Schools push students to for-profit prisons

While U.S. corporations seem unwilling to cut into their profits to provide living-wage jobs for millions of unemployed youth, for-profit prisons are finding new ways to jail them.

Concern has been growing over the widespread pattern of funneling students out of schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice system. The practice usually targets impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged youth, especially students of color. So-called educators employ “zero-tolerance” policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules.

Across the U.S., reports are surfacing that this trend is accelerating.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating schools in Meridian, Miss., for their policies of calling police whenever administrators want to discipline students. Police have arrested children as young as 10 years old.

The resulting DOJ lawsuit against the district found that the arrests happen automatically. It doesn’t matter what the children do or whether their actions even warrant arrest. The police simply arrest all children referred to them through the schools.

Once within the juvenile court system, these youth may be incarcerated for days without a hearing and denied basic constitutional rights. The DOJ found that Meridian’s long-time systemic abuse punishes students “so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience.” (, Nov. 26)

Attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center started to investigate Meridian in 2008 when reports surfaced of “horrific abuse” of youth in detention centers. They found that 67 percent of the youth warehoused there came from the Meridian school system.

The young people had been denied access to lawyers. Many did not know what they were arrested for. All the students who were jailed or expelled for minor infractions were youth of color. Meridian’s population is 61 percent African American.

What infractions warranted calling the police? In eighth grade Cedrico Green was put on probation for getting into a fight. After that any minor infraction — if he were a few minutes late or broke the school dress code — landed him back in the juvenile detention center. Green estimates “maybe 30” times.

The DOJ lawsuit found that students were incarcerated for “dress code infractions such as wearing the wrong color socks or undershirt, or for having shirts untucked; tardiness; flatulence in class; using vulgar language; yelling at teachers; and going to the bathroom or leaving the classroom without permission.” (, Oct. 25)

Policy benefits for-profit prisons

On Oct. 31, Corrections Corporation of America, the largest for-profit prison/immigrant detention center operator in the U.S., was invited to participate in a lockdown and drug sweep of Vista Grande High School in the town of Casa Grande, Ariz.

Students were lined up against walls and locked in the school, while teams of police using drug-sniffing dogs searched classrooms and student lockers. While unwarranted search for drugs has become routine in many U.S. schools, this was the first raid in which for-profit prison agents participated. Two CCA canine units were involved.

Vista Grande High School Principal Tim Hamilton admitted he was unaware of any particular drug use at the school. His desire was to send a “message to kids.” The raid resulted in the arrest of three students for alleged possession of minor amounts of marijuana. (, Nov. 27)

In 2011, CCA grossed $1.7 billion from its operations that include more than 92,000 prison and immigrant detention “beds” in 20 states. Most of the revenue for warehousing prisoners and immigrant detainees came from per-diem, per-prisoner rate contracts with local, state and federal governments.

School-to-prison pipeline targets students of color

Since the 1970s, rates of school discipline — suspensions, expulsions and even arrests — have doubled. Current education policies give school administrators carte blanche to decide which students they will educate and which ones they will remove. More often than not the students who are not chosen end up in the juvenile prison system.

Students of color are most often the target of these arbitrary disciplinary disparities. African-American students are nearly three times and Latino/a students nearly one-and-a-half times as likely to be suspended as white students. (

Students of color tend to receive harsher punishments than white students for engaging in the same conduct. Segregated schools where students of color predominate are the most likely to use push-out policies and employ the harshest disciplinary policies.

Schools should be places where children go to be educated, not to be fast-tracked into an increasingly for-profit prison system. Our youth need education not incarceration, and we all need a system that puts people’s needs before profits.

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