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Bound up in the school-to-prison pipeline


California’s balance sheet is mired in an unusual dilemma: while the criminal justice portion of the state budget has shot up, the higher education portion has shot down.

During recessions, higher education budgets typically experience significant state funding cuts (money for proposed construction projects, campus refurbishment, scholarships/grants) but the corrections budget remains about the same.

Californians have witnessed since 1980 the corrections portion of the general fund grow steadily from 2.9 percent to 9.7 percent, while the higher education portion has dropped from 15.7 percent to 10.3 percent. This has resulted in more funding for new prisons, guards and the requisite bureaucracy, thereby leading to an ever-growing criminal justice payroll.

Nationwide, crime rates have been falling for more than a decade (due partly to better interdepartmental communication between the various auspices of law enforcement), but there has been a 33 percent increase in the number of inmates. There are about 2 million people incarcerated in the United States–the highest in the industrialized world–and approximately 10.4 percent of African American males between the ages of 25 and 29 years are behind bars.
This compares with 2.4 percent of Latino males and 1.2 percent of White males.

Parolees and those on probation often use the term “system” in reference to a frustrating, debilitative cycle of contact with the justice system.

A criminal record can result in a first-time offender being ordered to pay mandatory fees when they are referred to drug court or to a half-way house. The cost of utilities/services (lights, gas, water) are charged to the offender, all which result in months or even of years of monetary restitution.

Prior to the passage of Prop. 98 last year, backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, California’s budget for higher education was regularly reduced to make way for a perceived increase in inmates because of the on-going Three Strikes policy, illegal immigration, and the economic downturn; the latter, some criminologists suggest, can lead to more petty theft, more property crimes and increased
juvenile delinquency because of cutbacks in after-school programs.

Once receiving five times more funding than corrections, higher education and corrections in California are now about even–$1.3 billion for prisons, $1.4 billion for colleges.

Corrections personnel in California often earn much more than a college professor or a secondary school teacher. In 1980, an average California prison guard earned $25,858 a year, while a California State University faculty member earned $29,015. In 2006, the average prison guard salary had jumped to $94,518 while the typical professor made $70,615. Recent pension-reform efforts nationwide have reviewed such disparities of state prison worker salaries against other state workers, with many such pension plans being reduced for new prison guards.

“Over the past 30 years, the state has dropped the ball when it comes to funding higher education,” said Mike Polyakov, a research director with California Common Sense which in September 2012 released a comparative analysis of, essentially, jail versus education. “In light of its diminished support for higher education, we cannot ignore the state prison system’s rapid expansion during the same period, because the two systems compete for state money from the general fund.”

The criminal justice system monitors about 7.3 million people. All told, the U.S. spends about $74 billion annually on criminal justice, employing more than 800,000 people. Of the 2 million inmates, 900,000 are Black (or one in 11). This compares with one in 27 Latinos and one in 45 Whites. Blacks make up 39.4 percent of the U.S. prison population, yet comprise only 13.6 percent of the U.S. citizenry.

Some sociologists suggest that the nation’s varied ethnic makeup itself is a reason why this is so, as well as to why so many private citizens possess one or more firearms. These scholars theorize that if the United States had a more homogeneous population (i.e. Japan, China, Scandinavia) prison statistics would be different because there would be less racial anxiety.

“More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” said Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Her book speculates that the masses of ordinary African Americans are being relegated to the status of a “racial caste” because of the connection between high dropout rates in the inner city and the steadily rising number of Black inmates.

This year the Department of Justice investigated school officials in Meridian, Miss., for operating a school-to-prison pipeline, which reportedly incarcerated mostly Black and disabled youth for disciplinary infractions as minor as dress-code violations.

Though the investigation did not outline specific allegations of wrongdoing by the school district, federal officials discovered that police there routinely arrested students without probable cause when the school in question wanted to press charges for a campus violation. Once arrested, youth court places the child on probation. If another campus rule is broken, the student has violated probation and can be jailed.

“You don’t have to go to Mississippi to find the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s happening everyday right here,” said Clyde Oden, Ph.D., pastor of Bryant Temple AME in Los Angeles. The church has served the past eight years as a “welcoming place” to reintroduce paroled persons back into society.

“In Los Angeles, any time a kid is stopped in a so-called ‘drug area’ they are carded,” Oden explained. “This is called a sub-arrest or a system of tracking. New York City calls it ‘stop-and-frisk’; the LAPD and sheriff’s department refer to it as ‘stop-and-record.’ If the kid has (a subsequent stop or detainment) then they have a ‘jacket’ and this serves as a portal to the pipeline. This is part of the ‘gang abatement’ policy, which is implemented specifically in minority and impoverished areas.”

The 2009 Gang Abatement and Prevention Act, sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), was introduced to allocate $411 million in funding for gang prevention/intervention by schools and civic groups. If it had passed, SB 132 would have increased funding for Justice Department prosecutors, FBI agents and others to increase investigations and prosecutions of gangs. Also, the bill would have replaced current federal sentencing guidelines for gang-related conduct (a provision rarely used) with new federal anti-gang laws that directly criminalize and substantially increase penalties for violent street gangs. Such attire as Oakland Raiders jackets or caps, sagging trousers, or Khaki pants with a white T-shirt could be construed as gang-related conduct.

Some of the provisions of the bill are already in use by law enforcement, particularly the “stop-and-frisk” component in the inner city as are various public dress-code violations among Black and Latino youth (i.e. the aforementioned “gang attire”). They have been part of municipal codes for years.

A 2010 UCLA study examined the “pipeline” among California school districts and found, in many cases, such disciplinary failures are not attributable to the children, but rather to deficiencies of institutions charged with caring for them. The study suggests that the increase in early arrests has resulted from failure of public institutions to meet the educational and social development needs of children of color. Among the reasons are overcrowded classrooms, a racially isolated learning environment, insufficient funding for counselors/career guidance and obsolete textbooks–all factors which often lead to a second-rate education.

The UCLA study also found some California schools may unwittingly encourage dropouts in response to pressures from “test-driven” accountability standards–an unintended consequence of the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” policy. This method of teaching reportedly creates an incentive to push out low-achieving students in order to boost overall test scores. Students who suffer most from this policy, research demonstrates, are low-income, minority, English-language learners, homeless youth, foster children and disabled children.

Author Alexander said the increase in minority prisoners is largely due to the war on drugs which, for three decades, has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color. Much like receiving a military dishonorable discharge, she asserts, Blacks who live under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system are disenfranchised socially–no job opportunities, housing discrimination, loss of voting rights, exclusion from jury service, denial of school loans and military exclusion.

With millions of Californians in the state criminal history file, state Attorney General Kamala Harris has vowed to “close the revolving door” on crime by enacting programs to reduce the high rate of Black recidivism. In trying to reduce the overcrowded prison population, Harris has focused so far on “high-risk” parolees among released prisoners–the “… highest in the nation.
The system is failing us and crying out for reform,” she said in a 2010 interview with San Francisco’s KQED News. “It is an extreme burden to us in terms of public safety and our budget.”

The poor job market has made Harris’ objective more difficult. A 2010 report from the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice indicated having a job is a key factor in helping paroled inmates stay out of prison. Reportedly, 40 percent of California employers either “probably” or “definitely” would not be willing to hire applicants with a criminal record. Up to 80 percent of former inmates from county lock-ups to state prison remain unemployed one year after release.

Harris believes inmates’ skills should be assessed while they are incarcerated ” . . . to determine the most appropriate educational programs, vocational training and job placement.” She said the plan will require engaging employers as strategic partners in shaping programs and providing on-going training.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca wants to repurpose a portion of the existing Twin Towers jail facility downtown into an educational component as part of his “Education Based Incarceration” policy. Baca said in March that “jails should not simply warehouse people,” but, instead provide rehabilitation and remedial educational services to reduce recidivism. He also suggested college coursework be made available to qualified inmates.

Alexander notes that, since the 1950s, “The rhetoric of ‘law and order’ has gradually replaced the rhetoric of segregation among the rightwing activists, especially politicians, who demanded tough punitive legislation and police action.” The term “law and order” was also the 1968 slogan of the Nixon presidential campaign, which saw rising tides of dissent among young African Americans as a sign of national social upheaval. By 1980, the fervency of the new “war on drugs” had begun to ensnare tens of thousands of African Americans into the web of the criminal justice system.

“The war on drugs has had a devastating impact on African American communities on a scale entirely out of proportion with the actual dimensions of criminal activity taking place within these communities.”

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is the nation’s largest private-prison conglomerate, controlling more than 47 percent of “for-profit” prisons and jail beds. The return on its original investment has been handsome: about 13 to 15 percent profit a year.

For about three decades CCA has operated 67 prisons in 20 states and the District of Columbia (roughly 92,000 jail cots) with CCA owning 47 prisons outright. In 1999, two publicly traded companies–CCA Prison Realty and Corrections Corporation of America–merged to form New Prison Realty, which summarily bought up land and built new facilities. During this time, the U.S. prison population increased dramatically from 300,000 to the present number.

Private prisons offer a significant cost advantage over government-run facilities. In 2007, the Pew Charitable Trusts found it cost the government about $24,000 per inmate annually, while the CCA could beat that price by $8,000 per inmate. In June of 2012, the CCA issued a 20 percent quarterly dividend, which indicated a yield of 2.6 percent. CCA has averaged a 9.5 percent net profit yearly since 2007. Because very little of this large profit margin is returned to state coffers (along with reports of inmate abuse, financial irregularities and lack of oversight) California will end its association with private prisons by 2016.

Among the private prisons in California are Adelanto Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto, Baker Community Correctional Facility in San Bernardino, California City Corrections Center in California City, Canteen Corrections in Fresno, Chester Pointe Center in San Diego, El Monte Center in El Monte and Mesa Verde Community Correctional Facility in Bakersfield.

Prison (inmates) workers produce everything from designer sport shoes and sunglasses to computer keyboards and office furniture. Private-sector manufacturers Victoria’s Secret, CMT Blues, Steelcase and Target Corp. use prison labor. Insurance, financial and manufacturing leaders such as All State, Merrill Lynch, American Express and General Electric have purchased stock in private prisons.

Aeronautics/defense giants McDonnell Douglas-Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, General Dynamics and Bell-Textron also utilize prison workers who receive no union protection, no overtime pay, no vacation days, no pension benefits and no health and safety protection.

The 1930s saw a federal ban placed on the interstate transport and sale of prison-made goods being sold on the open market. In 1979, however, the Prison Industries Enhancement Act exempted state prisons from this regulation, but stipulated that inmates receive a prevailing minimum wage. Also, jobs held by civilian workers could not be moved behind bars. Inmates nationwide do not receive the federal minimum wage and, instead, get an average of less than $1 per hour pay.

In what was once termed “peonage” during Reconstruction, thousands of African Americans in the South were placed in a form of involuntary servitude based on alleged debt or indebtedness. As late as 1915, at least six former slave-holding states had statutes which made it possible to place men in shackles and compel them to labor for others (lumber companies, agricultural firms, mining, road crews, etc.) against their will. This was because the lush lumber, iron ore, turpentine and cotton belts of Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama were economically fertile regions where White entrepreneurs still subjugated Blacks to near-slave conditions.

Like the arbitrary nature of the “war on drugs,” these African American men were often arrested on petty charges (vagrancy, malicious mischief or generally not showing deference to a White person) and usually could not pay the fine. The prisoners could then be hired out to private firms to provide free work, thereby allowing the company to save on employee fees and quickly pay the original fine, typically small, but still out of reach for impoverished Blacks.

Alexander believes the “war on drugs,” through its ” … persistent racial inequality,” has created a racial caste system with mass incarceration being it most salient point. “The criminal justice system,” she states, “together with the larger web of laws, rules, policies and customs, racial stigmatization and permanent marginalization serves as a gateway. The members of the new ‘undercaste,’ once released from prison, face a hidden world of legalized discrimination and permanent social exclusion.”