Youth of Color, the School-to-Prison Pipeline and the Private Prison Industry

If the notion of punishment as a source of potentially stupendous profits is disturbing by itself, then the strategic dependence on racist structures and ideologies to render mass punishment palatable and profitable is even more troubling. – Angela Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”

There are many ways for the private prison industry to create a profit. To maintain this profit, this industry relies on continuous mass incarceration. Recently, the industry has developed for-profit juvenile facilities that target vulnerable youth, especially youth of color, in an effort to expand their business. This question arose when researching the development of these juvenile facilities: what does privatization look like with the school-to-prison pipeline? In other words, could the private prison industry be directly or indirectly benefiting from the school-to-prison pipeline?

(Creative Commons License photo credit: ec.kane )

Kids for Cash

The “Kids for Cash” scandal serves as a perfect example of the industry directly benefiting from the school-to-prison pipeline, as children were directly routed from their schools into privatized facilities. In 2009, two corrupt judges from Pennsylvania were charged with accepting over $2.6 million in “kickbacks” from private juvenile facilities. From 2003 to 2008, these judges found over 4,000 juveniles guilty, many of whom did not have legal representation, and were sent to one or both of the facilities that were involved in the scandal. This scheme exemplifies how privatizing prisons, specifically juvenile detention centers, plays a direct role in pushing children into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Judges Conahan and Ciavarella

School-to-Prison Pipeline: Racializing “Misbehavior” and “Punishment” in Schools

The private prison industry could also indirectly benefit from policies and practices created to drive youth, specifically youth of color, into the school-to-prison pipeline. This pipeline begins mostly in inner-city schools, when children are harshly punished for “misbehavior.” In this context, the word “misbehavior” has been socially constructed as a “racialized” term, meaning youth of color receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts. According to the ACLU, for example, “African-American students are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled, or arrested for the same kind of conduct at school.” In addition, the “punishment” in response to this misbehavior has been socially constructed and “racialized.” For example, “In 2003, African-American youth made up 16% of the nation’s overall juvenile population, but accounted for 45% of juvenile arrests,” even though, “there is no evidence that students of color misbehave to a greater degree than white students.” The punishment for this misbehavior is often expulsion, leaving these youth on the streets, usually without supervision and structure.

Kind of Like School
( Creative Commons License photo credit: cogdogblog )

School-to-Prison Pipeline: Criminalizing Youth of Color in the Streets

Exposure in the streets and being criminalized by the police is the next phase of the school-to-prison pipeline. In his book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, Victor Rios argues that in these circumstances, youth of color become engaged in “play”—“the seeking of personal enjoyment despite their detrimental circumstances”—rather than work, which has since been criminalized and used as a tool to mass incarcerate youth of color (p. 76). When labeled as “criminals” by school faculty, the police, and even their own families, these youths begin to internalize this label and act upon it. Rios reinforces this concept in his presentation of juvenile crime research: “Being shamed and feeling stigmatized often leads young people into crime” (p. 58). The racialized constructions of misbehavior and punishment and the resulting criminalization indirectly benefit the private prison industry, as these juveniles may be sent to private facilities. The populations of these facilities have also been racialized: in Mississippi’s Walnut Grove facility, for example, 90% of its inhabitants are African American men. Although there is no research that directly connects the school-to-prison pipeline and the private prison industry, the deconstruction of the pipeline shows how the industry could be benefiting from these disciplinary actions, which are mainly targeted toward youth of color.

march 2011 8464
(Creative Commons License photo credit: bpbailey )

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it correct to build private juvenile detention facilities, as they will likely always target vulnerable youth to maintain their populations and to create a profit?
  2. If there were no for-profit juvenile facilities, would there still be incentive to mass incarcerate youth of color?
  3. Who else, aside from the prison industrial complex, is benefiting from incarcerating youth of color? (We will begin to address this question in our next blog post)
~ *This post is from one of four sociology students studying critical theories of race and racism in Danielle Dirks’ “Contemporary Sociological Theory” undergraduate course at Occidental College. This is the first post of our three-part blog series on the criminalization of people of color and the private prison industry. Please read and feel free to comment or ask questions. Thank you for your time!