The “Cradle-to-Prison” Pipeline

All children should get what they need to live happy, healthy lives no matter what their circumstances. This includes arming children early on with the tools they’ll need in order to become successful adults. But unfortunately, the past continues to strangle the present and the future in the US of A. Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to become incarcerated. Black children are nearly nine times and Latino children are three times as likely as White children to have an incarcerated parent. Blacks constitute one-third and Latinos one-fifth of the prisoners in the USA and 1 in 3 Black men, 20 to 29 years old, is under correctional supervision or control. Of the 2.3 million in jail or prison, 64 percent are minority. Much closer to home, every year 50,000 pre-schoolers are suspended from public pre-school programs. This does not consider all of the preschool students that are suspended from private programs. These children represent the very beginning of the school-to-prison-pipeline.


We believe Frederick Douglass’s correct observation that “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” And yet, no single sector or group can solve these child-and nation-threatening crises alone but all of us can together. We must replace our current paradigm of punishment as a first resort with a paradigm of prevention and early intervention.

What do I need to know about the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline?

  1. Children of color are more likely to live in poverty than their White peers – Black and Latino children make up a disproportionate percentage of children living in poverty.
  2. Children of color and those growing up in poverty are less likely to receive quality education – children growing up at risk, in poverty, and/or are Latino or Black receive lower scores on their standardized exams. This is not a reflection of the children themselves; instead it is a reflection of systemic inequity that plagues families and children from low-income communities.
  3. Children of color face stricter discipline in schools – students of color, particularly Black and Latino students, are treated with harsher discipline and thus are less likely to graduate from high school. This puts them on a trajectory making it less likely to graduate, and more likely to go to prison.
  4. Children of color are more likely to end up in prisonBlack and Latino children are more likely to go to jail in their lifetime than their white peers not because of potential, but because of systemic inequity as a result of race and poverty.

What Can I Do? Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund says, “Every child needs a healthy start; a head start – that means early childhood education; a safe start; a fair start… and a successful transition to adulthood.” It is crucial that while we hold space in our hearts and minds for those negatively impacted, we also keep believing in our creativity and capacity to generate better solutions. The first step is acknowledging and understanding how the intersection of poverty and race collide to negatively impact a child’s likelihood to reach their full academic and personal potential. Watching injustice unfold is heartbreaking, and the complexity of the issue can make it seem nearly impossible to overcome, but this is not stopping all of us!

  • Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in the City of Baltimore has been doing something different when children act out. They are teaching their students about meditation and mindfulness to interrupt disruptive behaviors and improve children’s attention span and focus, instead of resorting quickly to punishment. As a result, the school has had zero student suspensions since they started this practice. Children are bringing this awareness to their homes too. Parents tell the school that their children are reminding them to be mindful and use meditation when they are stressed out 😃
  • As early childhood educators, we must explore and learn to manage our implicit racial biases. Implicit biases can be understood as automatic and unconscious stereotypes that influence judgments and decisions regarding others. Many of the underlying causes of preschool discipline may not be rooted in child behavior, but rather flaws in adults’ decision-making.
  • Shift away from destructive approaches to discipline and practice ways to build crucial social-emotional skills in your students. Help children build critical skills such as sharing and taking turns, playing games together, and how to effectively cope with a range of emotions.
  • Introduce kids to books they can see themselves in, and role models who can show them the possibilities of what they can become.

Resources for additional learning: