Mei-Ling Malone teaches Education and Criminal Justice courses at Los Angeles Southwest College. She received her masters and doctorate degree from UCLA in Urban Education. Her dissertation, “Over-Incarcerated & Undereducated: The Impact of California’s Prison Proliferation on Los Angeles Urban Schools” examined the role of the prison industry on segregated schools. She is a firm believer in providing education that is accessible, critical, empowering and transformative and believes in the power of the people to work for love, wellness, self-determination and self-liberation.
It’s a Friday morning and you’re feeling positive and looking forward to the weekend as you walk into your staff meeting and settle down next to your favorite coworker. Your boss starts talking when suddenly a group of police officers storm in shouting with dogs. A large dog startles you by jumping onto your lap sniffing. The officers yell at everyone to stand up and leave the room at once. Scared and frazzled you walk outside and watch the intimidating armed officers go through your personal belongings from the window. After making a mess of the staff room and taking your favorite fragrance bottle that was stashed in your bag and a few other personal items from your co-workers, the police leave without apologizing. The whole event feels hostile, degrading and confusing. You also feel violated, disrespected and angry. To add to your growing frustration, your boss pretends like nothing happened and then continues the meeting business as usual. This of course sends you the message that you deserved the police invasion and that it was perfectly normal.
This slightly modified scenario came directly from listening to a student talk about her experiences at an urban high school in South Los Angeles. While the situation I just described was only imaginary for you and would be considered unacceptable, unjust treatment for most, this type of experience is very real and all too common for working class black and Latino youth at school. In fact, this same student also told me about other incidences in which she was treated like a criminal at school. She shared of a time when she and others were pepper sprayed on campus as they walked to class and of another time when police raided her locker. While researching the school-to-prison pipeline I heard these stories and more through my student interviews.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, 2008), “the school-to-prison pipeline refers to the national trend of criminalizing, rather than educating, our nation’s children. The pipeline encompasses the growing use of zero-tolerance discipline, school-based arrests, disciplinary alternative schools, and secured detention to marginalize our most at-risk youth and deny them access to education.” For instance, some students attend schools that are completely gated up and can only enter after first passing through a metal detector. Other schools have law enforcement stationed on their campus by which students have been arrested, pepper sprayed, and randomly searched at school. Or, like Jennifer O’Brien did in Paterson, New Jersey, you have white teachers who call their black first graders “future criminals”. One can only imagine how a teacher having such feelings plays out in their treatment toward students. The pipeline at its worst has resulted in a tiny and terrified five-year-old girl being handcuffed by police in her kindergarten class. This pipeline has caused a huge rise in the number of suspensions and expulsions, especially for black boys. Rates have doubled since the 1970s for black and Latinos, while remaining the same for whites (Wachtel, 2013).
Having grown up in Davis, California, a small, privileged, mostly white town with just one high school, I was shocked to discover through my research that students of color in poor areas had such negative and dehumanizing experiences. I was angered to know that youth were being criminalized instead of being uplifted and encouraged to attend college like my peers and I had been. The thought of children being arrested, pepper sprayed and or mishandled by police officers for arbitrary reasons made my heart drop and pushed me to learn more about the school-to-prison pipeline. I wanted to know how such a pipeline came to exist in the first place. I wondered what the root of the problem was. So I decided I needed to research the history of school discipline, and I found that it splintered off and evolved out of California’s prison history. I layered this historical analysis with a detailed study of one urban high school, interviewing former students from three decades: the 1980’s, 1990’s, and 2000’s.
I found that California’s economic difficulties during the 1970s and1980s resulted in opening prisons aimed to utilize idle land, provide jobs, stimulate the economy (Gilmore 2006), and ultimately generate profit. Over time people of color have disproportionately filled our nation’s prisons (Davis 2003). According to the Sentencing Project, non-whites now make up 60% of our imprisoned population in a country that is 72.4% white. Throughout the 1980’s, the state opened multiple prisons sometimes as many as three new prisons in a year despite no increase in crime rates (Davis 2003). In addition to the increase in prison facilities, legislators passed countless new pieces of harsh criminal legislation including the infamous “three strikes” law, and the media perpetuated the idea that criminals were everywhere, especially with the declaration of the “War on Drugs”. The prison population skyrocketed, growing 500% in the state, and prisons were bursting at the seams with many people behind bars for non-violent drug use (Davis, 2003). During this steep rise, it was African Americans who were disproportionately imprisoned at alarming rates in comparison to other groups. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime and currently, Latinos make up the majority of California’s prisoners at a slightly disproportionate rate (Public Policy of Institute of California, 2013).
This explosion in incarceration negatively impacted school discipline policies at urban schools in favor of criminalization (Malone, 2011). Starting in the 80s, many urban schools started officially collaborating with police departments and year after year, these schools incorporated more criminal justice practices in schools such as metal detectors, random searches, police patrols and even truancy tickets (Malone, 2011). As California’s prison culture boomed, urban schools became more prison-oriented in nature.
Two interacting systems are at play in addressing the school-to-prison pipeline—schools and prisons. Therefore, while it’s important to be actively involved in schools and advocate for children to be treated with respect and compassion and disband criminal practices, it is also important to understand the larger historical context that created our pipeline in the first place and place effort into reforming the prison system. America has the largest prison population in the world, holding approximately a quarter of the world’s prisoners (Liptak, 2008). Furthermore, evidence points to the alarming fact that the U.S. dedicates more funding to prisons than to the education of its children (Sankin 2012). Therefore, at the school level, parents, community members and activists need to be aware of and work collaboratively to resist discipline policies and practices that criminalize students such as zero-tolerance policies and heavy police involvement.
However, in order to permanently dismantle the pipeline, larger sustained efforts are needed. For example, Critical Resistance and Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), understands the historical connection between school discipline and prisons, which is why their efforts aim to shift funding away from prisons. In many ways, the school-to-prison pipeline is a symptom of larger unaddressed racial issues that have positioned financial profit over societal well-being. It is these larger structural forces that must be addressed if we truly want all of our schools to be safe places for genuine learning and limitless development for every child. We must also examine our history and address the root causes of the pipeline (e.g., capitalism, racism) in order to ensure a more just education system and improve the educational opportunities for all students. It is critical that we commit ourselves to addressing our nation’s deep-seated history of racism, our economic system that often favors profit over humanity and the prioritization of prisons over education. The disciplinary practices exercised in schools are symptoms of larger societal problems that need to be addressed if we aim to create school policies and practices that treat all children with dignity, love and respect and pave the way to greater access to the quality education they deserve.
Davis, A. (2003) Are Prisons Obsolete? Toronto, Canada, Publishers Group Canada.
Gilmore, R. (2007) Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press.
Liptak, A. (April 23, 2008). U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations.
Retrieved June 5, 2008, http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/04/23/america/23prison.php
Malone, M. N. (2011) Over-Incarcerated and Undereducated: The Impact of California’s Prison Proliferation on Los Angeles Urban High Schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.