The Roots of Mass Incarceration

By Jeremy Galloway 03/27/16

The prison-industrial complex can be traced back to the school-to-prison pipeline. Our children are punished at alarming rates, setting them up for a bleak future in our revolving-door prison system. 

The Roots of Mass Incarceration
Photo via Jumilla/Creative Commons License

It’s no secret the United States has the largest prison population and highest incarceration rate in the world. A January 2016 report from the Department of Justice (DOJ) reveals the staggering scope of what many refer to as the prison industrial complex, a system which incentivizes incarceration and creates entire industries around putting people behind bars.

There are 6.8 million people under some form of correctional supervision in the U.S. This includes jail, prison, parole, probation, drug court, immigration detention, and electronic monitoring. That works out to about 1 in 36 adults or 2.8% of the population. Georgia has the highest rate at 1 in 13 adults under correctional supervision.

Over 2.2 million people are behind bars in tens of thousands of jails and prisons. This number hovered below 200,000 for decades. When President Richard Nixon declared the “War on Drugs” in 1971, the numbers exploded, growing exponentially through the 1980s and 90s as states passed “tough on crime” and “three strikes” laws.

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The number of children living in juvenile detention centers has recently decreased, only to be replaced with juvenile probation and electronic monitoring or home confinement. There are still 80 “youth prisons” in the U.S. and state-operated juvenile detention centers which displace children from their families, neighborhoods, and schools. Many of these children live with substance use or mental health disorders, but most facilities lack adequate treatment resources.

As rates for boys decline, girls are now detained in higher numbers. Our children are punished at alarming rates, pushed out of schools by an escalating series of suspensions and expulsions, which set them up for correctional supervision and a bleak future in our revolving-door prison system. This process is known as the school-to-prison pipeline (SPP).

No Child Left Behind?

Between 2005 and 2013, a disturbing trend emerged from Mississippi: counties were incarcerating children for school disciplinary infractions. This caught the eye of the DOJ and juvenile justice advocates, bringing national attention to the SPP.

But it wasn’t just Mississippi. Under zero-tolerance policies, the increased presence of police in schools, and high-stakes testing requirements mandated by the federal “No Child Left Behind” act, states across the country doled out harsh punishments for minor infractions.

A 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report estimates that approximately 50% of schools use school resource officers in almost 20,000 schools. Later this year, Atlanta public schools will have their own dedicated police force, employed directly by the school system. That system is 80% black and black students account for 98% of expulsions

Last year, over 14,000 students in kindergarten through 3rd grade were suspended at least one day across the country. So far this year, each of Georgia’s four largest school districts have already suspended at least 100 kindergarten students alone.

Many children are being left behind. We increasingly push them toward the margins, out of schools and into prisons. Minor infractions which were once handled by teachers or school administrators are now handled by police, increasing student contact with the criminal justice system. Young people of color, LGBTQ youth, and children with disabilities are being hit disproportionately hard by this new criminalized approach to school discipline.

“Anyone planning a prison they’re not going to build for ten or fifteen years is planning for a child, planning prison for somebody who’s a child right now. So you see? They’ve already given up on that child!”

-Larson Conover, Inmate at New York’s Sing Sing Prison1

Pushing Children Out of Schools, Into Prisons

The SPP begins, according to Debra Pane and Tonette Rocco, “when a student gets in trouble in class and becomes known as a troublemaker and potentially dangerous.” This leads to an escalating cycle which is difficult to escape:

● Referral to administration for disruptive behavior

● In-school or out-of-school suspension and expulsion

● Mounting academic disruptions, problems, and failure

● School dropout

● Juvenile incarceration, probation, or monitoring

● Adult prison, probation, parole, correctional supervision

In 2012, a Milledgeville, Georgia school called the police to resolve a situation with a 6-year-old girl. The officer handcuffed the girl and transported her to a police station. In 2005, a 5-year-old St. Petersburg, Florida girl was pinned to the ground and handcuffed by three police officers. These images are permanently etched into the minds of the victims and their classmates during their earliest stages of development.

Last year, a South Carolina school resource officer violently detained a black female student for reportedly talking back in class. More than half the students at her school are black. The incident was captured on video and gained national attention.

All these incidents involved young black girls. That isn’t a coincidence. Young people of color are more likely to face severe punishment than white students. 

According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR): “Racial disparities in discipline begin in the earliest years of schooling. Black students represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but 42% of preschool students suspended once, and 48% of students suspended more than once.” 

Another OCR report shows that black students, who make up 16% of the population, account for 32-42% of suspensions and expulsions. White students, who make up 51% of the population, account for 31-40%. Black males are over three times more likely to be suspended than white males (20% vs. 6%). Black females are six times more likely than white females (12% vs. 2%). Twenty percent of black boys and more than 12% of black girls receive out-of-school suspensions at some point. 

A deeper look uncovers the roots of the SPP: Black students account for 27% of the population referred to law enforcement and 31% of those subjected to school-related arrest. Hispanic or Latino students account for 24% of each. Students with disabilities represent 25% of those referred to law enforcement or subjected to school-related arrests but make up only 12% of the population.

The War on Drugs: Trauma and Mass Incarceration Destroying Families

Students from marginalized groups face the same oppressive and disproportionate punishments as their adult counterparts. Parents or caretakers are often ripped from their neighborhoods for nonviolent drug offenses or property crimes, leaving children without parents and holes in communities which span generations.

The 2014 National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated fact sheet reflects the depth of these problems:

● There are 2.7 million U.S. children with an incarcerated parent. That’s more than the entire prison population. 

● More than 10 million children (1 in 8) have experienced parental incarceration.

● One in 9 black children and 1 in 28 Hispanic children have an incarcerated parent.

● More than 50% of children with an incarcerated parent are under age 10.

● About two-thirds (62%) of incarcerated women have young children and 1 in 5 children with incarcerated mothers witness their arrest.

Drugs play a significant role in the adult and juvenile justice systems. More than half of boys and 40% of girls detained for criminal offenses test positive for drugs. For adults, 48% of federal inmates and 237,000 state inmates were convicted for drug offenses. Even more state inmates (250,000) were convicted of nonviolent property crimes, which are strongly correlated with substance use.

There’s a significant relationship between childhood trauma and substance use. Any contact with the criminal justice system can increase trauma. Formerly-incarcerated people are more likely to return to prison or suffer from Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS). Researchers have suggested PICS be classified in the DSM-V as a subtype of PTSD. Reactive substance use disorders are a known symptom of PICS. 

Funneling Kids Out of the SPP

Children are being criminalized for minor offenses which were once considered a normal part of adolescence or “teenage rebellion.” They’re also being increasingly medicated to control their behavior.

As we see increasingly militarized police on our streets, children see more armed cops in their schools. When a fellow student is violently detained, the image is imprinted in the minds of every student bystander. It conditions us to more police in our neighborhoods, desensitizes us to police violence, and makes the SPP an inevitable part of our children’s daily lives.

Kids shouldn’t show up to school each morning to hallways patrolled by people with guns. These are spaces for learning, exploring, building community, and making friends. The looming presence of “big brother” over every shoulder disrupts that process. From preschool to high school, students are subject by police intervention for any infraction, they’re traumatized by images of fellow students violently removed from class, and are slowly pushed out of school and into the corrections system. 

Those who find themselves on the margins are robbed of future potential. They carry criminal records which limit opportunities for employment, education, and housing. Some transition directly from juvenile to adult facilities. They’re part of a cycle which feeds people already at a disadvantage into the criminal justice system and keeps them coming back, before they even reach adulthood.

Jeremy Galloway is a co-founder and Education & Outreach Coordinator for Georgia Overdose Prevention, Overdose Prevention Coordinator at Families for Sensible Drug Policy, a certified peer recovery specialist, public speaker, and a certified SMART Recovery meeting facilitator in the North Georgia mountains. He last wrote about communities overlooked by the response to the opioid epidemic.


1. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, Ted Conover (2001)


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Jeremy Galloway is a co-founder of Georgia Overdose Prevention, Harm Reduction Coordinator with Families for Sensible Drug Policy, and advocates for the rights of people who actively or formerly used drugs and those impacted by drug criminalization. He's part of a network of advocates, academics, and public health officials from across the South working to combat the recent wave of overdoses and opioid-related problems in the the region. You can find Jeremy on Linkedin and Twitter.