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Compulsory: Education and the Dispossession of Youth in a Prison School

reviewed by Brian Lozenski - June 16, 2017

coverTitle: Compulsory: Education and the Dispossession of Youth in a Prison School
Author(s): Sabina E. Vaught
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
ISBN: 0816696217, Pages: 392, Year: 2017
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“[Education] is only the image and reflection of society. It imitates and reproduces the latter in abbreviated form; it does not create it” (Durkheim, 1897/1951, p. 340). If we take sociologist Emile Durkheim’s claim to be true in our present moment, several subsequent questions arise. Prevalent among them is, “how do we understand the role of state-based education amidst what Erica Meiners (2015), and others have referred to as the carceral state?” In Meiners’ framing, the carceral state is the “multiple intersecting state agencies and institutions—including not-for-profits doing the work of the state—that have punishing functions and effectively regulate poor communities including child and family services, welfare/workfare agencies, public education, immigration, and health and human services” (p. 122). The carceral state as the “image and reflection” of the US education system, particularly in historically disinvested communities of Color, has been considered extensively in the body of literature framing the School-to-Prison Pipeline/Nexus (e.g. Fasching-Varner et al., 2017; Nocella et al., 2014; Wald & Losen, 2003).  Sabina Vaught’s Compulsory: Education and the Dispossession of Youth in a Prison School is a substantial contribution to the field and challenges readers to take a sharp turn from prevailing conceptions of the relationship between state-based education and incarceration.

Vaught asks readers “to suspend your disbelief, to defamiliarize what you think is fundamentally true or partly true or what you wish were true…” (p. 37). She asks us to detach from a “liberal, melioristic” presupposition of the school-to-prison pipeline framework, namely, the “misconception” that “school is good.” Vaught’s poetic, haunting, and disturbing dive into the depths of “Lincoln,” a prison school for adolescent males, makes this task easier. Her monograph, drawing from a critical ethnographic study of Lincoln and the larger state Division of Juvenile Affairs (DJA), details the excruciating pain of the mundane realities of the young inmates’ school/prison lives, the rationalizations of teachers and school/prison administrators, and the societal mechanisms to ensure what Vaught calls the supremacist state “Removal[1]” of children of Color from their familial “private” environments. The underlying premise of Compulsory demands that readers question dominant constructions of what Vaught delineates as the state, private, and public domains of everyday life.

Sabina Vaught is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Education at Tufts University in Massachusetts where she is also the director of the program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her commitments to critical theories, including feminism and critical race theory are evident in her writing as she provides a masterful weaving of foundational theorists, from Gramsci to Crenshaw, and Habermas to Butler. Yet, Compulsory reads as a highly personal narrative pulsating with the disdain that Vaught conjures for the structures she exposes.

Compulsory refutes linear time. “Prison is temporally allochronic… It is forcibly located in a different time from the Outside, from recognized society... my ethnographic charge is not to resolve this temporal incongruity in power but instead to step directly into it as part of the research field” (p.7). Vaught effectively accomplishes this by organizing the text allochronically, or through “the asynchrony of time” (p. 7). At a micro level, the stories, interview data, and analyses are presented out of chronological order to challenge readers to consider this dimension of prison life. At a macro level, Vaught orients readers by shaping the text into two major sections: the Outside and the Inside.

The Outside illuminates the structural design of state-run, compulsory schooling and its subsequent carceral technologies that Vaught describes as “Removal” through the “mapping,” “surveillance,” and “second possession” of Black and Brown youth. It is constructed as a shifting network of institutions and technologies that weave together, seeking to blur the private, public, and state lives of youth of Color living in poverty. The youth in her study (nearly all Black and Brown) faced highly precarious circumstances that turned youthful mistakes, misunderstandings, and often-petty crimes into negative life altering circumstances. Vaught illustrates how state-run education became a powerful mechanism to allow the supremacist logics of the state to take hold over the private lives of youth and their families. She documents how schools feed police information to map and surveil youth’s movements in public spaces, such as outside their homes, based on familial relations and anticipated criminality. The hyper-surveillance of youth of Color on the Outside led to their Removal under the guise of “second possession” where “Removal requires an approach modeled in the tradition of trusteeship and managed by the state” (p. 100). Vaught argues, “Children of Color who are committed, detained, incarcerated … are possession in trusteeship of the state, and through their trusteeship… they provide access into and control over the private sphere of people of Color, women in particular” (p. 101). Compulsory connects these complex ideas in creative, yet concise ways that provide clairvoyance to the murky depths of juvenile incarceration.

Juxtaposed with the Outside, Vaught paints an intricate portrait of the Inside of Lincoln, DAJ, and the lives of those that constitute these spaces. A compelling storyteller, Vaught harnesses the desperation and anxiety of the youth on the Inside. She shares their thoughts, uncertainties, provocations, and desires with an extreme compassion. Conversely, she reserves no compassion for the administrators and teachers at Lincoln, save for some of the security staff who are the only people of Color employed by the state in what Vaught refers to as a “conundrum: they were meant to be the henchman and the comforters, the kin and the killers, the victims and the punishers” (p. 261). The youth at Lincoln experience an extreme form of alienation from their education, which is redundant, irrelevant, and does not offer them the credentials they need such as credits or the GED necessary for viable employment on the Outside.

Although Compulsory stands as an overwhelming testimony to Vaught’s foundational presence in the literature, there are some aspects of the text that detract from its overall strength. At times Vaught allows her animus toward the systems to get the best of her. She writes with wit, sarcasm, and a level of shade that draws readers closer to her; however, she does go overboard by getting too personal with her critiques of teachers, when their antagonistic sentiments toward the youth alone suffice. Vaught also expresses her desire to have done the research in a facility for young women rather than young men, but was not able to get access. While she effectively uses this denial to construct the state as a false protector of incarcerated girls, she dedicates a significant amount of space to theorizing about girls in ways that she has little evidence to confirm. It has the effect of further marginalizing incarcerated young women by subsuming their experiences into the transferability of the young men who were a part of this research. Her focus on women was most powerful when exploring and theorizing the plight of mothers of incarcerated sons because the richness of her data was able to support her theorizing.

Minor critiques not withstanding, Compulsory is a masterful work. Sabina Vaught takes readers on an emotional, disruptive, and provocative journey into the depths of the juvenile prison/school system. Vaught plays with the form and function of her writing, inserting prose, imagined scenarios, vignettes, and even a quiz into the text. Although juvenile prison is emphasized as the locus of the text, Compulsory reveals more about school than it does about incarceration. Vaught writes, “Quite often, the argument is made that schools have mimicked or adopted extrajudicial, military, or police state practices... School, I argue, generates repressive practices mimicked by other state apparatuses, juvenile prison among them” (p. 176). This broader takeaway is a call to action for educators, researchers, and others desiring something different for youth of Color. It is a call to rethink our basic assumptions of the purpose and uses of state-based schooling. Compulsory is a must-read for anyone concerned with the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, and prison abolition. It can also be used with practicing and pre-service teachers in coursework to expose the damaging practices of punitive education. Compulsory would also be a powerful text in critical qualitative research courses for its unabashed stance against supremacist, racist power structures that maintain intersectional inequity across race, class, and gender.


1. I try to capture Vaught’s intricate capitalization conventions for proper nouns, which she uses to “describe the powered processes by which people are institutionally or culturally made or make themselves racial subjects…” (p. 13).



Durkheim, E. (1897/1951). Suicide, A study in sociology. New York, NY: Free Press.


Fasching-Varner, K. J., Martin, L. L., Mitchell, R. W., Bennett-Haron, K., &

Daneshzadeh, A. (Eds.) (2017). Understanding, dismantling, and disrupting the prison-to-school pipeline. New York, NY: Lexington Books.


Meiners, E. R. (2015). Trouble with the child in the carceral state. Social Justice, 41(3), 120-144.


Nocella, A. J., Parmar, P., & Stovall, D. (Eds.) (2014). From education to incarceration: Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. New York, NY: Peter Lang.


Wald, J., & Losen, D. J. (2003). Defining and redirecting a school-to-prison pipeline. New directions for youth development, 2003(99), 9-15.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 16, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22050, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 8:49:54 AM

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About the Author
  • Brian Lozenski
    Macalester College
    E-mail Author
    BRIAN D. LOZENSKI, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of urban and multicultural education at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. His research explores the intersections of Black education, critical pedagogy, critical research methodologies, and heritage literacy practices. Dr. Lozenski has explored the impact of intergenerational racialized trauma on youth incarceration. His recent publications include “Pedagogies of Black Eldership: Exploring the Impact of Intergenerational Contact on Youth Research” in Multicultural Perspectives, 2017 and “Beyond Mediocrity: The Dialectics of Crisis in the Continuing Mis-Education of Black Youth” in Harvard Educational Review, 2017.
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