Caught Up

By Jerry Flores, author of Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance, and Wraparound Incarceration

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

As I was writing my book Caught Up, the internet was flooded with a video of Ben Fields, a white school resource officer with the Richland County Sheriffs in South Carolina, flipping a black girl out of her desk and throwing her against the wall of her tenth grade classroom. Ben Fields, who is roughly twice the size of this young woman, then proceeds to pin her on the ground while simultaneous uttering, “give me your hands.” According to an article by the New York Times, Fields had been previously sued for violating the rights of students and had been accused of disproportionately targeting Black students, using sexist and unprofessional language and excessive force. Due to various cell phone recordings, this officer was eventually fired. However, this incident is not atypical nor are the increasing ties between penal and educational institutions in the U.S.

In my book, I address how the coming together of schools and detention centers in southern California is punishing young Latina girls in new and dynamic ways. This entailed conducting fieldwork at “Legacy” community school and “El Valle” juvenile detention center. During the last seven years, Legacy school officials gave El Valle juvenile detention center unfettered access to their students in exchange for financial resources. In return for this economic support, Legacy allowed El Valle to place a probation officer inside one classroom called the “Recuperation Program” that was intended to help youth with “drug and other behavioral issues.” This probation officer conducted investigations, questioned students, drug tested young people, and placed them directly under arrest as other youth attempted to take their math, science and English lessons. In the eyes of school and detention center administrators, this institutional partnership was supposed to help keep at risk youth away from secure detention. However, my research reveals these well-intentioned services have the opposite effect. As Diana, one of my participants said “I don’t like Legacy because…I’m practically busted [incarcerated] right here!” For the youth in my study, they see little difference between attending Legacy and their time behind bars. While scholars have been discussing the “school-to-prison pipeline” since the 1990’s, this phenomenon is one that is still affecting young people, especially youth of color like the girl thrown from her desk in South Carolina or Diana who often feel caught up between school and a life behind bars.

Jerry Flores is a Ford Foundation Fellow, University of California President’s Postdoc, and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice in the Social Work and Criminal Justice Program at the University of Washington, Tacoma.