|Image from Flickr, by aclu.socal
We often hear of the school-to-prison pipeline, where kids exit our public education system poorly educated and without a diploma or skills, leaving them vulnerable to unemployment and a future life of crime. While this is clearly a bombastic overstatement, it is true that prisoners tend to be less literate and educated than society at large. Indeed, some estimates indicate that as many as 66% of California’s inmates are reading below a 9th-grade reading level, more than 50% below a 7th-grade level, and 21% below a 3rd-grade level, suggesting that there is a link between education and incarceration. However, the majority of inmates are also poor and, since there is also a link between wealth and educational success, it is likely that poverty is the cause of both their incarceration and illiteracy.
Even if poverty is ignored, there is another significant connection between education and incarceration: the large transfer of public resources over the past several decades from public K-12 and higher education to support the growing prison system. This has not only reduced the ability of schools to provide a decent education to all of their students, but it has also stripped away many of the extra resources necessary to support their lowest income students. Furthermore, with the defunding of the state’s prestigious UC and CSU university systems, and the concomitant skyrocketing cost of tuition, it is becoming harder and harder to afford a university education, even for those students who are reading at grade level. Since 2007, tuition at UC and CSU has more than doubled, while community college students have seen their fees increase 80%.
Lack of a college education decreases people’s earning power and their ability to obtain a job in the first place. This does not necessarily lead to criminal behavior or incarceration, but it does contribute to the growing wealth gap and to the overall decline living standards. The defunding of the universities has also made it nearly impossible for young professors to obtain tenure or to earn sufficient wages to support themselves in the expensive cities where most of the universities exist, forcing some to abandon California for other regions or to leave teaching altogether.
The problem is not purely one of insufficient tax revenues, though this is certainly a big part of it. The state also has a problem with irresponsible spending that panders to the powerful Correctional Officers union, at the expense of the general public. Consider that California spent 13% less on higher education in 2011 than it did in 1980, after adjusting for inflation, while prison funding increased by 436% in that same time period according to California Common Sense (CACS), a non-partisan policy organization. The CACS report, called “Winners and Losers: Corrections and Higher Education in California,” says that the state now covers only 25% of the costs of its universities, compared to 1980, when it paid for 66% of the costs of higher education.
Over the past three decades, California’s population has grown by more than 57% to reach its current population of 37.3 million residents. Student population growth during this period roughly kept pace with the overall growth of the state population, yet the incarceration rate increased at more than eight times the rate of the state population. This was largely due to the “3 Strikes Law” and irrational crack cocaine sentencing laws that have led to long prison sentences for thousands of nonviolent offenders, or Proposition 21, which made it easier to try juveniles as adults. These laws were all heavily supported by the prison guards union and have provided the justification for bloated prison budgets and bloated prisons. Despite the fact that the state’s crime rate has been declining since the early 1990s, its prison population increased by 42% since 1992.The report notes that 60% of the increase in Department of Corrections (CDCR) costs between 1980 and 2012 is due to this increase in prisoners.
Even with a massive prison construction program, the state still could not keep up with the rapid influx of inmates, resulting in prisons that were operating at up to twice their capacities. The state is now under federal mandate to reduce its prison population to a mere 137% of capacity within 2 years. Gov. Brown has addressed the problem by releasing state prisoners into county jails, further stressing county infrastructures and budgets. In reality, the state has thousands of people incarcerated who have committed only minor nonviolent infractions and these prisoners could be released into the general public with virtually no risk to public safety, thus saving the state millions of dollars.
At the same time that California has been expanding its prison system, hiring more guards, and increasing their pay, it has been slashing programs and services for its college students. Over the past thirty years, the ratio of staff (including faculty) to students has declined. In 1980, there was one faculty member per 16 students at UC, and one faculty per 21 students at CSU. By 2010, the ratio was one faculty per 21 students at UC, and one faculty per 32 students at CSU. At the same time, middle management at UC has been growing dramatically, now comprising 20% of its budget.
In contrast to the situation at the state’s universities, the number of prison guards per adult inmate has been growing and is now roughly what it was in 1980, despite the large increase in prisoners. Services for prisoners, however, have not kept up. This means that there are fewer counselors, doctors, teachers and other support staff per prisoner, thus reducing the quality of health care, education and general safety of prisoners, as well as the chances that prisoners will be ready for life on the outside when they are released. Furthermore, the ratio of parole staff to parolees is at an all-time low (roughly 1.6 staff per 100 parolees), increasing the odds that a convict will end up back in prison. (California has a recidivism rate of 60%).
While being a college professor is generally considered more prestigious and higher status than being a prison guard, their salaries do not reflect this. In 1980, the average guard salary in California was $25,858 a year, while the average CSU faculty salary was about $29,015 annually. By 2006 the average guard salary had reached $94,518 annually, while the average CSU faculty salary was a mere $70,615. After adjusting for inflation, the average faculty salary in 2010 was less than it was in 1980.
In short, college professors, like most other members of the middle and lower classes, have seen their wages and living standards stagnate over the past thirty years. What is unique, but not surprising, is that prison guards have seen their wages increase over this same period, making them one of the only groups of wage earners to experience improvements in living standards over the past 3 decades.
From the perspective of the employing class, schools are still churning out sufficiently trained workers to keep most businesses in operation, despite the decrease in wages for educators and the overall funding cuts. In the areas where they are failing to do so (e.g., technology and science) they can always import workers from abroad, often at lower wages than they would have to pay native-born employees. Thus, slashing education budgets has not hampered their ability to make huge profits. On the contrary, the wealth gap continues to grow and California continues to gain new billionaires (currently there are more than 80 billionaires and over 600,000 millionaires in the state).
The increase in prisoners and prisons is an expense the wealthy can largely defer to the rest of us through a taxation system that allows them to pay an effective tax rate far lower than that paid by most middle-income wage earners. At the same time, many goods and services can be produced by prisoners at a cost that is competitive with the cheapest foreign labor since prisoners can be compelled to work for virtually free (the minimum wage law does not apply to prisoners).
Ultimately, the transfer of resources from higher education to incarceration is just another tool for increasing the portion of the wealth controlled by the richest members of society. Prison guards are generously rewarded for their support of this system, while poor people, who make up the majority of the prison population, pay for it with their very freedom. Professors and students pay for it with declining living standards and growing debt, and all working people pay for it in reduced services and public works.