Prep for Prison or Prosperity: The Expansion of Anyon’s Hierarchical Structure for the 21st Century

By Clare Kennedy



In 1980, Jean Anyon published her article, “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” which analyzed how social class affects American public school education. Anyon establishes a model dividing public schools into four categories- working class, middle-class, affluent professional, and executive elite. She concludes that the social class primarily of which a school is composed dictates the pedagogical methods utilized and systematically replicates the conditions under which the typical occupation operates in order to prepare students for a life working those jobs. This system recycles the students into the same social class and jobs as their parents and community members. It prohibits upward socioeconomic mobility by not providing students the skills they need to obtain higher-paying jobs. Anyon’s work was groundbreaking, comprehensive, and undeniable; however, this model needs to be expanded. The school-to-prison pipeline has generated its own, new category of public school.


The fifth type of school in the United States that Anyon did not mention is what I propose as the Incarceration Preparedness School. Like the other schools in Anyon’s model, the Incarceration Preparedness School replicates the conditions under which the typical occupation operates (in this case the occupation, or lack thereof, is imprisonment). This type of school was created by the formation of the school-to-prison pipeline and is an outgrowth of Anyon’s working class categorized schools. The school-to-prison pipeline is the process by which schools systematically force students into the juvenile and criminal justice systems through policies and practices- most notably zero-tolerance policies- that criminalize student actions and dispense severe punishments putting the students in contact with law enforcement. The pipeline disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and students of color as they are most likely to attend schools that employ these zero-tolerance policies and have high rates of police in school. Because the pipeline started developing during the 1980s and 1990s, Anyon’s article was a bit too early to witness this new category emerge.


As a mechanism of the school-to-prison pipeline, the Incarceration Preparedness Schools recreate prisons’ physical and cultural environments and demand the same mindless, compliant behaviors in students as prisons demand from prisoners. The school-to-prison pipeline system attempts to mold students to be the ideal prisoner - acritical and docile-, and familiarizes them to know no other manner of living other than the one relegated to prisoners. The Incarceration Preparedness School replicates the conditions of prisons in three primary ways: curriculum, culture, and physical environment.


In Incarceration Preparedness Schools, the curriculums are formulated in a way that stifles students’ intellectual and creative prowess and ability, and represses their individuality and critical thinking skills in a high-stakes academic environment. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) of 2001 implemented a system of accountability for public schools in the United States that is dependent upon student standardized testing scores wherein a school’s operation is threatened if students inadequately perform. The schools that were underperforming were often those consisting primarily of marginalized, BIPOC students, and these students were left to bear a heavy burden as they were now responsible for their school’s survival. Schools began implementing curriculums that were centered around testing, and testing outcomes were prioritized over genuine student intellectual development. Students are expected only to memorize and complete drills and tasks in a manner that is rote and superficial, exactly as prisoners are expected to operate. Incarceration Preparedness Schools’ negligence towards developing intelligent, independent, and insightful students inhibits the students’ upward class mobility, and their ability to attend high-performing colleges and achieve high-paying jobs, which increases the risks of economic instability and entrance into the prison system. The curriculum in Incarceration Preparedness Schools replicates the shallow intellectual and behavioral operation asked of prisoners and limits the students’ intellectual and creative growth altogether.


The cultural and social environments in Incarceration Preparedness Schools primarily created from school policies and staff-to-student interactions can be devastating to students’ autonomy. In this capacity, the Incarceration Preparedness Schools operate similar to Anyon’s working class schools. Teachers demand strict order and compliance from their students and often attempt to claim as much control over materials, time, and space in a classroom as possible. Students are given no access to academic materials unless afforded to them under the strict scrutiny and observation of the teacher. Teachers may control time by dictating when students can use the bathroom or when they are dismissed from a class, regardless of the bell system. Space is often controlled by teachers through limiting the movement of students and enforcing assigned seating, as an example. In Incarceration Preparedness Schools, the expectation for students to be still and silent throughout the day and the control teachers wield over the students in the classroom replicates prison-guard to prisoner dynamics. The intense monitoring of students and harsh discipline inflicted upon the students by police officers in schools also mirrors the relationship between prison guards to prisoners. Incarceration Preparedness Schools enforce the same social dynamics between the controller and the controlled that are explicitly found in prisons and ensures that students develop the compliant social behaviors desired of them.


The most pronounced expression of the phenomenon in which prison conditions are replicated within some schools is through the physical environment. Incarceration Preparedness Schools often have bars on windows, metal detectors at the entrances, tall fences and gates surrounding the school, and surveillance systems. Not only do prisons have the same physical structures as these schools, but these structures are the foundation of what makes a prison. The physical environment of schools likely invokes the feeling of being surveilled and isolated and perhaps criminalized or imprisoned, as prisoners do by their physical environment. The harsh structures also serve as physical enforcements of isolation between the students and the community outside the school. Recreating the physical environment of prisons in schools means students are developed to associate with and exist within prison-like conditions. Incarceration Preparedness Schools are a visible indication to students that they are to exist within a confine of imprisonment.


The environmental and pedagogical nature of Incarceration Preparedness Schools are mechanisms of the school-to-prison pipeline in which the conditions of prisons are replicated to preserve social stratification by preparing and funneling primarily BIPOC students into the prison system, locked in their prescribed social class. Replicating imprisonment conditions through curriculum, social environment, and physical environment is the hidden curriculum of work as mentioned by Anyon- it is the systematic identification with and preparation for the processes of an incarcerated life and the intention for students victimized by the school-to-prison pipeline to be recycled into the criminal justice system. Students are not only forced into the prison system, but they are conditioned to know no other way of being than that of the ideal, obedient prisoner.