I majored in criminal justice as an undergraduate, and I learned that the rate of incarceration is higher for people living in poverty, especially minorities, than for any other group. After I graduated college, I became a fourth grade teacher and learned about some of the reasons for this. I became aware that there is a pipeline that makes it possible for people living in poverty to seem destined from birth to go on to commit or be accused of committing crimes and enter prison.
Here’s a statistic I shared with my fourth graders: 2/3 of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Everyday, my students and I fought against this statistic. After all, the stakes are high for kids living in poverty.
Photo by Christina Xu (Via Wikicommons).
Here are the 3 causes I see for the pipeline that funnels students from low income backgrounds into the criminal justice system:
1. Lack of Opportunities
Marian Wright Edelman, the President of the Children’s Defense Fund, recently wrote about the pipeline to prison in the Huffington Post. Quoting The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Edelman wrote that “there are more adult African Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850.” Many of these adults were once students who more than likely did not have access to an adequate education, opportunities, or examples of success.
There is a strong correlation between people who are incarcerated and their reading levels. The website Begintoread.com points out that over 70% of inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.
3. Continued Discrimination
Students growing up in poverty often face continued discrimination in our society. Because of their race or background, they can often be seen as a threat. As a result, they are incarcerated more often.
There are a lot of things at stake for students living in poverty, but there is hope! Community groups and advocates for our students are fighting against the school to prison pipelines.
CLIA (Community Law in Action) is a Baltimore, Maryland-based organization that engages young people as advocates and active citizens. I was a member of this program in high school, and through the program, I advocated for rec centers to stay open longer so that they can serve students and presented my findings to our mayor. Our proposal was accepted!
Another organization working to help students growing up in poverty is Roses In Concrete in Oakland, California. Founder Jeff Duncan-Andrade gave a TedX Talk about using the classroom as a place of intervention, working with communities to provide services to students and families, and reinvesting in those communities.
Organizations like CLIA and Roses in Concrete, alongside families, teachers, and community members, are fighting to dismantle the school to prison piepline. And that’s a good thing—because our kids need advocates in all areas of society.