Alan Singer, professor of teacher education at Hofstra University in Néw Tork, has written a stunning brief history of the school-to-prison pipeline. He looks at the role of schools in this process.

He writes:

“Since the early 1970s, the United States prison population has quadrupled to 2.2 million. It is the largest prison population in the world. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, China is number two at 1.7 million people, Iran is number 8 at 217,000 people, and the United Kingdom is number 17 at 85,000. Fourteen million people are arrested every year and over two million are sent to jail. Approximately 65 million people in the United States, or more than twenty-five percent of the adults population, has a criminal record.

“The U.S. incarceration rate is five to ten times the size of other democratic countries. It is over 700 prisoners for every 100,000 people compared to 149 for England and Wales, 143 for Spain, 102 for France, 90 for Italy, 81 for Germany, and 57 for Sweden.

“Meanwhile, more than half of state prisoners are in jail for nonviolent crimes. Mass incarceration has destructive impact on families, communities, and state and local budgets. It cost $80 billion a year to keep all these people in prison and more than $250 billion to pay for all the additional police and court expenses. According to the human rights group Human Rights Watch, while prison should be a last resort, in the United States “it has been treated as the medicine that cures all ills.”

“In 2000, over two million American children had a parent in prison. I saw the impact of this on young people at a conference at the City University of New York. Eight students who attend a school for teenagers already involved in the criminal justice system discussed how they grew up in families where parents were incarcerated and its impact on them as children.”

What role do schools play? He writes:

“There is a lot of talk about how schools can transform society. The Bush administration’s education policy declared “No Child Left Behind,” but of course many children are still left behind. Barack Obama demanded that schools lead his “Race to the Top,” but it is not clear what direction he wants the schools and students to run. The reality is that schools reflect and reinforce society; they do not transform it. In the United States dating back to the 1920s high schools were organized on factory models to prepare working class immigrant youth for the tedium of factory work and harsh discipline.

“Since the 1970s factory jobs in the United States have been shipped overseas. Companies do not need students prepared for factory work, so schools have evolved to perform a new social role. In inner city minority neighborhoods especially Black and Latino young people attend schools organized on the prison model where they are treated as if they were criminals.

“Students enter buildings through metal detectors. If the device goes off they are bodily searched. Armed police stand guard. Uniformed security crews that report to the police sweep the halls. Students are forced to sit in overcrowded uncomfortable classrooms doing rote assignments geared to high-stakes Common Core assessments. Stressed out teachers, fearful that they will be judged by poor student performance on these tests, use boredom and humiliation to maintain control of the classroom.”

This is a thoughtful and disturbing article. You should read it.