At its core the School to Prison Pipeline, or more aptly the School and Prison Nexus, is about domination and control of wealth - much as previous iterations of white supremacy like Jim Crow or Slavery (read Michelle Alexander). One can easily see how the School and Prison Nexus facilitates domination, through literal and legal cages, but how it controls wealth is more difficult to follow… To do so, one must understand the prison industrial complex. Below are 3 ways the school and prison industrial complex leads to wealth for a select few.
1. The Privatization of Prisons
Mass incarceration in the U.S. is now an 80 billion dollar industry funded by taxpayers and the families of people incarcerated (overwhelmingly people of color and the poor). But where does the 80 billion dollars go? According to the Vera Institute of Justice, 68% goes to personnel who work in incarceration (their salaries and benefits), 11% to inmate healthcare, and the final 21% (or 16 billion dollars) pays for boarding costs and services. This 16 billion dollars has attracted a multitude of private business all vying for a cut, both for private prisons and for private services provided to state and federal prisons.
The U.S. Justice Department reported in 2017 that private prisons which hold 8% of the overall incarcerated population have more safety and security violations than public prisons. Private prisons have been involved in numerous scandals from physical abuse, sexual abuse and murder?/ death of inmates to embezzlement and government corruption. At the same time, private service providers take up a much larger piece of the profits than private prisons. For example, privately owned prison phone companies earn roughly $1.2 billion per year by charging inmates upwards of $15 per minute and giving local authorities a percentage of the profits. Some jails have even stopped in-person family visitations and instead use “video visitation” terminals (provided by private companies) that can charge $30 for 40 minute sessions. Even basic commissary items like cereal and toothpaste can cost 5 times as much in prisons – which leads to private commissary prison companies earning $1.6 billion in profits each year. “In some respects, this [privatization of services] is worse than the private prison companies,” Peter Wagner, the executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative states. “I expect the government to waste money. But it’s totally different for the government to collude with a private company to make poor people lose money.”
2. Exploitation of Labor
Since the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” prisons have taken advantage of the loophole to exploit the labor of inmates. Currently, most inmates make between $0.25 and $2.00 per hour for working prison jobs, and prisons will routinely take 50% of inmate earnings to pay for room and board fees. For example, one inmate working 39 hours a week for 50 cents an hour in a Minnesota prison, made $19.50 a week but only got to keep $9.74. The rest of his pay went to MINNCOR prison. The remaining $9.74 was barely enough to pay for hygiene products purchased through the prison commissary store, also owned by MINNCOR. Mass incarceration is the newest iteration of exploitation and domination of people of color and the poor as the data clearly demonstrates with 1 in 3 black men incarcerated in this country as compared to 1 in 17 white men.
3. Lost Opportunities for Many Means Less Competition for the Few
The ACLU estimates that due to excluding inmates from the workforce even after incarceration leads to a reduction in the gross national product by $78 to $87 billion dollars annually. When the vast burden of lost opportunities due to incarceration falls primarily on communities of color - the problem grows exponentially for those communities. This system fits perfectly into the purpose of education as laid out by America’s founding fathers - reinforced by a strong lobby for stricter (often race based) prison sentencing, inequitable allocation of resources, and racialized dehumanizing language (like labeling black males “super-predators” or Latinos with “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists!”).
From 1980 to 2016 - The increase in spending for education was 146%, while the increase in spending for incarceration was 370%. On average it costs roughly $11,000 per year to educate a child in public K12 education in the U.S., and roughly $33,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate in the U.S. In California the cost of housing a prisoner is $75,560 per year, more than the annual tuition at Harvard. Additionally, over the past 30 years, state funded support per college student has dropped 28%, while state spending per inmate has risen 44%. America does spend more per student than most other nations, however, we also spend more per inmate than most other nations, and have by far the highest incarceration rate.
As thousands of teachers across the country protest and walkout for increased educational funding as part of the #RedforEd movement - in addition to asking for more funding for schools, teachers and students should be asking where the current funding is flowing - who profits from poor, segregated schools intertwined with privatized and segregated prisons? I recently finished teaching a unit on the School to Prison Pipeline... Nexus... Industrial Complex (pick your language) - and I was impressed with my students’ final projects. The project required them to make theoretical changes to our educational system in order to deconstruct the School to Prison Complex, and virtually every student noted that redistribution of wealth needed to be a starting point. In particular, increased funding for schools that service students who have been systematically oppressed for over 300 years needs to be a starting point - which means pulling funding from elsewhere (ideally from those systems enacted to dominate and control).