Prisons, Justice and Education
Unemployment rates have risen as the economy has soured, with the Black unemployment rate spiking higher than others. In early April, we learned that while the White unemployment rate was just 3.7 percent, the official unemployment rate for African Americans exceeded 8 percent. But if Black folks couldn’t find jobs “outside,” there were plenty “inside” jobs for us.
The privatization of the prison system has created employment “opportunities” for thousands of the incarcerated, whose immobile labor is boosting the profit positions of publicly traded for-profit corporations.
Corporations like the Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corp. of America or Florida’s Wackenhut Corp. have had amazing success: CCA alone currently corners more than half of the U.S. private prison market; last year, Wackenhut posted revenues of $2.5 billion. Stock analysts describe Wackenhut as “a leader in the privatization of public services, including prison management for governments.” Some are describing prison management stocks as hot, but the profit margin in these stocks is the underpaid labor of those incarcerated.
Seven years ago Oregon voted for a constitutional amendment mandating that prison work programs be run primarily to achieve a net profit, as opposed to occupying, teaching and rehabilitating inmates. These days, the goal of prison work is not to free anyone or improve their life. Instead, the prison industry stands to make more money with more prisoners. It frees up corporations from having to employ unionized employees. It frees up federal and state government from having to provide some semblance of true treatment and rehabilitation to our nation’s incarcerated, who are increasingly the victims of the war on drugs and less often the perpetrators of violent crime.
Prisoners can work full time for the minimum wage ($6.25 in Oregon) but once they are released they could find it difficult to find a job — when they must now pay for food, housing, clothing, child support —and in some states, cannot vote. Oregon, which appears to be ground zero (along with Texas) of the prison industrial complex, is home to the Prison Blues operation, which makes “prisonwear” for the unincarcerated — marketed under the slogan “made on the inside to be worn on the outside.”
All of this would not be so galling if those incarcerated could find jobs when they got out of jail. They can’t. They keep little of the pay they earn, and the same employers who can’t get enough of them on the inside won’t touch them on the outside. This prison labor scheme might make sense if for-profit prisons made enough money to free up public funds for other uses. Ha! In 1995, for the first time ever, California — the home to public academic powerhouses UCLA and UC Berkeley — spent more on prisons than on higher education. In the past 30 years, California has built more than 20 prisons but has not added one more campus to the University of California system.
Those who are building prisons are planning to keep them filled. It seems that they are planning to divert those who might attend college from higher education, with laws and regulations that deter their matriculation.
An obscure regulation that was passed during the Clinton administration is now being strenuously enforced under President Bush. The regulation denies those who have been convicted of drug-related crimes from receiving federal financial aid. When the law was passed in 1998, its maker said he intended to stop financial aid grants to those students who were actively involved in the drug trade. Under Bush, those who have ever been convicted of drug offenses are barred from receiving financial aid.
What a double standard! The rule, for drug offenders, is “once a criminal, always a criminal.” What would we do if the same rule were imposed upon others? Banks who skirted bankruptcy with loose lending standards, and who cost the taxpayers billions through the savings and loan crisis, are now back doing business with the government. Federal contractors who have been prosecuted for fraud wait a year or so then throw their proposals back in the ring. With the right contacts, they even manage to get a contract. Yet young people who have made a mistake are permanently barred from higher education opportunities. And this barrier is being erected by an administration headed by someone who believes that life begins at 40!
Do all roads lead to a prison system that fails to offer rehabilitation, only continued incarceration? Do individual attempts at rehabilitation, including attempts at college attendance after drug use, have to be rebuffed because of uncompassionate laws? Whatever happened to the concept of compassionate conservatism? Or was that just campaign rhetoric?
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