Dissertation Introduction: What Care Homes, Prisons, and Slaughterhouses Have to do with Schools

Sneak peak- here is the introduction to my dissertation: 

This dissertation was completed at an inflection point. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijiah McClain, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, and too many others sparked protests, and uprisings against police brutality and state violence in the United States and around the globe, asserting: Black Lives Matter. The global coronavirus pandemic and its rising death toll brought the deepest economic recession since the Great Depression, resulting in unprecedented levels of unemployment and economic distress with the most profound effects on Black communities, as well as other communities of color. The pandemic held hostage millions of workers, especially essential workers, in a capitalist system asserting profit rates and the stock market take primacy over human lives. The virus, though indiscriminating in its nature, navigated the built economic landscape to target those made most marginalized and vulnerable by racial capitalism.In its most succinct form, this pandemic became a story about care homes, slaughterhouses, and prisons. The three hotspots for infection and COVID deaths happen to also be three illustrative spaces of a neoliberal form of racial capitalism and settler colonialism built on patriarchy. The country with the highest prison population in the world, highest incarceration rate, and most bloated policing budgets of OECD countries turned even more repressive during the pandemic, subjecting thousands of prisoners to exposure to the deadly virus and enforcing illegal solitary confinement, while those outside the prison walls remained subject to ongoing aggressive and brutal policing. Care homes for the elderly, disabled, and veterans too became spaces of confinement and deadly exposure, with workers in these facilities often devalued and underpaid for the work of care. Slaughterhouses, a vignette of an extractive and environmentally destructive capitalist enterprises already with dangerous working conditions, became petri dishes for the coronavirus, risking their precarious work- forces to life-threatening infection. With school canceled, at least the education system, already under the pressures on ongoing austerity, was spared as viral loci. But the switch to online learning and work left households facing a difficult balance of caregiving, teaching, and left many without adequate resources.

By the close of May 2020, school was either held remotely online or already out for the summer, and the uprisings against police brutality- found in nearly every city and even small towns across the country, and often organized by Black youth especially young Black women- amplified the voices of young students leading marches and organizing their communities. These students are asserting that their schools- already more focused on policing, security equipment, and getting kids in trouble than learning – were not safe for them to begin with even before the pandemic.
A young student from Commerce High School in Springfield Massachusetts asked in reference to a recent case of police brutality in Springfield Public Schools in which a school resource officer assaulted a student in response to swearing: “Why is it that a student copying a paper faces more consequences than an adult pushing a middle schooler to the ground?”
Springfield Protest 3
The answer to her question resembles too why coronavirus outbreaks so acutely struck care homes, slaughterhouses, and prisons: our lives are embedded an economic system of heteropatriarchal racial capitalism, based on exploitation, dispossession, and extraction, often by brute force. With the economy lacking any semblance of a welfare state, undervaluing caring labor and often neglecting care altogether in the form of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls organized abandonment, and overinvested in punishment through the carceral state, these systems work to uphold and justify the deep hierarchies of race, gender, class, citizenship, and other axes of oppression (Gilmore 2011). But, even though this deeply unequal and often violent economic system persists, it does face the constraints of solidarity and action among those its exploits and abandons.At a June 2020 protest in Northampton, Massachusetts a young girl spoke in reference to the Civil Rights Movement: “My grandmother was in these protests when she was 15 years old. When I’m her age, I don’t want to be protesting anymore.” I share her desire to see radical change.
The complex history of racial capitalism woven into the fabric of the U.S. leaves
is it that a student, who may assume school as the path towards uphold mobility and rewards for merit, faces more punishment for plagiarizing an assignment than an adult man employed by the state does for assaulting a child in a place of learn- ing? What does it mean that this public school in a deeply segregated city with one of the highest incarceration rates in the state serves predominately Black and Latinx students, was formerly under desegregation orders, and is now policed by a department routinely accused of brutality? What does it mean that this same school district, on the northeastern most edge of the Rust Belt, has been subject to state school takeovers removing the community’s autonomy and control over many of its schools and replacing democratic control with an private executive management organization? What does it mean that this city- Springfield Massachusetts- was a key site of abolitionist community, hosting the likes of Sojourner Truth and John Brown, as well as being home to the early northern movements for universal education?
This dissertation will only begin to answer the student’s question and the subsequent questions outlined, but will describe a theory of racial capitalism, the carceral state, and education that can help us to begin understanding and arriving at an answer. Further, I will examine some the ways in which the nexus of schools and the carceral state encloses to borrow the term from Woods et al. (2017) and Sojoyner (2013, 2016), or limits access to, education from students using both the tools of applied econometrics, alongside interdisciplinary frameworks.
The following outlines my endeavor. First, I outline new political economy ap- proach to understanding the role of education in racial capitalism and the carceral state. I survey contending approaches to understanding education, from neoclassical economics, feminist economics, and orthodox Marxism and describe their limits in understanding the role of the carceral state in schools. Next, I present an interdisciplinary (or to borrow the term from Meiners (2007) antidisciplinary) framework from scholars across diverse fields to show that, beyond just a so-called school-to- prison pipeline, the carceral state in schools works to create educational enclosures perpetuate capitalist exploitation and expropriation, and uphold and even legitimize racial, class and gender hierarchies. This framework works to show that limited educational opportunities are not the result of “poor choice” under a rational model actor assumption, but instead are structurally embedded in a public school system historically designed to uphold a racial capitalist order.
The additional essays will address how this nexus of schooling and the carceral state, through policing, security, and discipline in schools, works to perpetuate and uphold such inequalities in access to education, especially higher education. The second explores how school discipline may “mark” students creating barriers to the process of college applications and admissions. The third essay examines the role of the school environment, including policing, metal detectors, and other security equipment, in shaping student’s expectations of educational attainment. I do not posit that higher education is always the desired outcome or that going to college ameliorates the issues of the carceral state and unequal schooling. In a practical sense, despite rising costs and mounting debt burdens that call into question the economic mobility associated with college-going, a college credential remains an important buffer in today’s labor market and economy. That considered, both of my empirical results are framed as educational and therefore economic enclosures that helps us understand the ways in which inequality under racial capitalism is maintained and manifests, and points towards potential solutions for a more equal and liberatory path for education and the economy.

Beyond the Pipeline: Abolitionist Readings on Schooling in the Carceral State

As the movement on the ground gains momentum and many cities and districts demand #PoliceFreeSchools, I’m seeing a lot interest in trying to understanding the so-called School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP)- the mainstream term for how schools through the use of discipline, policing, and security practices “pushout” students towards incarceration.

STPP is a concise term for capturing this sort of dynamic, but precisely because it is so concise, it is also too narrow and fails to capture the scope and context of the issue. A better conception is to consider schools as an integral part of the broader carceral state. 

Here’s a list of readings by scholars who helped to show me this:


Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice by Carla Shedd

Additional Work by Carla Shedd:

Countering the Carceral Continuum: The Legal of Mass Incarceration


First Strike: Educational Enclosures in Black Los Angeles by Damien M. Sojoyner (currently available online through August!)

Additional work by Damien M. Sojoyner:

Black Radicals Make for Bad Citizens: Undoing the Myth of the School to Prison Pipeline

CHAPTER THREE: Changing the Lens: Moving Away from the School to Prison Pipeline


Transformative Justice Journal has published essays about schooling through an abolitionist lens

Restorative Justice as a Doubled-Edged Sword: Conflating Restoration of Black Youth with Transformation of Schools by Arash Daneshzadeh and George Sirrakos


For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State by Erica R. Meiners

Review of Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies by Erica R. Meiners


Grad Student Beginner’s Guide to Restricted-Use Data

I decided to write down some steps for graduate students looking to work with restricted-use data, but not at a university or department offering dedicated secure data space or licenses to tack on to (because institutional memory is important!). My advisor was super helpful in walking me through the process, but this outline quick guide may be helpful to others, especially since this isn’t a topic you learn in any courses in graduate school.
There are two main steps to obtaining restricted-use data, which are:
1.) IRB approval at your university
2.) Restricted-use data application approval from the data source
The first step is to read about the IRB (Institutional Review Board) process and complete a CITI training, so that you understand the process and issues that arise in research (https://about.citiprogram.org/en/series/human-subjects-research-hsr/). As a researcher, you will renew this every three years. I actually found the history and ethical issues around Human Subjects Research in the training to be very interesting.
After that, some tips and steps:
1. Identify the research office on campus. Ask “Which office deals with Research Compliance and IRB approval?” Folks in this office can guide you to the necessary steps in getting your research approved and get rolling with your restricted-use data license.
2. Is your research human subjects research? If so, what category? To find this out, you will first file a Human Subjects Determination Form, or similar, with the research office (or equivalent).
3. After determining the category of your human subjects research, then you will begin the IRB approval process. This involves writing a protocol for your institution’s IRB that demonstrates why you need restricted-use data and how you will adhere to security protocols.
3. For your IRB protocol, collect all application materials from the data source and note the steps needed to complete them.
a. Do you need a computer security plan?
b. Do you need notarized signatures? Is a notary available in your department or on campus?
c. Does some portion of the application need to be completed by the Research office of your university?
4. Draft all of the relevant portions of your protocol for your records, and to be reviewed by your advisor. This includes:
a. Computer security plan
b. Outline of project and methods
c. Description of why restricted-use data is necessary for your project. Be clear and succinct in describing your research question, method, supporting literature, and why your project is a contribution in which analyzing the restricted-use data in necessary. This description is important, since reviewers from other fields may be reading your protocol, and you want to clearly communicate your project, especially to those less familiar with your specific research.
5. You will then submit your protocol for approval by the IRB. Once this is complete and approved, you will then complete the data license application from whichever restricted-use data source you are using (for example, the Institute of Education Sciences, Department of Labor, etc.) At this stage, the research office can assist with next steps if needed.
6. General advice: Ask around! Did your advisor or mentor previous use restricted-use data? Or another professor in your department, or another department? Ask for help about how the application process has gone for others.
7. More advice: When in doubt, just keep pestering and asking for help. In my experience, the bottleneck was finding physical space (i.e. a secure office space). But, asking and reminding proved very useful is finding a small, secure office space for using my data.
8. Helpful clarification: Many restricted-use data licenses require the applicant to hold a PhD, so you will need your advisor or professor to assist in your application. They will then specify you are a data user on the license agreement.
As a PhD student at a department without dedicated resources for secure data, it can feel like more “prestigious” programs have a leg up when it comes to accessing certain data. They do, but that should not deter you from a good research idea, and your advisors and professors are there to support you in pursuing that, especially if you are willing to put in the work of going through the license application process. I also look at it as a very good learning experience for when I apply for restricted-use data or similar research methods as an Assistant Professor, where I will once again have to learn the institutional processes and procedures.
Next steps after getting your data: PRINT THE USER MANUAL (if that feels feasible), find tutorials on your data, and look for replication code from others who have published with your data.

More writing about writing

I feel intrigued by this idea of “deep work” and limiting distractions, and the cognitive cost of those distractions. From experience in PhD world, it is certainly true that interruptions and distractions, including those tasks like email, can reduce work quality. But, I have also always found small “shallow work” to be important to start with as it builds momentum in the work process, sometimes. The tricky part though is to build that momentum and actually move into “deep work”: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/13/smarter-living/how-to-actually-truly-focus-on-what-youre-doing.html#

I found this blog post about writing peer reviewed research to be very useful. The idea of building “deep work” writing into your schedule everyday has been really transformative for me in this dissertation process, and greatly reduced my anxiety around writing. I definitely went from binge writer to everyday writer in the past few years, or as this post puts it binge vs. incremental writing. Some days are just 30 minutes of “low hanging fruit” tasks like citations, writing a summary of a useful paper, etc, while other days are many hours of planning, writing, formatting, or doing metrics work. A research log is crucial- it is where I plan out my work, reflect on my work, log what I have completed, and look ahead. I also really like the advice of one paragraph per subject. It’s easy to get lost in academic writing, and spend several paragraphs just trying to prove you know one small particular thing, but being succinct usually means you actually understand what you are writing and can convey it simply: http://phdtalk.blogspot.com/2018/02/lesson-learned-writing-peer-reviewed.html?m=1


Resources I’m reading on doing, presenting, and publishing research

How to publish applied economics papers

Take away points

  • Expect rejection, and rejection is okay!
  • Also expect to wait….
  • Know your journal, its aim and scope, who publishes and what is published
  • Craft not just good analysis, but also a good story
  • Place your research within the literature, filling a gap or expanding on an outstanding question
  • Sell your question, and answer
  • Write with style and flow
  • Dial in the elevator pitch, and turn this into your abstract and introduction
  • Don’t bury the question
  • Make tables and graphs readable, and meaningful
  • Focus on the question and the contribution
  • and look at the following……

The introduction formula

  • A good boiler plate model
  • Hook, question, antecedent, value-added, road-map

The conclusion formula 

  • Summary, limitations, relevance to policy, future research

How to give an applied micro talk 

  • Clear question
  • Preview the findings
  • THEN, go into detail, but spare the boring details about processing data
  • Present a clear and explicit model
  • …”no pauses unless you really want to stress something”
  • Use tables strategically
  • Practice!