An attempt to summarize a complicated problem (Final paper, part II)

Here’s a bit more of my paper – hooray! The section posted below is my attempt to provide context to the situation of mass incarceration so I can discuss the state of education in the system, and propose solutions in later sections. I discuss the underlying issue of racial injustice in the criminal justice system, along with the “school-to-prison pipeline” theory and its effect on a growing prison population.

The point I wanted to make in this “brief history”, and I’m not sure if I succeeded, was the integrated, systemic nature of the problem. There are numerous causal factors and infinite ways these factors interact with each other in time and space to perpetuate the problem.

This is a good time to delve a bit into how I think about this problem, and the world in general – I have a very difficult time stating something is “in fact” resulting from something else. I ask too many questions to ever believe that I know why something is the way it is. There is always another voice with a story that allows you to question your preconceptions. You can see why I call my blog “Reserving the Right to Reconsider”. This warrants further reflection, but for now, here’s the next section of my paper, “Mass Incarceration and Education: Investigating Intersections”. Thanks to those who read and/or respond!

Mass Incarceration: A Brief History of the Problem

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

–          Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead

The United States prison population has ballooned in the last forty years. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (West, Sabol, & Greenman, 2009), by the end of 2009, nearly 2.3 million Americans were in prison or in jail, while over 7.2 million people were entangled in the justice system in some way (probation, prison, jail, or parole) (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011). In 1980, that number was only 1.8 million (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011). In other words, the number of people the United States had behind bars in 2009 nearly matched the number of people who were in the entire justice system in 1980. Indiana has seen a greater increase in prison population than its neighboring states, rising at a rate of 41% over the past eight years (CSGJC, 2010).

The United States is alone in its carceral tendencies. “Between 1970 and 2010 more people were incarcerated in the United States than were imprisoned in any other country,” (Thompson, 2010, p.703). According to the National Center on Crime and Delinquency, “the US has less than 5% of the world’s population but over 23% of the world’s incarcerated people” (NCCD Fact Sheet, 2006).

In addition, the criminal justice system maintains an inequality between races so disparate that one legal scholar has called the US justice system the “new Jim Crow” (Alexander, 2010). By 2006, one in fifteen black men over the age of 18 were imprisoned (Thompson, 2010, p.703). Adolescent black men face similarly disproportionate incarceration rates. They make up 14% of the total population of those between the ages of 10 and 17, but make up 40% of 10-17 year-olds who are incarcerated (Sickmund, 2004 in Leone et al., 2005).

The effects of incarceration do not end after the convicted leave prison. Several states limit felons’ rights to housing and jobs directly, as well as their right to vote (Alexander, 2010; Loury, 2007; Thompson, 2010). For instance, the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act “authorized public housing authorities to evict any tenant who allows any form of drug-related criminal activity to occur on or near public housing premises” and prevent anyone with a drug conviction from receiving student loans (Alexander, 2010, p.52). In 1996, 1.4 million African American males were permanently disenfranchised from the democratic political system because of felony convictions (Karlan, 2007, p.42). Karlan (2007) goes on to demonstrate the impact this level of disenfranchisement can have. Consider what could have happened in the 2000 presidential race in which George W. Bush won Florida by only 500 or so votes:

Florida disenfranchises more people than any other state—approximately 827,000. Slightly over 600,000 of those individuals have completed their sentences and have been discharged entirely from the criminal justice system. Approximately 10.5 percent of the state’s adult black population was disenfranchised compared with 4.4% of the non-black population. A recent study by Chris Uggen and Jeff Manza estimated that, had ex-offenders who had completed their sentences been permitted to vote – presumably at the same rate as their socioeconomically comparable, but not disenfranchised, peers – Al Gore would have carried Florida by more than 31,000 votes (pp.48-49).

More indirectly, ex-felons have difficulty being hired due to their past arrests as well as their lower levels of education. Employers may see them first as a “felon” or “convict,” even long after they leave prison, (Alexander, 2010; Ross & Richards, 2003), and therefore deem them less desirable employees (Coley & Barton, 2006). Thompson (2010) cites several studies showing that ex-inmates’ employment opportunities decreased by 59 percent (p.714). Prison has become, according to the analysis of Pettit and Western (2004) a “common life event for recent birth cohorts black non-college men” (p. 164). More and more, prison is becoming a part of a poor, uneducated, black male’s identity. “In 1999, about 30 percent of such men had gone to prison by their mid-thirties,” (Pettit & Western, 2004, p.164).

The American justice system was not always so punitive. From 1925-1975, the rate of incarceration hovered around 100 people per 100,000, jumping to nearly 500 per 100,000 by 2001 (Pettit & Western, 2004) and to 743 per 100,000 in 2009 (Glaze, 2009). In fact, the earliest prisons focused on rehabilitation. The first prison school, founded by the Quakers in 1798, was meant to improve basic skills, as well as to show “humanity toward those unhappy members of society” (Coley & Barton, 2006). There was inevitable backlash to this perspective. The Auburn, New York prison system was based in the belief that “too much faith had been placed in [the convict’s] reformability” (Coley & Barton, 2006, p.5).

This debate between rehabilitation (including education) and punishment underlies much of the literature on prison education and reform as the pendulum of public opinion and political power sways from one side to the other. The 1970s was a time of rehabilitation – it was even called the “Golden Age” of correctional education by some because of the numerous Adult Basic Education (ABE), General Education Development (GED), and post-secondary opportunities provided to prisoners throughout the United States (Ryan & McCabe, 1994 cited in Crayton & Neusteter, 2008). In the 1980s and 90s, during the “war on drugs” campaign of Ronald Reagan and the “tough on crime” rhetoric of his and subsequent administrations, the pendulum swung again from rehabilitation to punishment (Alexander, 2010). How this punitive push resulted in an increase in the prison population will be discussed briefly below.

The New Jim Crow & the War on Drugs: Policy’s Impact on Prison Population

It seems obvious that legislation and policy would play a direct role in the increase in prison populations over the past few decades.  Alexander (2010) argues that the war on drugs was in response to the instability of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which left many white Americans unsure of their political power in the future. She argues that rather than explicitly fight against racial equality, conservative politicians at the time engaged in a “general attitude of ‘toughness’ toward problems associated with communities of color” (p.54), connecting those communities with crime and violence. Thompson (2010) furthers this argument, describing the history of the “criminalization of urban spaces” and targeting of communities of color: “law enforcement not only disproportionately targeted cities in its new war on drugs but it also particularly policed the communities of color within them; this, despite extensive and readily available data that these areas were not where most drug trafficking and usage took place” (p.708). Claims such as the need to restore “law and order” were cited as reasons to enforce stricter drug laws (Thompson, 2010). As one would expect, the war on drugs greatly increased the incarceration rates for drug crime. The incarceration rate for drug offenses was approximately 15 per 100,000 adults in 1980. By 1996, that rate grew to 148 per 100,000 adults (Blumstein & Beck, 1999, p.20-21).

As mentioned above briefly, the war on drugs implemented a multitude of barriers for anyone with a drug conviction on their record. In addition to post-release difficulties, new laws enacted also increased minimum sentencing laws. Indiana’s 20 year minimum sentence for selling a small amount of cocaine was noted above, and states throughout the nation enacted similarly draconian legislation. Yet, as Blumstein and Beck (1999) point out, the rate of incarceration has grown not necessarily due to increased time served, but to rates of arrests. They call this “the clearest example of a toughening by the criminal justice system” (p.42). The Clinton administration’s enactment of the three strikes laws further illustrate the use of arrests, not necessarily sentence length, as a means of crime control leading to an increase in the prison population (Coley & Barton, 2006).

In addition to the toughening of the criminal justice system through the war on drugs, urban communities were suffering from a decrease in job opportunities. Just as the labor movement was floundering in post World War II America, the prison institutions looked to make money off of their inmates by contracting them out to both private companies and the government for cheap labor (Thompson, 2010, pp.718-720). This combination of circumstances left few job opportunities  in urban areas, increasing the likelihood of poor black men turning to the drug trade, and the “drug war raised the risks that they would be caught, convicted and incarcerated” (Pettit & Western, 2004, p.154).

Thompson (2010) argues that this population transfer from inner cities into prisons, affects not only on those in prison, but those outside – including students’ educational experiences. Considering that by 2000, “one in ten children in American had one or both parents under correctional supervision” (p.714), a disproportionate amount of whom were in urban areas, the schools filled with these students can be dealing with “negative behavioral and learning consequences” that come from the stress of having a potentially unstable home life (p.715). Coley and Barton (2006) call for further research into these children’s lives, citing some studies that detail the children’s increased risk for trauma, negative behavior, drug use, and aggression, among other negative effects, including a “decline in school performance” (p.24). Growing up in this environment, it is not surprising that according the risk of imprisonment for African American male high school dropouts has increased to 60 percent (Pettit & Western, 2004, p.164). This leads to another pathway to incarceration – poor schools.

School to Prison Pipeline: Schools are Failing

As mentioned previously, Pettit & Western (2004) analyzed race and inequality within the criminal justice system. Another factor they investigated was the education level of those incarcerated. They found that “like incarceration rates, the cumulative risks of imprisonment fall with increasing education” (p.160).

Winn and Behizadeh (2011) provide a concise summary of the school to prison pipeline literature. They delve into literacy as a civil right, and how this right has been denied to many students in poor, urban, predominantly minority populated areas.  The authors note that a “focus on basic skills, remediation, and overzealous test preparation” are the problems faced by classrooms populated by students of color (p.150). They go on to chide the irony of No Child Left Behind – meant to close the achievement gap, but only widening it by implementing a decreasingly rigorous curriculum meant only to prepare students for high-stakes testing, not critical thinking (p.152). Such curriculum has been criticized for its “subordination of knowledge and identity historically experienced by marginalized groups” (Lipman, 2008 in Winn & Behizadeh, 2011, p.152). The curriculum described brings to mind Freire’s notion of “banking education”, in which the oppressed are merely fed knowledge by their teacher rather than engaging in critical and empowered thinking. It is this sort of “banking”-type schooling that the authors’ claim promotes high dropout rates that can lead to incarceration – i.e., the school-to-prison pipeline.

In addition to what can be considered poor curriculum in urban public schools, they are also becoming criminalized spaces. Thompson (2010) notes that the tenth largest police department in the nation is the New York City public school’s (p.711). Urban schools’ focus on punishment results in learning environments that are interrupted by police involvement that leads to “arrests for minor noncriminal violations of school rules” (New York Civil Liberties Union, cited in Thompson, 2010, p.711). This increase in punitive philosophy further illustrates Pettit & Western’s (2004) conclusion that the criminal justice system is increasingly becoming a part of poor, lower-educated, African American males’ lives. An extreme example of the criminalization of schools can be found in Lizbet Simmons’(2009) investigation into a school that literally takes place in a prison – all the students are adolescent black men.

While there is no clear reason for the drastic increase in prison populations, many researchers claim it was not due to an increase in crime, but to the institutionalized reasons stated above. These reasons include a changing notion of what constitutes a crime (criminal justice changes through increased arrests and sentencing laws) as well as an increased targeting of minority populations, particularly African American men, and a failing urban school system. That being said, further investigation in the relation between increased incarceration rates and claimed decreased crime rates is warranted.

It is apparent from this limited description of mass incarceration that this is a complicated issue with many entrenched and difficult institutional and political problems. How could improving and changing educational programs in prison alleviate the innately discriminatory policies put in place by those in power? In an April 2011 discussion with Cornel West at a Princeton conference on mass incarceration, Michelle Alexander stated that nothing short of revolution would change these policies (“Imprisonment of a Race” keynote discussion, March 25, 2011). Her statement underlines the complexity of the problem – something I do not wish to cast aside. I merely want to explore the question: what is prison education’s role in this problem?


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