The School-to-Prison Pipeline
Within the last decade, mass incarceration has risen exponentially in the United States. With four percent of the world’s population and almost 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. This is a 400 percent increase since 1984. However, the most affected individuals are youths. According to The Prison Policy Initiative, 41 percent of juveniles have been arrested by the time they turn 23, sometimes serving life sentences. This trend is called the “school-to-prison pipeline”, wherein students are pushed out of schools and into the criminal justice system. Through juvenile courts, the United States incarcerates its youth more than any other country in the world. In 2002, approximately 126,000 youths were incarcerated in youth detention centers, while almost 500,000 are brought to these facilities in a given year.
“We are addicted to incarceration. We are addicted to the profits that come from incarceration. We are addicted to free labor, cheap labor…”
-Mychal Denzel Smith
In an interview with the Inside Out documentary, Mychal Denzel Smith noted that Americans are “addicted” to incarceration. Smith is a fellow at the Nation Institute, a non-profit organization focused on the protection and expansion of free press. Smith found that the prevalence of committed crimes has actually gone down in the last decade, but the rate of incarceration has risen. Smith explains that this inverse relation is caused by school-level practices.
Educational researcher Christine Christle published evidence connecting the rising incarceration rates with these practices in The Journal of Special Education in 2005. Christle and her colleagues found that practices such as excessive policing, high-stakes testing, and zero-tolerance policies correlate with juvenile delinquency. Community Coalition published a similar study highlighted in this info-graphic, depicting the school to prison and foster care to prison pipelines.
A 2011 study done by the National Education Policy Center found that zero-tolerance policies such as the use of suspensions and detentions to punish students for minor offenses like dress code violations or cell phone use has “redefined students as criminals.” Furthermore, a student who is suspended three or more times before his or her sophomore year is five times as likely to drop out, while students who do not graduate are eight times more likely to be convicted felons and sent to prison, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center.
In addition, Smith finds that the issue of race plays a much larger role in the incarceration of youths than previously thought. According to the same study done by the National Juvenile Defender Center, black and latino students are 3.5 and 1.5 times more likely to be suspended compared to their white peers, respectively, and collectively make up 70 percent of all arrests made in schools.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, police presence and security around schools have increased; however, schools still rely heavily on teachers, administrators, and poorly trained officers for discipline. With the incidence of school violence on the rise over the last 15 years, schools have been policed more heavily than ever.
“A lot of the problems with high schools now a days is actually getting into the schools. We are missing out on educational time trying to get through security, trying to get through the metal detectors, getting through armed guards,” said recent high school graduate, Shaquille Mualimm-ak in his interview with Inside Out. Mualimm-ak currently works as the youth outreach advocate for the Incarcerated National Campaign and remembers what it was like to go through that process:
“It was like getting through airport security, and it leaves kids messed up in the mornings,” – Shaquille Mualimm-ak.
Many have rejected the school-to-prison pipeline saying that the phenomena is a small part of larger systems of racism and capitalism and denounce the pipeline as a new form of liberalism. The Black Agenda Report claims that such correctional facilities and practices are even necessary for the advancement of the “free market.”
In any case, activists work to support the resistance of the pipeline. The most active group is the Advancement Project, which publishes reports on the criminalization of colored students. Already, efforts to curb the pipeline have been observed in New York, Colorado, and Florida which have implemented new policies to reduce the use of suspensions in schools.
Advancement Project co-director Judith Browne Dianis testified in a hearing for the school-to-prison pipeline saying, “In recent years, we have seen increased rates of suspension, expulsion, and arrest because adult – and not student – behavior has changed. Adults are treating young people like criminals, and are responding to typical student behavior that has no bearing on safety with discipline that defies common sense. Schools have redefined developmentally appropriate behaviors as crimes. Pushing and shoving in the schoolyard is now a battery, and talking back is now disorderly conduct.”