A close friend of mine once said to me “I basically have two options, toughen up or wind up in jail.” This was in reference to the intense set of circumstances plaguing him at that moment. Either continue to accept the abuse he received from his father or end back up in juvenile detention. What struck me in that moment is how he described going to juvie as “winding up in jail.” What I came to realize is that juvenile detention was not reforming these kids but breaking them down and feeding them into a greater criminal justice system. This was my introduction to the school-to-prison pipeline.
The school-to-prison pipeline can be thought of as and perceived in many different ways but what can be pinned down mainly is this; it is the system in which various forms of corrective punishment (such as suspension, expulsion, in-school detainment, etc.) is used to correct the misbehavior of students. These methods of correction eventually lead to large numbers of students being pushed from the education system into the criminal justice system. What can we observe about this system? Well, firstly we must try to pinpoint how this system was developed in the first place. Then, we must note that the school-to-prison pipeline (or SPP for short) primarily affects people of color and people of a disadvantaged background.
Let’s first look towards the presidency of Ronald Reagan and his expansion of the War on Drugs. The intention of the War on Drugs was to “take a tough stance on drugs and crime.” The outcome was not a decrease in drug abuse and crime rates but a rapid increase in incarceration in the United States. Going further than that, the outcome of Reagan’s War on Drugs was an increased incarnation rate of people of color. Around 77% of people incarcerated on drug offenses are Black and Latinx people while only collectively consisting of about 30.1% of the population. This coupled with Reagan’s booming prison industry during the 1980’s columnated not in a War on Drugs nor a War on Crime, but a War on POC and a rapid expansion on legal slavery.
I mention this because these “initiatives” created a runoff into the school system. The “zero tolerance” school discipline policies were developed as a result of the drug and crime laws of the 1980’s. Like the War on Drugs the ideology of zero tolerance discipline is to aggressively punish people for one or more specified offenses in the idea that these individuals will be reformed and will discontinue their “wrong behavior.” As you can imagine, like the outcome of the War on Drugs, these policies have only aided the growth of incarceration rates and the success of the Prison Industrial Complex.
There’s a rigid dichotomy between zero tolerance policies and positive behavior changes in students. The education system's hardened approach to discipline has continued to disillusion many students from education and the many things that supposedly lay waiting for students who pursue a further education. Understandingly, this disillusionment oftentimes leads towards criminality rather than away from it. When breaking this policy down we must note that the purpose with zero tolerance discipline was to focus on targeting and punishing individuals for violating specific rules and regulations such as enacting violence, bringing drugs, alcohol, or weapons to campus, hate speech, etc. The reality, however is that many schools have decided to enact these policies against students who exhibit signs of possible mental illness, abuse, etc. as a shortcut to addressing these problems.
Consequently, at least half of all prisoners in the United States exhibit mental health concerns. It has been observed that 64% of jail inmates, 54% of state prisoners, and 45% of federal prisoners report mental health concerns. Anywhere from 10-25% of those inmates incarcerated in the United States suffer from serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major affective disorders, etc. Compare this to the only 20.6% of US adults who have reported any mental illness (AMI).
The increased militarization of U.S. schools has further perpetuated the lasting effects of these zero tolerance policies and is largely responsible for the disproportionate number of students of color funneled directly out of the school system and into the criminal justice system. In the 2015-2016 school year, black students represented only 15% of the student population nationally, but represented 31% of the students arrested or referred to law enforcement. And, overall, it has been noted that black students are also three times more likely to attend a school that employs at least one police officer but no mental health personnel.
Considering all of this, it is important to note the way in which zero tolerance discipline and the militarization of schools as a whole is viewed by most through an idealist lens; the true implications of which are ignored by most and the way in which these policies are used as instruments of capital are completely overlooked. The idea presented to us that the system works in reforming and helping our children is enough to feel as though it is a reality. It is even important to note that the implementation of 8-hour school days that correlates with the typical 8-hour work day has created the perfect set of conditions to convince the general public that these cruel and abusive tactics are fundamental in shaping and caring for your children. However, by looking at this system through a materialist lens we can begin to understand why zero-tolerance policies and the militarization of schools was truly implemented, why it specifically targets POC and mentally ill students, and how it has been used as a tool for capital.
With the abolition of slavery came the ratification of the 13th amendment, which in turn allowed for legal slavery as “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” After the American Civil War when slave plantations became no longer useful, we began to exponential growth of the prison system and a wave of legislation across the country. Legislation which targeted black people for the slightest of things and resulting punishment being prison time (where they could once again exploit the labor of black people in America for free and act more violently in doing so.) And we can see that overall, not much has changed.
Our material conditions, while evolving, continue to perpetuate systemic inequality. The conditions that made it possible racism, sexism, ableism, islamophobia, etc. to thrive worldwide have become ingrained into every aspect of our social and economic practices, not excluding the SPP. In fact, these very conditions have made it possible for the SPP to be created in the first place.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the education system is the aid to and could be the end of the Prison Industrial Complex. The demilitarization of schools and introduction of further mental health personnel is only the first step to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. And in turn, beginning on the path to full on prison abolition.
Nellis, Ashley, and Kevin Muhitch and Nazgol Ghandnoosh. “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons.” The Sentencing Project, 10 Jan. 2019, www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons/.
2014, October. “Incarceration Nation.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, Oct. 2014, www.apa.org/monitor/2014/10/incarceration.
“Ending Student Criminalization and the School-to-Prison Pipeline - EJ-ROC Policy Hub.” NYU Steinhardt, 7 May 2020, steinhardt.nyu.edu/metrocenter/ejroc/ending-student-criminalization-and-school-prison-pipeline.
Tara Thomason is pursuing an bachelor’s in Political Science and Gender Studies. Their main interests are police and prison abolition, decolonization, black liberation, women liberation, and the global proletarian struggle. Much of their work goes towards organizing mutual aid efforts in my community and educating on Marxism.
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