How Our War on the Poor Landed One Homeless Mother in Jail
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In early March, Tanya McDowell was sentenced to 12 years in prison in Connecticut for "stealing an education" for her kindergarten son.
McDowell, a homeless mother who split her time between an emergency shelter in Norwalk, a friend's home in Bridgeport and her minivan, had used her babysitter's address to enroll her son in a Norwalk school.
When school officials discovered that her son was improperly enrolled, they didn't simply remove him, as they had done with 25 other students that year. They pushed for McDowell to be prosecuted on first-degree larceny charges--charges that carry up to a 20-year prison sentence.
Like the case of another single mother in Ohio prosecuted for sending her child to the wrong school district, McDowell's case sparked national outrage. Most of the commentary focused on how this case exposed the massive educational disparities in our country.
And rightly so--the Bridgeport school system, where Norwalk officials insist McDowell's son should have been sent, has a one-in-four high school dropout rate. The Bridgeport public schools spend around $8,000 per pupil each year. Tanya McDowell was charged with "stealing" $15,686 in educational services for her son--the amount Norwalk schools spend per pupil each year.
This begs the question of just who is stealing from whom?
But the question of educational disparity is just the tip of the iceberg in this case. The circumstances and series of events that led to McDowell's conviction reveal a tight connection between racism, poverty, segregation and a criminal justice system that punishes the poor and people of color disproportionately.
Nearly 20 students are asked to leave the Norwalk school system each year due to residency disputes. Yet none of their parents faced prosecution.
The school board president, Jack Chiamonte, argued, "There has to be a penalty for stealing our services. Right now, there is none." So school officials decided to make an example of Tanya McDowell. They figured--rightly, it turned out--they would have an easier time scapegoating a homeless, Black, single mother.
At first, McDowell's case attracted national attention and support. The NAACP and the Connecticut Parents Union spoke out on her behalf, and the online petition site Change.org collected tens of thousands of signatures.
But the tide began to turn when McDowell was arrested on drug charges. The arrest, the result of an undercover police action, took place just three days after McDowell spoke at an education reform rally about her case. Suddenly, the media narrative became focused on McDowell's "checkered history" and the drug charges, rather than the issues that led to her arrest in the first place.
From this point on, prosecutors pressed their advantage and used all the tools in their arsenal to force a plea deal. They refused to separate the drug and "school theft" cases, and instead insisted that they be tried together. Given harsh mandatory sentencing minimums, McDowell faced over 20 years in prison if the case was taken to trial. Thus, the prosecution was able to strong-arm her into a plea that resulted in a 12-year sentence with parole eligibility after five years.
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WHETHER OR not McDowell is guilty of the drug charges (a conclusion that isn't at all automatic), the media and prosecution's moralistic posturing cover up the systematic racism and inequality that permeate this case. According to all reports, McDowell last lived in Bridgeport, Conn., before becoming homeless. Bridgeport is an incredibly impoverished city existing in the shadows of some of the wealthiest areas in the country.
According to a study conducted by Brown University, the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk metropolitan region is the most income-segregated in the country. It is also among the most racially segregated: 60 percent of Bridgeport is Black, while 30 percent of Norwalk is Black.
An average Black student in Bridgeport attends a school with five times the poverty rate of a school attended by the average white student. Two-thirds of children in Bridgeport are born to mothers on Medicaid or state insurance. More than 50 percent of the census tracts in Bridgeport have unemployment rates over 10 percent.
These are the conditions in which McDowell faced impossible choices about how to meet her son's needs. Her "crime" was to try to send her son to a school where he might have a better chance of getting a good education.
In the context of unemployment and poverty, she may also have sold drugs to make ends meet. This is not a sign of McDowell's lack of "worthiness" as a spokesperson for educational inequity, as many commentators like to argue. Instead, it is an indictment of a system that victimizes and scapegoats poor and working-class mothers, especially women of color.
Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia piously commented that the city was motivated by concern for McDowell's child and told the media that he referred her case to child welfare services.
But in reality, it is McDowell and her son who will be paying the price for bringing national attention to the segregation and educational inequality in this section of Connecticut. McDowell's son now lives with his grandmother in Bridgeport and attends school in that district. He suffers from nightmares and has lost his mother for at least the next five years.
Unfortunately, Tanya McDowell and her son are not alone in this fate. Largely because of the same harsh drug sentencing laws that forced McDowell into a plea bargain, women are now the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. More than 75 percent of those women are mothers and most were the sole caretaker for their children before they were incarcerated. Half of those women are Black. Their children are six times more likely to spend time in prison in the future.
Tanya McDowell's case exposed the rampant inequality in our education system and attracted support on that basis. But the fact that the city of Norwalk was able to successfully prosecute her also showed the way in which poor and working-class, Black, single mothers are increasingly the victims of racist scapegoating.
As politicians and the media attempt to shift the blame for disastrous social conditions, we will stand with the Tanya McDowells of the world--and put the responsibility where it belongs.