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.

Recent writings: jumping into the RCT debate, and on reopening schools

Abolition will not be randomized co-written with Casey Buchholz, over on the Developing Economics blog, where we dig into why certain empirical approaches miss the point when it comes to changing the ideology, social relations, and power structures of racial capitalism. “Thus, empirical methods and data collection can be powerful tools for guiding democratic, transformative, and liberationist struggles so long as they do the work of undermining the forms of organized power and authority the movement is interested in dismantling.”

Reopening and rethinking schools: care vs the carceral continuum on the Solidarity US webzine, discussing and interrogating what a “safe” reopening even means when schools are disproportionately staffed with police instead of nurses, counselors, and teachers (written before the protests). Here I give a shoutout to the Chicago Teachers Union for their demands about nurses in every school and to make a point about working conditions for reopening, but one thing I wish I had included is that the movement for police-free schools, restorative and transformative justice practices, and more care instead of cops has truly been led by students and student organizations across the country for many, many years. The VOYCE Project, Philly Student Union, Alliance for Educational Justice, and so many more across cities and districts have been leading the way. I’m mentioning this because there’s some evidence that this point is getting lost as the #PoliceFreeSchools movement is gaining support, which erases the work of Black students and students of color who have been on the ground organizing. I’d love to see a world where students, as well as workers, have a real say in their schools, their learning experience, and so on, and there’s also a lot reckoning to do with the fact that teachers and staff are also responsible for “bias” that ultimately hurts students- an abolitionist approach to rethinking schools (and organizing for police free schools) necessarily has to grapple with this reality.

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