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Public Schools are like Prisons: The School-to-Prison Pipeline

The Unknown's picture


The educational system in the United States maintains the prison-industrial complex. Public policies that were used to expand prison populations are now used in public schools. The establishment of racialized surveillance, the use of disciplinary processes, and the classification of “outlaw” conduct and feelings in schools are rooted in the United States penal system which criminalizes certain communities in order to manage and cheapen labor within and outside prison (Meiners 54). Removing students from the education system and funneling them into the prison system is profitable for both the government and private prisons; the government does not have to pay to keep those students in school and private prisons’ revenue and sustainment is dependent upon a steady flow of inmates. Zero-tolerance policies and suspensions remove students from the classroom and restrict their opportunities to learn. Over policing in public schools whether through the use of surveillance or punitive measures to address students’ “misbehavior” is growing. These disciplinary policies as well as others show how schools and prisons have become industrialized factories for perpetuating systemic oppression.

From the amount and use of surveillance in prison to the architecture of prisons and schools, these institutions have many parallels. Many youth are being educated in quasi-like institutions where they have no rights and almost no agency to prevent the police from funneling them into an institutionalized life. Schools continue to serve as disciplinary institutions for particular communities. Public schools and prisons both determine who deserves to be safe and protected by the state and who should be feared. Schools and prisons are both highly concerned with crime, behavior, and action rather than what caused or brought about different people to hurt others, break “rules,” question school expectations, or result in someone going to prison or being expelled, suspended, or otherwise disciplined. 

School policies stipulate that students should be managed like actual criminals or/and certain students are targeted by teachers as a part of an effort to “control crime.” As stated by Erica R. Meiners in Right to be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies, policies such as in-school suspension or surveillance by armed police or dogs, funnel children through the prison-school pipeline: “One clear consequence of this hypersurveillance is that communities of color are tracked into further state control and management” (Meiners 40). From 1997-2007, the number of police officers in schools grew by more than a third nationally (Learning Lab 4). The consistent use of handcuffs, the emphasis on the orderly movement of students, and the strict codes of conduct in many public schools serve to defend law enforcement practices by showing students that over-policing is normal. Prisons and public schools both use metal detectors, police patrols, lock downs, surveillance cameras, strip searches, and drug- sniffing dogs as a way to “guarantee” greater security. Security is used as a way to structure and control certain populations in prisons and schools.

Erica Meiners finds parallels between the uniforms in public schools and the uniforms in prisons. According to Erica R. Meiners in Right to be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies, the similarities between prisons and schools are institutional and physical: “These linkages are physical and grotesquely evident in urban schools with the increased use of surveillance and incarceration tools: metal detectors, surveillance cameras, school uniforms, and armed security guards” (Meiners 2-3). Public schools look like prisons. The similarities are also constructed into the day-to-day life in schools; procedures and juvenile justice laws were used to structure school punitive measures, and the militarization of schools. Public schools and prisons implement similar inspection techniques. Police occupy public schools and prisons and use disciplinary methods to control and manipulate different populations, often marginalized and racialized groups.

Public school students are often treated like criminals, constantly under surveillance by finger and palm scanners, iris scanners, and GPS tracking devices (Whitehead 4).  Not only are incarcerated people and public school students fed undesirable and unwholesome food, but like prisons some schools obligate students to wear uniforms, force students to go through security scanners, carry identification or passes when they move from one place to another. They also have similar schedules.

Erica Meiners in Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons and the Making of Public Enemies argues that prisons and teaching serve similar functions; they implement surveillance and tracking techniques based on students’/ people’s socio-economic class and race. Erica Meiners compares the racialized surveillance in public schools and prisons in Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons and the making of Public Enemies:

Rather, racialized surveillance prefigures the practices undertaken by police, customs, and other punitive institutions, and I argue that the establishment of these practices in schools functions to seemingly launch, for individuals caught in these punitive practices and for those who participate and observe, the processes of racial profiling (Meiners 41).

The practice of teaching is rooted in methods of race-based surveillance. Zero-tolerance laws reinforce the image and stereotypes of students of color in the media; people of color constantly illicit fear and are a threat to public safety. Zero-tolerance policies and racial codes mobilize race-based fears that depict brown and black urban children as criminals and violent threats to the security of white citizens. Students of color receive harsher punishments for the same “misbehavior” as whites in schools. Low-income and non-white students are much more likely to experience invasive and extensive security conditions in school. Surveillance is used to control and manage students’ behavior and actions. Research explains that schools that use excessive surveillance create educational environments that are detrimental to students’ learning and development, meaning that low-income and non-white students do not have the same educational experiences or/and opportunities as other students (Meiners 42).

Anger against the unfair treatments in schools and prisons is consistently used against those that are marginalized. As stated by Erica R. Meiners in Right to be Hostile: Schools, Prisons and the Making of Public Enemies, schools have a lot of power and leniency in interpreting students’ “anger:” “Recent literature on what scholars, educators, and activists term the ‘school to jail pipeline’ illustrates that a failure to control oneself, to keep that anger in check, to act and learn appropriately, in particular for those in any way marginalized, might mean school expulsion, criminalization, or pathologization” (Meiners 30). Anger is used to devalue or negate the reactions of oppressed people to the structures that immobilize them whether those structures lead to incarceration, inhibiting their opportunities to acquire a job or a home, or marginalizing them from other members of their community. Though anger is an appropriate and justifiable reaction to oppressive political structures, students and incarcerated people often do not have the power or opportunity to describe or claim their emotions. Therefore, anger gets interpreted to mean and is a sign that a child regularly exhibits disruptive behavior, cognitive impairments, or a learning or social disability (Meiners 30). These assumptions about students’ behavior and hostility further exclude and separate youth.

Youth of color are being tracked into prison partially as a result of media stereotyping that incorporates and creates general animosity towards black males, expectations and tolerance of socio-economic inequalities, assumes that all black men are criminals and violent, and arouses public support for punitive approaches to collective “challenges” with “disruptive” students. Through media images youth of color come to be seen as useless and expendable. These populations are portrayed and treated as “superfluous.”

The media reinforcement of prisons and schools creates public enemies that jeopardize people’s lifestyles and rationalize the legal and illegal discrimination and separation of non-white individuals. Criminalization reproduces the notion that specific people are born immoral, unstable, or dangerous. Schools and prisons are predicated on the notion that once these “unethical” people are recognized as having “problems,” they are unable to be helped, given guidance, or integrated into society.

Different uses and strategies of approaching syllabi, pedagogy, punitive measures, and other educational frameworks in schools influence students’ future success. Students that attend schools managed with punitive measures are more likely to spend time in prison. As stated by Erica R. Meiners in Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies, poor, undereducated people of color become accustomed to punitive measures in insufficient schools:

Trapped in failing schools that are often physically deteriorating, disciplined and moved into juvenile justice systems through violations of punitive, zero tolerance policies, demoted or labeled through failure to pass high-stakes standardized tests or through biased assessment materials, and channeled to special education programs, poor and/or youth of color are undereducated (Meiners 31).

Schools reproduce racial inequities. The racial profiling of youth of color is the first step on the school-to-prison pipeline. Non-white students are more likely to be suspended and expelled. The management and “definitions” attributed to student “deviance” demonstrates that public schools are increasingly treating students like prisoners. These terminologies are often racialized and shaped by class dynamics, which describe certain communities as inept, lacking, and incompetent. Public schools support the criminalization of speech. Instructors and police officers can search students’ laptops. Many public schools have disciplinary codes that limit students’ freedom. Schools define and explain non-white people’s actions in crippling ways. These terms or identities as well as media representations of non-white teens serve to further isolate and scorn people of color.

Public schools have implemented law enforcement “tough on crime” policies: large presences of police officers, the expansion and integration of zero tolerance policies, the use of metal detectors, and “random” locker inspections. Nancy A. Heitzeg in “Education Or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies And The School To Prison Pipeline” demonstrates that non-white students are progressively being expelled and suspended more than white students as well as disproportionately being directed to law enforcement: 

Students who are suspended or expelled may also be referred to juvenile court by school officials, but in a growing number of schools, zero tolerance policies are directly enforced by police or school resource officers… The presence of police officers at school—most of them large urban pre-dominantly minority schools—adds as well to racial disparities as racial profiling practices are transferred from the streets to the hallways. Additionally the majority of these arrests are—not for weapons or drugs—but for minor infractions such as disorderly conduct or disruptions. This criminalization of what were once issues of school discipline is a direct conduit into the prison pipeline (Heitzeg 21).

In New York, more Blacks and Latinos are in prison on drug convictions than are in higher educational systems (Gangi, Schiraldi, and Ziedenberg 3). Zero tolerance policies remarkably resemble mandatory drug sentencing. Drug sentencing cuts out the role of judges and imposes a determined prison sentence for convicts no matter what the circumstances surrounding the causes and justifications for a person’s involvement with illegal drugs.

Zero tolerance language, which was appropriated from the War on Drugs, became widespread in schools, particularly through The Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 (GFSA) (Chambliss 3). The GFSA requires all schools that accept federal funding to have procedures to expel any student for a calendar year who carries a firearm with him/her/they to school or to school grounds. The GFSA also mandates that schools report students to the police, thereby blurring any difference between disciplinary violations at school and how the law treats students who do not conform to racist societal, behavioral expectations.

Public schools and prisons both produce “public enemies” who must be contained. This production of the criminalization of inner-city youth shifts attention and capital away from social services, like public education.  Erica R. Meiners explains in Right to be Hostile: Schools, Prions, and the Making of Public Enemies how schools define and explain marginalized people’s actions with crippling language. “As early as preschool, these educational policies and practices ontologically disqualify increasing numbers of students of color who are produced through schools as undereducated, underunemployable, and frequently ‘dangerous’ and in need of surveillance and containment” (Meiners 3-4).  These institutions consequently work to define who deserves state security and who is seen as suspect and dangerous. Students are caught in an “us vs. them” technique where they are isolated. Certain students in public schools are categorized as unable to be taught, troubled, and threating “public enemies” (Meiners 7).  Instead of asking questions about students’ needs and what would be most constructive for their growth and learning, students who do not conform to school-wide racialized guidelines and expectations are controlled through special education programs or monitored for “disruptive” behavior by teachers. This school-wide containment supports the privation of what should be considered public or collective issues. Therefore, prisons and public schools serve to silence social issues such as healthcare.

Disciplinary regulations, pedagogy, and other educational structures normalize an expectation of incarceration for non-white urban youth. Racialized and gendered ways of naming and describing people’s abilities and impairments are diffused through pedagogy in public schools and the implementation of prison policies. Gender shapes both the prison industrial complex and the educational system. The intellectual and ideological structures and systems of managing prisons and schools reinforce the United States’ social and cultural concerns. Prisons and public schools are both authoritarian, hierarchical systems. Syllabi, pedagogy, punitive measures, and other educational frameworks and methods serve to funnel many non-white students through the school-to-prison pipeline.

Works Cited

Gangi, Robert, Vincent Schiraldi, and Jason Ziedenberg. "Gangi, Schiraldi, & Zeidenberg: New York State of Mind?" Gangi, Schiraldi, & Zeidenberg: New                 York State of Mind? N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <>.

Heitzeg, Phd Nancy A. "Criminalizing Education: Zero Tolerance Policies, Police in the Hallways and The School to Prison Pipeline." EDUCATION NOT     INCARCERATION: (2009): 0-36. Hamline University. Oxford University Press, 2009. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.             <   nalizing-education-zero-tolerance-police.pdf>.

Learninglab. WBUR, 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.<            explained/>.

Meiners, Erica R. Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Whitehead, John W. "The Police State Mindset in Our Public Schools." Truthout. Truthout, 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <http://www.truth-  >.


jccohen's picture

The Unknown,

You describe and examine here some of the many ways that the so-called school-to-prison pipeline acts as a powerful force that mirrors and perpetuates hegemony, as evident for example in racialized surveillance and what Meiners calls the making of “outlaws” in schools and prisons.  And you call on Meiners’ analysis and on several other pieces to lay out the argument and the evidence.  What I’m wanting more of is some sense of where you might learn, push y/our thinking – perhaps toward some fresh analytical insight, or toward what to do with this understanding (as Meiners does in her final chapters)… Perhaps most pointedly, what do you see as the implications of your thinking here for education is prisons?  And how could some of the prison educators who share your analysis help with this question?

Nick's picture

Check out "Studio 120 Architecture" I was researching why schools look like prisons after watching a YouTube about all the ugly nasty buildings in London today. I just searched school architecture and all these photos that look just like prisons came up some of the worst from "Studio 120 Architecture" everything the design looks like a prison.