Guest Blog: Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline

13/08/13 COMMENTS 0

Editor’s Note:  From time to time, Lionheart welcomes guest bloggers to write about topics aligned with our mission.  If you would like to be considered for an upcoming guest blog, please contact us at:   Many thanks to Denise Tomasini-Joshi for contributing the following article.

Four Thoughts on Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline

by Denise Tomasini-Joshi

On December 2012 the US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline.  After years of research and attention to this phenomenon by academics, non-profits and advocates, focus by the highest levels of government seems overdue.   As the hearing’s chair, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), noted: for many children the schools are increasingly a gateway for the criminal justice system, depriving them of their right to an education.  While we wait for the glacial pace of federal action, is there anything that cities, municipalities, and even individual schools can do?  Here are 4 broadly supported recommendations that can be implemented at the local level:

1.     Eliminate “zero-tolerance” school discipline policies – In a landmark study titled “Breaking School’s Rules” the Council of State Government’s Justice Center revealed that 23% of children with a disciplinary action – which included suspensions ranging from 1 class to several days – had contact with the justice system as compared with only 2% of children not disciplined.  The study looked at every student in Texas in the seventh grade from the years 2000 to 2002, and found that “frequent violators” – students with more than 11 disciplinary actions – had a 50% chance of having contact with the justice system. 

 One troubling finding of this study is the arbitrary nature of disciplinary actions.  While “zero tolerance” invokes an image of uniformity and consistency, the reality is that disciplinary actions are highly subjective and applied most often, and more harshly, to certain types of students; namely, children of color and children with educational or psychiatric disabilities.  The study found that controlling for other factors, black youth where 32% more likely to receive disciplinary actions than white or Hispanic students. 

 While these finding are upsetting the study also points to signs of hope; the most significant being that schools with similar demographics have used different modes of school discipline to different results.  This means that schools can reduce exclusion without sacrificing safety. 

The implications of the study are clear: “zero-tolerance” policies ultimately hurt particular groups of children as well as the system as a whole.  These policies and the ensuing suspensions should be replaced with other forms of behavior assistance.

 2.     Invest in Restorative Justice Programs – While the first point above, signals a need to reduce the number of disciplinary actions leading to suspensions, schools struggle with addressing misbehavior, particularly when that behavior has consequences for other students. In these cases it’s important not just to discourage and correct the behavior, but to provide recourse to the person affected and send a message of institutional responsiveness.  One tool for accomplishing this is restorative justice.

 Restorative justice is a form of conflict resolution in which those harmed by crime or conflict, and those responsible for the harm, are brought together into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward.  It’s a method that can work without involvement in the criminal justice system, but also along with a criminal justice proceeding, and at different stages of that process (pre-trial, pre-sentence, post-sentence).  For youth, restorative justice at the earliest stages of conflict can serve as a form of diversion from the criminal justice system. 

A group of California educators recently spoke to the need for restorative processes at a State’s Senate Education Committee hearing in favor of a bill to ban suspensions for “willful defiance”.  They explained that “California schools urgently need strategies for discipline that help children learn from mistakes, make reparations for harm, and go on to succeed.”  While that bill was approved and sent to the full Senate for a vote, the legislation only prevents suspensions and does not require the type of restorative function that educators endorsed.  Restorative justice school programs can serve as an alternative to suspensions for educators and help interrupt the flow of the school-to-prison pipeline. 

 3.     Improve After-School programs – It’s well known that arrests for juvenile crime peak between 2pm and 6pm on school days.  One reason, is that 69% of all married-couple families have both parents working outside the home, while 71% of single mother households and 85% of single father households have the custodial parent working outside the home.  The gap between in-school time and work schedules means that children spend 20-25 hours per week unsupervised.  There is therefore a great need for supervised, constructive activities during the post-school hours.

 After-school programs (ASP) provide this service and have been shown to reduce delinquent behavior, but like any other program, the quality of the ASP will determine the level of impact.  Research suggests that positive outcomes are strongest in programs that incorporate a high emphasis on social skills and character development – such as the curricula currently offered by the Lionheart Foundation.  ASP’s that incorporate emotional literacy would be a great tool to eliminate delinquency and keep kids in school.

4.     Improve Educational Services for Children Already in the Justice System – The Sentencing Project notes that despite the strong connection between school truancy, dropouts, and delinquency, reenrolling youth leaving detention into school is a low priority for the justice system. Most children involved in the criminal justice system will eventually get out.  As noted, failure to attend school is strongly co-related with delinquency, making linkages with education a vital part of reducing recidivism.   A number of barriers prevent justice-involved kids from availing themselves of the benefits of education.  For example, education within prisons and jails is generally substandard, and children locked in adult facilities often receive no education services at all, making reintegration to school upon release intellectually and emotionally overwhelming.  The result is that two-thirds of children leaving closed detention never return to school.

Reentry programs that focus on school reintegration are a crucial component of preventing recidivism.   It’s important to note that around 70% of youth sentenced to some form of confinement have been convicted of strictly non-violent acts.   It is therefore imperative to ensure that those children stay out of prison to prevent them from adopting the behaviors of other incarcerated persons who may be engaging in higher levels of violence and offending.

 In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the joint Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which includes, among other things, the development of a consensus report on strategies to block the school-to-prison pipeline.  There is already consensus on the recommendations above, let’s not wait another moment to begin implementing changes that can improve children’s lives.


Denise Tomasini-Joshi is an attorney of Hispanic descent and expert in
criminal justice policy.  She has most recently worked on issues
related to vulnerable populations involved in the criminal justice
system, and on alleviating the harms of unnecessary pretrial
detention.  Ms. Tomasini-Joshi is a graduate of Columbia Law School
and the Columbia University School of International and Public
Affairs.  She has worked on criminal justice reform globally, and has
published in English and Spanish.  In September Ms. Tomasini-Joshi
will join the International Harm Reduction Program of the Open Society
Foundations as Deputy Director.  Follow her on Twitter @DMTJoshi.


Guest Blog: Core of Goodness: A Homecoming

25/07/13 COMMENTS 0

Editor’s Note: From time to time, Lionheart welcomes in guest bloggers to write about topics aligned with our mission.  If you would like to be considered for an upcoming guest blog, please contact us at:   

Many thanks to Marie Jackson for contributing the following article.  To learn more about her work, please visit


Core of Goodness:  A Homecoming

by Marie Jackson

Merriam Webster defines “core” as “a central and often foundational part, usually distinct from the enveloping part.”   That “distinct from the enveloping part” is important to consider when we’re tempted to judge or condemn another person.  If we only see their enveloping part, we miss who they really are.  We miss their Core.

As human beings, our Core is rooted in our heart.  It is loving, kind, courageous and forgiving.  It is supportive and open and safe.  This core is the wise way of nature, the creative impulse of the Universe, its Intention.  We are part of that intention, this spiritual compulsion of life to develop and grow and progress.  From our beginning as a single cell to a fully formed human being, our intended impulse is to evolve and expand, and is just as natural as grass growing, eggs hatching and planets circling the sun.  Nothing needs to be fixed.  Nothing needs to be undone.  Nothing needs to be changed.  Nothing needs to be forgiven.  Our lives as human beings are perfect.  This perfection is not easy to remember or celebrate when we’re surrounded by iron bars and razor wire.

The perfection of our lives get lived in the imperfection of our life situations.  Our life situations include our bodies, our relationships, environment, occupation, school, families.  For some of us, our life situation is prison.  As babies, then as young people, and then as adults, our life situations were always the stage, the setting for living our lives of promise and love and wisdom – our core.  When our core is allowed to express itself, we blossom, we thrive, we go on to serve and contribute; we fulfill our intention of perfection.  When our life situations include abuse or neglect or abandonment, our core gets blocked, denied, obscured.  This denial of who we are teaches us who we can trust and count on in our environment with our families, at school, in our neighborhoods.  We learn how, where and when to lie, how to choose what protects us and what makes us feel worthy:  we learn how to keep ourselves out of harm’s way.  With each lesson, we layer on the deception, the bad choices, the hurtful behavior, all in an effort to feel safe and protected.  Our beautiful Core is soon forgotten, lost, as our need for protection takes over.  Instead of celebrating our Goodness, we have learned to deny it, and for some of us, this denial has become our habit, our value structure, and we stray far from the home of who we are.  We spiritually starve; we wither and fade; we get brittle and harden.

But here’s the good news:  even in our brittleness and starvation, our Core never leaves us; it might be hidden or blurred or forgotten, but it never leaves.  Never.  Not with our choices, not with our behavior, not with our history, not with our environment.  Our Core of Goodness never goes away.  And nowhere can this be clearer than in the prison environment.

Houses of Healing, A Prisoner’s Guide to Inner Power and Freedom is a program in hundreds of prisons across the country, touching the lives of thousands of prisoners.  Created by Robin Casarjian in 1988, this program and book offer meditations, exercises, and prisoner accounts designed to remind inmates of their Core of Goodness.  The impact on the quality of lives of men and women behind bars is profound, as inmates heal and grow with the tools enabling them to live lives of beauty and love and wisdom.   Robin states “Life is like a stone mill:  the people and experiences we encounter either grind us down or polish us up, depending on the way we relate to them.”   Inmates who sign up for Houses of Healing are motivated to use their time of incarceration to find ways to live lives of peace, and support and contribution, whether they are ever released from prison or not.  Instructors can be staff, volunteers or even other inmates.  Feedback comes in all forms – poetry, letters of gratitude, personal stories, assessments, from male and female inmates alike:  From Leonard – “I always knew I was a good person, but I thought I couldn’t live my true self in here.  I’m learning to live that part of who I am better now.  I’m choosing better friends, activities, work.  I’m practicing living from my center, and it’s working.  I feel more peaceful.”   Or from Camille, “I learned to hold still, to see with new eyes, to know that other inmates are trying to find their way just as I am.  I’ve become more patient, a more dependable friend.” And from Diane, “My prison was out there…not in here.  The drugs, the abuse – I felt like I was tossed around in an angry sea, and couldn’t find my way.  I felt like my arrest was really the storm that threw me up on a rock…where I could dry out, get clean, learn to respect myself. ”

 Living from our core begins with knowing it was there all along, waiting for us to come home.  Anger, grief, loss, betrayal and abuse are not particular just to inmates in our prison system.  We have all suffered some degree of this denial of Intention.  Maybe we didn’t all land in jail, but our confinement was real just the same.   If our brothers and sisters on the inside can come home to their core, anyone can.  Admitting our mistakes, forgiving others, forgiving ourselves, seeing ourselves and others through the eyes of compassion and understanding instead of judgment and condemnation can bring us to peace on the inside, and joy on the outside.

In “The Wizard of Oz”, Glinda the good witch tells us “Home is knowing. Knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere.”


Interview with Robin Casarjian

17/07/13 COMMENTS 0

Robin Casarjian, Executive Director of the Lionheart Foundation, discusses the importance of forgiveness  and emotional literacy in an interview with Dot Walsh, long-time supporter and former board member at Lionheart.  Robin talks about how these critical skills help us take control of our lives and gain peace of mind.  In her book, Houses of Healing: A Prisoner’s Guide to Inner Power and Freedom, emotional literacy is key to helping prisoners gain self understanding and transform their lives.



Television Interview with Dr. Bethany Casarjian

12/07/13 COMMENTS 0

Bethany Casarjian, Clinical Director of the Lionheart Foundation’s Youth Programs,  discusses the Power Source Program for at risk youth, and the Power Source Parenting Program for at risk teen parents during an appearance on Oneness and Wellness  — a program airing on local television in Dedham, MA.  During her interview with Dot Walsh, a long-time supporter of Lionheart, Bethany speaks to the importance of teaching self regulation strategies to at risk youth, helping them master these emotional regulatory skills and passing them on to their children. 



Labyrinth Project at Hampshire County Jail, Massachusetts

10/07/13 COMMENTS 0

Doing time and wasting time need not go hand in hand.  At the Hampshire County Jail, staff and administration are creating innovative solutions, helping inmates address the issues that got them into jail in the first place. To this end, a recently completed project, the building of a labyrinth on the prison grounds, gives inmates the opportunity to stop and think, to reflect in a safe, quiet, and relatively stress-free zone.  The prisoners supplied the labor for this project which brought about a collaboration of prisoners, community volunteers, the Sheriff’s Department and one very generous donor.  To learn more, please watch the video below.

Judith Perry, Chief Operating Officer, The Lionheart Foundation


“Herman’s House” a Documentary

27/06/13 COMMENTS 0

Solitary Confinement


Herman Joshua Wallace has been in solitary confinement at The Louisiana State Penitentiary, practically uninterrupted, for 40+ years.  He is serving what might be the longest term of uninterrupted solitary confinement in the history of the American prison system.   Mr. Wallace is best known as a member of the Angola 3 whose case has been taken up by Amnesty International, among others.  As the subject of the documentary “Herman’s House” directed by Angad Singh Bhalla, Herman’s story has helped to shed light on this shocking case.  The impetus that created this award winning project was a letter Wallace received from Jackie Sumell, a young art student and activist, who posed the provocative question: “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?”  This led to collaboration between the two, a replica of Herman’s dream house, and later a push to build an actual house.  In addition to a gallery exhibition and a book about this story, there is now a film. The film, released in 2012, has been touring the festival and independent film house circuit and receiving world-wide acclaim.  It will premier on PBS July 8th.  Please watch the trailer below, and visit the film’s website . And please share with friends.

In recent days, word has come down that Herman Wallace has contracted liver cancer.  Although he has been removed from his cell, he is still in isolation while receiving treatments.

Watch the Trailer for Herman’s House



19/06/13 COMMENTS 0

Hillary Rodham Clinton has launched a partnership to improve the lives of young children in the U.S.  called “Too Small to Fail”.  The Clinton Foundation is partnering with Next Generation to support “healthy kids and loving families”.  Mrs. Clinton has been an advocate for early childhood development for a long time, and adding her celebrity to this new venture can produce concrete results and be a boon to other organizations working in the field.  Her creativity, commitment and appeal will shine a light on family and early childhood advocacy and programming.

To read more about the Too Small to Fail initiative:  click here.   (HUFF POST/AP)

 To learn more about The Lionheart Foundation’s program for at risk teen parents and their children:  click here.

Judith Perry, COO, Lionheart


Helping At-Risk Youth Avoid the Prison Pipeline

05/06/13 COMMENTS 0

A large part of the Lionheart Foundation’s mission focuses on highly at-risk youth. We are committed to helping adolescents succeed by providing tools to help them skillfully manage obstacles that are pervasive in their lives and often at the center of their high-risk and criminal behavior.  The need for support and services for these youth is great, and yet, in many instances, youth are incarcerated, often in the adult system, instead of being offered the services and support important to their success.

According to a survey conducted in 40 states by the Vera Institute, the cost of incarceration for America’s prisoners was $39 billion in 2010 alone. This cost is on the rise partly due to the incarceration of minors sentenced as adults.  Thankfully, there has been increasing focus from the media on the destructive impact of the school-to-prison pipeline that funnels at risk youth, some as young as 16, into our nation’s prisons.  A report by Tavis Smiley, “Education Under Arrest,” shines a light on this horrendous situation: 

On a brighter note, last week, the Massachusetts Houses of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that, if signed, will move all 17-year-old offenders from the adult system into the juvenile system, opening up possible opportunities for rehabilitation they might not otherwise have.

Helping at-risk youth avoid the prison pipeline was one of the many reasons the Lionheart Foundation launched The National Emotional Literacy Project for Youth-At-Risk in 2003. Lionheart is part of the solution to the problem and our new initiative to bring a classroom-based social-emotional literacy program to at-risk youth will provide needed support. This program is being piloted at Berkshire Farms, a residential treatment center and school in Canaan, NY. The current Power Source Program is geared to delivery by clinicians while the new curriculum will be geared to the classroom teacher. After piloting the program, Lionheart will work with school-based curriculum specialists to bring this pilot curriculum to another level, one that can be utilized in schools nationally.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t solely depend on what happens in schools and at the state capitols of our nation. It starts in communities and families. It starts with us.

Please let us know what you think about this topic by sharing this blog, or with a comment on our Facebook Page.  Thanks!


Copyright 2013  The Lionheart Foundation. Unlimited reproduction of this article is granted for non-commercial use.  Link to Lionheart Blog must be included with reprint.



15/05/13 COMMENTS 0

Throughout the year we hear from facilitators across the country who offer Lionheart’s prison program, Houses of Healing, to incarcerated adults. The feedback they offer is typically outstanding and most valuable to us as we continue to develop our curricula for prisoners and youth.  Sometimes included are letters from the participants of the program, stories of struggle and change.  Just this afternoon we heard from a female inmate from South Carolina.   We were moved by what she had to say, and hope you are too. (J. Perry, COO, Lionheart)

          “When I started Houses of Healing I had high expectations. I’ve done that with every book I’ve read or class I’ve taken. I enter in thinking this will be the one that will make the difference—and I’m continually disappointed until now. Nine years worth of self-help books, courses and Bible studies and I finally found “the one.”  I can honestly say this book has transformed me. We all want to say that after taking a good course, but in this circumstance I know there is truth in the statement as my family has noticed measurable change in our interactions.

There are a number of ways Houses of Healing has positively impacted me. I used to be a very emotional person. I never realized how much until now. Not emotional as in overly reactive in an outward manner but inwardly my emotions would fly off the charts. I am now able to rationalize rather than emotionalize. I have found inner peace. When I encounter a situation that would have previously sent me in to an emotional tail-spin, I am able to stop. I can catch myself and in that moment I ask “what is the issue here?” that very question slows me down to the point where I am able to gather facts, look at my motivation, question the feelings and motivation of others and get to the root of the issues. Things are rarely as they first appear. I am able to remove myself from the situation emotionally and it gives me a different vantage point. It’s much like sitting back and watching a movie rather than being caught in the middle of the drama as a main character. The change in perspective makes all the difference. It’s amazing how much can happen in that brief moment prior to flipping that emotional switch. My inner calm and peace is maintained and huge issues seem to shrink before my eyes.

I have created a condensed version of the Daily Emotional Weather Report that I can mentally refer to on a situational level. This helps me clear away the emotional fog  and see a situation in the clear light of day. I am able to respond rather than react. For this alone I am grateful.

          Meditation has become a daily necessity. If I skip over it—I muddle through the day in a knot of tension. No matter what the day has held or what is to follow—taking a moment for meditation makes it all seem manageable.  I also welcome the time to literally “tune out” the buzz of prison.

Finally—Forgiveness…Houses of Healing has helped me see forgiveness as the gift it is. As with anything in life—the more you do it, the better you become. I’ve become quite proficient in giving it to others—with myself, not so much. I still struggle with self-forgiveness and have days when the guilt and shame swallow me whole. That being said, Houses of Healing has equipped me with the tools necessary to begin digging my way out of the pit. I’m just not there yet. Some days I welcome the darkness and pain. I feel deserving of it. But Houses of Healing has given me hope that perhaps one day I won’t feel like I need it any longer. For now I will just be grateful for the hope.

Thank you from the depths of my heart—for this opportunity to transform and grow emotionally and spiritually.”


Supporting Teen Parents To Change a Baby’s Life

24/04/13 COMMENTS 0

Every ten minutes, another baby is born to a teen mother.  Even though statistics show a drop in Teen Pregnancy, the circumstances of babies born into the duress of poverty have been endemic for many years. For instance the state of Nevada recently announced they will spend an estimated 84 billion dollars addressing support for Teen Parents in 2013 and that figure will “barely help make a dent” according to state officials., The CDC just released a report highlighting the dire situation of repeat births among teen mothers. 183 teens give birth every day in the US, and 86% (1 in 5) are repeat births. The importance of educating and empowering these young women should not be underestimated. Teen parents who have the support system they need to become great mothers, are much more likely to give their babies the loving start they deserve.

 That is why in 2008, The Lionheart Foundation created a program for Teen Parents as part of our National Emotional Literacy Project for Youth at Risk. Power Source Parenting is a cutting edge program designed to give at risk teen parents the guidance and skills they need to be loving, effective parents and raise healthy children. The centerpiece of the program is the book, Power Source Parenting: Growing Up Strong and Raising Healthy Kids and The Power Source Parenting Facilitator’s Manual written by Dr. Bethany Casarjian, Clinical Director of Lionheart’s youth projects and co-author of Power Source. This theory-driven intervention provides the opportunity to impact the lives of thousands of teen parents as well as their children and future generations.

Our work with teen parents is an integral part of mission. In the past year, we received two “permission to use” requests from major national initiatives in Canada and the U.S., whereby our teen parenting program will gain exponential exposure. The first is “Parents as Teachers” (PAT), a national evidence-based maternal, infant, early childhood home visiting program with more than 5,600 full-time and 3,100 part-time parent educators serving 255,000 children. They wrote, “The Power Source Parenting book and Facilitator’s Manual are an impressive contribution to the field. The writing team from the National Office of PAT is revising our Teen Curriculum… We would like to place a sample of your ideas into the curriculum and frequently refer to the Power Source Parenting text.”

The other request came from a national project in Canada. Dr. J. MacDonald, wrote, “I am the Clinical Leader and senior psychiatrist of a maternal mental health program in Canada. We have been searching for resources that will speak in a language our young at risk mothers can relate to and have been very impressed with the clinical frontline relevance and helpfulness of your materials. We are leading a Canadian national project to develop the Mothers’ Mental Health Toolkit, a government funded resource for community-based family support workers to give to these young mothers. We would like to add Power Source Parenting to our resource list in the Toolkit. It is heartening to discover colleagues in developing healthy families and resilient communities.”

To learn more about the Lionheart Foundation, click here.


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