KU News Service

Book explores how minority girls with disabilities are criminalized, form 'ecology of resistance' in juvenile jails

Tue, 02/20/2018

LAWRENCE — Reams of data and countless studies have pointed out how minorities are disproportionately incarcerated and punished in the American justice system, despite similar rates of law-breaking between races. Less attention is paid, however, to the perspectives of those actually in the system. A new book examines the viewpoints of an even-less-represented group, female minorities with disabilities. How they got there, how they cope and the role of education are at the center of “The Pedagogy of Pathologization: Dis/abled Girls of Color in the School-prison Nexus.”

Subini Ancy Annamma, assistant professor of special education at the University of Kansas, spent two years with 10 minority girls with disabilities in juvenile jails to learn more about their lives, their education in the facilities, how they view themselves and are viewed by prison staff and educators, and how their interactions reflect society’s views of education and who is a criminal.

The girls were between 14 and 22 years old while Annamma spent time with them, attending class, lunch, appointments and experiencing their education in juvenile jails. The girls were in either maximum security facilities or “step down” facilities, which were lower security level.

“The book is from their perspective,” Annamma said. “We hear a lot about the school-to-prison pipeline and kids in crisis, but not from their perspective. It’s trying to understand their education trajectory and what roles schools played in their criminalization.”

While she didn’t focus on the girls’ crimes, Annamma found that, regardless of which facility they were in and why, they were viewed as criminals first, before consideration was given to their status as students, girls or any other aspect of their identities. Military-like practices were common, including pushups for throwing paper and missing a trashcan or a requirement to sit still with hands on a desk, with knees and feet held together for five minutes prior to each class, despite a lack of research showing the technique is effective, Annamma said.

In her interviews with the girls she gained an understanding of their “strategies of resistance,” or ways they learned to adapt to and survive systems not designed to care for them. The girls showed savvy ways of coping, including admitting to “being bad” or telling staff what they wanted to hear to get reprimands over with, or situations in which they found it necessary to fight, flee or deflect shame cast upon them. They also discussed the disability label being both good and bad. Some genuinely appreciated any extra help they received, while others didn’t believe the label got them the services they needed.

“Disability was often seen as a deficit in these places, just as it is in society,” Annamma said. “It was one more thing to surveil. Because teachers did not trust them, the girls often had to prove they needed help or were just told to try harder.”

Criminal identity was the foremost concern of the staff dealing with the girls. They often spoke of the redemptive power of juvenile justice and how young people in the facilities are “the worst of the worst” offenders, even though juvenile jail populations have been falling for years. In all response to any negative behavior, the young women's status as criminals was discussed prominently.

“If a girl passed a note, they would talk about her criminal behavior. If a student cheated on a test, it wasn’t because the teacher left the test out in the open and it was easy. These behaviors were not viewed as something any high schooler might do, it was because the girls were criminals,” Annamma said.

The author points out she is not arguing negative behavior should not be addressed or that the staff does not care for the young people, but that the hyperfocus on criminal identity means the relationships between the girls and jail staff are inauthentic. Even the curriculum was determined by the fact that they were in juvenile jail schools. Yet girls nurtured hopes for their future and empathy for others, even in these sites that were barren in the same qualities for them.

In the book’s introduction, Annamma explores the idea of the “school-prison nexus” or how students are funneled from schools to prison through a number of routes. While the more popular term “school-to-prison pipeline” implies students go directly from the former to the latter, nexus examines the reality that it’s not always that simple or direct and that countless factors can lead to incarceration. She also explains why she chose the marginalized population she did and links overrepresentation of female minorities and students with disabilities in the criminal legal system. In subsequent chapters, she offers a framework drawing on interdisciplinary research from education, women and girls studies, critical race theory, disability studies and legal studies to explore the girls’ trajectories with qualitative methods.

The final chapter examines a “pedagogy of resistance.” Annamma argues that instead of focusing solely on criminal identity, the findings suggest that changing the pedagogy, or how schools teach, the curriculum, or materials they teach and shifting the relationship from management to one based on solidarity would create an educational ecology more geared to successfully addressing negative behavior and preparing the young people for future success. Annamma will teach a literacy class in a juvenile jail in the near future embracing the idea of a Disability Critical Race or DisCrit Ecology with students learning how others like them have survived the system and building more positive relationships. She hopes that approach will become more widespread but admits it will take a rethinking of the criminal justice system and why people commit crimes. She again points to the mountains of research that show crimes are disproportionately punished by race, gender, and disability and that sentencing for crimes is drastically unequal.

“If we know all of that, what if we were to approach it not as, ‘you’re a criminal,’ but as someone who is dealing with an unequal system,” Annamma said.

The girls at the heart of the book will have their stories represented in a unique, live format at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 at The Commons. The event, “#DisCrit Butterflies,” will be a book launch and “scene burst” in which excerpts from the book will be shared and scenes from Darren Canady’s play “Black Butterflies,” based on the work of Annamma and others, will be presented. The event will engage the audience in the ways female minorities are labeled defiant, disobedient and disabled in a carceral state and how they resist with ingenuity. For more information, visit

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