By Christopher Zoukis
You may know Anna Deavere Smith from her television roles on The West Wing and Nurse Jackie, but for more than two decades, the actress, playwright and performer has been writing and performing plays that explore race, justice, and class inequality in America. Now her work, Notes from the Field, takes on America’s school-to-prison pipeline as a raw and honest documentary film.
Available through March and April on HBO, Notes from the Field is the result of over 250 interviews. Smith boiled her research down to 19 monologues to show the effect of the school-to-prison pipeline from different perspectives: those of teachers, students, administrators and more.
During her work on the production, Smith came to a realization: “Schools aren’t equipped to handle the problems of poverty and everything that go with it. It’s going to call for a lot more than schools. Facing off poverty is a large, multi-faceted problem.”
Is Smith fighting an uphill battle?
The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the incarceration of disenfranchised youth that commit minor offenses. Most of the arrests unfairly target youth of color and those living in poverty. Between 1999 and 2007, school suspensions among black students rose by 12 percent, however school suspensions actually declined among the white student population during that same timeframe. The eight-year time span from which this data is pulled is significant, as this was the rise of the zero-tolerance policy and a stronger police presence in American schools.
Zero-tolerance policies are a debatable topic on every level. Under these policies, suspension or expulsion occurs when certain rules are broken, regardless of the circumstances. This means students using violence in self-defence puts them in the same disciplinary category as their perpetrator. A student’s history of discipline is also not considered. A good student that suddenly acts out is punished under the policy, rather than steps taken to see if he or she is experiencing trauma at home or school that may have contributed to the outburst. Critics of the harsh, zero-tolerance policy call it “one strike and you’re out.”
As disenfranchised students are targeted the most under the zero-tolerance policy, it becomes clear how the school-to-prison pipeline is built. A student living in an unfortunate or poverty situation that is expelled or suspended often does not have a safe or welcoming space where he or she can retreat. The parent(s) are at work, food and resources are scarce, and the neighborhood is not ideal for “hanging out.” With long days to fill and a lack of positive role models, such students quickly become targets for gang recruitment, drug use, and petty crime – actions used to feel validation and acceptance, relieve boredom, or “earn” a living. Once a student starts down this path, it becomes a cycle of being in and out of school, and on and off the streets. The smaller crimes lead to larger crimes, and the larger crimes lead to prison. It’s a harsh cycle.
On one hand, zero-tolerance policies are supposed to protect staff and students. However, these policies do not appear to be working. Nearly two dozen gun incidences, some with deadly consequences, have occurred in American schools since the start of this year. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of school shootings in America was just one less than the number of school shootings across 36 countries combined during the same time frame – and the violence shows no signs of slowing down.
There have been many articles, discussions and debates about the merits, pros and cons of the school-to-prison pipeline, so it is refreshing to see the subject tackled in a manner that most Americans prefer: televised entertainment.
Smith says Notes from the Field gave her a look at the dignity of the struggle in the subjects she interviewed. Hopefully it is a struggle that will result in better policies for all.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.