Text: School-to-Prison Pipeline

by Morgan Greenly

[Michelle Alexander quote]:   “Barack Obama himself has admitted to using marijuana and cocaine in his youth, quite a bit of it in fact. If he had been raised in the hood, he would’ve been stopped, he would’ve been frisked, he would’ve been searched, and far from being President of the United States today, he might not even have the right to vote. He might be cycling in and out of prison and jail with the rest of them. This isn’t about ‘them’ and ‘us,’ this is about all of us, building a movement on behalf of all of us, recognizing that that all of us have made some mistakes in our lives, but only some of us are paying for those mistakes for the rest of our lives.”

These are the words of Michelle Alexander, a civil rights activist well-known for her research on America’s prison population, and author of the book The New Jim Crow: Colorblindness in the Age of Mass Incarceration. America is home to 25% of the global prison population. We incarcerate more of our citizens than any other country in the world. But why? What is it about our country—our history, our politics, our social and economic conditions—that can account for this staggeringly high rate of incarceration? If two-thirds of prisoners will return to prison after their first sentence, are there certain factors that set a person up for such a life? And to what extent is crime a choice?

For a holistic understanding of how a person ends up in prison, it is necessary to examine the way that individuals fit into the context of larger processes. Criminals are not born; they are created… shaped by where they grew up, what their home life was like, what school was like for them, how they were punished for infractions, and whether or not they were given second chances after their first mistake. To truly understand the incarcerated, we must consider not just the decisions they made, but the various decisions that were made for them.

The path to prison starts in childhood, in a place that may surprise you: school. The “school-to-prison pipeline” is a term used to describe educational and legal policies that push young people out of school and into the criminal justice system. Indeed, failure in school is highly correlated to incarceration. According to a 2003 study by the Department of Justice, dropouts are more than 3.5 times more likely than high school graduates to be incarcerated in their lifetimes. 68% of state prisoners are dropouts.

The social dynamics of any given school are geographically determined—shaped by the socioeconomic conditions of the surrounding community. While many imagine America as a post-racial society, a land of equal opportunity for all; race and class remain strong determinants of a school’s resources and general atmosphere.

The U.S. Department of Education collects data from every single public school in the country on civil rights issues in education. The report is appropriately called the Civil Rights Data Collection, or CRDC.

CRDC data shows, for one thing, that students of color are more likely than their peers to attend schools with a higher concentration of first-year and inexperienced teachers. In fact, black students are nearly four times as likely as their white counterparts to attend a school where less than 80% of their school’s teachers are certified. Latinos are twice as likely as whites to attend such schools.

Contemporary public schools in the US increasingly resemble the spatial and organizational structure of prisons. Surveillance cameras, metal detectors, locker searches, drug dogs, and even armed guards have become the norm in many American schools. Students are assumed to be criminals before they even walk in the door.

By policing time and space in this way, administrators send a clear message to students that school does not belong to them, but rather serves as a place to train and discipline them. How can children thrive in such an environment? From a psychological standpoint, we know that erratic and violent behavior is very often caused by feeling a lack of control over one’s environment. Think of the caged and frightened animal; there’s no telling what it might do.

This unequal power dynamic between students and authority is further amplified when the student is part of a minority group that is underrepresented in the school. They might be underrepresented in the student body, in the people who have authority, or in the way that the school material itself is taught. Textbooks, for example, bear little witness to the contributions of people of color and people with disabilities to history, science, and the arts.

In the wake of Columbine and a slew of similar school shootings, schools cracked down on any sort of violent behavior with what they called a “zero tolerance” policy. This strategy rests on a strict insistence that there be punishment for any infraction of school rules, from the most threatening to the most trivial. Developing throughout the 90s, the policy began with a firm stance on guns and drugs; however, in the years that followed, “zero tolerance” has expanded to include other antisocial behavior, such as verbal threats, suggestive statements, and petty playground insults.

It is impossible to talk about zero tolerance school policies without also talking about the War on Drugs; since “zero tolerance” grew out of drug enforcement policy. The War on Drugs started in the 70s as Nixon’s response to youth counterculture, and gathered momentum through the 80s and 90s with the presidencies of Reagan and Bush. Law enforcement increasingly took a disciplinary rather than rehabilitative stance on drug use, and prisons subsequently filled up with nonviolent drug offenders. Youth that are caught even once with drugs—from the most harmful to the most benign—are now given fines and sentences that will stay on their record for their entire life.

When someone is labelled a “criminal” by society, especially at a young age, it greatly reduces what opportunities are available to them. Furthermore, it affects how they view themselves. Adolescence is a time when kids are still figuring out who they are, when they’re highly vulnerable to the labels that are placed upon them. Kids internalize these labels. Whether they are deemed a “criminal” or just “a kid who made a stupid mistake” changes the course of the rest of their lives.

How do we decide who is a “criminal” and who is just “a kid who made a stupid mistake?” Race and class have a lot to do with it. For one thing, white Americans are socialized to stereotype people of color as inherently dangerous or criminal. This is evident in everything from racialized stop-and-frisk policies by city police to hate crimes like the murder of Trayvon Martin. Even the most well-meaning educator is prone to such subconscious profiling.

Furthermore, students whose parents are able to afford legal representation are often able to get charges dropped and go on with their lives. Kids whose parents aren’t well-off or involved with the school tend to find themselves with no one to look out for them, and no second chances.

Zero tolerance school policies disproportionately and unjustly affect students of color, the poor, and students with disabilities. Research shows that black students are suspended or expelled at a rate three times greater than their white peers. Students with learning disabilities and those whose first language isn’t English are also suspended at higher rates. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended compared to students without disabilities.

What these examples show are that being white, having an able body, and being financially comfortable are significant privileges in education. One of the luxuries of privilege is the ability to not even notice that you have it. Michelle Alexander does a good job of explaining this privilege for those who fail to see it.

[Michelle Alexander quote]: “One of the things I find most fascinating in my conversations with white people about the drug war is their insistence that ‘those who are doing time did the crime, so what’s the problem?’ And then I’ll say, ‘Well, did you ever drink underage? You know, when you were in high school, did you ever drink underage? Did you ever experiment with marijuana?’ And then, very often, you find people shifting in their seat and getting uncomfortable. And this idea that…of innocence…that other people are the criminals, but not them…it is a thoroughly racialized idea. Um, and, you know, I often point out that we’re all criminals. We’ve all made mistakes in our lives, we’ve all done wrong. Anyone who’s an adult has broken the law at some point in their lives. But some of us have the privilege of making certain kinds of mistakes and going on to college, or grad school, and off to work, and never having to check that box on employment applications, while others of us do not. In fact, you know, research shows that a white man with a criminal record is more likely to be hired than a black man without a criminal record…Part of what white privilege is, to me, is the freedom to make mistakes and go on. That is a privilege that poor folks of color in this country, particularly young people, don’t have.”

If children are the future, then perhaps we ought to be worried that a significant portion of our children are being written off after their first mistake and doomed to a life of crime. What does that say for the direction this country is headed in? The school to prison pipeline is a complicated social issue that affects every single American in one way or another. Such a complex problem will require an equally complex solution; attacking the roots of inequality in our society, our cultural ideologies, school policy, and government legislation. This cannot happen overnight, and I’m not even sure that it will ever happen. However, we have to try: our future as a country hangs in the balance. We must hold our government, our schools, and ourselves accountable for ensuring true educational equality.


A Brief History of the Drug War. (n.d.). In DrugPolicy. Retrieved from aaaaahttp://www.drugpolicy.org/new-solutions-drug-policy/brief-history-drug-war

Alexander, M. (2013, June 4). White Like Me – Michelle Alexander on White Privilege and the aaaaa Drug War. [Video file]. Retrieved from aaaaahttp://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=CG8L66LnfQM

Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. (n.d.). In NAACP. Retrieved from aaaaahttp://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet

Harlow, C. W. U.S. Department of Justice. (2003). Education and Correctional Populations aaaaa (NCJ 195670). Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Lee, T. (2014, March 21). Preschool to Prison: No Child Too Young for Zero-Tolerance. aaaaaMSNBC. Retrieved from http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/preschool-prison-no-child-too- aaaaa young

Skiba, R. J. (2000, August). Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary aaaaa Practice (Policy Research Report #SRS2). Bloomington, IN: Indiana Education Policy aaaaa Center. Retrieved from http://www.indiana.edu/~safeschl/ztze.pdf

U.S. Department of Education. (2009). Civil Rights Data Collection. Washington, D.C.: Office aaaaa for Civil Rights.

Wise, T. (2012, July 3). Racism and the New Jim Crow: Dialogue With Michelle Alexander. aaaaa[Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.timwise.org/2012/07/racism-and-the-new-aaaaajim-crow-dialogue-with-michelle-alexander/