Justice reformers focus on preventing schools from employing disciplinary approaches that send troubled youths into the justice system. But a Washington State inmate argues that for many young black males, the so-called school-to-prison pipeline begins a lot earlier.
It is interesting how researchers conceive phrases and terms that capture their findings in readily accessible ways that resonate in the mind of the public. They capture a phenomenon that makes their conclusions marketable to policymakers and officials—even if the findings later prove to be (at best) misleading, or (worse yet) erroneous.
Take the bogus “superpredator theory.” Officials saw fit to prosecute me as if I were an adult when this theory was in its infancy and sentenced me to life without parole when I was only 14 years old, under the fiction that I was irredeemable and beyond reform.
Today, I often read about a “School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
Most often, it is cited by policymakers and proponents of both education and criminal justice reform. For those unfamiliar with the research behind the theory, here is a brief summary.
The necessary materials and ingredients for building a School-to-Prison Pipeline are black boys, bureaucrats, and overt and implicit bias. With this, one can create environments within schools where the “students who are most in need of support and attention from the public education system are most harmed by its impersonal mechanisms,” according to Breaking the Chains, The School-to-Prison Pipeline, Implicit Bias, and Racial Trauma.
For instance, a black male student with an intellectual, emotional or physical disability “has a 33.8 percent chance of being suspended in a given school year compared to only a 16.2 percent chance for similarly situated white males,” explain the authors of Breaking the Chains.
The authors also say that “black boys are seen as older and less innocent” than their White same age peers. So, when “black students do indeed misbehave in class, teachers [are] more likely to see these actions as the product of a pattern when compared with White students,” and this “negative stereotyping of a black student’s disobedience has been associated with the black escalation effect.”
This educational experience, or escalation effect, according to this line of thinking, pushes many young black males out of public schools and into the juvenile justice system and eventually— if they are as unlucky as me—into the penitentiary.
This is the School-to-Prison Pipeline theory. I do not doubt any of these findings. However, while the outflow of the pipeline is apparent, I disagree with where it actually begins.
Allow me to present the “Womb-to-Prison Pipeline,” and highlight the missing materials and ingredients for funneling Black boys to state institutions.
The essential components for building this section of the pipeline are black children who were exposed, in utero, to drugs and alcohol, maternal stress, and malnourishment; then come to suffer traumatic experiences at the hands of caretakers who abuse and neglect them.
The presence of any of these conditions increases the risk for delinquency and serious youth violence, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Other factors identified by the Department of Justice as having a cumulative effect on the risk for delinquency and violence are: a family history of criminal behavior and substance abuse; family management problems; family conflict; extreme economic deprivation; exposure to media portrayals of violence; community disorganization; and low intelligence, hyperactivity, and attention-deficit disorders.
These are the adverse experiences that define the lives of countless black children who enter the public-school system. They learned to disassociate or be aggressive in order to survive their traumatic experiences and environments. Then, as explained in Breaking the Chains, those behaviors become “maladaptive in the school setting” and are “misinterpreted by school staff” as evidence of “ill-intentioned misbehavior.”
Through this lens, one can see that our problems began in the home rather than in a school setting. Teachers are then left to corral and educate what have become, in essence, defective units.
Few liberals would dare to express such a thing.
For good reason, they are cowed by those who would cry that such a view is both politically incorrect and vacuous because it gives credence to the notion that black folks are responsible for everything that has befallen them throughout American history: From slavery—as evidenced by literature trumpeting the complicity of West African rulers—to a Bell Curve implying that the educational deficits of blacks stem from their immutable characteristics as opposed to America’s history of racism.
It is well-nigh heresy for a black prisoner to believe that the home front was the proximate cause of our predicament. I know this from personal experience.
In the past, I have provoked consternation and irritation by expressing these sentiments during meetings of the Black Prisoners’ Caucus. How dare I cite our shortcomings during a discussion on mass incarceration or miseducation—especially in the presence of bright-eyed white guests from the community who are our allies and potential advocates.
The implicit message is that we must always blame the system. This is the script to follow if one wishes to be accepted by their brethren and not be labelled a fool or sellout by those who are “woke.”
As a result, I have long since refrained from attending these gatherings. My absence enables the group to collectively absolve the childhood caretakers whose abuse, neglect and ignorance greased the walls of the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
To be clear: I believe that mass incarceration is a product of historical antecedents, contemporary policies and practices, and overt and implicit bias against African Americans by those with the power to subjugate us. Furthermore, I accept the notion that reforming the public school system can ameliorate (or at least, stop facilitating) mass incarceration.
Yet the power that lords over us initially is parental authority, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline seems to ignore this reality.
It is the abuse of this authority that leaves Black children at the mercy of the system, whether that system endeavors to educate or incarcerate. If reducing mass incarceration is the objective, the focus should be on repairing the Womb-to-School section of the pipeline to prison.
Then again, I have to remember that a catchy phrase like School-to-Prison Pipeline is simply a marketing strategy.
At the end of the day, if ignoring the man in the mirror and absolving our kin of culpability furthers criminal justice reform, so be it. I have no problem falling back and letting others articulate the raison d’etre for narrowing the pipeline to the penitentiary.
I am willing to do whatever is necessary to reduce the likelihood that my nephew finds himself in prison with me.
Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he has been serving a life sentence since the age of 14. He is currently petitioning for release from the Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Readers who wish to support him are invited to sign up here.