Carceral Classrooms

Jessica Hatrick
Sophie Sylla
November 8, 2022
Our work has led us to understand that classrooms, as they currently function, are carceral spaces.

“the carceral imagination limits not only our beings and bodies, but also, the many fixes proposed” (Ruha Benjamin, 2019)

What is the anti-racist classroom?

We met at one of the wealthiest universities in the country, Jessica while working on her Ph.D., and Sophie while working on her J.D. We became friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators through bonding over navigating a university structurally and culturally invested in white supremacy, yet one that performs a commitment to the “liberal” California norms of multiculturalism and diversity. The university only double-downed on this rhetoric in the wake of the uprisings against police murders of Black people in 2020. Yet, we saw no action taken towards lessening the normalized violence created by a white supremacist carceral state. As youth educators, we began to discuss how we’d like to see educational spaces responding to this moment.

While a movement toward anti-racism has expanded in many educational areas, we follow scholars such as Bettina Love and Dena Simmons to argue that educational spaces can’t just be anti-racist; they must be abolitionist. In Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis writes that racism is “so deeply entrenched in the institution of the prison that it is not possible to eliminate one without eliminating the other.” (p. 26) As individuals invested in educating youth in the hopes of creating a more just world, we believe that our classrooms must be abolitionist to be anti-racist.

What is the carceral classroom?

Our work has led us to understand that classrooms, as they currently function, are carceral spaces. Hackett & Turk define “carceral” as “an institution, a system, or a body of knowledge that renders people as objects and exercises control over and through them” (2018, p. 24). This means that classrooms are designed to treat students as objects and exercise control over them. Carcerality appears in all four of the Is of oppression (​​internalized, interpersonal, institutional, ideological), but as the classroom reproduces it, we see it most in its institutionalization through schools and universities and its ideological reproduction work, as it trains students to accept the little to no agency and autonomy they’re given in the classroom. Carcerality is co-constituted by white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, cisheteropatriarchy, and other systems that reproduce domination. All of these systems create hierarchies of human to less-than-human, with those at the top learning how to exercise control over those at the bottom.

What is abolition?

Abolition is a pathway to the liberation of everyone within these hierarchies, a pathway to agency and autonomy, and a pathway to a world where we are all full humans. We follow Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s definition of the object of abolition as “not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society” (2013, p. 42). In the below guide, we offer some questions about recognizing carcerality in your classroom and ways to resist and begin creating that new society in the here and now. Ruha Benjamin has written that “the carceral imagination limits not only our beings and bodies, but also, the many fixes proposed” (2019). We hope that together we can broaden our imagination, so our educational fixes can become limitless.

Prison. Source: Unsplash

How do we see carcerality in schools?


​​In today’s classrooms, students regularly see and experience the limits carcerality imposes on imagination. For communities of color, in particular, U.S. schools have historically been spaces of oppression expressed through many forms, including forced assimilation and cultural genocide, militarization, youth criminalization, and limits imposed on critical and creative thought. Even attempts to better education, though well-intentioned, have resulted in preservation through transformation. In the 1954 case Brown v. Board, the supreme court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional. Despite such “efforts”, today, schools are more segregated than ever. Take New York state, home to some of the country's largest and most diverse school districts it is also the most segregated state for Black students in the nation. Moreover, post-Brown v. Board, communities of color experienced a significant loss of cultural competence in schools and a continued lack of investment and resources in the most high-need areas.

Physically & Practically

In a physical sense, many schools across the U.S. look like prisons. Concrete buildings and play spaces, high fences, no windows, bars on windows, complete lack of green space, metal detectors, blank walls, colorless design, school police carrying weapons, probation officers, and police dogs. In practice, carceral classrooms look like random search policies and surveillance, school bells, cops on school campuses that have no mental health or arts professionals, bans on books and knowledge (CRT, indigenous studies, and LGBTQ+ history and studies), inability to fulfill basic human needs like hunger and using the bathroom, and the racially disproportionate application of exclusionary discipline policies. In extreme cases, discipline practices include corporal punishment or less explicit but equally harmful practices like  “quiet rooms:” isolation rooms described as reflection spaces. In other cases, schools have called the cops on children for throwing a skittle or put a child in handcuffs for kicking an orange near a school resource officer.

Cops on Campuses

In terms of cops on school campuses, there is hardly a more evident example of how prison-like schools can be. Many argue their presence is necessary, especially in the wake of tragic school shootings and the lost lives of so many innocent people. But, police are a reaction, not a solution. We ignore the root causes of such violence and refuse to invest in preventative measures. Schools continue to decrease mental health funding while increasing investment in school police, who are not trained or equipped to adequately support struggling youth. This is where they put the budget, rather than investing in school mental health professionals, despite evidence showing that youth are struggling more than ever. Not to mention, cops do not keep students safer. In Parkland, the school officer that ran away during the attack was charged with neglect for failing to protect students during a mass shooting. Though a court found that the officer did have a duty to attempt to stop the shooting, when it came to the sheriff's department, the decision was not the same. The court found that the sheriff's department had no duty to protect the students during the mass shooting. If school police are not there to protect children, what are they there for?

How can we create abolitionist classrooms?

Imagining Solutions Together & Foster Imagination

Students know what they need to thrive. Asking students to develop creative solutions to these problems collectively teaches critical thinking and will likely restore agency to many of them. This could look like together addressing practical issues within the school, or it could look like using media to think more significantly about social problems. Creating a new world requires us to unlearn our carceral imagination. Today, media is the primary site where most youths engage with creativity and imagination. Teaching them to be media creators and critical consumers can prepare them to "interrogate texts, question myriad oppressive social structures, and unpack and analyze how stereotypes and prejudices are communicated through media" (McArthur, 2016, p. 463). Creating an environment that fosters imagination enables youth to think of solutions outside the box.

The Physical Environment

When transforming the physical classroom, the possibilities are endless. California schools are currently experimenting with getting rid of school bells. In Baltimore, meditation rooms have replaced detention. For quick fixes, try rearranging your classrooms aimed at fostering community. Do student desks currently face the front placing the teacher as the only holder of knowledge? Can students be seated in a circle, or might they have the opportunity to not sit at all? Bring nature into the classroom or take the classroom outside. Studies show that experiences with and in green spaces provide greater emotional well-being and lower anxiety, anger, exhaustion, and mood disturbance occurrences than in urban environments with little to no nature.  Despite this knowledge, low-income and BIPOC communities in the United States continue to have decreased access to green spaces. To mitigate the harms brought on by such inequity try engaging in biophilic design or design rooted in nature which “can reduce stress, improve cognitive function and creativity, improve our well-being and expedite healing.” Finally, ask whether the images and media in your classroom reflect your student body. Who does your classroom center (celebrate), and who does it make invisible?

Practicing Ungrading

Grading and ranking systems are tied to an inherently white supremacist, ableist, and classist ideology of industrial rationality. It is easy to see the ways it enacts profound psychological violence on students, tying their sense of worth to a numerical value and telling them that their value as a person is linked to the performance of intelligence. This way of thinking comes back to prisons and the structural anti-Blackness of the carceral state, which has taught us that people are not inherently worthy and can be disposed of. Forms of Ungrading include contract grading, feedback logs, fewer gradations: e.g., turned in (one gradation), pass/fail (two gradations, strong/satisfactory/weak (three gradations., grade-free zones: e.g., the first 1/3 of the term be ungraded, peer assessment, portfolios/conferences/exhibits, process letters: students describe their learning and how their work evolves over the term, self-evaluations, and student-made rubrics.

Meeting Basic Needs

A (perhaps) quick classroom fix is ensuring that all students have the space and support to meet their basic needs. Rest and decompress areas have allowed youth to step back, calm down, and assess and communicate their needs. Snacks in the classroom can help mitigate the effects hunger has on learning. Allowing students to use the restroom and get water whenever they want or need it creates a sense of trust and understanding that we all have basic human needs. This also means differentiating between students and engaging in trauma-informed and culturally responsive teaching.

Discipline Practices (Rethinking “Bad Behavior”)

Punitive and exclusionary discipline practices only cause harm. When creating holistic classroom settings, educators must engage in teaching and supporting every aspect of the learner. This means seeing mistakes or what is often labeled as “bad behavior” as learning opportunities. Educators might attempt to eliminate the hierarchy and authority embedded in traditional discipline systems by engaging in restorative justice or peer mediation. Moreover, educators should avoid youth interaction with law enforcement at all costs, as interaction with law enforcement at a young age results in an increased chance of ending up in the criminal injustice system.

Not all of these are easy to turn into action items; many require institutional support or access to resources. If unsure where to start, we recommend beginning with the following questions:

  1. How can you create a classroom that prevents the reproduction of carceral ideology?
  2. Who do you center in the classroom? What knowledge do you assume your students have or don’t have?
  3. How can you recognize and name the harm the outside world brings into the classroom?
  4. How can you regularly practice identifying and treating your students as equals?
  5. How can you guide students to find the agency to “freedom dream”?

Further Resources

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Jessica Hatrick
Jessica is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California researching higher education student activism, with a focus on students doing abolitionist work.
A woman with black hair.
Sophie Sylla
Sophie is an artist, educator, lawyer, abolitionist, and anti-racist.
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