Closing the School-to-Prison Pipeline in New Orleans

Posted December 11, 2014, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Blog schooltoprisonpipeline 2014

There are 60,000 young peo­ple incar­cer­at­ed in the Unit­ed States on the order of a juve­nile court and near­ly half are held in long-term cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ties. There’s com­pelling evi­dence that lock­ing up low-risk youth offend­ers doesn’t reduce fur­ther offens­es; wastes tax­pay­er dol­lars; and expos­es young peo­ple to high lev­els of vio­lence and abuse.

The so-called school-to-prison pipeline” is a wide­spread pat­tern around the coun­try of push­ing stu­dents, espe­cial­ly those who are already at dis­ad­van­tage, out of school and into the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. New Orleans can­not yet be held up as a suc­cess sto­ry in reform­ing a ret­ribu­tive sys­tem of pun­ish­ment into a reha­bil­i­ta­tive one, but we did find some groups that were doing effec­tive, even inspir­ing work in try­ing to turn the sit­u­a­tion around.

Par­ents and social work­ers cre­at­ed Friends and Fam­i­lies of Louisiana’s Incar­cer­at­ed Chil­dren (FFLIC) in response to hor­ri­fy­ing sto­ries of abuse and neglect in the state’s secure-care facil­i­ties. Gina Wom­ack co-found­ed the group in 2000: There wasn’t any­one help­ing fam­i­lies whose chil­dren had been caught up in the prison sys­tem, often for the most minor offens­es — and then it can destroy their lives.” She described one child who was arrest­ed for steal­ing a Pep­si and a hot pock­et because he was hun­gry. And the sto­ry own­er pressed charges and he found him­self in Tal­lu­lah, the worst prison at the time.” FFLIC was ulti­mate­ly instru­men­tal in get­ting that prison closed.

The goal of the FFLIC is to help give par­ents a voice when their chil­dren are expelled from school or incar­cer­at­ed and, ulti­mate­ly, to help change the prac­tices and cul­ture in these facil­i­ties so they no longer mim­ic the adult prison sys­tem and instead pro­vide a nur­tur­ing and reha­bil­i­ta­tive envi­ron­ment. Through FFLIC we heard about the sto­ry of the young man, Joseph, who was jailed for fif­teen days for vio­lat­ing pro­ba­tion after get­ting into a fist­fight at school. At a FFLIC meet­ing of con­cerned par­ents we met Char­maine Wash­ing­ton, whose two nephews were casu­al­ties of the school-to-prison pipeline: Myles, fea­tured in the video, and Dar­ius, who spent eight years in deten­tion by the time he was twen­ty, only to die of gun­shot wounds after his release. 

The oth­er chal­lenge in reform­ing the sys­tem is help­ing youth read­just to soci­ety after they’re released from incar­cer­a­tion. We found the Youth Empow­er­ment Project (YEP) is doing effec­tive work with recent­ly released juve­nile offend­ers in New Orleans, pro­vid­ing inten­sive, indi­vid­u­al­ized case man­age­ment and sup­port. They have pro­grams that teach youth, such as Ja’leel Holmes, fea­tured in the video, job skills like bicy­cle repair and restau­rant work, and help them rein­te­grate. As Ja’Leel told us, Often we can’t get hired because we don’t have expe­ri­ence work­ing,” after spend­ing for­ma­tive years behind bars. After going through YEP you get skills you need but also some­thing we can put on our resume and there’s some­thing there for some­body to look at when we fill out a job application.”

YEP’s Com­mu­ni­ty Rein­te­gra­tion Pro­gram is the first of its kind in Louisiana. They make a con­scious effort to hire staff that reflect the pop­u­la­tion they serve. Each CRP team is made up of a senior men­tor and two youth advo­cates, all of whom grew up in sit­u­a­tions very sim­i­lar to those faced by the kids they’re help­ing. They have face-to-face con­tact with youth three to five times per week at home, at school and in the com­mu­ni­ty. The advo­cates also speak reg­u­lar­ly with the youths’ teach­ers, guardians and parole offi­cers. An exter­nal eval­u­a­tion con­duct­ed in 2011 found that 91% of the young peo­ple who’d been through YEP’s pro­gram had remained out­side the jus­tice system.

This blog post and accom­pa­ny­ing video were pro­duced by Starfish Media Group and jour­nal­ist Soledad O’Brien.

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