Tanya McDowell has joined the ranks of millions of people, mostly of color, facing incarceration. In April 2011, McDowell was arrested and charged with larceny for allegedly enrolling her 6-year old child in a Norwalk, Connecticut elementary school instead of the required Bridgeport school associated with her “residence” (she was reportedly homeless at the time).
Less than a year later, McDowell entered an Alford Plea, which is not an admission of guilt but rather an acceptance that the state has sufficient evidence to make its case. In exchange for her plea as well as a guilty plea stemming from a drug case, the court sentenced McDowell to 12 years in prison with the possibility of release after 5 years.
The media response has emphasized how her sentence reflects punishment for her “stealing of an education,” worth over 15,000 dollars as well as a consequence of the narcotics arrest. Subsequent to her arrest for educational larceny, McDowell allegedly sold drugs to an undercover officer on three separate occasions. While the timing of this arrest was questionable (her attorney at the time described the investigation that led to the drug charges as “‘retaliatory’ because the community was embarrassed by McDowell's April 14 arrest for allegedly sending her son, A.J., to Norwalk's Brookside Elementary School while they lived in Bridgeport), the efforts to paint her as a bad parent, as a criminal, as an unredeemable person is further revealing. Upon her arrest, Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia scoffed at those who represented McDowell as a victim: “This is not a poor, picked-upon homeless person. This is an ex-con, and somehow the city of Norwalk is made into the ogre,” he noted. “She has a checkered past at best … This woman is not a victim.”
Her subsequent arrest has been used to further substantiate these claims, justifying the initial charges and the subsequent sentence of 12 years. The conflating of these cases (beyond their simultaneously adjudication) points to the ways that the drug case has obscured the horrible injustice of the wrongful enrollment arrest. It would be a mistake and a further miscarriage of justice to excuse the criminalization of her decision to enroll her child at a school that provided better services, a better education, and a better future for her child by referencing her drug arrest.
She was forced to choose between terrible schools and violating the law so that her child could receive a quality education. Fordham University professor Mark Naison says “If there were enough good schools around so that any school you chose would be acceptable, and if there were enough decent paying jobs to keep your head above water through legal work, that would be one thing. But what if NEITHER of those things were true. What are you supposed to do? Let your child go hungry to a terrible school.” Even so, she became the first person in the history of Connecticut to be prosecuted for enrolling a child out-of-district, even though experts claim it to be a common practice.
McDowell isn’t the first Black woman to face criminal prosecution and jail for enrolling her children out-of district. In Akron, Kelley Williams-Bolar was charged and served 10 days in jail for enrolling her two daughters at a Copley Fairlawn school even though they should have attended an Akron school. Her decision was easy to understand given that Copley-Fairlawn School District met 26 out 26 standards set up the Ohio Department of Education, whereas Akron City School District met only 4 of these same standards. Graduation rates were equally disparate with almost 98% of students graduating from Copley-Fairlawn compared to 75% within Akron City. Williams-Bolar, like McDowell, sought to challenge the inequity and segregation that defines America’s school system, and thus faced the sanctions and condemnation from a system that mandated that she stay in her place.
McDowell’s incarceration on drug charges reflects a willingness to wage the war on drugs with the greatest force and consequence against communities of color. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Latinas are 1.6 times and Black women are 3.8 more times more likely to be sent to prison than White women despite similar rates of usage and distribution. McDowell is indicative of the consequences of a racialized war on drugs. It reflects the pipeline from failed schools to prisons; it reflects an effort to incarcerate those who challenge this process.
Yet, the attempts, whether from the criminal justice system, the media, or the broader community to justify her criminalization and ultimate incarceration by linking the drug charges with the larceny charges is both troubling and without basis. The state prosecuted her before any drug charges so the injustice of her arrest cannot take cover from a subsequent arrest. Together they illustrate a willingness to criminalize and demonize, to pathologize McDowell to justify her ultimate incarceration all while highlighting how America’s criminal (in)justice system continually performs a “magic feet”: “Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.” As Angela Davis reminds, “prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings,” a fact that is clearly evident by injustices experienced by Tanya McDowell.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press, spring 2012).