in Brooklyn, New York, and and co-editor of Prison Privatization: The Many Facets of a Controversial Industry.

Can you briefly define the school-to-prison pipeline and talk about the students impacted the most?

The school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon can be characterized as a deliberate strategy to push at-risk children out of our nation’s classrooms and into the carceral state. Research shows that minority students are most impacted by this practice.

What is the cost to our society when we have such a large school-to-prison pipeline?

When youth are disciplined under severe school disciplinary policies, they are less committed to school, do worse academically, and drop out. These negative school outcomes increase the risk of delinquent and criminal behavior over the short and long term, and as a result, have a negative impact on the unemployment rate and the economy.

The Center for Labor Studies at Northeastern University found that nearly twenty-three percent of all young Black men ages 16 to 24 who have dropped out of high school are in jail, prison, or a juvenile justice institution in America. We need a national strategy to address the relationship between dropping out and incarceration to prevent the dire consequences, like joblessness and poverty, and their byproduct – increased crime in adulthood.

Many schools already have the trappings of a prison — armed guards, metal detectors, high fences surrounding the grounds. How does this increase the flow of the school-to-prison-pipeline?

According to a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) study, the number of school resource officers rose 38 percent between 1997 and 2007. More officers leads to more criminalized students in the pipeline. A 2005 DOJ study found that children are far more likely to be arrested at school than they were a generation ago. The U.S. Department of Education found that more than 70 percent of students arrested in school-related incidents or referred to law enforcement are Black or Hispanic.

The presence of armed guards and other concomitant accessories leads to an over-policing of students that abridges student rights and creates a climate of fear. It turns every disciplinary incident into a criminal incident.

Negative stereotypes combined with a heavy concentration of law enforcement officials in schools elevates normal adolescent behavior into criminal behavior —   sometimes a fight is just a fight and not a felony assault.

Once you remove the trappings of incarceration, educators are forced to deal with behavioral problems the way they did when I was in school — when principals meted out punishment rather than police officers or armed guards.

Byron E. Price

Is there economic pressure to create a pipeline to feed the prison privatization economy?

Yes there is.  Young offenders are healthier, have fewer discipline problems, and can stay in the system far longer than adult prisoners. Private prisons have seen considerable growth in their portfolio of managing juvenile facilities. What’s more, prisons are used as an economic development strategy by many communities, especially in rural communities, where many people’s livelihoods depending on incarceration.

There is no incentive for the carceral state to find solutions to incarceration and the challenges the poor and oppressed face. Rather than dealing with poverty and oppression head on, the poor and oppressed are incarcerated because of the social condition into which they were born. Black men are viewed as incorrigible reprobates unworthy of rehabilitation. Fake campaigns such as the “War on Drugs” and “Get Tough on Crime” will continue the criminalization of an ever widening range of social problems for the sake of exploiting Black male labor.

Politicians are more interested in militarizing the police, building prisons as opposed to providing quality education for every child, creating jobs which provide livable wages, and developing an intelligent sound public health response to drug abuse. Now that incarceration has become a commodity, my fear is that the school-to-prison pipeline is here to stay.

What price will we pay by allowing the prison industrial complex to flourish?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”  In today’s social and budgetary climate, the business model behind for-profit prisons is sustainable only when investors ignore its inherent social costs and risks. The incarceration rate for females, for example, is increasing at an alarming rate, which means children are becoming wards of the state. Many of these children wind up in jail themselves after spending their childhoods bouncing around the system. The current separation of children from their families has disproportionately impacted the Black community in a tragic social dynamic reminiscent of slavery, which separated family members at unprecedented levels.

While this dynamic will guarantee the for-profit prison industry a needed supply of inmates, it will, if not corrected, destroy the already frayed social fabric of certain communities, negatively affecting society as a whole.

How can we fight prison privatization?

I think we have to ensure that we all divest stock in for-profit prison corporations and lead divestiture campaigns against them.  Each of us should become more familiar with private prisons and the role they play in promoting the commercial correctional complex and expanding the prison industrial complex.

Finally, we should embrace justice reinvestment strategies which are antithetical to private prisons and the carceral state. Instead of spending money on incarceration, we should use the money to strengthen the infrastructure in urban and rural communities, build better schools, increase pay to attract better teachers to these communities and provide tax abatements for companies willing to invest in these communities.