As we continue our ongoing efforts towards dismantling the cradle to prison pipeline the Rethinking Prisons conference held at Vanderbilt University last Friday May 3 brought together scholars, community organizers, concerned parents, professors, public school teachers, business owners, students, people from various faith communities and other non-profit organizations for a series of workshops, presentations and conversations about what can be done and what is being done in an effort to rethink the whole prison industry as well as consider ways to dismantle the cradle to prison pipeline. Our team was invited to present on the topic of Zero Tolerance policies and how they have been used to contribute to the constantly growing numbers of young black and brown bodies in juvenile facilities and behind prison walls. During our presentation we discussed the history of zero tolerance policies and the shift in their usage and criteria as they were once used for serious offenses such as drugs and guns but now are used for behavior infractions ( e.g. arguing, yelling during class, inappropriate language etc..) that might require serious intervention, counseling or creative teaching. We discussed the differences between conflict and criminal behavior, particularly as it pertains to how black boys are sometimes perceived as problem children (and not children with problems) from the outset which can in many ways influence how their behavior may not be classified as adolescent conflict but instead as criminal. CDF Nashville Team member Ndume Olatushanti shared his experience of dealing with the school system as a young child and then the prison system well into his adulthood years of imprisonment.
His story was followed by the stories of three young men who attend a local high school. They shared their experiences in school as well as in their respective communities. The young men also shared how a trip to the Alex Haley farm during their recent spring break opened their eyes and helped them make some life altering decisions concerning either getting involved in or getting disconnected from activities that may have possibly led to prison or death. For the young men it was an opportunity for them to share as primary voices who have been impacted or have friends who have been impacted by either zero tolerance or the prison system.
We had an opportunity to not only hear from these primary voices but from people in the local and academic community and others who are deeply concerned about trying to disrupt and dismantle this deadly circle and cycle that continues to impact children of color across this nation. As a result of the conference we were able to make some new connections and share some of the work we are doing in the city with parents, students and other organizations to listen, engage and expand the network of partners who are committed to doing serious work around this issue.
Connect with the CDF Nashville Team through their facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/CDFNashville.