From School to Prison and Back

Mental health affected by school-to-prison pipeline

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Edgar Fuentes* was 10 the first time he smoked meth, 12 the first time he went to juvenile hall, and 13 when he was sentenced to 27 months.

His sentencing was a failure of the justice system to recognize his underlying struggle with  mental health. Isolation from grief in his family led to gang affiliation and drug dependency.

The pipe he once used to escape from the world had now physically locked him outside it.

Fuentes, now a third-year sociology major at UC Santa Cruz, has been released from the long-term penal system known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which redirects youth with precarious backgrounds to prisons instead of institutions of education.

“It seemed like the educational system didn’t bother with people like me,” Fuentes said. “Instead of teaching me, [schools] became juvenile justice systems in my eyes.”

Since public schools became desegregated in 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Education, practices such as red-lining have separated school districts upon racial and socioeconomic patterns. Paired with underfunding and uneven policing, these district disparities filter students like Fuentes out of school and into prison. Eighty percent of youth incarcerated in a state facility had been suspended and 40 percent had been expelled from school prior to their incarceration, according to the National Council of La Raza. Additionally, 68 percent of those in state prisons do not have high school diplomas.

Illustration by Kerri Vue

UCSC psychology professor Craig Haney has studied the mental health effects of criminal justice imposition since the 1970s and was a principal researcher of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a study that allowed psychologists to understand power dynamics between prisoners and guards.

“We call it a pipeline because instead of providing people with help and drug treatment for any [mental health] problems, we impose a criminal justice response,” Haney said. “There are lots of folks in prison who have psychological issues that are at the base of whatever kind of criminal behavior they engage in and then they don’t get any help for it.”

Drug addiction and violence coiled around Fuentes’s lifestyle before he got to juvenile hall. Upon arrival, his aggressive tendencies stemmed out of lack of support for drug withdrawals and pressure to join gangs.

One of many policies that funneled Fuentes into the school to prison pipeline was zero-tolerance policies. These policies were established after the passing of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, demanding that teachers expel students for a whole year if found with a gun. Since the enactment, the meaning of the policy has been expanded to mean zero-tolerance for violence, misbehavior and drug possession.

“Getting reported for having drugs at school and sometimes getting reported for being truant and not showing up to school gets [students] in a system of zero tolerance,” Haney said. “If the kid gets into the juvenile system, the likelihood that they’ll stay in that system and get into the adult system when [they] get a little older increases dramatically.”

While Fuentes beat the odds, most individuals who are recycled by the criminal system don’t receive support for their mental health and often end up back in prison.

37.3 percent of 675 released adolescents in 2011-12 returned to state-level prisons, according to the California Department of Juvenile Justice.

If an individual does offset the phenomena of recidivism, they can often find themselves battling external and internalized stigmas.

One of the continuous mental health setbacks for previously incarcerated individuals is battling imposter syndrome, which arises from internalizing beliefs that they don’t belong. This phenomenon is commonly experienced by students in institutions of higher learning.

Smith Renaissance Society is an organization at UCSC that supports students who have been incarcerated and experienced societal rejection in a university setting.

“I had students come in here today and say ‘I don’t belong here, I wanna go back to jail,’” said Smith Society adviser Elizabeth Moya.

Moya said previously incarcerated students often crave the familiarity of prison, compared to daily stressors of student life. Many of these people grew up and developed their identities in prison, making the transition to a university disorienting.

Years after Fuentes was released, he went to a mental health hospital and showed latent signs of post- traumatic stress disorder resulting from his incarceration, experiencing paranoia, hallucinations and depersonalization.

Elizabeth Moya works with 104 students a day with limited resources in order to support students emotionally and practically in accessing what they need to be students.

“Many of our students have never owned a laptop before,” Moya said. “Many of our students have a very, very tight budget and sometimes they go hungry, sometimes they go homeless because they don’t have any other family networks to go to for food or resources. We’re doing the basics we can, but it’s all on soft funding like donations and grants.”

Edgar Fuentes, and many other previously incarcerated students, deal with the daily trying effects of microaggressions around criminalization and often struggle for asking for help at universities for fear of further stigmatization.

Besides being a student, he is a motivational speaker for young people and informs them how they can take advantage of existing resources. Fuentes strives to provides them with a different perspective on the position they hold.

“The whole education system will ascribe you a status, and I would have thought that once we get to college, university, that’s going to be different, but no, they’re still doing it,” Fuentes said. “As I engaged with professors I realized that if I want to fight it, if I want to challenge it, I have to do research, I have to get involved, sit at the table.”

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.