Panel tackles high incarceration in minority communities

Photo by Raelyn Fines.
Photo by Raelyn Fines.

VCU’s student-led chapter of Amnesty International hosted a community engagement panel on Nov. 7 to discuss how the public education system targets minority students, especially young black men, for the prison system.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a discussion throughout the country, but Monica Kelley, president of VCU’s Amnesty International, said the panel was crucial in Richmond because Virginia has the highest rate of incarcerated youth in the United States.

According to a 2015 Center of Public Integrity report, around 10,000 youths are incarcerated every year in the state.

“Out of school suspension, police presence in schools, zero tolerance policies all are factors that push students out of school due to discriminatory application of the rules,” Kelley said. “This disportionately affects the most vulnerable in our community — children with history of abuse, neglect, brown and Black children and disabled children.

Kelley moderated the hour-long panel which featured four Richmond based community activists and educators who work within youth prison system.

“A lot of school environments, the architecture itself, resembles a prison.” said panelist Rebecca Keel. “They are concrete, there are metal detectors, there are more school resource officers than counselors and teachers at times. It primes our young people how it is to be heavily surveillanced like a prison.”

Keel is a juvenile justice organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond who works on creating alternatives to youth incarceration.

“It’s also important to note that in a lot of Richmond schools the enrollment is almost 100 percent all other low-income children who live in public housing.” Keel said.

Another panelist, David Coogan,focused on how internal familial structures and cyclical violence exacerbates issues of youth imprisonment when the school system isn’t designed to help students.

“One of my co-authors, Andre, said he dropped out of school because his father got him hooked on heroin when he was 12 years old,” Coogan said. “So think about that, what choices can a 12-year-old or any child really make and who is helping them when they aren’t home.”

Coogan is a VCU professor who founded the Open Minds program which lets students take courses within jails and prisons and work alongside incarcerated populations. The program focuses on the role of internal family issues exacerbating external policing and housing divisions. He is also one of the authors of “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail.”

The relationship between housing segregation, lack of access to education, increased youth imprisonment and internal familial violence is a topic that has been heavily discussed in Richmond with the increase of what community advocates have labeled gentrification.

Richmond based professors and researchers led a report that confirmed a relationship between an increase in segregation and youth incarceration and a decrease in academic or financial success.

Sharon McDaniel, Richmond native and graduating senior at VCU, is a long time community advocate who educates youth on their legal rights and pushes for community engagement to prevent recidivism.

“Look, most people go back to jail within six months of being released so if you make that six months mark that in itself is a celebration.” McDaniel said. “So we need a holistic approach to understand why something happened, the first solution can’t be we just get kids suspended and expelled for minor infractions like talking back or wearing a hat. We want to have restorative justice.”

McDaniel said another aspect of the pipeline is there aren’t enough resources for teachers to address issues.

“These teachers have full classrooms, not enough money and strict guidelines they have to meet and dealing with a student is just another thing they have to get through,” McDaniel said. “So it can just be easier to call the resource officer and get the kid dealt with.”

According to the same CPI study, Virginia uses out-of-school suspension (OSS) and expulsion in disproportionate numbers against Black children with disabilities. Overall, Virginia suspends an average 16 out of 1,000 children in public schools depending on this district. The average number of OSS in the nation is 5 out of 1,0000.  The suspensions disproportionately target Black male students, according to CPI.

The panel echoed the CPI’s concern on how OSS leads to students being more likely to end up in juvenile detention.

For Jihad Abdul Mumit, who was formerly incarcerated for 23 years for his involvement with the Black Panther Party, ending the school-to-prison pipeline involves heavy community engagement.

“We are sitting in this room right now but how many of y’all will actually go into the communities and ask them what is happening,” Abdul Mumit asked. “We each got our role, know your role and do it. If you’re a writer, then write about it and help other people tell their story. If you’re an educator than give out a reading. If you know how the hood works then go in there talk to people. Do your part, don’t just leave this room with all these resources and not do anything.”


Siona Peterous
Siona is a senior majoring in political science with a concentration in international relations and a double minor in media studies and Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. She is heavily influenced by her family’s immigrant background and often writes about the intersection of politics with identity. Siona is an advocate for grassroots activism and political movements, and her dream job involves multimedia-based investigative journalism. She has a plethora of life goals but is only focusing on two right now: learning as many languages as possible and perfecting her Instagram aesthetic.

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