What a criminal enterprise our country truly is. And I do mean enterprise. After all, according to the latest figures, there are… honestly, you’re not going to believe this… but, according to PrisonPolicy.org, there are roughly 1.9 million people incarcerated in this country, 803,000 Americans on parole, and a staggering 2.9 million on probation. Imagine that! When it comes to incarceration rates, no other nation compares. In fact, of our 50 states, 24 have rates higher — if you check this link — than any other democracy (whole countries!) on the planet.
And then consider this: “At least 113 million adults in the U.S. (roughly 45%) have a family member who has been incarcerated, and 79 million people have a criminal record, revealing the ripple effects of locking up millions of people every day.” And I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that, in such a country and with our past, Blacks remain distinctly over-represented behind bars. In fact, they make up just 12% of the population, but 38% of the prison and jail populations.
In that context, consider Tamar Sarai’s first TomDispatch piece, an all-too-symbolic tale of how one institution in Topeka, Kansas, once a vocational college for Black students, became over the decades — and all too symbolically — a women’s prison. Then consider the remarkable story of one man who tried not just to stem but turn the tide there. Tom
One School’s Missing History
A Family Heirloom, Lost in Plain Sight
Not long after moving to Topeka, Kansas, in the early 1980s, community organizer Curtis Pitts learned about a hidden slice of that city’s history that would come to shape his life’s work over the next four decades. He was introduced to the Kansas Technical Institute, or KTI, a Black vocational college that had prospered throughout the early twentieth century, only to close in the mid-1950s.
Founded in 1895, KTI enjoyed the distinction of being the second Black college established west of the Mississippi. Built in part by its own students, the school became a self-sustaining campus, training them in agriculture, nursing, printing, tailoring, and theology, among other subjects. The story of KTI almost immediately captured Pitts’s attention, both because of its grandeur at the time and the ways its absence had impacted the city.
“Thinking that this was the Brown v. the Board of Education city, this should be just like Atlanta with the Black community prospering,” Pitts told me, recalling his early observations of Topeka. “Once I found out that the school closed, you can see a direct correlation to the demise of Black businesses and families and communities because it was a hub and many of the business owners had learned their trade from the school.”
The benefits — both tangible and intangible — of any school, particularly one designed with Black students in mind, compelled Pitts not just to educate himself in the history of KTI but also, in the end, to try to reopen it, ushering in a new twenty-first-century version of the school. If its closure was sobering, its later transformation should have been confounding.
The shock of that change was captured in the moment, more than 40 years ago, when a friend first told Pitts about the school. “At that time, we were standing in his front yard and he kept looking across the street and he started talking about the college and why he came [to Topeka],” said Pitts. “I’m trying to figure out which college he was talking about because all I could see was a prison.”
Retaliation for Brown v. Board of Education?
KTI’s role in contributing to the rise of local business owners speaks to the importance of vocational training for young Black students nationwide at the time. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such training was the underpinning of many Black secondary schools and colleges. Most of them focused on specific trades with the goal not just of preparing their students for decent, steady work but also indoctrinating them with values like industriousness, efficiency, and self-reliance.
Perhaps the best-known and most influential leader of that pedagogical approach was Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He crafted its curriculum in a way that married vocational trades to academic study and famously instructed Blacks to “cast down their bucket where they are” and acquire the skills needed to take care of themselves.
Though a controversial stance at the time, Washington’s invitation encapsulated the mission of Tuskegee and came to serve as a model for other Black vocational schools, including KTI. In fact, the school’s founders, Lizzie Riddick and Edward Stephens, would successfully enlist the support of Washington when establishing KTI and former Tuskegee professors and directors would go on to hold prominent positions there. As only the second historically Black college established west of the Mississippi River, the Topeka-based school would come to be known locally as “the Tuskegee of the West.”
KTI’s closure in 1955, while unexpected for its students and alumni, would prove part of a wave of similar shutdowns in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled segregation unconstitutional. But while closings like that of the Manual Training and Industrial School in New Jersey were explicitly tied to that ruling, the cause of KTI’s remains murkier. Formally, state legislators shuttered the institution because Kansas already had another technical institute providing similar training, but Pitts wonders whether it wasn’t actually a form of local white retaliation for the Brown ruling.
What’s clear is that, by 1961, the state had transferred control of the former campus to the Department of Corrections and, by 2001, the space would, grimly enough, become home to Kansas’s first and only women’s prison.
The School-to-Prison Pipeline
KTI’s last class graduated more than half a century ago. Still, Pitts finds that some Black Topekans he speaks to about it have distant, often unexpected, ties to it.
“At this stage, you’re dealing with a lot more of ‘my dad or grandpa went there,’” said Pitts. “But most people I have to tell what it was. They’re going ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was there’ or ‘I was in prison there and I never knew that.’”
Barely five years after KTI’s closure, the Kansas legislature authorized the director of penal institutions to oversee the conversion of the campus into a center performing evaluations on individuals sentenced to the Kansas state penitentiary. Work crews of men incarcerated at the local penitentiary were hired to help renovate the school campus. In 1990, that center, combined with three other correctional institutions, would become the Topeka Correctional Facility and, in 2001, would transition from co-ed to all-female.
Still, even if a new generation of Topekans largely grew up without knowledge of the school’s existence, remnants of it are still there in plain sight, scattered across the prison grounds. Pitts, for instance, recalls giving a presentation at the facility while it was still a co-ed prison and stumbling across a school bench dedicated to a KTI sorority.
In its devolution, alumni and admirers like Pitts have pointed out how the site’s transformation brings to mind the school-to-prison pipeline. Consider that an effective metaphor, tying the story of the Kansas Technical Institute’s devolution to a concept the public is familiar with, while also expanding its potential meaning. Education, racial justice, and criminal legal reform advocates have used the term as a shorthand way to describe how young people — often Black students — are criminalized in school in ways that directly funnel them into the carceral system.
Instead of serving as spaces of opportunity, intellectual growth, and belonging, some schools have become all too literal conduits into the prison system and increasingly are even designed to look ever more like carceral facilities. But the reshaping of KTI’s campus into an actual prison offers both a metaphor for and a perspective on that pipeline and what it means when, over time, whole populations are functionally criminalized and state investment shifts from educational training to incarceration.
While, as an image, the school-to-prison pipeline typically focuses attention on the fate of individual students as they are punished with zero-tolerance disciplinary policies and the like, the story of KTI focuses on a larger picture: the movement of funds, priorities, and investment from a successful school to the incarceration of Kansans of color and, most recently, Kansan women of color.
Over the past three decades, the incarceration of women has exploded nationwide, growing at twice the pace of male imprisonment, even if all too little attention has been paid to the phenomenon. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States is among the top female incarcerators in the world with 172,700 women and girls living in some form of correctional confinement. While 72,000 of them are indeed detained in state prisons like the Topeka Correctional Facility, women are disproportionately incarcerated in local jails, which creates a unique set of harmful consequences that those held in state or federal prisons are less likely to contend with.
As a start, local jails provide even worse healthcare and fewer kinds of programming that might connect the imprisoned to academic or job training which might, in turn, reduce their risk of recidivism. In addition, communication with the outside world — friends, family, and loved ones — is often more difficult in jails where a phone call may be at least three times as expensive as calls from prison and where receiving mail, even postcards, is sometimes prohibited. Given that 80% of women in jails are mothers and often the primary caretakers for their families, the ripple effect beyond the walls is profound.
And yet even state prisons like Topeka Correctional offer their own versions of such devastation. For one thing, the sexual violence that pervades incarcerated women’s lives in prisons (as well as jails nationwide) is all too obvious at Topeka Correctional. In 2009, the Topeka Capital-Journal exposed a “complex black market” of contraband and bribes as well as a sex trade that women incarcerated at the facility were coerced into participating in.
Still, the state’s incarcerated women’s population continues to balloon. From 2000 to 2018 it rose by 60% — a dramatic increase, especially compared to the 14% increase in the men’s population in those years. No wonder, then, that, as the state’s sole women’s prison, Topeka Correctional has faced challenges with overcrowding in recent years that have only led to a further deterioration in living conditions and less access to crucial programming.
In 2019, 77% of the women who entered prison in Kansas did so as a result of a probation or parole violation, compared to 65% of men. The Kansas Sentencing Commission argued that this rise in recidivism among women can be attributed in large part to a 2013 law that “reformed” probation across the state. In actuality, it stripped judges of the possibility of using personal discretion when sanctioning individuals who violated probation or parole. Instead, it required that they stick to a prescribed flowchart of punishments that ranged from a couple of days in jail to the full length of their original sentences. Judges could no longer make exceptions or take into account any unique factors in prisoners’ lives that might have caused them to breach probation or parole requirements in the first place.
In a 2020 article, George Ebo Browne, a senior research analyst at the Kansas Sentencing Commission, noted that the law “changed practice for everyone. But how it was applied on the bench greatly impacted women.”
A Sense of Healing
Questions about the Kansas Technical Institute have plagued Curtis Pitts since the moment he first learned about it. Who really owned the land the school had been built on? Why did it actually close? Who ceded control of it to the Department of Corrections? One day, while sifting through the Shawnee County Office of the Register of Deeds, he finally located the deed to KTI and made a discovery that would startle local historians and provide new fuel for his mission to reopen the school.
A corporation warranty deed for it dated November 1910 stated that “the said property lands and appropriation should be perpetually used exclusively and solely for the industrial and educational training and development of Negro youth.” In essence, whether the school existed or not, the state was — or at least should have been — bound to continue using the land for the teaching and training of Black youth.
“Whoever wrote that document,” Pitts told me, “they knew, at the time, that Black people had no recourse and no ability to fight, but they knew that there would come a time when their children (and people who were concerned for their children of all races) would be able to stand up and fight and find this document. So, when I found that document it shocked me.”
Pitts took it to lawyers who affirmed its validity, helping advance his plans to launch the East Topeka Learning Center, a new post-secondary education facility, as KTI’s legacy. In 2018, Kansas lawmakers finally incorporated his proposal into the development of Washburn Tech East, a training facility for adults specializing in healthcare, construction, and commercial truck driving.
Despite that success, Pitts still feels that KTI itself should be reopened, describing the school as an heirloom that has yet to be returned to its rightful owner: the city’s Black community of the past, present, and future.
Pitts says that, while he’s received little pushback from legislators on his efforts, there has been a great deal of silence. Still, he insists, it’s essential not to be deterred or controlled by the whims of lawmakers and that establishing such a school independently through community efforts would be a demonstration in self-sufficiency.
“This is my philosophy,” he said, “with which I’m pressing everybody: you don’t wait for them to define the success or failure of your community. We must go through the process through the regents and educational-approving and ability-granting entities to open those schools ourselves. That’s what our children are waiting to see. They want to see us make a commitment to their future.”
Pitts notes that while there’s a clear connection between KTI’s success, the way it went down, and its conversion into a prison, the movement to reopen the school still seems strangely siloed from those focused more squarely on criminal justice reform and decarceration. If KTI were to reopen, it should be with a full reckoning of its history, lest the past be repeated yet again.
“That beautiful institution that our ancestors built with their own hands is sitting out there as a prison,” Pitts told me. “I understand why the state made that $300 million investment because it’s the only women’s prison in the state of Kansas, but there are other things that we could do that would allow us to create a sense of healing and curing on this issue.”
Every space and piece of infrastructure in our world, no matter how we engage with it — a converted building, an abandoned plot of land, a defunct railway, a closed school — has its own past. And sometimes the way it’s evolved, or devolved, illuminates something so much larger than what just the physical borders of that space can hold. In Pitts’s case, the history of the Kansas Technical Institute is just the beginning of a tale that led to Topeka Correctional, the school-to-prison pipeline, a community’s loss, and a distinctly unnerving world.
Copyright 2023 Tamar Sarai
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