The Prison School: Educational Inequality and School Discipline in the Age of Mass Incarceration

The Prison School: Educational Inequality and School Discipline in the Age of Mass Incarceration

by Lizbet Simmons

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Public schools across the nation have turned to the criminal justice system as a gold standard of discipline. As public schools and offices of justice have become collaborators in punishment, rates of African American suspension and expulsion have soared, dropout rates have accelerated, and prison populations have exploded. Nowhere, perhaps, has the War on Crime been more influential in broadening racialized academic and socioeconomic disparity than in New Orleans, Louisiana, where in 2002 the criminal sheriff opened his own public school at the Orleans Parish Prison. “The Prison School,” as locals called it, enrolled low-income African American boys who had been removed from regular public schools because of nonviolent disciplinary offenses, such as tardiness and insubordination. By examining this school in the local and national context, Lizbet Simmons shows how young black males are in the liminal state of losing educational affiliation while being caught in the net of correctional control.
In The Prison School, she asks how schools and prisons became so intertwined. What does this mean for students, communities, and a democratic society? And how do we unravel the ties that bind the racialized realities of school failure and mass incarceration?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520281462
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/22/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Lizbet Simmons is a sociologist living in Los Angeles.

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The Prison School

Educational Inequality and School Discipline in the Age of Mass Incarceration

By Lizbet Simmons


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-29314-4


Public Schools in a Punitive Era

Unless you have been inside a sanitarium you do not know that madmen are made there, just as criminals are made in our reformatories.

— André Breton, Nadja, 1928

The road to prison is long. Rarely are individuals catapulted into the criminal justice system. A vulnerability to incarceration accrues over time, through relations and power structures that play out in personal and institutional spaces (Nolan, 2011). By the time individuals actually find themselves at the mercy of the criminal justice system, most have already experienced a profound degree of alienation stemming from social, economic, political, geographic, and educational disenfranchisement (Pettit, 2012; Clear, 2007). People marginalized on many or all of these structural fronts prior to being criminally charged are overrepresented in America's prison population: inmates tend to be urban, low-income, undereducated, and African American (Bonczar, 2003; Pettit, 2012; Clear, 2007; Kurgan, 2009). That men, and African American men in particular, are disproportionately represented among prison inmates points to how gender constitutes a primary axis of disenfranchisement for men in the sphere of the criminal justice system, especially when conflated with minority racial status (Bonczar, 2003; Pettit, 2012; Clear, 2007). One in every six African American men has been incarcerated at some point (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 2009–2016; Bonzcar, 2003). At the current rate, prisons will house one in three African American males and nearly three-quarters of African American high school dropouts (Simon, 2007; Bonczar, 2003; Pettit, 2012).

This book charts the long road to prison and shows how the punitive dynamics that influence the early educational experiences of African American youths lead to youth exclusion, alienation, and invisibility and help generate correctional trajectories. The Prison School is an excursion into the push-pull dynamics that have shaped the migration of African American males from school to prison in the War on Crime era. Accordingly, the book inaugurates a new understanding of how prisons grew in the War on Crime era as public schools failed. That the criminal justice system expanded in this period, despite significant and simultaneous declines in crime, challenges a popular etiological argument that crime causes punishment (Zimring, 2007; Davis, 2005, p. 40).

Figure 1 compares crime and imprisonment rates between 1960 and 2008. While crime rates fluctuated during this period (rising and falling over the course of time in approximate synchronicity), the rates for homicide and common crimes like burglary and car theft in 1960 look very much like the rates in 2008 (Rand, 2009; Cooper & Smith, 2011; Tonry, 2013). Imprisonment rates, however, look radically different. They reflect the punitive ideologies and severe sentencing practices in the criminal justice system from the mid-1980s onward, such as harsh mandatory minimum sentences and "three strikes" laws (Tonry, 2013).

Rather than the result of crime, the growth of the prison — indeed, the rise of the prison industrial complex — is the result of a complex set of coordinated policies and engagements that answer to much larger structural conditions. For example, as the criminologist Michael Tonry explains, the tough-on-crime agenda was inspired by a set of goals that were significantly political in nature (Tonry, 2013). While policymakers were seeking to prevent crime, they were campaigning for political support and attempting to bolster public confidence by espousing values that were in political favor (Tonry, 2013). Tonry names the values of the tough-on-crime era in terms like expulsion, denunciation, ostracism, and severity, thus illuminating the cultural context for both mass incarceration and school-based youth criminalization (Tonry, 2013).

My examination of such forces as they operate in New Orleans shows how the disciplinary collaboration between public schools and the criminal justice system generates the racialized push-pull factors of the black prison diaspora. Nationally, too, black male students, more than any other demographic across the nation, have disappeared from schools under the punitive mechanisms of the War on Crime and disappeared once more into the prison system during the era of mass incarceration. This phenomenon poses a central sociopolitical problem, since the black prison diaspora is enabled by racialized criminalization processes within public schools, the very institutions charged with providing for achievement and advancement in a democracy (Dewey, 1944/1916).


The correctional trajectory of African Americans is so clearly mapped in our landscape today that it recalls the patterns of the Great Migrations, which drastically changed the regional demographics of America between 1910 and 1970. In those years, millions of African Americans moved from the rural South to the North and the Northwest and into the ghettos of cities like Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Chicago; later, a second wave moved westward toward California (Sugrue, 1996; Massey & Denton, 1993). This southern diaspora was shaped by push-pull factors: Jim Crow racism and difficult farming conditions in the South drove the migration toward the northern promise of personal freedom, job opportunity, and property ownership (Sugrue, 1996). In 1980, only ten years after the Great Migrations officially ended, African American males, most undereducated, began leaving American cities in large numbers en route to prison, altering the terrain of urban America again in a third wave of migration conditioned by the War on Crime (Clear, 2007). This migration to prison has remade the American landscape as much as the previous dramatic shifts in population. By 2012, there were approximately ten million African Americans living in the United States who had experienced correctional supervision (Schmitt and Warner, 2010; Holzer et al., 2003; Hirsch et al., 2002; Travis et al., 2001; Freeman, 1992). Data from 2008 on the total ex-offender population of twenty-one million show that half were functionally illiterate and 70 percent were high school dropouts (Schmitt & Warner, 2010; Holzer et al., 2003; Hirsch et al., 2002; Travis et al., 2001; Freeman, 1992).

As millions of African American men have been captured by prisons in a third wave of migration, they have been rendered largely invisible (Pettit, 2012). Beckett and Herbert refer to these men in the custody of local law enforcement as having been "banished" (Beckett & Herbert, 2010). Once individuals are behind the carceral wall, they are removed from their social, economic, and political existence, with serious consequences for their own lives as well as the lives of everyone around them (Bernstein, 2005; Clear, 2007; Mauer & Chesney-Lind, 2002). Becky Pettit suggests that the disappearing act of mass incarceration has compromised the pledge of the civil rights movement by reobscuring a population that was made invisible by discrimination, segregation, and Jim Crow laws (Pettit, 2012). Michelle Alexander has called the phenomenon of mass incarceration a new form of "second-class citizenship" that uses well-disguised processes of racialized control to function "in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow" (Alexander, 2010).

In his book on mass incarceration and its community impact, Todd Clear describes the experience of going to prison as "a hole in the life span" (Clear, 2007). Inmates are hidden from the view of their family, their immediate community, and the public (Clear, 2007; Mauer & Chesney-Lind, 2002). Inmates have low rates of marriage and are absent as parents (Western, 2006). Approximately 25 percent of African American children have a parent who lives under correctional custody (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2014). Prison populations are also erased from our primary economic indices (Western et al., 2002). They are, for example, excluded from the data on employment rates, which means that the nation is always doing less well economically than the official employment figures suggest, and this is a particular concern when published employment rates are low (Western, 2006).

As political beings, inmates experience a civil death and are denied the right to participate in the electorate (Manza & Uggen, 2008). For many of those with a felony conviction, this denial extends in perpetuity. In some states, one in four African American men are denied the right to vote and are, thus, erased from the democratic sphere (Manza & Uggen, 2008). The U.S. Census Bureau does count inmates, but they are considered residents of the municipalities where they are incarcerated, and nearly a quarter of all inmates are incarcerated outside their own counties (Hunter & Wagner, 2007). Since voting districts are redrawn around total population counts that include nonvoting inmates, communities with large inmate populations gain voting power over the counties of inmate origin (Heyer & Wagner, 2004; Hunter & Wagner, 2007). This gerrymandering encourages prison growth and has the collateral effect of diminishing political capital in the urban, low-income African American neighborhoods that many inmates come from, thereby obscuring large-scale African American community interests (Heyer & Wagner, 2004; Hunter & Wagner, 2007).

It was not until the American prison population exploded in the War on Crime era that a misdirected education meant a likely future in prison, as became the case for most African American males in the 1990s (Mauer, 1999, p. 1; Arum & Beattie, 1999). One look at the present U.S. incarceration rates shows that prison is primarily a place for undereducated men of color. Over 90 percent of prison inmates are male; nearly 60 percent are racial minorities; and 75 percent of state inmates lack a high school diploma (Harlow, 2003; U.S. Census Bureau, 2000a; Glaze & Parks, 2012). There is a long-standing inverse relationship between correctional risk and educational attainment: correctional risk diminishes as education level rises. With the War on Crime, however, there was a further development in this risk formula. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the significance of education for correctional risk was magnified. Academic achievement began to matter more than at any point in the past in terms of lifetime risk of incarceration (Arum & Beattie, 1999).

Education matters, in fact, nearly three times more for white male high school dropouts in the War on Crime generation than for previous generations, and four times more for black male high school dropouts (Pettit & Western, 2004). The gravity of this rate hike for African Americans is revealed in the factoring; their incarceration rates were much higher to begin with, such that a fourfold increase in incarceration meant that 60 percent of African American males who came of age in the War on Crime era had served prison time by 1999 (Pettit & Western, 2004). After a 300 percent increase, the incarceration rate for white male high school dropouts was still just over 10 percent. These figures are high in actual terms but relatively low in comparison to undereducated blacks and also low in comparison to the incarceration risk in the total black male population (Pettit & Western, 2004).

As incarceration became a normal event in the lives of African American males and a probable one for African American male dropouts, a black prison diaspora took shape, whose complex push-pull factors are produced by schools and prisons. A map of this diasporic migration shows the primary penal catchment zones in the major metropolitan areas of the United States, and more detailed spatial analysis pinpoints the origin of migration to low-income and minority neighborhoods that typically have the lowest-performing schools (Anyon, 1997; Kurgan, 2009; Kozol, 1991/2012; Southern Education Foundation, 2015). While not all individuals respond to push-pull forces in the same way, migration theory holds that certain classes of people tend to respond similarly to the conditions they face at the point of migration origin and the point of destination (Lee, 1966).


My engagement with a diasporic construct and with salient push-pull factors is a theoretical departure from the school-to-prison pipeline rubric that has characterized most recent analyses of school failure and correctional vulnerability. The school-to-prison pipeline, or the STPP as it is sometimes called, names the seemingly fated path of young minorities from school to prison. It draws the association between prisons and schools as an axial one, positioning schools at the beginning of a linear progression and prisons at the end. While this is a well-trod path, there is a broader context that the pipeline analogy fails to capture. It obscures the fact that large numbers of black and Latino students experience the presence of the criminal justice system by way of their public schools. These youths are criminalized by school security, by disciplinary policies, and by everyday school interactions in which adults cast them in a negative light or, worse, fashion them as public enemies to protect against (Meiners, 2007).

In the ethnography Ghetto Schooling, based on work in the early 1990s in a school serving primarily low-income and African American students in Newark, New Jersey, the sociologist Jean Anyon records the violence of a white fifth-grade teacher saying to her students, "If I had a gun, I'd kill you. You're all hoodlums," and the abusive language of a black first-grade teacher saying, "You're disgusting. You remind me of children I would see in jail" (Anyon, 1997). Pedro Noguera, a sociologist of urban education, encountered similar conditions of youth criminalization while touring public schools in Northern California a few years later. During one elementary school tour, an assistant principal pointed Noguera's attention to a boy in the hallway who was young enough to be in third grade, saying, "Do you see that boy? There is a prison cell in San Quentin waiting for him" (Noguera, 2003b). In these accounts, teachers and administrators in public schools invoke the criminal justice system in their daily interactions with children. Racialized assumptions of native criminality and impending incarceration, even when expressed less explicitly than in these examples, are indicative of how low the expectations often are for black students (Ross & Jackson, 1991).

As schools became more punitive in the era of the War on Crime, teachers and administrators were provided with new opportunities to engage criminalizing ideologies. Public schools, especially urban public schools, formed tighter relationships with law enforcement. In the widening penal net, many school-aged youths made contact with the criminal justice system at an earlier age (Wilf, 2012). In 2009–10, nearly a quarter of a million students were referred to law enforcement by school administrators, and ninety-six thousand youths were arrested at school (Wilf, 2012). Seventy percent of those students were black or Latino (Wilf, 2012).

The current punitive dynamic in public schooling problematizes the linear rubric of a school-to-prison pipeline, since schools and prisons have in many ways merged, making the pipeline itself collapse in a state of punitive rupture. We can no longer limit our conceptual understanding of schools and prisons to a pipeline analogy, because it blurs the more complicated push-pull factors at play. Damien Sojoyner argues that the school-to-prison pipeline metaphor is, in fact, damaging in its simplicity (Sojoyner, 2013). If school disciplinary practices are reformed such that black youths continue to be harshly treated and even harshly disciplined — but no longer punished with the threat or deployment of suspension, expulsion, and arrest — the problem (as framed by the school-to-prison pipeline) is resolved, and yet racialized educational inequality remains and is sponsored by reformed disciplinary practices (Sojoyner, 2013). Though punitive tactics in education were newly expressed in the era of the War on Crime, long-held racist ideologies were always at their root. As Sojoyner writes, "the STPP framework may challenge the basic tenet that the meting out of discipline is disproportional, [but] ... it fails to challenge the ethos of anti-Blackness as foundational to the formation and enactment of school discipline" (Sojoyner, 2013). By attending to the foreground of disciplinary policy, the school-to-prison pipeline rubric conceals foundational power dynamics and allows them to go unchallenged.


Excerpted from The Prison School by Lizbet Simmons. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1 Public Schools in a Punitive Era 23

2 The "At-Risk Youth Industry" 47

3 Undereducated and Overcriminalized in New Orleans 73

4 The Prison School 102

Conclusion 148

Appendix 155

Notes 157

References 163

Index 189

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