The school-to-prison pipeline and youth incarceration in the US

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

The United States incarcerates children at a higher rate than any other developed country. This statistic is the main focus of the documentary “Prison Kids,” which examines a system set up to help children but has ultimately subjected them to solitary confinement, mental health problems, physical and mental abuse and racial inequities.  

The documentary travels across the country and gathers stories about children who grew up behind bars. It discusses the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which refers to how children — many of whom have learning disabilities or were raised in environments with poverty, abuse or neglect — desperately need additional educational and counseling services, but instead, are punished and their behavior is criminalized.  

The Connecticut Collaborative on Poverty, Criminal Justice & Race chose to discuss this film during the latest “One State, One Film” event. Leading advocates for criminal justice reform from across the state were invited to talk about how people can help create a more equitable future for all.  

The conversation, focused on the factors leading to high youth incarceration rates in the United States and how this issue disproportionately affects Black and brown children. Andréa Comer, the chief external affairs officer for the CT Paid Leave Authority, posed thought-provoking questions regarding race and youth incarceration. She asked panelists to provide advice on how people can work to end the injustices in society regarding this topic.  

“It’s an opportunity and resource gap,” Robyn Porter, a state representative from the 94th assembly district, said. “Our children have the full capacity, means and potential to succeed if given what they need, and I think that is the thing that has to be stressed. We’ve got to hold these systems accountable and we cannot be apologetic about it.” 

The panelists stressed the need for equitable educational opportunities for all students and a push for increased focus on mental health resources. They discussed their lack of proper counseling as one of the main reasons leading to children having outbursts during school hours and getting in trouble for their actions.  

“We should be spending our money on resources and opportunities that support social cohesion and community connections,” Porter said. “These children, the majority of them, suffer from mental health conditions and issues and we don’t talk about the urban trauma.” 

“These children, the majority of them, suffer from mental health conditions and issues and we don’t talk about the urban trauma.”

Porter

In Connecticut, children as young as seven years old can be charged with a crime and sent to juvenile court. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), confining youth harms their development and can have lifelong negative consequences.  

The event talked about the system of oppression within the United States. Mass incarceration, systematic racism, the achievement gap and lack of funding for mental health resources in schools have combined to create a system that makes it hard for Black and brown children to change the narrative, panelists said.  

“We have to start thinking about how do we make the playing field level,” Timothy Goodwin, the founder and executive director of Community First School, said. “But there’s not a lot of desire and there’s not a lot of push for people in affluent spaces to do that because it doesn’t affect them. So we have to think about how we walk back some of the racist practices that have been taught over 400 years and are still being taught today.” 

The Community First School opened in August of 2020 and serves children in kindergarten and first grade in Hartford’s Promise Zone neighborhoods. Its mission is to partner with the community to implement relationship-based programs that empower children to become passionate leaders, with the overarching vision of creating an experiential academic experience that provides social and emotional support.  

“We as adults have to do our part to create a better future for the children because we have built the system,” Goodwin said.  

Children are the change makers of tomorrow and, as the panel discussed, underprivileged students find themselves involved with the criminal justice system due to a lack of proper resources and a system created to fail them. According to the panelists, major criminal justice, community-based and resource-based reform is necessary to better serve America’s youth population and work toward eradicating high youth incarceration rates.   

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