Can you imagine a civilization that monetarily prioritizes its penal system over the success and advancement of its educational system? Welcome to America’s reality, where we over-incarcerate and under-educate. Our precious “land of the free” holds the distinction of leading the world in prison population. We house five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and yet, all over the country, funding for education is being divested.
The stigma that the imprisonment of black men is greater than the amount of black men who attend college is made transparent by the media, activists, and political leaders alike. One prime example of this statement was made by then-candidate Barack Obama when he addressed the issue at a NAACP candidate forum in 2007 by stating, “We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America.” His proclamation was well-received by enthusiastic ovations.
According to NPR, Howard University professor Ivory Toldson says President Obama’s statement is false and he debunked the claim in 2013 with his own research. Toldson stated that there are 1.4 million black men in college and approximately 840,000 black men in prison. There has been debate circulating the facts, but the original statistic came from the Justice Policy Institute's report "Cell Blocks Versus Classroom," which was written in 2002. At the time of the data analysis, they looked at the National Center for Educational Statistics head count of black men in college, and compared that to the Department of Justice count of inmates at the time, which were 100,000 more black men in prison than in college. Since then, there has been a 100 percent increase in the number of black men in college, as reported by the National Center for Educational statistics. Toldson pulled the data from 2001 that the Justice Policy Institute used and noticed that 1,000 colleges weren't reporting their head count of black males and many colleges didn't report any numbers. When the Justice Policy Institute wrote their report, they took their data from historically black universities.
It is no secret that African-American males make up the majority of those who are incarcerated in America. In fact, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three African-American men can expect to be incarcerated at some point and although African-Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of the population, they represent 60 percent of the prison population. According to a study done by BreakingBrown.com, minority inmates are more prone to serving time in private prisons, which are notorious for more brutal conditions. In nine states, more minorities were found in private prisons, a fact that remains vital to the testament that private prisons are focused on profit rather than rehabilitation of its inmates. This discrepancy stems from the fact that fewer prisoners over the age of 50 are confined in private prisons because health care for those prisoners can be costly. Additionally, there is a greater possibility that prisoners over the age of 50 are Caucasian. Thus, one can infer that private prisons profit from housing young African American and Hispanic males, and sending older inmates to government prisons. Detain as many inmates as possible and house them as cheaply possible, seems to be the mantra.
Taking a look past the racial disparity of private prisons, since 1980, violence in America has declined yet the incarceration rate has tripled since this time; why? The short answer is profit. Imprisoning Americans in private prisons run by mega-corporations has resulted in a $70 billion industry. The mega-corps are the zoo keepers and the citizens are the wild animals trapped in the overcrowded cage, looking out from within. Imprisonment in America is less about putting away the “bad guy” and more about keeping the business running.
Studies show the number of federal laws has risen from 3,000 in the early 1980s to over 4,450 by 2008. As a result, people are being incarcerated for violations that citizens may have never known existed. Those convicted of minor crimes, such as drug possession and petty theft, are expected to serve extensive prison sentences, which does nothing to protect citizens from harm or impending danger.
Political activist, Angela Davis once stated, “The deterioration of public education is directly related to prison solution.” In many cases, education is a deterrent to incarceration and may be the very thing keeping youth from the crossfire of criminal involvement. In other first-world countries such as Sweden, college education is free and funded by the government.
Unfortunately, here in America, the deterioration of public education and insufficient funding is a present cause for concern. More school closings, teacher layoffs, less after-school programs, overcrowded classrooms, and tuition hikes at colleges and universities are just some of the several challenges students and staff face today. In many cases, these conditions enable dropouts. Perhaps when we begin to view education as a societal advantage rather than an exclusive good, will we see a decrease in our prison population? Is education the deterrent that will keep the shackles away for many? It appears that for now our judicial system and the corporations are adamant in sustaining the perpetual cycle of incarceration at the expense (literally) of our educational system, even as some politicians talk about reducing sentencing for non-violent crimes. Time will tell, but for now, those who seek education as deterrent to prison may have won the battle but not the war.