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Schools, Prisons, and Pipelines: Fixing the toxic relationship between public education and criminal justice (June 2018): Limits and Alternatives to the Pipeline Framework

by Benjamin Justice

Limits and Alternatives to the Pipeline Framework

My concern with the pipeline metaphor is not that it fails to accurately describe one aspect of the relationship between education and criminal justice, nor that it does not lend itself to solutions—it does both, admirably. My concern is that the situation the pipeline describes may be even worse than the metaphor imagines, and tackling the architecture of bureaucratic junction points that channel children toward prison may miss more integrated solutions. To consider the limitations of the pipeline metaphor, we should consider how the relationship between schools and prisons is not like the flow of a pipeline, what alternative frameworks exist, and what kinds of solutions these frameworks demand.

The pipeline metaphor has several limitations. First, it suggests a one-way relationship. The problem here is that prisons exert a great deal of influence on schools, too—by disrupting the lives of children, families, and whole communities. Even within the institutional framework, students far down the pipeline, in juvenile detention, can reenter the school environment and succeed, but only if schools are prepared to serve them (Blomberg, Bales, Mann, Piquero, and Berk, 2011; Thomas, 2014). Moreover, schools and prisons coexist within a broader policy ecosystem, joined by a host of other institutions—welfare agencies, health care institutions, public housing, municipal police departments, and more—that are often quite similar in their historical disservice to the poor and people of color in particular. There are, in this sense, many pipelines (and prison is one of them, too) that carry people away from, not toward, life in a just and fair society. Moving beyond institutions, even, the school-to-prison pipeline (and all the attendant pipelines) sits within a sea of social inequality and racial injustice, such that we can ask whether the water outside the pipeline is much different from the water within. Can we achieve deep and lasting change if we accept the order of things as it currently stands and tinker with the plumbing of one institutional relationship? Finally, while the pipeline metaphor is appropriately critical of out-of-control policies, it can lend itself to overlooking the agency and resistance of children, their families, and their communities. Children are not water drops, even when the stream flows against them.

While there are many alternative ways to frame the relationship between schools and prisons, here are three, along with possible remedies that each suggests.

1. The Prison-to-Community Toxic Spill. There is a large body of research on the serious negative effects that imprisonment can have on individual people, their families, and their communities. In an era of mass incarceration, these effects permeate school walls not only as they are carried in the minds and bodies of children, but also in those of school faculty, staff, and police. Schools are situated in particular places—indeed, the patterns of racial and economic segregation in American society that developed over the course of the 20th century always featured public schools as a central, defining feature of a given space. Locality is a key variable in the school-to-prison metaphor, but prison and imprisonment in turn shape locality. Children in such spaces can already live precarious lives before they ever enter a school.

Thinking of the effects of mass imprisonment on the lives of children helps us think about potential causes of child misbehavior in schools; the struggles of families; and the dysfunctional relationships between race/class-subjugated communities and the schools they support. It’s one thing to train teachers, staff, and cops to act differently in their school roles. It’s a more ambitious (and perhaps necessary) thing to help them acknowledge the profound social alienation, economic strain, and psychological harm that people who have been touched by the incarceration experience associate with authority figures. Such acknowledgement might lead, in this formulation, to an acknowledgement that children entering high-risk schools may have, themselves, already experienced forms of trauma that need attending. At their best, public schools can act as healing spaces that meliorate the many social problems caused by failed criminal justice policy writ large.

2. The Broken Social Contract. A second way of seeing the relationship between schools and prisons is to think broadly about the relationship between government and the poor and people of color in more critical terms. Reviewing the history of discriminatory housing policies over the twentieth century, for example, Ta Nahisi Coates has argued that, with regard to black people, the US government is not a democracy but a kleptocracy (Coates, 2014). Government support of slavery was an obvious system of stealing the value of black and brown labor. But later examples in Jim Crow, discriminatory housing segregation, school segregation, police violence, deregulation of predatory bank practices (and half-hearted attempts at subsequent melioration without reparation) have continued to serve as legal and institutional pipelines away from full economic and civic participation in American life. Fifty years after the Kerner Commission, African Americans still face a wide array social and economic inequalities, including intensely segregated schools (Jones, Schmitt, and Wilson, 2018). Alexander’s evocative labeling of mass incarceration as a “New Jim Crow” and Hinton’s description of the war on crime as a race war, suggest that we should widen our lens to look beyond schools and prisons to all manner of social institutions and laws to see the ways in which our entire society needs fixing. The school-to-prison pipeline is, in this sense, a link in a chain that stretches back for centuries.

When Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech in 1963, he not only called for improved interpersonal relations among black and white children (the part we learn about in public school textbooks), he accused America of writing black people a “bad check” upon emancipation from slavery. Honoring that check would require more than retraining school workers to be less harsh to black, brown, and poor children: it would require a fundamental cultural and political shift in our understanding of what and whom public education is for. This culture shift must be part of a broader conversation about poverty, race, and other constructions of social identity and experience. It will require solidarity and courage to reframe the purpose of government, including public schooling, as the common good, and children—each and all of them—as worthy of compassion and care.

3. A Curriculum Theory of Justice. A third way of seeing the relationship between schools and prisons is to rethink our fundamental assumption about the relationship between schools and prisons and, more broadly, between education and criminal justice. Before the rise of the modern public school and the modern prison (and before Horace Mann), European social theorists, most notably Montesquieu, imagined a society where all laws and social institutions were democracy-enhancing (Justice, 2017). This view was based on the belief that all laws, social policies, and institutions are inherently educative. Children, and adults too, are like learning machines that constantly seek and interpret signals about who and what is valued. In this intellectual tradition, a healthy democratic society does not frame the foundation of civil society as schools versus crime (or schools versus prison), or even education versus criminal justice. Horace Mann’s generation, however, would have recognized such an impulse: prisons, schools, asylums, they imagined, could be republican institutions—places of human growth and rehabilitation. In practice their visions were often grotesque, while the deep racism, patriarchy, and violence that propelled the land clearances and justified the slavery that sustained the American economy made the public school movement a race project as much as a democratic one. Nevertheless modern social psychologists, political scientists, and others have shown that people do learn powerful lessons from their interactions with official actors—from schools and prisons to street corner police, welfare workers, health care givers, and others (e.g., Soss, Hacker, and Mettler, 2007; Soss and Weaver, 2017; Tyler and Trinkner, 2017).

Rather than seeing the formula as schools versus prisons, we can flip the script and see schools and prisons as educational institutions. Thinking this way, we can ask questions about the quality of the democratic curriculum that American governmental institutions offer, and evaluate them not on their severity, but on their consistency with our shared democratic values (Justice and Meares, 2014). Such a curriculum already exists in the daily grind of all social institutions, but all too often it is a curriculum that reifies social biases and inequalities. Explicitly acknowledging that police work, prison work, and school work have curricula whether they like it or not can push leaders and workers in those institutions to be more cognizant of the effects of their policies and actions. Such a reframing could include different kinds of data collection and different accountability measures of success and failure. It could include audits that trace children’s experiences across institutions holistically. Imagine a prison-to-school pipeline or, even better, imagine schools, prisons, police stops, hospital visits, housing, transportation, military service, all working collinearly as pipelines toward healthy democratic living.