School Behind Bars


When he was young, Cadeem Gibbs was really into school. Bright, curious and naturally rebellious, he enjoyed arguing the opposing point of view in a classroom discussion just to see how well he could do it.

“I was always academically inclined,” says the Harlem, New York native, now 24. “I always wanted to learn.”

But there were plenty of stressors in his young life—a violent upbringing, a household in poverty—and the struggle to navigate them pulled him away from his education. He started getting into trouble and ended up in the juvenile justice system at the age of 12. That first contact with “the system” began a 10-year cycle of incarceration that ended only when Gibbs was released from an upstate New York prison two years ago, at the age of 22. He was just a sixth- grader when first arrested, but he would never complete a school year as a free child again.

Americans believe that education is the great equalizer, the key that opens the door to a better future and lifts young people out of poverty. And this is true, to an extent—those who finish high school or college have lower unemployment rates and higher incomes than those who don't.

But while people who don't complete their education are more likely to stay in poverty, they're also more likely to come from poverty. In the 21st century, so-called reformers have emerged to prescribe everything from charter schools to iPads in order to boost poor students' educational achievements.

Ignored is a trifecta of policies that prevent young people in poverty from finishing their education: high-stakes testing and the high-stakes discipline that comes with it; weak to nonexistent federal policy concerning education for those young people already involved with the juvenile justice system; and a lifetime of background checks that keep the formerly incarcerated from gaining degrees and finding jobs.

School-To-Prison Pipeline

These intersecting policies, which push kids out of school and into a punitive legal system, are collectively known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

But the individuals who emerge at the end of that pipeline, though criminalized, are still young people—a population that has a reasonable expectation to receive an education. So what happens to a young person's schooling when he or she is taken out of the classroom and put behind bars?

For poor students of color, like Gibbs, the problems can begin early. These children were the target of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which was passed in 2002. The law mandated 100 percent student proficiency in math and reading by 2014. Schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress faced a set of sanctions ranging from staff firings and restructuring the school, to turning it into a charter school or handing it over to private management.

Terrified of missing the NCLB guidelines, schools got rid of students who might hold back their numbers. Suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests skyrocketed in the wake of the new law, pushing hundreds of thousands of students out of school and, frequently, into the justice system.

Such policies disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities—compared with their white peers, black youths are three and a half times more likely to be expelled and, if arrested, nine times more likely to receive an adult prison sentence.

Even though overall youth crime has decreased since 1999, youth punishment has not: From 1999 to 2008, the number of total youth arrests fell more than 15 percent, while the number of juvenile-court cases remained virtually the same, falling only 4 percent. This means that while fewer young people are getting arrested, they continue to be processed through the system at the same high rates.

When Gibbs was arrested for firearm possession at school, he spent time in both secure and non-secure facilities while attending his court dates. He then landed in an “alternatives to incarceration” program at Children's Village, spending a year there. Although the staff acted kindly toward him, Gibbs says he felt discouraged and resentful. He was placed in a special-education class, which made him feel like there was something wrong with him.

Weekly Counseling

He had weekly counseling sessions, which he hated; he says he would go into each session and sit in complete silence while the social worker asked him questions about his life, refusing to say a single word for the entire hour. It's only now, in retrospect, that he realizes that his silence came from a lack of trust. “I didn't know I didn't trust her,” Gibbs says. “I just thought I didn't want to be bothered. I was angry. I didn't want to be there.”

When he was released from that placement and tried to reenter the regular school system, Gibbs hit a number of barriers. Because it was near the end of the school year, he had to finish middle school at Children's Village, taking a 45-minute bus ride from his home in Harlem to Dobbs Ferry every day. Even so, he was behind in credits from all the classes he'd missed while in custody, and it was time for him to start high school.

“It took me a while to find a school,” he says. “No school would accept me.” He ended up at an alternative high school serving young people who had been suspended, expelled, or otherwise pushed out of their community schools.

This type of barrier to reentry is a common one for young people hoping to return to their schools after a juvenile placement. The high-stakes testing standards under No Child Left Behind prompt schools to exclude students coming from the juvenile-justice system. Because those students are likely to have fallen behind academically, their potential for scoring poorly on tests becomes a liability, creating a perverse incentive structure in which it's better to exclude high-needs students than it is to educate them.

School districts can refuse to accept the partial credits earned during the time a child spent in custody—and they can also refuse to re-enroll that student entirely.

Even for those who do get a meaningful education inside the system, the trauma of being detained can have a long-lasting effect on young people, who are still developing in crucial ways.

Molly Knefel is a writer for The Nation, and a 2013-2014 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged version of a story prepared as her fellowship project. For the complete version, please click HERE. She welcomes your comments.

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