Many Schools Are Like Prisons, and Students Are Treated Like Prisoners


side by side

The idea that middle and high schools are like prisons is not a new one. I remember reading an article about how prisons and many of these schools (especially public schools) have similar architectural designs. Shockingly, this is so true. If you are an educator or have spent time in a variety of middle or high schools, it’s likely most have essentially the same basic design, regardless of how shiny and new they are. That basic design includes:

  • long hallways, sparsely decorated, often in boring, bland paint colors
  • smallish, identical rooms, side-by-side on either side of the hallways (kind of like prison cells, right?)
  • many of the rooms have no windows because they are completely interior rooms
  • one common area where the students (prisoners) eat lunch, supervised closely by teachers and/or administrators (prison guards)

Beyond the physical design of the building, the school day is often very similar to what many of us may assume a day in prison is like:

  • students (prisoners) shuffle in and are directed to their first classroom (prison cell)
  • students (prisoners) stay in their cells for a specified amount of time, not allowed to really do anything without permission from their teachers (prison guards)
  • students are shuffled to and from their various classrooms (prison cells) throughout the day
  • students (prisoners) all shuffle to the common eating area at a specific, pre-determined time and are given a set amount of time to eat

The big difference between teenage school kids and prisoners is that prisoners have already demonstrated an inability to follow commonly accepted behavioral norms.

Further, let’s think about all of the strict rules and regulations at most public middle and high schools (prisons). Just about every facet of a student’s movement, behavior, and interactions with others is monitored and regulated, and often strict punishments are handed down for seemingly minor infractions that outside of school would be considered normal and expected behavior (how dare you use the restroom without permission!).

If you attend or know of a school that does not match these descriptions, I am very happy for you. Unfortunately, I imagine this is all too true for most public middle and high school students in the United States.

Of course, some (maybe many) people would argue that such regulations are necessary in these schools in order to maintain a sense of order. After all, teenagers are unpredictable and completely incapable of managing their behavior, acting like normal human beings, and making good decisions, right?

But the big difference between teenage school kids and prisoners is that prisoners have already demonstrated an inability to follow commonly accepted behavioral norms. Why do people in power at public schools automatically assume that so many students will make such poor decisions that it will completely disrupt the learning environment and safety of others? It seems that rules and regulations are made by the decision makers under the assumption that such terrible things WILL happen if not regulated. This is sad and often soul-crushing to the students, especially the wonderful young men and women I have contact with on a daily basis at the school where I teach.

If you ask 10 high school students of various personalities, academic drive, and academic performance what they think of a typical school day, I imagine at least 8 of them will say they don’t appreciate being treated like prisoners before they have even committed a crime. I know this because I’ve asked many students that very question.

Of course, not every school is the same, and I understand that some schools DO have a history of violence and insubordination from many of the students. Certainly it might make sense for those schools to have stricter policies regarding student movement and behavior throughout the day. Although I would argue that thought should be put into the root of such problems and practices be put in place to eliminate those behaviors before they happen, rather than imposing punitive measures after the behaviors surface.

I’m also not saying there shouldn’t be consequences for inappropriate behavior. Without consequences, the message is that inappropriate behavior is acceptable. What I’m saying is that I believe school decision makers over regulate behavior and try to eliminate problems that don’t necessarily even exist. Why is it assumed a majority of the students will act like wild, uncivilized humans without regulating their every move? Has anybody thought about not regulating student behavior so much to see what would happen? Yes, teenagers will make bad decisions now and then. I would propose that those bad decisions should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis rather than regulating every student because of the actions of a relatively small number of students.

Students crave autonomy, not only regarding their movement and behaviors within the school as a whole but also in their classes. And they will do great things when given that autonomy. Many high school students will say school is boring. When you ask them why, generally they will say something related to being forced to do things that don’t interest them and that they feel are not worth their time. Why not give them options, give them choice? Doesn’t it make sense that when somebody is allowed to create what they want that they will put much more effort and passion into it?

My challenge to any school decision makers (administrators and teachers) is to really think carefully about your reasons for micro-managing student behavior. Is it in response to poor behaviors, or is it to make your life easier by creating compliant students that won’t ruffle your feathers? Does the thought of not controlling the behavior of each student make you nervous because of the unexpected? Does it make you feel like your job will be harder because you will have to monitor behavior more closely?

I did this self-examination, and realized I was ultimately just trying to make my life easier in the classroom. I decided to relax some of my policies for behavior in the classroom. And guess what? The students didn’t turn into wild animals. They behaved like normal human beings. They were less tense and uptight because they knew their every move wasn’t being scrutinized. And the best part was that I actually spent less time dealing with behavior issues than when I regulated so much of the students’ behavior. And it became a lot more fun. I got to know the students better. There was more of a mutual respect than before. The students didn’t think of me as a dictator. They thought of me as their teacher. I believe they appreciated that I treated them like normal people, not like prisoners.

There might be little we can do about changing the physical spaces students spend so much of their time in each day. But all of us who help direct student behavior can do more to help the kids feel like students and not prisoners.


One thought on “Many Schools Are Like Prisons, and Students Are Treated Like Prisoners

  1. Interesting commentary, Scott. The biggest difference between the two, however, is that students get to go home at the end of the day. In my own career, it took awhile to figure out, but once I learned to assume that students are students and not prisoners and assumed their behavior would reflect the behavior of students and not prisoners, I never had to issue any disciplinary actions again–EVER. Problems were handled one on one and more often than not, I let the student determine what would happen next.

    Yes there were times when extreme measures were necessary, but those were cases where a student’s safety was in question.

    It appears your major point is that even though the system might perceive students as something other than students, the teacher has the greatest contact and perhaps the greatest influence upon the student and ultimately how that student views himself and the school.


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