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Black Kids Can't Read Because Prisons Exist: Policy Action Essay

Executive Summary

The school-to-prison pipeline (SPP), also known as the school-to-containment pipeline, or school-prison nexus, is the phenomenon where school-aged children from marginalized backgrounds are disproportionately incarcerated. Education inequality, poverty, zero-tolerance policies, and school disturbance laws contribute to this tendency. However, the school-prison nexus is a part of mass incarceration and the more extensive prison-industrial complex. The relationships between our government, education, policing, and incarceration create a system of barriers and circumstances that disproportionately lead individuals to incarceration and containment.

More recent frameworks suggest schools serve as an incubator for criminalization and are a de facto prison created by the environment’s harsh punitive actions and policies, which are similar to prisons. Students receive adverse socialization from School Resource Officers (SROs), zero-tolerance policies, and attitudes until schools criminalize their behaviors. This is a socio-psychological process that shapes students’ perceptions of self while inhibiting their academic success. For example, if students struggle with literacy and reading comprehension, they are also likely to struggle with effectively expressing and communicating emotions leading to anger and aggression. Thus the lack of reading comprehension skills will lead to criminalized behavior.

Many internal factors in the American education system contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, but dismantling the systematic creation of prisoners in schools can only come from abolishing prisons.


While the school-prison nexus is a more recent discovery, the foundational is similar to the prison-industrial complex. Ideologies from Ronald Reagan’s “tough on crime” and “War on Drugs” campaigns catalyzed hyper-surveillance of criminality and harsher prison sentences. This shift in attitudes towards crime created strict policies like “mandatory minimum sentencing for crimes regardless of nuance and “three-strikes” laws that incarcerate a person at their third offense, no matter the circumstances or severity of the crime (America Divided 2016).

This trend continued and incorporated more young people during the Clinton Administration. When championing Bill Clinton’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, Hillary Clinton states, “Just as in a previous generation, we had an organized effort against the mob. We need to take these people on. They are often connected to big drug cartels; they are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators — no conscience, no empathy” (Politico 2016). The media frenzy this statement created stripped young Black children of their perceived innocence and positioned them as “super predators” and a threat to public safety. The shifts in policing, incarceration, and perception of Black people in the media marked the beginning of the school-prison nexus. Several disciplinary policies like expulsions, suspensions, three-strike rules, dress codes, and many other practices directly parallel criminal-legal strategies established in the late 20th century.

The school-to-containment pipeline, mass incarceration, and the prison industrial complex all have one thing in common: race. Modern-day policing dates back to the slave patrols (slave catchers). These law enforcers were responsible for regulating the conduct of enslaved Black people for almost two centuries. The original slave patrol oath from the 1700s reads, "I [patroller's name], do swear, that I will as searcher for guns, swords, and other weapons among the slaves in my district, faithfully, and as privately as I can, discharge the trust reposed in me as the law directs, to the best of my power. So help me, God” (NAACP 2021). Following the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the 13th amendment, slave catchers needed a new role. At the same time, America created several policies that limited and criminalized the actions of millions of newly freed Black people during the Reconstruction era. Black Code and eventually Jim Crow laws governed the conduct of formerly enslaved Black people. To paint a clearer timeline, Lyndon B Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, abolishing the legal discrimination against Black people, halfway through his presidency. Five years later, conservative President Nixon launched the War on Drugs and mobilized tough on crime policies.

  In 1994, John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief, admitted that Nixon created the war on drugs to marginalize the Black community. Ehrlichman stated, “You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did” (Equal Justice Initiative 2016). This quote by President Nixon’s policy chief highlights the intentionality and systematic integration of racism in policing, incarceration, media, and politics.

Policing practices and strategies from n era of legal racism still impacts America today. A 1987 study by the Office of Justice Programs revealed that “Between 1957 and 1986, the age of the officers at retirement ranged from 45 to 73, with the average being 55 years old. They had served on the force for an average of 26.4 years” (Office of Justice Programs 1987). So, an officer enforcing Black Codes likely enforced Jim Crow laws, and an officer that enforced Jim Crow laws likely remained an officer during the construction of the prison industrial complex.

American education lives in an ecosystem of institutions influenced and created by racism and the 400 years of systemic oppression of Black people. Understanding the proximity modern-day policing has with racism and slavery helps describe the intersections between Black people and incarceration today. Historical context also shows the overlap between racism in school policies that lead to the incarceration of Black youth. Abolishing the carceral system disincentivizes the creation of policies that result in the incarceration of students. Prison abolition also forces the government to invest in resources that close the educational divides among Americans while remedying external factors that lead to criminalized activity.

Counter Argument

One of the most prevalent arguments against abolishing the carceral system is that vulnerable populations, like children, will be negatively impacted without prison and police to protect the them from crime. Crimes like murder, sex trafficking, sexual assault, and child pornography disproportionately impact young Black people and other racial marginalized groups, so abolishing police and prison will disproportionately disadvantage these communities. Similarly, racially marginalized communities are more likely to be victims of violent crimes associated with drugs, so many argue that removing law enforcement means more Black people will die from Black on Black crimes. For example, between 1960 and 1991, the homicide rate in New York City rose from 4.1 to 30.1, corresponding with the drug epidemic (Rosenthal 2020). The tough-on-crime campaign inspired politicians like rudy Guliani and Mike Bloomberg to implement the “stop and frisk policy”, the policing practice of stopping a person to search them for weapons or prohibited items, and other aggresive policies to combat crime. While many criticized the practice for being prejudical, research reports, “New York experienced the broadest and deepest decline in violent crime of any major American city. By 2013, Bloomberg's last year as mayor, the murder rate had dropped to 3.3 per 100,000 population” (Rosenthal 2020). While we cannot attribute the decrease in homicide rates to tough on crime practices, the correlation is strong.

While these widespread counterarguments are factual, they do not reflect the whole truth. In reality, about 11% of all serious crimes result in an arrest and about 2% end in a conviction, as reported by the Department of Justice (Baughman 2020). More shockingly, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that less than one person, about 0.7 percent of rapes and attempted rapes, end with a felony conviction for the perpetrator (Dam 2018). The idea that police and prisons make us safe and decrease crime is inaccurate. The United States spends about $115 billion on the police force each year, which is more money than every country’s military budget except China. Under this logic, the U.S should be the world’s safest country. Additionally, violent crimes are still motivated. Abolition urges society to analyze the societal factors that lead to crime. Violence is contextual, and people that commit violent crimes are not always violent. However, if individuals sell drugs to provide for themselves or their families, providing necessary resources that support their livelihood could effectively prevent them from committing a violent crime associated with selling drugs, like murder. Violence also occurs with heightened stress, so people that face disproportionate amounts of stress from external factors (like systemic poverty) are more likely to be violent.

Even more egregious crimes like rape and pedophilia, and intimate-partner violence against women, reflect a lack of knowledge and modeling around healthy sexual boundaries, effective communication skills, and access to mental health resources. Circle of Support and Accountability reported that “providing material and social support, as well as social accountability, to those at risk of re-offending, helps them avoid committing further harm, while other restorative-justice responses to sexual assault emphasize prevention via education and community support as a key part of a restorative response” (University of San Diego’s Center for Restorative Justice 2019). However, if society perpetuates the notion that people who learn these behaviors and commit crimes will be disposed of, we will never be able to prevent crimes from individuals that are more likely to commit them. Criminality is not an immutable character trait, yet the carcel system relies on the idea that people should be discarded and disposed if they act outside what society deems acceptable.

The Argument: Black Kids Can’t Read Because Prisons Exist

The prescence of prisons and the carceral state signifcanty inpact the socialization process of Black children to the point where Black children become more aggressive and have adverse views towards themsevles and society around them. The carceral state is a continuum of networks and systems that create criminals to occupy it. The socialization and creation of criminals starts in a person’s early life, in school. Following the Reagan and Clinton administrations, punitive actions in schools mirrored policing to prevent the spread of “super predators”. Three-strike rules, suspensions, and expulsions predisposed children to the idea that they would be discarded for not complying with rules, no matter how unjust. These practices “othered” students the same way that incarceration does. This is also the beginning of the socio-psychological process that creates an internal criminalzed identity before students exhibit any deviant behavior.

For example, dress codes in school historically discriminate against “unprofessional” or “extreme hairstyles” that same way Tignon laws prohibited Black women from revealing their hair publically in the late 18th century. Students with hairstyles that violate their school’s dress codes are often sent home or to complete in-school suspension until they remove or change the hairstyles. While this may seem like a surface level punishment, there are harmful ramifications. First, students are forced to miss educational instruction for violating policies that do not disrupt the educational enviroment. More importantly, given the history of oppression and cultural significance of Black hairstyles, disproportionately punishing Black students for their hairstyles, serve as a meta-physical critique on their being. Students are punished for expressing the physical manifestations of the culture and identity.

Another form meta-physical criticism occurs when Black students speak in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Academia views this form of speech as slang or shorthand and an improper use of grammar. When Black students are corrected or penalized academically for using AAVE, schools reinforce the belief that their core beings and understanding of the world and communication are in direct opposition to success and acceptance.

Finally, the psychological process of stereotype threat triggers the creation of criminality. Stereotype threat is defined as a “socially premised psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one's group applies” (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This psychological process is like a self-fulliing prophecy in which people begin to fulfil the stereotype they perceive others project onto them. For example, if a Black student fails an exam, their classmates will confirm their pre-existing beliefs that Black people are stupid and begin to socialize the Black student like they are less intelligent. In return, the Black student will internalize this belief and begin to underperfom. This process also replicates itself when Black people are perceived to be more aggressive and deviant, attributes associated with criminality.

Although students of all races are subject to zero tolerance policy the sociological and psychological impacts of zero tolerance policies disproportionately harm Black students. The 2016 National Household Education Survey (NHES) found that Black elementary students are suspected three times more than their white counterparts. For Black students, punishments often attacks the Core of students’ personal identities. The discrimination of personal characteristics and the dissemination of punitive action are informed by racism and practices upheld in the criminal legal system. Punitive action and zero-tolerance polices communicate an inherent incongruence with blackness and academic success.

Finally, The financial deprioritization of academic preparedness for black students perpetuates the school-prison nexus. Edbuild, a think-tank centered on education funding, found “on average, poor nonwhite school districts receive 19 percent, or about $2,600, less per student than affluent white school districts.” The article also reveals, “in places like Arizona and Oklahoma, the difference in per-student funding is more than 30 percent. In Arizona, where poor nonwhite school districts receive 36 percent less per student than affluent white districts, that’s a difference of more than $4,400 per student.” Inaccessibility to high-quality educational support widens the educatioal gap between races, impacting other factors like financial success, marriage, and incarcation rates.

Additionally, the lack ofeducation funding for Black students also prohibits schools from hiring necessary personnel like guidance counselors, behavioral therapists, and school nurses that can accurately assess and identify neurodivergence among black students. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found “black children in the sample population showed symptoms of ADHD at a significantly higher rate than white children, but were diagnosed much less often”(Frye 2022). Similarly, The Literacy Project Foundation found “three out of five people in U.S. prisons can’t read and 85 percent of juvenile offenders have trouble reading. Other research has estimated that illiteracy rates in prisons are as high as 80 percent of the prison population.” (Sainato 2017). Prisons heavily rely on literacy to determine the amount of bed the facility needs to allocate. The belief that prisons determine the amount of beds to order based on third grade test scores is not factual. However, the National Adult Literacy Survey, reported “70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a 4th grade level”. As on 2019, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found “just 15 percent of Black eight graders were at or above reading proficiency. About half didn’t even reach the “basic” reading benchmark…Only 17 percent of Black 12th graders hit” (PDK 2020).

These statistics illustrustate the operational viability of the privatized prison system relies on illiteracy and lack of knowledge. If students Struggle with reading comprehension skills, it is likely that they will also be unable to assess the contributing factors to their own emotions and the events that lead to violent or aggressive behavior.


If America invested more financial resources into the academic preparedness for Black students, there would be less prisoners. Unfortunately, the intersection of education and the prison-industrial complex demonstrate the necessity to maximize profit and the overall disregard for Black people. Mass incarceration and the privitization of prisons are profitable and generate free labor for several industries and sector including university campuses and legislative institutions. The carceral state is modern slavery and the instituions that uphold this structure are the same ones that upheld the 400 years of racialized and classed oppression of Black people. it is not a coincidence that the population most affected by mass incarceration and the free labor used in a prison complex is the same population that law officers were created to detain and force back into free labor.


  1. Enact the PUSHOUT Act by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley

  2. PUSHOUT dismantles the school-to-containment pipeline by allocating 2.5 billion dollars t to schools that commit to banning expulsion and suspension and other zero-tolerance policies

  3. Remove School Resource Officers from school campuses

  4. Federally fund public education to allocate equitable per-pupil funding for students

  5. Remove property-tax funding structure for public education

  6. Continuously divest funding from police department to create and develop restorative and rehabilitative alternatives to policing and incarceration

  7. Deprivitize all prisons

  8. Release all non-violent criminals and expunge their records

  9. Create re-intergration programs for all offenders and formerly incarcated individuals

  10. Release all imprisoned people for crimes that were retroactively decriminialized

  11. Abolish prisons

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