Education and Incarceration

December 13, 2006

In 1996, when David and I first started developing an education and job training program for kids from the juvenile justice system, we did so because we wanted to fight 2 problems–the under-education and over-incarceration of low-income kids of color. 10 years later, we face some sobering facts. African-Americans have made significant progress over the last 50 years in most domains, including education. Today, 79% of African-Americans have high school diplomas, compared to 34% in 1970. 17% have college degrees, compared with 5% in 1970. Median income has increased substantially (35k in 2000 compared to 25k in 1970, in constant dollars), as has home ownership (46% of blacks owned homes in 2000, compared to 35% in 1950) and life expectancy (72 years in 2001 compared to 64 years in 1970). Poverty has declined (25% of black families lived in poverty in 2003 compared to 55% in 1959), and infant mortality rates have plummeted (14 deaths per 1,000 birth in 2000 compared to 33 deaths in 1970). The number of black elected officials has increased 600% (from approx 1,500 in 1970 to over 9,000 in 2001). Most people would assume that if a community’s indicators had increased in all those ways, this would correspond with a decrease in incarceration rates. And yet . . .

Exactly the opposite has happened. African-Americans comprised 30% of our nation’s prisons in 1954, when Brown v. Bd. of Ed. was decided and Jim Crow was law or custom in much of the nation. Today, the numbers are worse–blacks make up 50% of our prisons. And in 2003, there were more African-American men incarcerated than enrolled in higher education.

In future posts I will discuss how this has come to pass, but for now consider three questions raised by the juxtaposition of progress in so many areas combined with the horrific increase in incarceration rates.

1) Are there limits to what education can do if educational outcomes have improved alongside a massive rise in incarceration? Those of us who are educators need to come to grips with this—we need to expand our domain of concern beyond the classroom if we are educating more kids but incarceration rates are still getting worse.

2) Why isn’t there a greater national outcry over the incarceration statistics—if we knew 50 years ago that African-Americans were going to make progress in virtually every domain, but incarceration rates were going to get dramatically worse, wouldn’t we have predicted that the mass incarceration of blacks would be the lead issue for the civil rights community, concerned citizens, and progressives everywhere?

3) Shouldn’t conservatives and centrists care a lot about this issue—after all, these prisons are hugely expensive, drain resources and raise taxes.

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2 Responses to “Education and Incarceration”

  1. Phyllis Murray Says:

    Inside Education: A View from the Front Line
    By Phyllis C Murray

    In 1991 it seemed difficult to comprehend how 8,800 prison cells were on the drawing board in New York State. Yet the prospect of building new schools to replace our crumbling schools had become a dream deferred. So the question is asked: Where were the political pundits who campaigned on a platform for education? How had their commitment to education manifested itself? Today we see the results of their actions’

    “There are currently two million Americans in prison — 25 percent of the worldÂ’s prison population. In the US, it costs $56 billion dollars a year to maintain our nationÂ’s prisons, and an additional $2.6 billion dollars is poured into building new ones annually. Therefore, the Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) are calling for designersto stop investing our national economic and social resources in the construction and renovation of prisons. Prisons drain our economy our money that could be used for education and social services.” January 2006(ADPSR)’

    “The “school-to-prison pipeline” describes an alarming trend wherein public elementary, middle and high schools are pushing youth out of classrooms and into the juvenile justice and criminal justice system.
    Under the banner of “zero tolerance,” schools increasingly are relying on inappropriately harsh discipline and, increasingly, law enforcement, to address trivial schoolyard offenses among even the youngest students.” ACLU 2007
    “Hearing sponsors in Florida heard testimony from innumerable witnesses, including prosecutors and juvenile court judges, who expressed grave concerns that schools have turned away from education-based approaches to discipline and now handle far too many instances of typical student misbehavior by relying on law enforcement and the courts, and imposing punishments that needlessly remove students from school. “NAACP 2007

    In May 2007 Congressman Rangel addressed the United Federation of Teachers. He cautioned against allowing the streets to educate our youth. Rangel called for government incentives to develop youth and not give up on those who have fallen. He reminded us of the 2 million children who are “locked up” and the high cost of incarceration of these children;the incarceration which costs the taxpayer approximately $100,000.00 per annum for a youth-offender on Rikers Island.

    Today, Rangel advocates for more resources in the schools as well as different resources for the myriad problems which the students have to face. “If we can spend 10 billion dollars on an unnecessary war, we can feed the minds of our kids.” said Rangel.”We cannot survive by losing one half of the brain power.”

    It was forty years ago that Martin Luther King addressed the UFT. At that time he said the following:

    “The richest nation on earth has never allocated enough of its
    abundant resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate
    adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige
    their work justifies. We squander funds on highways and the
    frenetic pursuit of recreation , on the overabundance of overkill
    armaments, but we pauperize education.”

    Surely, Rangel has an awesome task ahead as the new chairperson of the Ways and Means Committee. He is in the position of power in a place where he can affect change: Our Nation’s Capital. And as a well-seasoned public servant, who has remained on the frontline on many battles from 1948 to the present, we can be assured that the future of this nation is in good hands. However, as Americans we have every right to challenge those who represent us in government. We have every right to hold legislators accountable for the pledges they have made regarding their commitment to education. We can see from the past mistakes of legislators exactly why it would have been more economically sound and beneficial to this nation if the legislators had invested in education.

  2. Peggy Says:

    This is a serious problem and everyone should start getting serious and do something about it.


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