New Book: Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Just last week, Senator Dick Durbin oversaw a congressional hearing on disrupting what many are now calling the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” — a web of systems that are pushing low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities out of the public schools and into the criminal justice system. This historic move by Durbin is only the most recent result of years of grassroots organizing and advocacy, and a positive sign that there is political will to do something about this disturbing trend. But what will it take to disrupt this pipeline?

disrupting-school-to-prison_223Some possible answers can be found in a new book, which I am personally very proud to announce: Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline from the Harvard Educational Review. Four colleagues and I have been working for the past year editing this volume, which brings together the voices of scholars, educators, students, lawyers, funders, and incarcerated individuals. With a wide range of perspectives, these fabulous authors illuminate the multiple faces of the pipeline and offer real-world, workable solutions. To get a peek inside the book CLICK HERE.

Part one of the book starts in the education system, looking at the way that discipline policies, racism, and other structural forces are creating “prison-like schools” and failing our students. But we are also introduced to alternatives — for example, a round table of youth, educators, and community members describe their work instituting alternative disciplinary policies under the rubric of restorative justice. Part two follows those who have been pushed out of traditional schools into the realm of alternative schools, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Here we see how, in these carceral spaces, education becomes both a mechanism of control and a means of liberation. Finally, part three takes a step back to ask what kind of broad efforts might address the pipeline on a national scale — including grassroots organizing and transformative justice.

In between longer essays and scholarly articles are the voices of those most affected by the pipeline — public school students and incarcerated youth and adults. These poems and short essays offer some of the most troubling and the most empowering moments in the book.

I have had an amazing time working with many of these authors, and I am thrilled the book is out. Please spread the word — a movement to end the pipeline is growing, so join in.

Authors: Starcia Ague, Kathy Boudin, Kathleen B. Boundy, Joseph Cambone, Seth G. Cooper, Christopher Dankovich, Bobby Dean Evans, Jr., Jane Hereth, Mariame Kaba, Joanne Karger, Paul Kuttner, Daniel J. Losen, Kavitha Mediratta, Erica R. Meiners, Pedro A. Noguera, Douglas W. Price, Elizabeth A. Reid, David H. Rose, Derek R. Russel, Michael Satterfield, Peter Sipe, Sabina E. Vaught, Alejandro G. Vera, Lewis Wallace, and Robert Wilson.

Editors: Sofía Bahena, North Cooc, Rachel Currie-Rubin, Paul Kuttner, and Monica Ng


Book Review: Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex

Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, & Educational Alternatives
Edited by Stephen John Hartnett
University of Illinois Press, $25.00

I’ve been working on an edited volume about the school-to-prison pipeline, and taking the opportunity to check out recent books on the topic. One of the more rich and intriguing tomes I have come across is Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, & Educational Alternatives. The book brings together scholars and educators — along with incarcerated poets and visual artists — to illuminate the workings of the prison-industrial complex and share strategies for confronting it.

The book is split in two parts. The first — Diagnosing the Crisis — is dedicated to understanding the prison-industrial complex (PIC), the web of government and for-profit institutions that monitor, control, discipline, and incarcerate millions of US residents. This country, Hartnet argues, has become a “punishing democracy,” a system in which “punishment has become a driving force in contemporary American life” (p. 6).

The chapters span an impressively wide range, illuminating multiple facets of the PIC. Erica Meiners uncovers the economic underpinnings of the PIC, and the ways that surveillance and control are privatizing public space. Julilly Kohler-Hausmann offers a compelling and disturbing account of how our domestic police force has been increasingly drawing on military tools, strategies, and metaphors since the Vietnam war. Rose Braz and Myesha Williams outline the school-to-prison pipeline, and the increased policing of schools, while other pieces look at stereotypes in media, and the “war on drugs.”

The second half of the book — Practical Solutions, Visionary Alternatives — offers a series of stories about on-the-ground work being done to engage with, shift, and challenge the PIC. I would hesitate to call them “solutions,” given the daunting task they take on, but they certainly offer practical actions that real people are taking, and begin to paint a picture of a different world — one in which we see the humanity of everyone, and truly question the ways that we engage with one another and the conflicts that arise between people.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog, the arts play a very large role in this section of the book. It begins with Buzz Alexander, writing about the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan. This program — which I was a part of in college — runs theater and writing workshops in prisons, juvenile detention centers, and public schools, as well as an annual visual art show. Alexander gives a bold yet humble account, offering a taste of the messiness and the promise of this work, to which he has given so many years. Robin Sohnen shares the work of the Each One Reach One program, which does playwriting and tutoring in prisons, and Jonathan Shailor recounts his experiences doing Shakespeare in prisons. While each of these programs has a different focus, pedagogy, and theory of change, together they demonstrate the potential of artistic programming to build humanizing relationships between those inside and outside of the prison system; to help individuals develop and grow; to spread awareness of the oppressions of the system and of the humanity of the incarcerated; and to begin much-needed dialogue about the future of our democracy.

Throughout the book, readers are treated to pieces of poetry from incarcerated men and women, and a stunning set of images from the PCAP Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners. These pieces bring some concreteness to the stories told by the authors above, and connect a reader with not just the idea of prisoners but incarcerated humans in the particular.

The book as a whole, and the scholar-educator-artist-activists within, seek to shift our country from a punishing democracy to an abolition democracy. They are calling for the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. Drawing on writing by Angela Davis, Hartnett argues that prison abolition is not a negative effort of simply shutting down prisons, but a proactive process of creation — which is perhaps why artistic practice can play such an important role. He says that “shutting down the prison-industrial complex will require nothing less than a revolution — the question is not only how to abolish prisons, but how to reimagine a democracy that does not need such institutions” (p. 4).




Interview: Still Point Theatre Collective founder Lisa Wagner-Carollo

Lisa Wagner-Carollo, Founding Director of Still Point Theatre Collective

Still Point Theatre Collective, based out of Chicago, works to “celebrate our common spirituality, and raise consciousness on issues of peace and justice” through professional shows and workshops. I spoke with Still Point Founding Director Lisa Wagner-Carollo, who shared her thoughts on the organization’s work, and the connections between theater, social justice, and spirituality.

Why don’t you start by telling me a little about Still Point?
We’re a theater company that’s focused on spirituality and social justice. We express that through touring shows focused on those topics, and also we run outreach programs. We work in three different institutions with incarcerated women, helping them to write and perform their own plays. We also have a theater troupe made up of women who have been released from prison, called Sisters Rising. And we do seven theater and writing workshops with adults who are developmentally disabled.

How did you get started?
I had felt I wanted to do this kind of work for a very long time. I wanted to be an actress since I was about five years old. Then when I was about fifteen I had a very deep spiritual experience and thought of going into ministry. Then when I went to college I was very drawn towards social justice. So when I got out of college I knew I wanted to combine those three things: theater, spirituality and social justice.
I had just left a company here in Chicago focused on these issues, and I was asked to tour Haunted by God, my one-person show on Dorothy Day in Europe. I knew I needed some kind of producing entity to be able to put the show up again, so I started Still Point. But even from the very beginning of the company I had an eye on not only doing plays to raise consciousness, but also doing work in our own community. I felt our integrity was at stake; It didn’t make sense to me to raise people’s consciousness but not doing anything ourselves here in Chicago.

I had been doing theater at Esperanza Community Services with adults with developmental disabilities even before Still Point began, so when Still Point started that program was absorbed into the work. Then in 1998 I felt drawn to start a program at the Metropolitan Correctional Center doing theater with incarcerated women. Year by year things have just been growing and blossoming into the full programs that we have now.

How did you pick the name Still Point?
I heard a talk during the time I was starting the company in which this speaker talked about the “still point” in each person where the divine lives that cannot be violated. I was really struck by that. I knew that was what I wanted my focus to be, instead of being burnt out and working too hard. So I named the company Still Point as a reminder. Right now as I say this to you I’m being reminded once again. I always tell people I didn’t want to name the company the “Freaked-Out-And-Burned-Out Theatre Collective” (laughs). But other people may interpret the name differently, and that’s great.

Lisa in her one-woman show “Haunted by God”

What are Still Point’s goals as a company?
I would have to go program by program, really.

All right. What about the goals of the touring shows?
Well, for example, I do a one-person show on the life of Dorothy Day. I believe the goal of that play is to show people what one person can do with her life, and encourage people in their own journeys — and also to hopefully inspire people to want to lift up others, people who are homeless or hungry. I know that that the play has inspired the starting of a couple of catholic worker houses, and to me that’s the ultimate satisfaction.

And the work with incarcerated women? What do you hope comes out of that?
We really hope that these workshops help to build self-esteem in the women, and empower them to see themselves differently. It’s been my experience that most of the incarcerated women I meet were the victims of crime long before they ever committed a crime, and many of them have just tried to survive most of their lives. I hope that our workshops can help the women to get beyond merely surviving, and really give them a sense of thriving: to experience their own creativity.

We always lead up to a performance, and that’s very important because it helps the women to focus on a goal and to achieve that goal. There was a woman who came up to me after a show and said, “Thank you for giving me hope.” She said, “You know, I’ve never achieved anything in my life. Whenever I start something I don’t finish it. I quit. I get scared. But I came to your workshop, I came every week, I was dedicated, I wrote that poem, I got up on stage and performed that poem in front of all those people, and I didn’t fail. Now I really have some hope that when I get out I can go back to school, and accomplish what I want to.”

Then on another level we hope the class builds community, and gives the women an opportunity to relax and laugh and experience something meaningful. One of the classes I’m working with now are just so talented at improvisational theater, and they just crack each other up. They will spend an hour just laughing hysterically at the work that their classmates are doing. And many of them will just look at me and sigh and say, “Oh, I just wait for this all week to come here and to laugh.
Then part of the class is focused on writing and the women just shine through it. They write about things that are important to them and they hear each other and realize how much they have in common, and they can feel less alone.

Our projects with adults with developmental disabilities definitely build self-esteem. But also, for me, doing the theater with adults with disabilities is a justice issue. Many of the adults I meet in that community are gifted artists, but often don’t have a chance to express themselves through the arts. So it’s a justice issue to give them a voice and a forum to express themselves, where they can talk about things that are important to them, and can grow as artists.

In your work, why and how have you made connections between theater and justice?
On a personal note, I knew that I would not be happy or satisfied doing theater that was not focused on social justice. But also, in theater you’re right there, face to face with people. When we do a play at the prison the warden is sitting there watching the show, and the inmates are performing about their lives, and they are face to face. It’s flesh and blood, and often there is a discussion afterwards. I believe that social justice, social change, is not about issues, it’s about people. And in theater people are living and breathing in front of each other, talking, being disturbed by the play and being disturbed by each other. And it’s not always comfortable. But I believe that the theater makes an excellent forum for those kinds of confrontations that hopefully lead to healing and change.

One of the strands of cultural organizing is about embedding organizing in the rituals, values, and visions of different religious traditions. Could you talk about how spirituality plays a role in working for justice in your life and in Still Point?
When I started Still Point I had a vision to combine spirituality with social justice and theater, so for me I couldn’t really separate those three things. But people come here who have no spiritual focus, while other people have a designated path that they are on. We really welcome everyone. That’s the kind of spirituality I wanted to focus on, something that’s a lot more wide open. To be honest, through the last eighteen years of Still Point, without my spirituality I would not have been able to survive. (laughs)

Why is that?
Because it’s so hard. I find that my spiritual focus gives me so much strength and really helps me to be empowered through the day-to-day. There are days where I feel completely drained, yet the spiritual focus helps me to look beyond what’s happening that day — this horrible email I just received or the fact that I have to raise $10,000 dollars — and focus on things that are more eternal.

As far as the workshops, I’ve never had an evangelizing perspective. I heard someone say once that you don’t take Christ to people, you go and discover the Christ that’s already there. When I go to the state prison, many of the women are very focused on their spiritual lives. I don’t come in and say that we are going to talk about god or the divine, but they invariably want to bring their spiritual life to their writing. They bring it, and through bringing in their own spiritual life, they encourage me.

For more on Still Point, visit:

Profile: Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD)

The clip above is from the most recent live performance piece from the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), an arts organization based in Skid Row that, as they say on their website, “tells the rest of the story, what you don’t hear elsewhere.” I am featuring them in what I hope to be an ongoing series of profiles of groups doing work related to cultural organizing. The information in this post was drawn largely from a profile by Javiera Benavente at the Arts and Democracy Project, and from a report put out by LAPD and the Urban Institute on the cultural assets of Skid Row, as well as from the group’s website.

Founded in 1984 by artist and activist John Malpede as the first theater company in the country to be comprised mainly of homeless and formerly homeless community members. (more…)