Salt Lake City hopes to erase the school-to-prison pipeline

Story, pictures, and infographic by ZANE LAW

The United States of America, according to a Prison Policy article, imprisons more people per capita than any other country, with approximately 2.3 million imprisoned individuals. Of this captive population, the article also says there is a large number of juvenile and young adult offenders. The school-to-prison pipeline has been used to describe this odd trend and what might be behind it.

The ACLU, or American Civil Liberties Union, talks of “zero tolerance” policies and police officers on campuses as being issues. The organization’s website says these policies criminalize behaviors that should easily be handled by the school or teachers. Forcing students to negatively interact with law enforcement at such a young age leaves them with a bad taste for both school and law enforcement officers.

In an article by the  Utah Public Policy Clinic, part of the S.J. Quinney College of Law, researchers state that the criminalizing of behaviors is also detrimental to the dropout rate of students. Students who are suspended once are twice as likely to drop out, while students with three or more suspensions are five times more likely. The clinic notes that by the end of suspensions, school disconnectedness, a feeling of exclusion, and lagging behind in school work are common.

Jeremy Robbins, a half-Colombian man, speaks to how detrimental suspension and expulsion are to learning experiences and young lives. In a phone interview, he spoke about an instance in which he and his friends played a prank on their California classmates. They tossed stink bombs inside the lockers of five people as they ran through their high school halls. While Robbins agrees that his behavior was childish and deviant, he is still upset by the punishments given. His white friends were given detentions and community service requirements, but Robbins was expelled for the exact same actions.

Robbins remembers feeling worthless and without hope. He never went back to school, but instead went to work in the construction industry. Once he was kicked out of his home at age 18, as his parents had experienced before him, he had no diploma and not enough money to live.

The California native wished to find a better job to support himself, but no one wanted a high school dropout among their ranks. Robbins says he fell back on crime and spent his days robbing stores. He was caught and charged with felony grand theft, leaving him with a criminal record and an even slimmer chance of landing a good job.

Emphasizing Jeremy Robbins’ experience and touching upon local issues, the article by the Utah Public Policy Clinic notes that 29 percent of the Utah Latinx population drops out of school. This is 16 percent more than white students. These disproportionate dropout rates lead to higher incarceration rates, as the clinic also states that one-third of Utah State Prison inmates are dropouts.


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Information gathered from Utah Public Policy Clinic and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The Public Policy Clinic says that dropouts are three and a half times more likely to be arrested. With Latinxs dropping out at higher rates and with a far higher probability of being arrested after leaving school, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that the prison system holds a 32.3 percent Hispanic demographic.

Shawn Clay, a pastor for New Beginnings Ministry, an occasional preacher at Salt Lake City Mission, and an ex-convict, said in an interview that we need to start tackling this inequality issue immediately. Clay says the first step is to “admit that it (racism) exists. Racism out here is done with a smile.” He believes that while authoritative people in Utah act kindly, they are still treating people of color unfairly.

Clay explains that because of the color of his own skin, he was treated differently. He was hit with harsher charges and given more time in jail than a white counterpart would have received. While Clay hated his time in jail, it is the lasting effects on his life that he despises most. Clay is not currently allowed to drive, he has a much harder time finding jobs, and he missed out on memories with loved ones. Clay says he is a far better person than the justice system gives him credit for, and is proud of his coined phrase, “#morethanmyrapsheet.”

The first parole officer to Clay and a cop of 20 years, Shannon Cox, even speaks of the racist ways of her troop and the criminal justice system. She tells of officers referring to people of color as the “bad guys” and knows she wants to change something about that narrative. 

Both Clay and Cox attended a “Week Against Prisons” event in April, hosted by ACLU and the U’s College of Social Work, to discuss racial inequality, police injustice, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

While Cox says that helping mistreated adults transition from jail into normal life is rewarding, she also realizes that underrepresented kids need attention. Cox says she wants to “help harmed kids to not become harmful adults” because she knows just how detrimental the pipeline is. If troubled kids are not cared for early on, she says the system simply amplifies their negative situations. 

To help with her plan of guiding others, Shannon Cox founded Journey of Hope in 2014. The organization’s mission statement explains that it seeks “to improve the lives of harmed and justice-involved women and girls by empowering them through gender-responsive case-management and mentorship.” Cox and her organization have helped more than 1,500 women and girls, with 250 of those having recently left prison. The website notes that the recidivism, or tendency to re-offend after leaving prison, is 17 percent while the state rate is 67 percent. 

People of color are still mistreated nationwide, but there are also plenty of folks like Clay and Cox looking to do their part. Salt Lake City, in particular, has been doing a lot to raise its voice. In addition to places like Journey of Hope and Salt Lake City Mission, Undocuweek and Week Against Prisons are both recent events held at the University of Utah.



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