Faculty Member Sabina Vaught Examines School-Prison Systems in New Book

A new book co-authored by Sabina Vaught, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, asks important questions about the impact of colonial boarding school and juvenile prison models on Native and Indigenous populations.

“My co-authors and I wanted to think about the rich and rigorous body of work around school-prison relations in terms of the social institutional organization for Native young people, families, communities, tribal nations, and peoples,” says Vaught, who also serves as director of the school’s Kinloch Commons for Critical Pedagogy and Leadership. “How might we think about deepening our understanding of the experiences and conditions in service of moving toward self-determination and sovereignty?”

The book, titled The School-Prison Trust (University of Minnesota Press, 2022), is authored by Vaught, Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, and Jeremiah Chin. It’s part of the publisher’s Forerunners: Ideas First series, which consists of short scholarly books driven by intense analysis, questioning, and speculation.

“This series invites experimentation and open-endedness, yet with a deep rigor that comes with sharing thoughts as they’re in motion,” says Vaught. “That’s really what scholarship is; it’s always in motion.”

The authors conceptualize the “school-prison trust” as a set of conquest relations deployed in the long war against Native peoples and drawn from colonial systems of boarding schools and juvenile prisons in what is called the United States. This framing considers the unique legal and historical relationships among schools, prisons, the state, and Native young people and communities.

“The ‘trust’ in this book comes from the colonial trust relationship, which is imposed by the federal government on tribal nations,” explains Vaught. “Part of what we wanted to argue is that school-prison relations function ideologically, materially, culturally, and sometimes legally through this framework.”

The book explores the impact of school-prison relations for young Native people through the stories of an incarcerated young man named Jakes. 

“We didn’t focus as much on the horrors of his incarceration, because our stance is that incarceration is horrifying,” says Vaught. “Instead, we focus on his insights, the knowledge he derives from his experiences, and his cultural and epistemic traditions, and we put his analysis in dialogue with other analyses across disciplines and knowledge traditions.” 

As a co-instructor of a “Law, Policy, and School Reform” course at Pitt Education, PhD student Christopher Wright has been teaching The School-Prison Trust in class and calls it a “great pedagogical tool.”

“We are reading it together to better understand how slavery and conquest have been judicial processes that are intertwined with current school policies and practices,” says Wright. “For me, the book presses the importance of maintaining a high degree of skepticism and criticism toward schools, and to engage them as carceral state projects that can facilitate violence under the guise of benevolent care.”

Wright says he would recommend the book to educators, activists, organizers, students, radical study groups, and parents of school-age children, and wants readers to appreciate the complexities of the book’s protagonist, Jakes.

“I hope people read him as a radical person whose acts of resistance reflect the deep history of life and survival through refusal and non-cooperation,” says Wright. “His persistent pushback represents an ethos of resistance that does not seek state approval. His refusal illuminates the contradictions of the school-prison trust while mapping futures.”

Vaught hopes readers will draw their own insights and be inspired by the curiosity and principles presented in the book.

“People may listen to the stories and hear something we didn’t hear, or understand something deeper than what we understood,” she says. “They might then do, or build, or engage in a way that we can’t even imagine.” 

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Sabina Vaught is a professor in the Pitt School of Education’s Department of Teaching, Learning, and Leading. The programs are now accepting applications.