Exploring the ‘Prison Pipeline’

Phuc Pham | New University

Phuc Pham | New University


Dorsey Nunn, the founder of several prisoner’s rights groups, called on UC Irvine students to challenge California’s prison policy, otherwise known as the “School to Prison Pipeline,” at a presentation on Thursday, April 25 in the Crystal Cove Auditorium. The presentation was part of a campaign put forth by the Office of the Executive Vice President and the University of California’s Student Association, known as the FIRE Campaign.

Nunn — a former inmate who went to jail at the age of 19 — has helped create several prisoners’ rights groups including: “All of Us or None,” “Legal Services for Prisoners with Children” and the “California Coalition of Women Prisoners.” Since he was released from prison, he has worked to reverse the effects of the “School to Prison Pipeline” — he views many former prisoners and himself as victims.

The “School to Prison Pipeline” refers to the increased investment in the prison system and decreased investment in the state education system. The state of California spent about 10 percent of its 2011 budget on prisons, compared to roughly 2 percent in 1981, while at the same time, it has cut spending on higher education from about 14 percent in 1981 to about 9 percent in 2011.

There has been a large correlation seen in increased incarceration of people from poor communities by the state of California and other states, which have been resultant from the budget cuts. This policy has increased the number of incarcerations and reduced the prospects of many in poor areas, and the black community in particular, according to Nunn.

“In fact there are so many of us that don’t [make it to college] when it comes to black people, and black men are more likely to go to prison than we are to any university. We are more likely to see parole than a graduate college degree. That’s our reality,” Nunn said.

African Americans made up 29 percent of California’s male and female prison population in 2010, despite the fact that African Americans only account for six percent of California’s population, according to the 2010 census. Latinos made up 40 percent of the male and 30 percent of the female prison population, but account for 38 percent of the state’s population.

Nunn believes that the lack of educational opportunities is a major part of the problem, and that the education system in his neighborhood in San Mateo County did not prepare him to succeed in life, but rather gave him false expectations.

He blames his education, in part, for why he went to prison at the age of 19, as he did not see the value of going to school.

“No one told me I could be a doctor, I could be a lawyer, I could be any other thing,” Nunn said. “They only told me that if I wanted to achieve the maximum success that I could be a sports player, a star in sports.”

Nunn believes that the educational system is still flawed and does not prepare students from poor areas for success. Rather, he feels that society is giving the next generation of African Americans more false expectations and encourages them to drop out of school.

“And you could see a lot of people not pursuing their education because they don’t see equality at the end of it, so unless you open this stuff [colleges] up, we are always going to have crime,” Nunn said.

According to Nunn, this lack of educational goals has been destructive to the African American community. The lack of opportunities, he believes, leads to desperation which in turn leads to increased crime in poor neighborhoods. As a result, many individuals from poor neighborhoods have criminal backgrounds and are unemployable.

Nunn wants to combat this by changing the state’s policy on hiring. His goal is to get rid of the question on applications that asks the criminal history of the applicant. This is part of what is known as the “Ban the Box Campaign.” He believes that this question cost communities billions of dollars in potential income.

“So we could have a community, and in that community we could be losing a lot of money because when I say ‘ban the box,’ you all hear ‘jobs,’ I don’t want you to hear ‘jobs,’ I want you to hear ‘economy’ because if you look at it in the real terms, what they take out of poor communities as a result of the discrimination that they practice just with this group is from $65 to $75 billion a year,” Nunn said.

Nunn believes that if former inmates had the ability to work, they could bring money back into their communities rather than having the potential money go elsewhere.

Nunn also shared some of his other potential solutions, such as his plans to build Multicultural Centers for the Strategic Study of Peace to invest in struggling communities, but also stressed on the need for the next generation to push for change.

“Some of the solutions that I expect that will come forward will not come forward out of my generation; they will come forward out of yours. If you think about the great leaders in our country I am beyond that age.”