Enclosure-based rhetoric and fundamentals behind the school-to-prison pipeline

Assistant professor of anthropology, University of California, Irvine

At the July 2014 Compton Unified School District (CUSD) board meeting, an ordinance was passed that paved the way for CUSD police officers to carry AR-15 semi-automatic rifles on school campuses. For those unfamiliar with the AR-15, it is a military-grade assault weapon that produces enough energy to shred human bones. The rationale from the school district was based upon public safety and dubious claims of imminent threats. Setting aside the fact that studies have shown that the presence of armed security forces creates unsafe school spaces, there is something profound about the adaptation of a law that would set into motion technologies reserved for the most severe acts of violence, such as war, as normal day-to-day engagement with youth.

A major caveat of the story of course is that Compton is not just any school district and these laws did not spring forth out of a vacuum. The children who attend school in CUSD are the descendants of migrants—Black southern migrants who made their way westward during the middle of the twentieth century and migrants from Mexico and Central American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Void of any sustainable formal economic foundation, the living-wage jobs that did not require a college education and were once plentiful during the 1960s and 70s have long vacated. The cumulative effect of decades-long budget cuts have gutted a much-needed social and health infrastructure resulting in astronomically high rates of death caused by preventable health calamities. The school district also has had a decades-long fraught relationship with the California Department of Education, as for nearly ten years the district was taken over by the state governing board for issues related to financial mismanagement and testing protocols. Schools within the district have lost accreditation and the district has become a prime target by charter school enterprises for a wholesale takeover.

Yet Compton, while unique in many ways, is not exceptional. The story of Compton is the same as the stories of neighboring cities and communities throughout the south central region of Los Angeles County. Yet a major question that lingers is why has the solution been a ramping up of a permanent and increasingly powerful police state upon Black schools in Los Angeles County? The rationale that has garnered the most attention to date is the narrative of the school-to-prison pipeline, in which schools disproportionally target non-white (mostly Black) students for issues of disciplinary force. These issues range from school policing to matters of detention, suspension, and expulsion. The effects of these actions have lead to a proverbial funneling mechanism that pushes students out of the embrace of the school and into the clutches of a vast prison system.

While the school-to-prison pipeline is well-intentioned, as a matter of historical, social, economic, and political consequence it is severely flawed. For example, what is to be done by the fact that Black schools in Los Angeles County were already well on their way to being staffed, patrolled, and governed by an alliance of police and school district officials before the dawn of prison expansion? How we do account for the countless individuals who do finish formal schooling and still end up in the clutches of prison? Given the violent history (and recent past) of education in the United States, why are schools depicted as the safe spaces from menacing walls behind prison bars? Very simply, the school-to-prison pipeline model does not help us address fundamental issues that are the core of the relationship between schools and prisons.

In its place, I argue that we should develop models that take into account the multifaceted nature of state structures such as prisons and public education. My preferred model is based upon the principle of enclosures. The most readily conjured vision of an enclosure is something that limits pathways. Whether it is a fence, wall, or policies that create impediments, enclosures function to prevent action, movement, and freedom. A central aspect of the enclosure model is that it is not static. It provides breadth to understand how in some instances schools may have informed by prisons and in others, how schools have shaped prisons. Yet it also provides space to map out the distinct manner in which they developed independently of each other and yet are similarly affected by larger structural forces such as religion.

A key facet of the enclosure model is to situate the development of schools and prisons within the context of society that is responding to the actions of Black people. The importance of tracing the genealogy of Compton, for example, extends beyond the boundaries of stated geography. These neighborhoods and communities carry with them a historical past that has intimate knowledge of state-sponsored violence. A violence that is connected to lynchings, church burnings, land dispossession, and externally funded military coups. A violence that was meted out in response to particular organizing efforts to establish spaces beyond enclosures.

This leads us back to the carrying of AR-15s on school grounds. We have to move beyond an analysis that looks at these incidents as simply too many police and understand that the institution of police on schools is located within a historical and contemporary contestation over enclosures. Without being flippant, police are merely the heavy hand enacted to maintain control over an institution (education) that has been hotly contested since its inception. It is then up to us to do the heavy lifting and figure out how and why education and prisons have developed into a seemingly symbiotic relationship. Let us move beyond convenient, simplistic narratives about both schools and prisons and wrestle with the unsettling matters of history that cannot be contained by a catchphrase or slogan.


Damien M. Sojoyner is author of First Strike: Educational Enclosures in Black Los Angeles. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. He researches the relationship among the public education system, prisons, and the construction of Black masculinity in Southern California. His writing has appeared in Transforming Anthropology; Race, Ethnicity, and Education; and the Berkeley Review of Education.

Leave a Reply