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Christopher Petrella
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Thursday 15 November 2012
The school-to-prison pipeline is an interlocking system of local, state, and federal educarceral policies that unduly, and often imperceptibly, siphon students from the school yard to the prison yard.

Why is the Private Prison Industry in our Public Schools?

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By now the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” is at least recognizable to the Left. Its presence in our political lexicon serves as a reminder that our public schools and, increasingly, our diffuse prison apparatus are at times operationally and institutionally indistinct, a fact not lost on those who negotiate both.

The school-to-prison pipeline is an interlocking system of local, state, and federal educarceral policies that unduly, and often imperceptibly, siphon students from the school yard to the prison yard. The “pipeline” disproportionately criminalizes youth of color through zero-tolerance disciplinary policies such as suspension or expulsion, as well as ineffective retention programs, academic isolation, and culturally irrelevant pedagogy and curricula.

Criminalizing minor infractions in conjunction with the intrusion of law enforcement officials in spaces of learning serves two mutually reinforcing ends. First, it reduces students to suspects, and second, it naturalizes the specious linkage between youth of color and criminality. The Washington Post recently reported that “when it comes to being arrested in school, students of color are once again at disproportionately higher risk.”  According to data released last March by the U.S Department of Education, 96,000 students were arrested and 242,000 were referred to law enforcement by schools  from 2009-2010. Black and Latino students accounted for more than 70 percent of arrested or referred students

Though the school-to-prison pipeline further marginalizes the most oppressed among us, it’s folly to assume that the pipeline is unidirectional. Though architects and analysts of education policy have spilled much ink scrutinizing the origins, movement, and consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline, paltry attention has been paid to its inverse:  the prison-to-school pipeline. By and large, texts investigating the operations of the prison-to-school pipeline are nowhere to be found. In fact, Google’s Ngram Viewer—a tool that tracks the popularity of words and phrases in past and present books and articles—didn’t return a single match to the phrase “prison-to-school pipeline.”

In many ways, the school-to-prison pipeline relies on the seemingly invisible operations of its companion—the prion-to-school pipeline— for its very survival. The practice of reducing students to suspects worthy of surveillance through the liberal use of correctional officers in schools—and the norms, codes, and assumptions they inevitably import to spaces of learning—is the most lurid expression of the prison-to-school pipeline.

Earlier this month news media reported that one school district in Arizona recently called upon correctional officers from Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)—the nation’s largest and oldest publicly-traded, for-profit private corrections firm—to conduct a scheduled “drug sweep.”

According to the Casa Grande Dispatch—a regional newspaper serving Southern Arizona—on the morning of October 31st “eight officers with dogs from Casa Grande Police, Gila River Police, Arizona Department of Public Safety and Corrections Corporation of America arrived at [Vista Grande High School] at 9 a.m. and the school was placed on lock-down. Every vehicle, backpack and classroom was searched by the dogs… Three students were arrested on possession of marijuana and of drug paraphernalia charges [after] a scheduled drug sweep at [the school.] The drug search was done at the request of the school district.”

Dr. Shannon Goodsell, Superintendent of Casa Grande Union High School District, authorized the “sweep.” The correctional officers from CCA involved in the “bust” are presumably employed at one of the company’s three facilities in Eloy, a town located just twenty miles southeast of Casa Grande. Perhaps CCA’s presence at Vista Grande High School —perverse “recruiting” tactic, really—reflects the company’s anxiety over losing nearly 2,000 inmates from its Red Rock facility in Eloy once its contract with the State of California expires in 2014.

Precisely why Superintendent Goodsell sanctioned a for-profit, private correctional incursion into a public high school, particularly a public high school in which students of color are overrepresented, generates a number of questions. I placed numerous calls to Superintendent Goodsell’s office inquiring about CCA’s involvement in the Vista Grande incident, but at the time of publication, my calls had all gone unanswered.

Whatever the outcome of these events, one thing is for certain: CCA’s presence as a disciplinary force in our public schools is deeply disturbing. Commingling CCA’s legal obligation to increase shareholder value through criminalization with the mission of public schools—the promotion of a free and open society—will invariably enrich the former precisely by perverting the latter. 

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ABOUT Christopher Petrella

Christopher Petrella is a NationofChange contributing author and a doctoral candidate in African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He writes on the contradictions of modernity and teaches at San Quentin State Prison. His work has appeared in such publications as Monthly Review, Truthout, Axis of Logic, NationofChange, and The Real Cost of Prisons. Christopher also holds degrees from Bates College and Harvard University.

I just watched the airing of

I just watched the airing of Independent Lens "The House I Live In; As I Am" (it was re-aired on PBS). It is all about this topic. I searched for the prison industry and came to this site, as well as Wikipedia's entry, which is also very educational on this topic. After pondering this, it reminded me of an episode of Stargate Atlantis called "Condemned". You can read the story here:
In the show, the Wraith are the enemy who also consume humans for food: The government of this particular planet makes a deal with a Wraith leader, to place a large enough stock of human prisoners to feed upon, on a remote prison island on their planet; however, the Wraith are not getting enough food, so they demand more prisoners' to feed upon, or they will turn on them, and feed. The government begins arresting more and more people, and on any offence they can justify publicly. As the demand for more prisoners increases, the excuses used to justify so many arrests become obvious to all, but those in the government who protest this action, are themselves arrested and sent to the island prison. Eventually however, the prisoners escaped through the Stargate, and there were not enough people or time, that could be arrested and sent fast enough to the prison island, to satisfy the ever-growing hunger-lust of the Wraith, and so they turned upon the entire population.
The moral of this fiction is also the reality of the human condition.

The Casa Gande paper is not

The Casa Gande paper is not "regional." It's a small local paper in Central Arizona, on the highway between Phoenix and Tucson.

Neither the Pinal Sheriff's office, the Casa Grande police, nor the Corrections Corporation of America have identified where the dog(s?) and handler came from. It could just have easily been from nearby Florence, where CCA has two pens.

Beau Hodai and the Center for Media and Democracy have published an article today on the subject of the raid and its ramifications.

It should be noted that two of the students were found to have microscopic amounts of weed on them. A 15-year-old boy allegedly had .5 gram, about 1/60th of an ounce. That was five times as much as a 15-year-old girl had, .1 gram, or 1/283rd of an ounce. So 1,800 students were terrorized to show that the school principal is more interested in controlling students than he is in educating them.

I can't think of a worse "recruiting tool" for CCA to engage itself in, so I don't think even that prodigiously clueless and larcenous corporation would have been so stupid as to have joined in on the raid for that reason.

Also, though CCA has pushed draconian legislation through in Arizona, as they have in many other states, laws that were guaranteed to ramp up their shrinking for-profit prison population, they don't hold any state or local prisoners in Arizona, nor do they have juvenile facilities. The author simply got his facts wrong.

As DWDALLAM says, when you

As DWDALLAM says, when you HAVE to make a profit by law, you certainly should not be engaging in activities that "let you" violate other's rights to make that profit. This slope is SO slippery that I doubt anyone could actually stand on it and NOT start sliding, with the inevitable Corporate pressure that would be present and applied.

Our country is SO enamoured with profit that we would sell out our own grandparent's retirements, in order to see a profit (but NOT for them) from their Social Security payment (google "social security wall street").

Capitalism has failed in the Court of Human Reason. All that's left is the funeral.

I appreciate Petrella's

I appreciate Petrella's looking at the reverse angle on this pipeline.

Within schools, there's another shift going on that deserves folks' attention. We are in the midst of a significant move from seeing kids as "bad" to seeing them as "ill." That brings with it a shift of responses from suspension to therapy. However, the track record of schools identifying kids as emotionally or behaviorally disordered (EBD), has a deep legacy of bias by race, class, and gender. More about this at the blog "Challenging Normalcy In Education,"

"Earlier this month news

"Earlier this month news media reported that one school district in Arizona recently called upon correctional officers from Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)—the nation’s largest and oldest publicly-traded, for-profit private corrections firm—to conduct a scheduled “drug sweep.” "

Listen people, this is a corporation that trades stock. Their responsibility to stock holders (by law) is to make them more money. Corporations do that with little regard for fairness, liberty, or honesty. I think we know that.

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