Archive | January, 2014

Workfare and Prisonfare (The School-to-Work and School-To-Prison Pipelines)

30 Jan

ImageHere is a guest post by Carol Issac, one of the people we have been collaborating with to organize workshops and actions against the school to prison pipeline.  She prepared the following research for the workshop we did on Martin Luther King Day, but she didn’t get a chance to present it because we ran out of time (there were a bunch of great presenters, and over 60 people participated).  Her research documents some of the bleak futures that await exploited youth these days; the pipelines that confine their lives begin in the classroom with averse discipline, isolation rooms, and disproportionate suspensions.  After a process of sorting by race, class, and gender, many of these pipelines end in forms of incarceration or state-controlled / criminalized labor. 

Workfare and Prisonfare 

In these times, there are two major forces whereby the government and the current ruling class punishes the poor.  In general, one method goes after the men and the other after the women.  Mass incarceration is also called “prisonfare”, and the replacement for welfare is called “workfare”.  They are two sides of the same coin.  While men are the primary target of mass incarceration, women, as single mothers, are the primary target of the major change in aid to the poor, the 1996 law that struck down welfare and replaced it with a work program.

We are not a nation that values solidarity, but we did, for a long time, legislate what could be called semi-compassionate social services to aid “the poor and handicapped”.  Since then, gradually during the last century, poverty changed from simply a human condition to something regarded as a moral problem.   Much of society now sees poverty as a failing of the individual, a manifestation of an irresponsible lifestyle.

There is still, however, a “deserving poor” who are a small and special subcategory somewhat worthy of charity but even they are not spoken of by society at large as “our brothers and sisters”.  The corporate media does little to point out our common connection with each other, so it is not an everyday part of the public thinking to feel more than a distant responsibility and assume we have some agency or such to take care of the “others”.  Solidarity is not a societal value here.  When compassion is its nearest common replacement even too much of that is suspect.  Instead of being “soft” we have come to prefer a strong response.  A virile warning is common, and too much charity is a weakness.  The “sting of necessity” is valued as a way to push the lazy to “get a job”.

Social service programs have been steadily reduced, especially since the ’70’s backlash, and those surviving are either inadequate or they are administered through a practice called “churning”, a term for the bureaucratic practice used by agency staffs that indicate the many little practices, tricks and harassments used to prevent a client from obtaining their rightful aid.

Where once we had a welfare program, in 1996 under Clinton that changed into a “workfare” program.  The title of the act applied was an insult in its very wording:  “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act”.   Its purpose was to wipe people off the welfare role, and into unskilled work under demeaning conditions.  Since it mainly took care of women, as single mothers, this program micro-manages poor women.  By the time this law went into effect, already every other poor household in America was not receiving the benefits for which it was eligible.  This was designed to punish the poor and make them accept their abject poverty as intransigent, i.e. the way things are.

To get even less income than they did previously, women now had to work instead at jobs chosen by the government that are too precarious and ill paid to offer security.  The programs vary per state, but, in general, they are for the lowest wages, do not provide child care assistance, or do so for less time than actually needed sometimes at distances that create great hardship.  The result is that this kind of employment is both risky and prohibitively costly for young mothers.  The unlivable income makes parents supplement with what they can get from their already fragile larger family networks and from the current precarious standby, illegal street commerce, all of which keeps pushing them deeper into poverty, the shadows, and powerlessness.  Some, in time, opt out and do things like give their children to family or friends who might be able take care of them while they go homeless alone.

Workfare policy does not aim to reduce poverty but to punish it. It carries an implied warning:  Even if you are working more and earning less, there is a fate worse, a status lower, than hard and unrewarding work:  homelessness.

In Washington, homelessness is not legally a reason to remove children from a parent; however, there was a precedent setting case in May 2013 wherein the prosecution, which was the state of Washington, got around its own law.  It  used homelessness, plus other less than stand-alone factors, to concoct a preponderance of circumstances that together were judged sufficient reason to remove a child from the custody of a parent permanently.  They created what can be pointed to now as a case that will bolster similar methods of decision making for cases in the future as though it were a piece of legislation decided by our Olympia lawmakers.

The poor seeking aid are routinely treated like offenders under criminal justice supervision.  The supervision is increasingly performed by private contracted businesses that do everything from mental health diagnosis and management, the client’s schedule management, transportation of children to and from visitation facilities when a parent’s rights are limited by court and a child is put into foster care, training for jobs that don’t exist or are precarious, or even for parenting skills that in some manner the state deems are appropriate and others are not.  All the while this is happening, the staff of these state and contracted organizations are acting like minders and writing up observations of the clients actions, words and perceived attitudes for the use by government agencies such as the courts.  Vetting of these agencies and staff for their adequacy appears unchallenged.

This past spring in a King County Superior Court courtroom one of these minders testified that she observed a client visiting with her own almost three year old when the mom was saying to the child, “Oh,___, some day I am going to get you a house and a car. …”  The state prosecutor, an assistant attorney general, used this testimony to illustrate how the mother was filling the child with non-credible expectations thus adding to the case that she was an unworthy mother. This went unchallenged in the judge’s lengthy decision.  The case had no jury, and the records were sealed, a common occurrence in cases involving juveniles.  This instance illustrates the level to which the micro-management is normalized, invisibl-ized, and seriously affects the minute details of the life of the poor.

While the social services are cut and made into tools that demean, there has been legislation that creates benefits for the class with wealth or the middle class.

The class that benefits most from social security and government protected pensions is the class that gets the best jobs.  Home owners, in general, get a break on taxes if they have a mortgage.  There are many benefits that are really a sliding scale of favors for those with more, while those with less become the recipients of less and less.


“Punishing the Poor:  The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity”  by Loic Wacquant  2009  –  Professor Wacquant is at the University of California, Berkeley  and is a MacArthur Award Winner.

Observations of trials 2013


Destroy the School to Prison Pipeline

27 Jan

Below is the text of a flyer that we created in solidarity with the School to Prison Pipeline workshop that was part of the MLK day events.    We also handed this out during the march and engaged a wide range of folks in valuable dialogue.

A pdf of the flyer is available here.


The global economic system has created a set of pipelines that trap all of our youth:

  • A pipeline to privilege for a select few
  • A pipeline to precarious labor for most
  • A pipeline to prison for everyone else

These pipelines are not color blind.  Youth of color are far more likely to be trapped in the School to Prison Pipeline:

Limited pre-K → Special Ed. → No APP or enriched programs → “Time Out Rooms” (prep for Solitary) → Suspension → Expulsion → Drop-out status → No college → No job → Arrest risk for drug charges (even though whites are more likely to use drugs) → Harsh sentencing → Multiple Incarcerations → Felon Status → Alienation


In the face of increasing automation and globalization, our economic system uses prison to remove those whose labor is no longer needed. (While profiting from prison industries…)

Meanwhile, those in the precarious labor pipeline are increasingly stressed by consumerism and fear of falling into homelessness or convict status.  The system is so rotten that even those in the privileged pipeline will eventually suffer with the rest of us in the face of environmental and social collapse.

Stopping the School to Prison Pipeline is more than just a struggle to move from the pipeline of the oppressed to the pipeline of the oppressor.

We need to dismantle ALL of the pipelines so that NO ONE is marginalized.


  • Call out Seattle Schools for disproportionate discipline

(Contact the Justice Department at 206-553-7970 to force them to not drop their investigation of Seattle Schools)


  • Call out Seattle Schools for poor support of Special Ed

(Contact Jose Banda at 206-252-0180 to demand Seattle Schools to properly support Special Education)


  • Support specialized programs for POC ( Africatown Innovation Center, American Indian Heritage, etc.)

(Contact the School Board at 206-252-0040 and ask them to approve the Africatown rental agreement ASAP)


  • Work to block the new $210M Juvenile Detention Facility at 12th and Alder.

(Visit for more info)


  • Call for reduced sentencing for minor drug offenses


  • Work to end the use of isolation rooms in schools


  • End the use of PTA funding that advantages privileged students in wealthier schools
  • Call out the use private schools and segregated APP programs that perpetuate the pipeline of privilege
  • Work to end stratification, segregation, competition, and tracking in schools and classrooms
  • Find joy in community, challenge conventional definitions of ‘success’, support everyone’s children, and actively work to liberate us all from the pipelines

For additional reading and discussion:

Disproportionate Discipline in Seattle Schools and the DOJ Investigation

21 Jan

As some of you may know, Seattle Public Schools has been under an ACTIVE INVESTIGATION by the Department of Justice for disproportionate discipline rates for students of color.

As part of the workshop today on the School to Prison Pipeline, a friend of ours wrote an amazing summary of the facts that prompted the investigation, the current status, and some specific steps that you can take to help:

Disproportionality in School Discipline in Seattle Public Schools

The Problem:

The racial disproportionality in school discipline, and in particular suspension, is at an all time high. In Seattle Public Schools:

    • African-American high school students are suspended or expelled more than three times as often as other students
    • In middle school, the racial disparity is greater, with blacks 3 1/2 times more likely to be disciplined than other students, according to district data shared with Reuters.
    • More than a quarter of all black middle school pupils have received short-term suspensions in any given year since at least the 2006-07 academic year, compared with 7.4 percent or less annually for white students, the data shows.
    • African-Americans represent just over 20 percent of the 12,500 high school students in the Seattle district and 18 percent of 8,000 middle school students there, and yet they account for more than 40 percent of all suspensions and expulsions in those schools.
    • The racial disparity in student discipline “is a problem,” Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda, who was appointed last May to oversee the district, told Reuters. “It is a concern for us.”

The Solution:

Force Seattle Public Schools to develop a plan to IMMEDIATELY deal with disproportionality in school discipline by:

1) Call or email the Seattle Public Schools Superintendent’s office. Email:   Phone: 206-252-0180
2) Call or email the SPS School Board. Email:     Phone: 206-252-0040

Press the Department of Justice to stay involved in the process of forcing SPS to deal with the issue by:
3) Call, email or write a letter to the local Seattle DOJ and/or the main DOJ office in Washington D.C.

The Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Education (DOE) explained in a guidance document (published on January 8, 2014) that the Department is committed to:

Promoting effective and appropriate school discipline policies and practices that create a safe and inclusive environmentwhere all students can learn and succeed.

As part of this commitment:
1) The DOJ/DOE will enforce Federal laws to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination in school discipline.
2) In addition to investigating complaints that have been filed, both Departments are collaboratively and proactively initiating compliance reviews nationwide focused on student discipline.
3) Finally, the Departments will continue to provide technical assistance to schools on the adoption and administration of discipline policies consistent with their obligations under Federal civil rights laws.

The guidance document published by the DOJ:
1) Outlines the law and what schools are EXPECTED to be doing regarding discipline and disproportionality and the manner that the DOJ will address concerns in reported schools.
2) The document does not describe any particular enforcement mechanism to address school districts already under investigation.

How do we move the DOJ to force Seattle Public Schools to deal with the issue of disproportionality in SPS?
1) We call and email the local Seattle DOJ and the main DOJ office in Washington DC.
2) Sign a copy of the template letter that we have prepared. These letters will be photocopied and sent to the local SeattleDOJ and the main DOJ office in Washington D.C.

To Contact the DOJ’s Office of Civil Rights:
To find your local DOJ office, go to:
Or call the Office of Civil Rights (OCR’s) Customer Service Team at 1-800-421-3481.

To File a Suggestion or Complaint:
You may also contact the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section at or 1-877- 292-3804.

Here is a letter that you can cut/paste/print out and send in:

To the DOJ/OCR in Washington D.C. & the local office in Seattle, WA:
I, ______________________________, am writing to request that you continue your investigation of Seattle Public Schools regarding disproportionality in school discipline. I believe that in order for this issue to no be both addressed and resolved the DOJ/OCR need put an enforcement mechanism in place that requires Seattle Public Schools to:

Immediately develop a comprehensive plan to urgently address these issues in Seattle Public Schools. This plan must be developed before the end of the current academic year (2013-2014) and should be in effect by the beginning of the 2014-2015 academic year.

Disproportionality in school discipline and academic success is a major problem in Seattle Public Schools. Seattle is a highly segregated city. Both the City of Seattle and Seattle Public Schools have been aware of this issue for years. Children of color are being marginalized and disenfranchised in SPS. The School District is inequitable in its
treatment of black and brown children and it is unacceptable! I ask the DOJ/DOE to force Seattle Public Schools to make the needed changes immediately with expediency and urgency! I also ask that DOJ make any settlement agreement established with SPS public so that the community, parents and students can hold SPS accountable.



Workshop And March Tomorrow: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline

19 Jan
info graphic from

info graphic from

where:  Garfield High School, 400 23rd Ave, Seattle, WA 98122

when: Mon, Jan 20th, workshop from 9:30 – 11:00 AM

march begins at 12:30 –  if you want to march with us, we’ll be meeting right across the street from Ezell’s Chicken.

what: The workshop will expose and analyze how the system stratifies the population through a set of “pipelines”. While some students are channeled into futures in management and the professions, and some into a working class, however insecure, still others are left to expect the least opportunities plus the threat of incarceration in the largest prison system in history.

Teachers, students, former inmates, and activists, will share how this is all fitting into a pattern of especially insidious racism, as well as other forms of discrimination.

You are invited to discuss these perspectives, and your own, with us. We will also discuss how we can inform, agitate, and organize together, to undo and overcome this oppression.

This workshop is one of many that will be held as part of the larger, annual Martin Luther King Day event at Garfield High School.

We will be marching together in the larger march, with posters and chants against the school to prison pipeline.  Look out for us across from Ezells at 12:30 if you want to march with us.

A free-standing isolation booth, now banned in Oregon.  (Source: KATU News, posted on

A free-standing isolation booth, (Source: KATU News, posted on

One of the teachers speaking in the workshop is the author of this piece, about how she and her students turned the isolation room in their classroom into an art project.

Here is the Facebook event page for tomorrow.  Please invite your friends.

The workshop is being  organized by a really dynamic coalition of people, including  folks from Africatown/ More4Mann, some of the organizers of the Youth For Justice rally this summer, folks from Free Us All (the prison hunger strike support committee), artists/writers from  High Gods Entertainment, Creativity Not Control, and folks from Washington Incarceration Stops Here (the group organizing against the new juvenile detention center in Seattle.)

Check out the links for more information, and check out those groups or others if you’d like get involved in struggles against the school to prison pipeline here in Seattle. There are lots of ways to get involved, from organizing and fighting back,  to educating and creating art and music on the subject.  We’ll see you out there!

Roadblocks to Participation

10 Jan

Several weeks ago, I was at a meeting of a broad range of community activists and  educators that had gathered to discuss issues of racial equity in Seattle Public Schools.  As with other meetings, enthusiastic participants vyed for a chance to ‘get a word in’ and make their contribution.

Part way into the meeting, a women of color made a point that really stopped me in my tracks.  I did not write down the exact statement so what is below is NOT an actual quote, but the basic sense of it was this: 

“Is this how these meetings are going to be?  I feel like there is not SPACE for me to be heard. I can ‘style shift’ and compete to try and talk. There is no room for competition when doing collective work.”

It was one of the most succinct and important comments I had heard in a long time.

It really made me think about the patriarchal, dominant culture ways of interacting that pervade almost everything in our culture. Every meeting that I attend at work is a competition (generally between males) for who gets to ‘make the next point’.   

While different ways of interacting do not always fall along gender lines, there is certainly a tendency for men (especially white men like myself) to do most of the talking and sit on the edge of their seat to get in the next word.

Folks may critique the processes used in Occupy, but that is one dynamic I think they handled well.  By using a technique called ‘progressive stack’, ALL participants were able to relax and simply raise their hand to get on the ‘stack’ of speakers who will get to speak next. The ‘progressive’ part allowed members of traditionally marginalized groups to be put on the TOP of the stack by the facilitators.  This often significantly broadened participation beyond the ‘enthusiastic’ white males that may have otherwise dominated the conversation.

Progressive stack created SPACE for participation.

I think striving to create this space is important for a number of important reasons.  Most obviously, it would allow quieter voices to be heard and correct the under-representation of under-represented groups.  

More importantly, it would build power in the communities and individuals whose voices need to be heard.  My daugher related a disturbing story of sitting in on a college class discussion on feminism and hearing one female student state that she would not want to be in a class without males because she said that the “females would not say anything”!  That student had been acculturated to think that women had LESS TO SAY, when the problem is more likely that they often have a hard time just getting space for their ideas.

As a middle-aged white guy who is guilty of this constantly in my personal and professional life, I deeply appreciate the fact that Emijah Smith raised this issue at that meeting.  She also later sent me this link to a closely-related editorial that she wrote that was placed in the Seattle Times below.

In order for our communities to function, we all (myself included) need to make the space to listen and learn.

Here is the related editorial that Emijah wrote for the Seattle Times:

Why it’s hard to get involved as an African American parent

By Emijah Smith

As a parent of a black school-age boy, it is vital that I am well engaged with my son’s school community. I greatly appreciate having input in the best practices for educating my child. Being from a culture where relationships are highly valued, I greatly appreciate school opportunities where community building is part of the school event. As much I appreciate such opportunities, they are hard to find at the typical school event.

Although I am a very involved parent at the school and district level, I find it very challenging to be part of a school where there is little to no conversation about successfully educating black boys.

Please communicate with me about best practices for educating black boys. Please talk with me about what the school is doing to ensure my son’s academic success. Engage with me about how the school and I can partner to protect the brilliance of my child.

Please do not shut me down or close the door when I try to communicate with the school and partner in the academic success of my child. I am invested in educating my child. I want a genuine partnership with the school community that allows for meaningful engagement, respect, and value for my family. Until then, the school-family partnership is a facade.

In my experience, the school power system seems very domineering. Most families will be invited to the typical school open house, school celebration and PTA fundraising event. Although the planning and decision-making was done by the school, if the event happens to be unsuccessful, the blame falls on the families. I believe successful school communities share power between schools and families, as well as accountability.

The school community can improve family involvement by providing meaningful opportunities for families to partner with the school. I recommend the school leadership actively listen to the needs and concerns of parents and families, as well as inquire about what is working or not working for families. School leadership should invite vulnerable populations to an event to discuss academic outcomes and tap into the expertise of family and community to generate viable and innovative solutions.

Providing an opportunity to share in the decision-making for academic outcomes and other school planning activities strengthen the school-family partnership, and improves family involvement.

Emijah Smith is a member of Seattle Public Schools’ School Family Partnership Advisory Committee to the Superintendent.

“You can’t brush this under the fucking rug!”

5 Jan


Those are the words shouted by an opponent of juvenile incarceration while being arrested for protesting against the new $210 Million Dollar Juvenile Detention Facility  on New Years Eve.  Surprisingly, KOMO TV aired this statement in addition to their typical narrative of ‘purposeless troublemakers arrested by valiant SPD officers’.  (See their interpretation of the events here at

On New Years Eve, a group of over 100 protesters and activists met for a “Noise Demo” at the Juvenile Detention Center on 12th and Alder.  The purpose of a noise demo is to show those locked inside that not everyone is willing to let them be brushed under the rug.  The assembled group wanted the children locked inside  to know that people outside were thinking about them and were willing to risk police intimidation, brutality, and even arrest in order to challenge the current system of youth incarceration.

From the outset, the event was festive, with a cacophony of pots and pans, 5 gallon drums, metal plates and spoons, a marching band, and even a light show!!  Unfortunately, the Seattle Police chose to escalate and harass the crowd.  At one point, SPD officers repeatedly charged their vehicles directly at protesters, ironically attempting to run over people holding a sign stating “COPS KILL”.  (Note that 6 of the 29 shooting deaths in 2013 were by SPD officers.)  Although garbage cans were carefully positioned to help protect the marchers from the menacing police vehicles, the continued police harassment of the crowd eventually resulted in the arrest of several individuals.  

Beyond the police/protester narrative there are two points that are critical to framing this incident:

  • Target Audience:  The primary audience for this action was not the typical white, upper middle-class, “liberal democrat” that would likely judge this action as “too radical”.  This was a message that was aimed at the children that are currently being incarcerated as well as those that have been and those that are statistically likely to be.   It has been confirmed directly that these types of events create a genuine emotional response and positive social connection.  It means something to them to know there are people out there who really care about what is happening to them and want to stop it.

  • Focus on Youth Incarceration:  The purpose of the action was to draw attention to the MASSIVE $210 million dollar CHILD PRISON that is being built with our tax dollars at 12th and Alder.  Every one of those dollars could be spent on education and prevention programs, but instead they are creating a facility that will TRIPLE the existing capacity.  Our city is investing heavily in continuing the school to prison pipeline rather than disrupting or dismantling it.

While this type of action might not be a tactic that everyone actively participates in, we are ALL responsible for not letting the issue of youth incarceration be swept under the rug.   

We will post more on this over time, and encourage others to contribute articles on this subject.  In the meantime, here is a brief history of youth incarceration from a fellow comrade:

Juvenile detention was invented in this country in 1899 which was soon following the time society invented the concept of a childhood. Children were just small adults getting skills together before that. When the juvie was first invented it had a Progressive theme to it for the times, i.e. it was slightly on the compassionate side and used the new sciences like sociology, weak as they were, to give kids a  rehabilitative chance. Or at least they thought they were. So things got progressively worse for kids caught up in the system, and precipitously worse in the past ten or 20 years with respect to the new consensus of punitive moralizing, micro-managing probation, harsher sentencing, and most of all eliminating consideration of root causes for behaviors. However, especially here in the NW, the numbers being incarcerated have been going down. Only 50 to 75 are inmates at any one time. King County has voted to build, for $210 million, a new juvie center that will house 154 children. This plan has not taken into consideration further reducing the population through other programs. They want to be prepared for doubling and tripling incarceration. They do callously say that if there are excess “living halls” that they will house “homeless” children in them. There is an organization called Washington Incarceration Stops Here that is organizing to stop the building.  (Facebook page)