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Remapping Louisiana's Cradle to Prison Pipeline through Campus and Community Collaboration

Updated: Jun 6

Dr. Michelle Fazio-Brunson




Despite multiple criminal justice reform efforts, Louisiana continues to reign as the world’s prison capital (Weishar, 2017; Widra & Herring, 2021). Simply put, we have more people incarcerated per capita than any other state in the nation or any other country in the world. Just like other prisons across the South, most incarcerated people in Louisiana come from minority backgrounds, live below the poverty line, and have low literacy levels (Sawyer & Wagner, 2023). My husband, Brett Brunson, serves as the Natchitoches Parish District Defender; he is responsible for providing counsel for those who have been accused of a crime but cannot afford an attorney. For the last 21 years, I have served as the Director of Graduate Programs in Early Childhood Education at Northwestern State University of Louisiana (NSU). Watching my husband fight for necessary funding every year, it occurred to me that if children got what they needed on my end—the early childhood years—they’d be less likely to need a public defender later in life. I say this because a child born into poverty who is not reading on grade level at the end of third grade is statistically more likely to drop out of school than to graduate (The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, 2021; Weyer & Cacares, 2019), and children who drop out of school are more likely to face incarnation and a life of poverty as adults (American Leadership Forum, n.d.; TROYATLMS, 2016). This predictable cycle has been coined the Cradle to Prison Pipeline (Children’s Defense Fund, n.d.). In fact, third grade standardized test scores are one of many variables considered when determining how many prison beds will be needed 10 years down the road.


Concerned by Louisiana’s dire statistics, my husband and I established a partnership to remap Louisiana’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline to a Cradle to College Pipeline. While he served on committees to successfully lobby for criminal justice reform through the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Package, I redesigned every undergraduate and graduate Early Childhood Education (ECED) course at NSU to include a service learning component. Service learning projects vary across courses. In some courses, ECED majors tutor children in the classroom. In other courses, ECED majors collect books or school supplies to distribute to local children who do not have books and supplies at home, and in other courses, ECED majors make and distribute family literacy bags to donate to families who do not have the means to purchase literacy resources for their young children. The family literacy bags contain parent education materials that explain the importance of reading to children for at least 20 minutes every day and include sample literacy activities families can complete together to facilitate literacy learning. All materials necessary to implement the activities are included in the bags, along with at least one book, paper, crayons or markers, pencils and erasers, and glue sticks. Additional items are included based on donations and grant funds available at the time. Through this service learning project, we support parents in their role as children’s first and most important teachers, and we help parents access necessary resources to help their children strengthen skills in all domains: social-emotional, physical, and cognitive. As families spend quality time sharing books, engaging in conversations, and playing, they not only strengthen their children’s literacy skills, but they strengthen their family unit—building a love for learning and for each other, simultaneously.


This year, the NSU Early Childhood program collaborated with the Call Me Mister program, coordinated by Brittany Broussard, M.S., Director of Culture and Climate at NSU. The Call Me Mister program aims to increase the number of diverse male teachers in elementary schools, and participants benefit from mentorship, leadership development, and community and classroom experience. The Misters volunteered to make family literacy bags and then traveled to a local elementary school to read to all the preschool and kindergarten children, donate the family literacy bags, and talk to the children about what it’s like to be a college student at NSU, planting seeds for them to imagine themselves as future NSU students. This collaboration was particularly joyful, because Jalen, one of the Misters, has a sister enrolled in one of the kindergarten classes he visited, and he had the opportunity to read to his sister’s class before donating the family literacy bags.


Pictured above: Addison Burch, Jalen Wilson, Christian Holmes, and Kyle Scott.


References

American Leadership Forum. (n.d.). Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline in Houston and

Texas: A study of solutions. Author.

Children’s Defense Fund. (n.d.). America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline. Author.

Sawyer, W., & Wagner, P. (2023). Mass incarceration: The whole pie 2023. Prison Policy

The Campaign for Grade Level Reading. (2021). 3rd grade reading success matters: Study links

3rd Grade reading, poverty and HS graduation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. http://www.thereadingexplorers.com/news/third-grade-reading-AECF.pdf

TROYATLMS. (2017). The relationship between incarceration and low literacy. The Official

Blog of Literacy Mid-South: Creating a community of lifelong learners. https://literacymidsouth.wordpress.com/2016/03/16/incarceration-and-low-literacy/

Weishar, S. (2017). JustSouth Quarterly. Loyola University New Orleans Jesuit Social Research

Weyer, M., & Casares, J. E. (2019). Pre-kindergarten-third grade literacy. National Conference

Widra, E., & Herring, T. (2021). States of incarceration: The global context 2021. Policy Prison





Dr. Michelle Brunson directs the graduate programs in Early Childhood Education at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. She is passionate about helping her husband, the Natchitoches District Defender, remap the Cradle to Prison Pipeline to a Cradle to College Pipeline in Louisiana. She can be contacted at faziom@nsula.edu.








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