The School-to-Prison Pipeline Defined

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the increasing trend of policies that favor incarceration over education, directing at-risk youth into the prison system. Black and Hispanic populations (and especially Black and Hispanic boys) are the greatest affected in what has been termed the “discipline gap.” Additionally, as a failure to graduate from high school has been found to be a major risk factor for facing incarceration as an adult, policies that push minority children out of the classroom have a grave impact on both the students themselves and their communities at large.

Many have suggested that the emergence of this school-to-prison pipeline is directly tied to public policy: In recent decades, local and state governments have decreased funding to education, public health, and employment initiatives while increasing funding for jails and prisons. These conditions create a perverse incentive to increase incarceration rates while decreasing school enrollment.

Additionally, with poverty-associated health issues negatively impacting student performance and incarceration being associated with a host of other health problems, the school-to-prison pipeline represents a major public health issue. This article addresses the vicious circle of racial disparities in the education and criminal justice systems and their interplay with wellness in Black and Hispanic communities.


In recent years, public schools have experienced slashed budgets and a reallocation of funds from counselors and after-school activities directed to increased security and police presence on school campuses. This unfortunate combination has created a climate that lubricates the school-to-prison pipeline.

Students pushed out of classrooms

Since the early 2000s, more and more public school districts have adopted “zero-tolerance policies” regarding rule-breaking behavior. Many criticize such policies for creating a hostile environment where minor infractions made by children are treated like major offenses with repercussions echoing into adulthood. Across the country, students are expelled for possessing harmless objects like nail clippers, disruptive behavior, and even dress code violations. Studies have also shown that students are significantly more likely to be arrested at school than they were a few decades ago and that the majority of school-based arrests are for non-violent infractions. These often disproportionately punitive school-based arrests are the quickest and most direct route through the school-to-prison pipeline.

Statistics have revealed striking racial disparities in rates of suspension, expulsion, and school-based arrest: Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their white peers. Hispanic youths fair better but are still disproportionately affected with a suspension rate of 1.5 times that of white students. Even more alarmingly, Black and Hispanic students account for 70% of police referrals from schools. Black students in particular make up 16% of the student body but account for 31% of school arrests, while white students represent 39% of arrests despite being 51% of the total student population. And this discipline gap starts early: Black students represent 18% of pre-schoolers but receive 48% of pre-school suspensions. Many are surprised to find that children as young as four can face suspension at all.

The racism and bias that teachers and administrators hold against minority students shows itself in how they respond to subjective offenses. Studies have shown that Black and white students cause class disruptions at roughly the same rates. However, Black students are much more likely to be sent to the principal’s office for these offenses compared to their white peers. In contrast, white students are more likely to be suspended for objective offenses like drug possession where adult perceptions are not a factor.

Consequences of punishment

As a pivotal part of the school-to-prison pipeline, exclusionary punishments like suspension are a major risk factor for Black and Hispanic students dropping out and/or ending up in prison. Suspended and expelled students are often left unsupervised and fall behind on coursework. Without constructive things with which to occupy their time, these students are more likely to be influenced by peers engaging in criminal activities.

Expelled students in some areas are forced to attend disciplinary alternative schools that, like prisons, may be run by private for-profit companies. Despite serving a population in greatest need of a quality education, these centers do not have to follow the same educational standards standards as normal public schools.

Youth sent to juvenile detention facilities experience even more challenges. Not only do they face imprisonment, but these students also miss out on education altogether; few juvenile detention facilities have educational programs at all. Once discharged from these facilities, students face barriers to re-entry back into traditional school systems and, as a result, rarely graduate high school.

Priming for prison

Schools are increasingly relying on the presence of law enforcement due in part to zero-tolerance policies. Harried teachers and administrators now tend to send students to “school resource officers” for even minor infractions rather than meting out punishment themselves. Such an environment grooms Black and Hispanic children for similar treatment as adults in the prison system.

Additionally, these school resource officers are often given little to no training on how to effectively work with youth. Officers all too often treat the students under their care more like adult offenders rather than as the children they are. This addition of a frequently hostile police presence in schools has the potential to sow distrust among students of color, leading to higher dropout rates.

Disparities in educational outcomes

All of these factors contribute to the achievement gap, which leaves Black and Hispanic students behind academically. Unsurprisingly, parental income is a major determinant of academic success; students in the richest school districts have been found to be four grade levels ahead of students in the poorest districts. Because Black and Hispanic children are more likely to live in these poorer districts with underfunded schools, the quality of their education suffers.

The National Center for Education Statistics has found stark racial disparities on state reading and math exams: On a 0–500 scale, white students score an average 26 points higher on each subject than Black students and between 21 and 26 points higher than Hispanic students. Although these gaps are narrower than those in previous surveys, the education system still has a long way to go to remove these inequities completely. This trend is also evident in 2015 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) data: While 44% of white eight graders have a reading comprehension at or above “proficient,” only 16% of Black and 21% of Hispanic students attain the same level.

With the increasing emphasis on standardized testing brought on by the No Child Left Behind Act, these achievement gaps have alarming implications. Because so much school funding is now tied up in test scores, schools may encourage poor-performing students to drop out. While a problem in and of itself before, the racial achievement gap now funnels at-risk youth into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Disabled students hit hardest

In addition to racial minorities, people with disabilities are also overrepresented in the school-to-prison pipeline. This troublesome statistic is compounded for young Black students with disabilities: One study found that 1 in 4 Black boys with a disability was suspended during the 2011-2012 school year, over twice the rate as disabled white and Asian boys. Other research in Ohio public schools revealed that a Black student with a disability is 17 times more likely to be suspended than a white, non-disabled student.

Black students are also overrepresented in special education, resulting in what some educators have called “second-generation segregation.” Furthermore, white students are more likely to be diagnosed with conditions like autism, while Black students are given more stigmatizing labels like “specific learning disability.”

Disabled Black and Hispanic students are also disproportionately hurt by budget cuts. Despite the provisions outlined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, many of these children are left without the counseling and special education resources they need to succeed.

Other related public health concerns

The educational gaps these students experience can result in serious health consequences. Inadequate sex education results in elevated STI rates and unplanned pregnancies. Additionally, a lack of information on adequate nutrition may lead to problems like diabetes and heart disease later in life.

Furthermore, public health issues are an often overlooked contributor to educational gaps. As an example, Black and Hispanic children are more likely to come from urban communities where heavy metal toxicity is prevalent. Children are especially vulnerable to heavy metal poisoning, which can seriously impede their ability to learn. Likewise, nutritional deficiencies among children living in poverty are another significant barrier to educational achievement.

Destination Incarceration

Students with school-based arrests are often denied procedural protections—studies have shown up to 80% of students in some jurisdictions to be unrepresented by an attorney. As Black and Hispanic youth are more likely to face a school-based arrest, these groups are also the most likely to be shunted directly into the prison end of the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Big prisons, big business

While public schools face budget cuts, the United States prison–industrial complex has seen a massive expansion in recent decades. The 1990s saw federal cuts to employment and training programs while the budget for correctional facilities increased over six fold. During this time, the US prison population has risen astronomically, largely due to changes in sentencing. In 1972, the US prison system housed just 200,000 people. In 2015, this figure has ballooned to over 2,000,000, making it the largest prison population in the world. In fact, the United States has the second highest incarceration rate globally, second only to the tiny nation Seychelles.

In this time, the prison system has also had a major shift in racial demographics. In 1926, Black inmates made up 21% of the male prison population. Today, Black men represent 37% of the prison population and have an incarceration rate that is six times that of white men. Many have attributed this disparity to harsher sentencing for Black and Hispanic men, mirroring the disproportionately serious punishment these populations endure in schools.

Public health behind bars

Incarceration has been long linked to negative health outcomes. For example, the prevalence of infectious disease is 4 to 10 times greater among prisoners due to overcrowding, poor ventilation, and a lack of quality medical care. Serious mental illness is 2 to 4 times higher among prisoners than in the general population, both due to higher incarceration rates among the mentally ill and from those who develop mental illness in response to harsh prison life. These health effects don’t stop outside of prison: Upon release former inmates also experience poor mental and physical outcomes.

HIV is an especially important issue among prison populations where its prevalence is 5 to 7 times greater than in the general population with Black and Hispanic prisoners disproportionately affected. Black inmates are 5 times as likely to be infected with HIV compared to white men and twice as likely compared to Hispanic men. Likewise, Black women are twice as likely to be HIV positive as white and Hispanic women. This disparity in infection rates has been attributed to the lack of awareness about HIV and lack of resources for testing in prisoners’ home communities. HIV transmission also occurs frequently in prisons due to a combination of intravenous drug use, a lack of condoms, and tattoos made with unsterilized equipment. Many of those infected outside of prison discover their HIV status behind bars and up to 75% of HIV-positive inmates take their first dose of antiretroviral therapy while incarcerated. Unfortunately, cuts to inmate healthcare have made routine HIV testing less frequent. Without such testing, HIV-positive inmates are released back into the general population without knowing their infection status.

Imprisonment does not only hurt inmates themselves; people in their home communities also experience ill effects. Loved ones of the incarcerated have elevated rates of anxiety and depression. This effect damages children especially, as these conditions leave them extra vulnerable to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Even those living in these home communities without incarcerated relatives are hurt. Neighborhoods with high incarceration rates also have disproportionately high crime and infectious disease rates. In this way, school-to-prison pipeline damages the Black and Hispanic community as a whole in addition to individual tragedies.

Clogging the Pipeline

Awareness and policy changes appear to be the best way to counteract the racial inequities seen in the school-to-prison pipeline. Luckily, many educators are seeking to dismantle it through programs that focus on keeping at-risk youth in the classroom. Colorado has already seen success after passing a law restricting the number of suspensions and expulsions in 2013. Since then, suspensions have fallen by 25% and attendance risen by 30%. Only time will tell if the affected populations see a comparable decrease in adult incarceration rates as this generation comes of age.

School teachers must also be educated about the school-to-prison pipeline so that they understand the serious consequences of suspensions. Programs that promote cultural awareness should also challenge teachers to think about their racial biases and the damage they can inflict.

Finally, the public at large should be educated on the huge drain the modern prison–industrial complex has on tax dollars. Many who balk at school budget increases may also be surprised to learn just how much they pay to keep non-violent offenders in prison. Such funds could be better spent on education and healthcare initiatives that can actually prevent crime rather than reacting to it.