In America, the land of the free, there are more prisons and more prisoners than any other country in the world.
This is not a new phenomenon.
For decades, the rate of imprisonment in the United States has been more than twice that of its nearest developmental counterpart. The long-standing question, both at home and abroad, is why is the prison population so high?
One could argue it is to sustain a substitute institution of enslavement built on systemic denial of opportunity and disenfranchisement.
There are many reasons given, like waging a war on illegal drugs and overall increases in various crime rates.
But such answers do not get at the root causes and perpetuation of the nearly $200 billion mass incarceration industry that fuels the economy of states across America.
One must look at who makes up the prison populations across states and why. Pick any state and you will find Blacks make up disproportionately the highest rate of people in prison. For example, in Missouri, black people make up 12% of the state’s population, but 34% of the people in prison.
Overall, in America, Blacks are only 13.4% of the total U.S. population. They make up nearly 40% of the prison population.
Why are there more Blacks in prisons in America?
In every aspect of American life, Blacks continue to suffer or be victimized disproportionately. This has been the case since the founding of this country, after the abolishment of slavery, and even after the passage of Constitutional Amendments supposedly to make all things equal.
Blacks have been and continue to be denied equal access to a quality education, jobs, housing, health care services and other privileges afforded other Americans.
What has been the results? A debilitating and destructive state of poverty, delinquency and under achievement, which often result in a perpetual cycle of crime and incarceration.
Let’s look at the cycle of how Blacks end up in prison more than any other group in America.
It begins in grade school, with Blacks being disciplined and expelled at higher rates than other students.
Blacks make up 15% of all public school students but are 39% of those suspended or expelled from school.
A PBS New hour segment a few years ago highlighted a report that found that suspension and expulsion rates for Blacks were significantly higher than those of whites in 13 southern states. What is that reminiscent of?
The way the suspensions and expulsions of blacks are handled, often engaging law enforcement agencies, has created a practice called the school-to-prison pipeline, according to an investigation conducted by the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Missouri is one of the worst states engaging in this practice, suspending more Black preschooler than 44 other states.
There are trends that show a direct correlation between suspensions, expulsions, failure to complete high school and high incarceration rates. Those children are the same struggling academically and have disciplinary issues.
Yet, the growing practice across America is to invest more into building new prisons or renovating older ones rather than investing in schools and educational support programs. This is tantamount to prejudging and presentencing children who could benefit from meaningful intervention programs.
Another study found that almost every state spends much more money per prisoner than money per student in public schools.
Just recently, the governor of Arkansas announced that the state is allocating $6 billion to build new prisons and renovate older ones. New prisons will also be built in New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
The Alabama legislature passed bills and the governor signed them into law that will use up to $400 million of Covid-19 relief funds from the federal government to build new prisons and renovate others.
There seems to be no priority for funding education, prevention, and rehabilitation programs.
Where are the announcements from states about the millions of dollars they will be investing in early childhood education and educational programs to close the achievement gaps of the underprivileged, those likely to end up in the penal system?
Low-income, impoverished neighborhoods in the Black urban cores across America suffer most from the lack of or underinvestment in educational resources and programs.
It seems that state leaders and legislatures would rather plan, build, and invest in a future of imprisonment than one of accomplishment for our children, particularly Black children, perpetuating a profitable industry on the misfortunes cause by centuries of denial and gross disparities.
Over the decades there has been an acute awareness and discussion about the educational achievement gap between Blacks and whites. But what has been done about it?
While there have been some efforts to close the educational divide, major gaps still remain in basic areas such as proficiency in reading, writing and math skills. The gap is even wider when it comes to technology. Becoming technologically proficient is critical now and will be more so in the future.
Many Black children do not have adequate access to computers or Internet connectivity. This proved to be a major impediment to virtual learning during the height of Covid-19 when most schools were closed.
Better access to educational resources to ensure achievement is a great path toward prevention and breaking the devastating school-to-prison pipeline practice.
The pipeline is bolstered by the fact that Blacks received longer and harsher sentences than whites for the same crimes and the recidivism rate is higher.
One could conclude that failure to invest in quality education is just another way to silently guarantee that the mass incarceration industry will continue to thrive by using a revolving door of suspensions, expulsions, prison terms, and prison returns.
What will it take to change the priority from funding prisons to funding education to minimize, if not stop, the self-perpetuating cycle of crime and loss of freedom?
This commentary by Janice Ellis is published through a Creative Commons license.