(MintPress) – A federal study released in 2009, the most recent year of available federal data, found that 1 in 7 American adults did not have the literacy skills necessary to read anything more advanced than a children’s picture book. And according to Scientific Learning, an independent education research group, the United States is the only country among the 30 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) free market countries where the current generation is less well-educated than the previous one.
But the U.S. ranks number one in an ultimately relatable category: Incarcerated individuals. Recent figures from the International Centre for Prison Studies show that, on average, the U.S. incarcerates 730 individuals per 100,000 citizens.
So it may come as less of a shock in light of last weekend’s International Literacy Day that the U.S. spends far more on its prison system than public education. It is a trend that has grown in the past decade, as a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) study found that in the past 20 years, state spending on prisons has grown at six times the rate of spending on higher education.
In a 2011 interview, NAACP president Benjamin Jealous said the disproportionate number of our population in prison is indicative of failed policies and skewed priorities.
“Our country has 5 percent of the world’s people, 25 percent of the world’s people in prison,” Jealous told PBS. “And we have too many people in prison. And what’s clear is that the policies that have put them there are failing us.”
As it is, funding for correctional facilities continues to rise while many still struggle with the fundamentals of literacy. And as literacy is an essential life skill, it shows its correlation with the prison population. Currently, 43 percent of prisoners do not have a high school diploma or anything equivalent, and 56 percent have “very low” literacy skills, according to Scientific Learning. In the general population, 30 million adults have “below basic” literacy skills.
“They really cannot read … paragraphs (or) sentences that are connected,” said Sheida White, a researcher at the U.S. Education Department.
It’s a trend not likely to improve itself until more funding is allocated toward education. But states have tilted the scale in favor of correcting empty prison cells and not the lack of skills of students. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that for the fiscal years between 2011 and 2013, lawmakers set aside $2.1 billion for education and $2.25 billion for the state’s Department of Corrections.
Les Leopold, executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, questioned the priorities of lawmakers and the society that allows for it to happen.
“Are we insane? How can we afford to spend more on prisons than on higher education in our increasingly competitive knowledge-based world?” Leopold asked. “Little wonder that state dollars on prisons will soon outpace state spending on higher education in every state of the union.”
One of the biggest outliers in education and correctional spending discrepancy is California, where the public policy group Common Sense California found that since 1980, education spending has decreased 13 percent while spending on the state’s corrections department grew 436 percent. The state’s current budget allocates more money from its general fund to the prison system than it does higher education.
To make up for lost funding, California has had some of the largest proposed tuition hikes in the country, with the University of California (UC) calling for a 32 percent increase in tuition in 2009. In 2010, tuition at the school went up another 8 percent. Because of the state’s skewed spending, California Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a tax hike that will be voted on in November. Brown told UC regents that if the increase passed, the university could not raise tuition again because a large percentage of the tax bump would go toward higher education. But the school warned that if the measure failed, it would consider another 20 percent tuition hike on students.
The effect on education spending as it correlates to corrections spending may have manifested itself a few years ago when Central Connecticut State University announced its “Most Literate Cities” survey. The report showed that other than Stockton, every major city fell in literacy rankings. And San Francisco, which commonly was found in the top five of major cities around the country, fell to number 12 over the span of one year. Dan Aiello of the California Progress Report, an independent journal of California public policy, said the California budget and economy are having a direct impact on the performance of the state’s schools.
“California’s literacy tumble seemed tangible proof to the educators representing UC and State College faculty … that the state’s economic woes have created a multitude of educational ills which are manifest in the quantifiable symptom of the state’s declining level of literacy,” Aiello wrote.
The explosion of corrections department spending in states such as California is a microcosm of a larger issue commonly referred to as the prison-industrial complex – a phenomenon used to explain the expansion of America’s prison populations. The increase of prison spending is in large part due to the shift from publicly-run corrections operations to privately-run facilities. Immigration centers lend themselves as one of the best examples of today’s prison climate, as nearly half of all immigrants detained by federal officials are held in privately-run facilities.
Private enterprises, such as the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), profit immensely from this practice, and, in turn, have a relatively cozy relationship with lawmakers. One the average year, the top three private prison companies spend over $45 million on lobbying, which paid off for CCA to the tune of a $5.1 billion, decade-long contract from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The problem in California has created a massive spike in the prison population over the past few decades. In 1977, the California inmate population was 19,600. In 2006, the number of inmates peaked at 173,000 – more than the number of inmates in France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined.
The influx in prisoners is also a reflection of the crackdown on drug possession around the country, as crime figures have fallen by around 20 percent while prison populations have increased by nearly 50 percent since 1991, according to a report by the Atlantic. In 2011, Forbes highlighted a debate between Warren Buffet and the blog Dissenting Leftist, which examined whether the prison-industrial complex was a matter of elite privilege and monetary influence.
“Companies such as the Geo Group and CCA do not earn their money by providing goods or services to customers,” the blog read. “Rather, they make their money solely from the government, and solely for locking human beings in cages, mostly for non-violent offenses. Further, these companies actively lobby for unjust laws, largely using the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporatist conservative political group.”