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Transcript- Episode 114: The Intersection of Education and Incarceration: Addressing the School to Prison Pipeline Episode 114

Feb 27, 2024

00:00:00 Leslie

I think we do have a responsibility to that segment of the workforce because a lot of those individuals are going to be reentering to our communities and may find themselves in community college without our help. They may just find their way here and we're prepared to help them.


00:00:12 Leslie

Does it have to be that difficult? Can they get credit for prior learning for what they've done in their either courses they've taken or work they've performed towards maybe you're in there developing a certain skillset that dovetails quite nicely into a CTE program that we have. Can we give you credit for prior learning so that you can apply that, get through a program of study even quicker and get into a good job?


00:00:39 Christina

The workforce landscape is rapidly changing, and educators and their institutions need to keep up. Preparing students before they enter the workforce to make our communities and businesses stronger is at the core of getting an education. But we need to understand how to change and adjust so that we can begin to project where things are headed before we even get there. So, how do we begin to predict the future?


00:01:04 Salvatrice

Hi, I'm Salvatrice Cummo, Vice President of Economic & Workforce Development at Pasadena City College and host of this podcast.


00:01:12 Christina

And I'm Christina Barsi, producer and co-host of this podcast.


00:01:16 Salvatrice

And we are starting the conversation about the Future of Work. We'll explore topics like how education can partner with industry, how to be more equitable, and how to attain one of our highest goals, more internships and PCC students in the workforce.


00:01:30 Salvatrice

We at Pasadena City College want to lead the charge in closing the gap between what our students are learning and what the demands of the workforce will be once they enter. This is a conversation that impacts all of us, you, the employers, the policy makers, the educational institutions, and the community as a whole.


00:01:50 Christina

We believe change happens when we work together, and it all starts with having a conversation. I'm Christina Barsi.


00:01:58 Salvatrice

And I'm Salvatrice Cummo, and this is the Future of Work. Welcome back to our Future of Work Podcast. This is Salvatrice, your host, and I am joined today by my friend and colleague in Economic and Workforce Development, Ms. Leslie Thompson. Hey, Leslie.


00:02:12 Leslie

Hey, Salvatrice.


00:02:14 Salvatrice

Good to have you back. Our conversations are always, I wouldn't say intense, but definitely action-packed. And we have an action-packed topic today for sure. Our topic today is around a conversation that you and I had basically in the hallway about a segment of the workforce prison labor and the fact that we don't necessarily, as practitioners within the academic space talk about prison labor and all of the inequities and services offered or not offered, et cetera, et cetera.


00:02:49 Salvatrice

But what we discovered in our conversation is that there's more to it. And in order for us to really do a deep dive within that segment of the population prison labor, we needed to understand one of the root causes so that we can properly address that topic as well as maybe understand where some interventions as community colleges, where can we intervene, where can we intersect, and where could we maybe help address and mitigate. And so, what we discovered was that we really needed to acknowledge and talk about the school to prison pipeline.


00:03:24 Leslie

I think that's an excellent place to start, for sure. Both conceptually and then just kind of linearly it makes sense that we would start with those early years for these individuals is opportunities for intervention. Just kind of to identify where some of this stuff takes hold.


00:03:42 Salvatrice

For sure. And you know what was really scary, and also I'm really kind of embarrassed by it, if I can be honest here on this call with you, is at no time during my professional career has professionals within this space of economic and workforce development has ever mentioned the issue of school to prison pipeline, honestly.


00:04:06 Salvatrice

I mean, within these walls, within these academic walls, I have never ever heard anyone within our space of, I'm going to say it again, of economic and workforce development professionals really talk about that. And to go back to some of the things that you and I have shared is like, and you always say this all the time, we're in the people business. Like we can't talk about workforce without talking about some of the social justice issues that arise. And the school to prison pipeline is one of them.


00:04:33 Salvatrice

So, I think it might be a good idea for us to kind of broadly discuss and acknowledge that issue before we kind of go into what we really wanted to do a deep dive or unpack, which was that segment of the population, the prison workforce.


00:04:48 Leslie

Well, I think to kick it off with broad definitions, we talk about school to prison pipeline. It's not a new term. I know it's new maybe in workforce development in this instance here but it's not a new topic. It's not a new ... some folks are talking about it outside. I would agree with you that I think it's problematic that it's not a topic that's addressed broadly and loudly in our world, but it is on the college campus.


00:05:14 Leslie

There is an awareness in the college campus, it's not that PCC's not aware, it's that the work of economic and workforce development has not yet kind of delved into it, but broadly so the school to prison pipeline refers to systemic patterns where students are kind of pushed out of schools and into the criminal justice system most often, always marginalized communities, people of color and there's a whole host of contributing factors.


00:05:41 Leslie

And I don't think that anybody starts out and says, "Hey, we're going to create this school that's going to be particularly about churning out future inmates." That's not that. It's behaviors and its culture and its systemic patterns that happen that contribute to the perfect kind of recipe or whatever for this pipeline to take root in .


00:06:06 Leslie

I don't think that it's intentional. Like there's no school that calls itself that, but it's certainly rooted in bias. It's certainly rooted in systemic oppression, which is intentional if you're not doing anything to change it. So, that's definitely worth talking about.


00:06:23 Leslie

There are opportunities for community colleges to intervene, I think in those spaces early on. We know that at this level we have partnerships with K through 12. We know that we need to get in there and offer dual enrollment.


00:06:38 Leslie

We know that we want to get students from K through 12 right into community college, that's intentional. And we do that all day long, I don't know. And can't speak to what is being done to really target the most vulnerable of that segment. People that are clearly on a path to a life of incarceration or just down that road.


00:07:01 Leslie

Where is the kind of entry point for community colleges to get in there and say, "You know what, take this route because we're offering all these things over here. You can get credit now. You can start taking classes now. Come right in. We have all these wraparound services when you get here, we're going to get you through a system. We're going to get you through a system that's not going to hurt you." And so, that's where my interest lies in identifying that early piece and how I think community colleges can kind of mitigate that.


00:07:27 Leslie

We probably should have started with, and I think it's fair to say we're not experts on this. This is not our wheelhouse prison systems, incarcerate or any of this. But we are charged with, by virtue of our roles, we are charged with considering workforce development issues. And so, that's how we kind of got here was looking at this idea that there's this population of this workforce that this imprisoned workforce that's being exploited. That the skills that are being learned aren't being maximized post-release.


00:08:02 Leslie

And then there's another opportunity for community colleges to kind of jump in and say, "Hey, we missed you at this point, but we're going to jump in here while you're here and we're going to offer training, certification maybe degrees and then when you get out, you are going to come right back to us. We're going to get you again. Or we're going to get you for the first time, depending on what programs exist. And we're going to give you services to help you navigate skill development, reentry, navigating the community college system, transferring, if that's what you want to do, helping you get jobs, internships, work-based learning experiences, apprenticeships.


00:08:39 Leslie

All the things that we do for all of our students. We can be intentional about providing those particular students those services as well but it has to be intentional. And our job as workforce development is to work with employers to get them to understand the importance of diversity and how this is also part of your diversity initiative by the way.


00:09:00 Salvatrice

But I mean, I want to go back to what you said earlier, which was, how do we intervene earlier? It's not to say that we shouldn't have all the support services and programs to assist during their time in a correctional facility, but after. Like those exist and I think that you're right there's so much more to unpack there.


00:09:26 Salvatrice

What do we do in the upfront while we were discussing this, you drew a little map. And y ou said it's like if we were to intervene with these schools that intentionally/unintentionally are basically cultivating a population into the prison system or into the criminal justice system, I should say. If there was a way for us to intervene to say that community college is your choice. It's either community college or you go here, but then explain that part.


00:09:57 Salvatrice

Because you explained it really well. You said Salvatrice it's like a fork. It's like a flicking if we can intervene at this entry point from the school to the community college, and then there's another entry point where they're wandering around, they're doing all these things and it's like, okay, now we need another entry point. Could you explain that? Because that's really important. Because I think that there's two very clear opportunities for community colleges.


00:10:18 Leslie

There's a trajectory for any student, for any student, but in particular for students who are at risk. High school students who are at risk. I'm talking K-12 again. And they're either going to go right into the workforce in some capacity, some entry level job. We are trying to get in there.


00:10:35 Leslie

Community colleges are trying to get in there and be like start taking some credit classes, start taking some classes while you're in high school. Because then when you come over, it's going to be so much easier and we're going to get you transferred out or we're going to get you into the workforce, and that's our thing. And that we're trying to boost enrollment. Let's be honest, we're trying to boost enrollment now.


00:10:50 Salvatrice

Now we're doing more than just boost enrollment.


00:10:53 Leslie

We are, because we believe that an educated populace is a ... no. I'm a big fan of community college, you know that. So, we're trying to boost enrollment. We're trying to get students in from the high schools right into matriculate to the college broadly. We'll agree that it's just broadly.


00:11:08 Leslie

But there are students in those high schools and other schools, other kind of alternative schools, and in every school probably that are on a different trajectory, that if they aren't giving intentional support services, intentional efforts are not made to attract those students this way they're going to go off on a different path.


00:11:32 Leslie

They have disproportionate discipline in their environment. They have security officers, police presence on the campus. It creates a culture. You're essentially indoctrinating these people into thinking that you're supposed to be someplace where there are police. You're supposed to be someplace heavily monitored and disciplined and zero tolerance for any minor infraction, even just being a kid, you know what I mean? So, that's a process. You're creating a mindset there.


00:12:01 Leslie

So, we have to be intentional to get in at that level too, and those instances and say, "No, come over here. Take some classes, learn some stuff, take advantage of these things." And then maybe we get you in here and get him in a first year program like we have.


00:12:13 Leslie

So, that entry point is somewhere, and again, it was just a doodle, but it's somewhere along this trajectory. And then the fork happens when either you graduate school or you don't. I mean, not everybody graduates. No shame in that.


00:12:26 Leslie

I was actually one of those kind of iffy kids. So, I was doing other stuff. But you either go this way to decide you're going to go to school and you're going to do something different, or you continue down this path that you've been kind of programmed to think is kind of normal.


00:12:41 Leslie

You live in a police environment and heavily regulated and people don't trust you. And you're told that you're bad, inherently bad, and you're primed for the system. And you go right into survival crimes or petty crimes. Or maybe you're already in the foster care system and you don't have a support network, there's lots of things. I'm oversimplifying, but there are lots of complex issues that contribute to this.


00:13:07 Leslie

And for whatever reason, these individuals find themselves incarcerated. We've missed our opportunity to get them before that fork in the road. Now we have to be intentional about, is there an opportunity for us to get them inside while they're serving their time, paying their debt to society. However you want to look at it. Whether wrongfully accused or not, we don't know why anybody's in there.


00:13:29 Leslie

I'm going to say earlier, the community colleges take the top 100%. We don't judge. We don't judge, you come to us, it doesn't matter to us if you're coming to us from high school or prison, it shouldn't matter, we provide services equally. We have to adjust our services so that they're relevant.


00:13:46 Leslie

So, anyway, we try to get them when they're inside, if we can offer them training programs, certificates, whatever, some sort of educational benefit or skills building benefit. And if we can't do that or we don't have the partnerships yet, then we have to be prepared for when they are reentering. We want to give them a space to reenter here.


00:14:03 Leslie

And PCC, we do that. We have core on campus, what stands for community overcoming recidivism through education, which is great. And they offer services around skill development, career prepping, helping them navigate the community college system. And so, we have that reentry kind of welcome space. So, that's where community colleges can come in at a different point.


00:14:23 Leslie

So, all that to say, I think there's three vital points for us to interject and to have the most impact, we should get it early. We should get it early. That's how it came into this whole well, let's talk about the school to prison pipeline. It's a whole thing. It exists.


00:14:37 Leslie

Well, if we get there early, then we can kind of mitigate that. Offer resources and support and just different pathways. Get these students into community college or into the workforce anywhere but in prison. But then we went on this whole other tangent because this is a huge broad topic.


00:14:55 Salvatrice

It sure is. It sure is.


00:14:56 Leslie

So, why I say we're just trying to get enrollment, that's our goal. But that's not a bad goal because our getting enrollment helps people. Our getting enrollment builds better communities. It's not a bad thing when I say that. Prison, however, and those who benefit from prison labor corporations who exploit that whole system, that whole network, they're never going to be interested in changing it. They're never going to be interested in mitigating the school to prison pipeline is literally their pipeline.


00:15:28 Salvatrice

Their workforce pipeline, that's right.


00:15:29 Leslie

That's right. So, I'm like, "Well, we're just trying to get students. Well, yeah and there's nothing wrong with that. It's to everyone's benefit." They're trying to get bodies too . So, if you just think about people, we're trying to get people, they're trying to get people. Our system doesn't hurt anybody.


00:15:43 Leslie

And if it has unintentionally hurt anyone , I believe that our system is working to correct that through our DEI efforts, through our other conversations. Are we perfect? No. Do systemic barriers and issues exist? Of course. But our system's not trying to hurt anybody and we're not exploiting anyone. I don't think.


00:16:01 Salvatrice

I really don't think so either . And I appreciate that you shared the tangents that we went on because we did. In full transparency, we were discussing this episode and we needed to gather our thoughts a little tighter, but we did go on this tangent too , which is the number five. Like you said four but there's a fifth too .


00:16:21 Salvatrice

The contracts or what you shared earlier, corporations that bank on prison labor, that benefit from prison labor and then the criminal justice system also benefits as well. Now, again, I'm going to underscore your statement. We are not the experts, I'm not suggesting that we know everything and anything about the criminal justice system, I don't.


00:16:44 Salvatrice

But there are articles and interviews and research and data that can support that there are corporations who go into contracts and deals or whatever you want to call them for prison labor. And so, there's a need, there's a need to create time and space to unpack that even further.


00:17:05 Salvatrice

But it is our role to educate both the workforce and the employers, we know that. In our minds, we know that's our role. I don't know that everyone feels that it's practitioners within this space feel that it's our role to educate the prison workforce.


00:17:23 Salvatrice

We do have to educate employers in many different capacities. Not only address this, I don't know if it's an issue, but address this reality, and the pros and cons to that. But it's also our duty to create a more holistic, harmonious (I don't even know how to explain it), approach to prison labor. Good, bad or indifferent, it needs to be addressed.


00:17:49 Leslie

I agree. Obviously. I agree. And I also think it is appropriate for us to have this conversation. Because what we're talking about are intermediaries that exist to contract out incarcerated individuals, to contract them out to private companies, for profit companies, and to share revenue with the prison system. And the incarcerated individuals receive very little compensation.


00:18:15 Leslie

And you can make the argument that, well, it's expensive to imprison people and so we have to offset those expenses and this and that. But do you have to mark up what you sell them exorbitantly and pay them? So, I mean, there's a lot, we can go into a lot of the ethics around it. So, I guess that's the thing I'm interested in, is the ethics around contracting prison labor without also building in some sort of pipeline to meaningful employment post-incarceration, not everyone that works will get out.


00:18:45 Leslie

That's a reality. And that's an individual by individual. We're not here to solve that, that's not us. But you're telling me that while these individuals are doing this work and developing these skill sets and these expertise, that we don't have a role in ensuring that when they're released, they can leverage those skill sets and expertise towards meaningful employment?


00:19:07 Leslie

What's our role in educating employers? Again, educating the workforce in general. I think we do have a responsibility to that segment of the workforce because a lot of those individuals are going to be reentering to our communities and may find themselves in community college without our help. They may just find their way here and we're prepared to help them.


00:19:27 Leslie

Does it have to be that difficult? Can they get credit for prior learning for what they've done in their either courses they've taken or work they've performed towards maybe you're in there developing a certain skill set that dovetails quite nicely into a CTE program that we have. Can we give you credit for prior learning so that you can apply that, get through a program of study even quicker and get into a good job?


00:19:50 Leslie

Can we get you an apprenticeship? Can we get you an internship? Can we get you some sort of foot in the door? Now we've already done the work of kind of trying to change the mindset. That's what we do. I think it's 100% appropriate for us to educate those different entities or to reach out, to be kind of poking our nose in all this stuff.


00:20:07 Leslie

And it's up to us to raise the conversation. If it falls on deaf ears, it falls on deaf ears. But our charge is to, I think to advocate for the workforce and that's a percentage of the workforce and potential students. So, it hits all of our needs as community colleges.


00:20:23 Leslie

We're trying to attract and retain students always. We're always trying to attract and retain students. We're trying to prepare them for the workforce. And we're trying to engage with industry in such a way that not only are the students ready for industry, but industry is ready for our students, we've talked about that before.


00:20:41 Leslie

We talked about the employers being ready for our students. That also means we need to take responsibility for educating them what diversity really looks like. Why these particular individuals are going to be good employees, we talk about moving from credentials to skill-based learning.


00:20:58 Leslie

Well, how would that work with an individual who has maybe 10 years of experiencing doing heavy manufacturing while incarcerated and has developed this expertise comes out, has no degree, has no educational background really whatsoever. Maybe you've gotten a GED inside, I don't know.


00:21:17 Leslie

But they have the skills. They're not going to get hired. They're not going to get hired even if you've switched to a skill-based hiring. The idea of switching to skill-based hiring, that's a whole other topic is that you can get different people from different backgrounds. But does that include someone with a record? I don't know. Haven't gotten that far in the conversation yet but I think it should.


00:21:36 Salvatrice

And this is why I enjoy our dialogue so much. Not only because we're popcorn heads, we're constantly going all over the place, but then we go on our tangents and things like that, but we always shed light where light needs to be shed. We don't necessarily always dive deep in each subject and eventually we will.


00:21:54 Salvatrice

But what I appreciate about our conversation is I bet there is a listener or there are listeners who feel the same way and who have some information or expertise in this topic. And I encourage our listener to reach out to us. We'll have our information in the show notes, but we, I'm going to speak for you at this point, Leslie, sorry.


00:22:19 Salvatrice

We want to hear from our listener because this is a topic, again, that's complex, it's heavy, it's delicate , there's so many moving parts. But if we can continue the momentum on this current conversation throughout the year, I think that it's really going to help inform a lot of the work that we're doing.


00:22:36 Salvatrice

Not just the current programming, but future programming. And also set the trajectory of where a division like EWD, where we should be, the spaces that we should be in. So, with that, I think we've done well today. We had a nice conversation. Is there any last thought, anything that you want to share at this point?


00:22:57 Leslie

I would just like to invite deeper dialogue with more parties. Particularly around the idea that there is a several points of entry for community colleges to mitigate, intervene, and address the issue. Because I think it's a big issue that's just with regard to educated and employing individuals.


00:23:16 Leslie

The second piece of that is the ethical concerns or ethical considerations around prison labor and do we engage in that dialogue? I think that's also an important topic. It's , as I said at the top, it's a broad topic and we're not experts and we're looking to engage with experts or just learn more if that's a value outside of our role as community college practitioners.


00:23:39 Leslie

A lot of the issues that come up, a lot of the things that we talk about, it's not just through the lens of in our capacity as administrators at a college, that's not the only lens that at least I'm going to speak for me, I'm not going to speak for you.


00:23:52 Leslie

I don't look at it only through that lens. For me, I think of some things as moral imperatives and because of that, I think it's worth bringing this up. And they're bringing the other things up and some of the other stuff we've talked about, I think it's important. But I think more dialogue is needed around this topic. I think it's huge and I think there's exploration to be had if people are interested and want to engage.


00:24:15 Salvatrice

Ditto. Thanks for bringing it home, Leslie . I really, really appreciate it. And I look forward to further conversations about this and others. I'm sure we have plenty. Thanks again, Leslie . And we'll see you at the next round.


00:24:28 Leslie

Thank you.


00:24:30 Salvatrice

Thank you for listening to The Future of Work Podcast. Make sure you subscribed on your favorite listening platform so you can easily get new episodes every Tuesday.


00:24:40 Salvatrice

You can reach out to us by clicking on the website link below in the show notes to collaborate, partner, or just chat about all things Future of Work. We'd love to connect with you. All of us here at the Future of Work and Pasadena City College wish you safety and wellness.