School Discipline And Socialization For The Carceral State

Schools are a buffer zone, artfully, strategically, placed between zones of dysfunction–the homes of ‘broken’ families, populated by the wrong ethnicity and racial category, which produce criminality and social pathology–and the rest of society. Here, a net may be cast, trawling through the swarms of schoolchildren, catching the bad, the misbehaved, the unrepentant repeat offenders practicing the tricks of the trade. Here, discipline may be applied in the name of tough love and muscular pedagogy, all the better to nip future outbreaks of antisocial violence in the bud. Here, police and school administrations may co-operate to give education a much-needed ‘correctional’ and ‘carceral’ edge.  Here, students may learn what fates await them in case they do not heed the warnings–dispensed with appropriate force, of course–that police officers, in co-operation with school administrators, direct at them.

Such, apparently, is the vision of school that underwrites school discipline today, one in which administrators, under the sway of a relentlessly constructed and reinforced vision of their wards as potential criminals, not only hasten to call in for armed and uniformed help on all too many occasions, but also demand the constant presence of the constabulary on campus.  In this vision–one that supplements the ‘teachers are babysitters’ one which is trotted out when school teachers go on strike–the burdens of disciplining the unruly can now be shared between the adult penal system and this ‘juvenile education facility.’

Education-shmeducation; reading-shmeading; learn to behave first.

Unsurprisingly, given the animating sentiments at play, students are treated by police–sometimes described as ‘school resource officers’ but always armed and equipped like folks with far less benign monikers–much as the residents of a correctional facility would be. A refusal to leave a classroom pops into focus through the lens of the school-as-prison perspective and appears akin to a jailyard riot; failure to comply entails the death of discipline. The police officers on duty in schools, taught and trained to extend their vision of the streets and neighborhoods outside as war zones into the boundaries of the school campus, respond to reports of such misbehavior with alacrity; it’s a 911, it’s a four-alarm fire, we need backup and possibly covering fire. Their responses and behavior, observed by the other students, inculcates important lessons: do not talk back to authority; comply with alacrity or face the consequences; violence will be visited upon you if arguments are not resolved. The critical thinking and speaking truth to power can come later, much later. Much, much later; once you are done serving time, that is.

The old saw about hammers and nails is inescapable here. When order is judged our supreme value, then all will be bent to its directives and requirements. A non-authoritarian society is a messy, fractious business; its path ne’er did run smooth. But it is the price that has to be paid if our obeisances to a democratic society are to not ring hollow. If the administration of our schools is any evidence, it has been judged too high a price to pay.

Debating Teams And The Prison-Industrial Complex

The news that a team of prisoners–incarcerated criminals from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility–had beaten, in debate, Harvard’s team, was not slow in spreading. After the initial informal reactions on social media–many of which expressed glee at Harvard’s comeuppance by plebes–had died down, a more measured response followed, one which stressed that such a result was entirely unsurprising, that to entertain such surprise was to entertain stereotypes of prisoners being merely dangerous and stupid.  (An old friend who teaches at San Quentin told me her students are highly intelligent and motivated, among the best students she has ever had.) Several articles–in The Washington Post, The Harvard Crimson, and The Guardian–made precisely this same point. In these commentaries there is another common theme: that these results confirm the value of reform programs like Bard College’s Bard Prison Initiative, which offers an undergraduate education to about 300 New York State prisoners.

These two issues–the intelligence of the incarcerated and the success of well-planned and executed prisoner reform programs–highlight once again the tragedies of the prison-industrial complex as it currently exists today in the US. The US’ incarceration rates, as of October 2013, at 716 per 100,000 are the highest in the world; with 4.4 percent of the world’s population, the US houses 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. This imprisonment does not come cheap; in 2007, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that its costs ran to an annual $74 billion. (Wikipedia source here.) But these costs are severely understated if one takes the talents of the imprisoned population into consideration.

The grim reality of a stint in prison is that–despite the fact that behind-the-bars activities have resulted in  musical albums and literature–they are finishing schools for criminality. Many an amateur checks in, only to check out as a seasoned professional. His or her time will have been marked–in most cases–by rape and assault, and by participation in criminal activity of one kind or the other. Mild forms may involve the smuggling in of contraband; less benign activities include the remote control of external criminal actions and participation in gang activity–very often violent–within the prison. (Bureau of Justice Statistics reports on the rates of recidivism among prisoners make for depressing reading, indicating as they do, rearrest, reconviction, and return to prison rates at or over fifty percent.)

The net result is the situation at hand today: hundreds of thousands of young men and women, rotting away in jail, tossed into a trash heap of sorts, forgotten and condemned, deemed unworthy of reform, guarded by correctional staff who over the years have had their humanity leached out of them, subjected to violence from within and without, and taught, ultimately, all the wrong lessons. This reckless wastage of ‘human resources’ would be considered profligate and indulgent at the best of times, an indication perhaps that the nation in question had recklessly determined it had ample talent, enough to spare in a gigantic, misbegotten criminological experiment. But of course it doesn’t; no nation can afford such squandering of talent, such locking away of so much potential, often fueled by racist tilting at windmills like the war on drugs.

Not every criminal is a budding debate champion or writer or artist; reform remains difficult, a challenge for sociologists, psychologists and criminologists alike. But whatever those challenges, we also know what doesn’t work: the penal system we have now.