Public Education or Mass Incarceration? Prisoner Versus Pupil: Are You Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

All I hear from politicians to principals to the people on the streets is how valuable education is for the future. The promises and benefits of a quality education is productive citizenship and positive contributions to society. I think that we all agree that this is true. “Education is the key to a better life.” All that comes with education, will determine the paths we travel in life-and with a good education, children grow into adults who matter.

If all of these things are indeed true, then why are we so fascinated by and reliant upon the potential of imprisonment? It is a fact that black and brown people, young men, greatly outnumber whites among the prison population. For the most part, it is the poorer, least advantaged person who actually does prison time. The more wealth you have, the least likely are you to be sentenced to serve time in prison or jail.

Public education, k-12, is funded by the federal government, and that money comes from taxpaying citizens.  We agree that education is more important than imprisonment in fostering productive law-abiding citizenry. It is educational attainment that greatly increases one’s income potential and quality of life. At least one’s most basic needs will be met.

The higher the level of education, the higher the salary. The higher the salary, the less likely we are to commit crimes or engage in criminal activity. This informs us that, when we place our tax money in the hands of the federal and state government’s hands, we want a substantial portion of those dollars to go towards education-into our public school systems.

What we say and what we do are contradictory. Government spending on the prisoner population outnumbers the spending on public school students. For example, in fiscal year 2015-2016:

  • Alaska spent $52,184 per prisoner and $17,510 per public school student.
  • California spent $57,049 per prisoner and $11,420 per public school student.
  • Connecticut spent $40,746 per prisoner and $19,615 per public school student.
  • Florida spent $17,155 per prisoner and $9,176 per public school student.
  • Hawaii $19,894  and $13,1748 per student.
  • Idaho $26,492 and 7,178 per student.
  • Massachusetts $89,532 and $16,1986 per student.
  • New Mexico $43,573 and $9,959 per student.
  • New York $51,449 and $22,231 per student.
  • North Dakota $49,567 and $13,358 per student.
  • Oregon $35,112 and $10,823 per student.
  • Utah $27,181 and $7,006 per student.
  • Washington $35,865 and $11,484 per student.
  • Similar statistics apply to every other state in the U.S.

The United States, as a whole, spent $24,836 average per prisoner and $11,841 per public school student in fiscal year 2015 and 2016.

Do these numbers indicate how much we value education over incarceration? In particular, it is the imprisonment of black and brown men and boys. 23% of the general population make up almost 72% of the prison population, depending on the state. In some states, it can be higher. We can look at this as an indication of just how much we are willing to spend to keep young black and Hispanic men in prison, locked away from society. The emphasis ought to be on educating these people in prevention of incarceration— entire generations of black men and women.

Our states spend as much as 5 to 1[$5.00 to every $1.00], to maintain prisoners and  relatively little to educate children, beginning from pre-Kindergarten, age 4. If we were to concentrate most of the money spent on prisoners, into our education system, criminal activity would decrease significantly. However, along with education comes the required shift in mindset and perception of black and brown people and the desire for equity.

Beginning from early childhood, a black child, boys particularly, are already being seen as suspects, criminals, threats to society. It is absolutely impossible, unlikely, illogical to believe this about five year old children. They are innocent. It is the way they are socialized and educated in school that influences their behaviors and the ways they engage, react and respond to the world. 

Although they may live close to violence, poverty and despair, it is in school that they learn to engage in pro-social ways. Without denying or dismissing their culture, values or time-honored traditions, we can  foster and cultivate hope. We can build skills,  increase civic awareness, and ensure youth receive a sense of validation, encouragement and acceptance needed to pursue their potential. 

Since we say we aim to teach life long skills, as well as academic competencies in school settings, why do we deny any responsibility for outcomes? Children, once entering the school system, are taught and prepared for life primarily within these environments. Parents and home environment supplement what is learned at school. Dare we state that parental and environmental influences outweigh all taught in schools? If this is what we tell ourselves, then we are just ‘passing the buck’.

Do students who drop out of school do so because of their environment or because of what happens in school? Understanding the communities in which students live and the circumstances enables us to anticipate possible challenges students and families may face outside of school. If we presume that educators follow science, data, statistics and probability theory in their curriculum design, culture and climate, programs and services, then their offerings would also presumably have some contemporary relevance to the populations.

Aware of family structure, income, housing and community characteristics, schools should be better able to plan instruction, interventions and programs which will address these components with relevance and aimed towards strengthening both children and families’ ability to cope. Moreover, not limited to coping or resilience, schools should also be instrumental in advocating for change in concert with the families and students. Generally speaking, we assume the lack of information among families and absolutely their children. We assume they lack the skills and resources to self-advocate.

Whether it is organizing, networking and building social capital, or providing safe spaces for youth and families to support one another’s ability to remain focused on their wellness, outside of the negative influences of daily life, schools have a significant role to play. Reaching out into the community and proving anti-violence training, crisis intervention and parenting programs, fall within the provisions of educational offerings.

What we spend towards housing folks in prison, should be re-routed into education and community programming. Even the prison system itself, considering the money spent, should be used to provide learning opportunities, education programs and related services. Funds should be earmarked towards education and rehabilitation, and address trauma and mental health and the restoration of wellness of the incarcerated.

If need be, as a condition of being in prison or jail, there should be mandated programming in that environment. Mandated vocational training and education completion and/or continuation, mental health counseling, anger management, fatherhood and family-oriented programs, and restorative justice/conflict resolution initiatives. Schools have always had limited numbers of counseling staff. The monies placed into prison systems supports mental health counseling as a standard service in every prison, and includes every prisoner coming into the system, without regard to the nature of alleged crimes.

American dollars are being spent sometimes as much as 5 to 1 on prison systems, and are much better and more wisely spent to fund education systems and schools. If we feel that we can’t change the other systems impacting and intersecting with the lived experiences of children and families, then education ought to be the places where we place more money to properly prepare children for life’s challenges outside of the school setting.

Do black lives really matter? If so, our spending patterns would not reflect the numbers they currently do. In light of the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd and countless others, to put our money where our mouth is, there should be active efforts being taken to contact our state officials and leaders. We should be advocating for re-routing of our tax dollars into education. We should be collectively and deliberately withholding tax contributions to our state and local government, until they use our contributions more wisely.

The criminal justice system can strategically initiate more diversionary programs and mandate education, counseling and job training as a conditional ‘sentence’, rather than disrupting families and derailing lives and life trajectory. At times as critical as is our upcoming presidential election, the numbers of young adults of voting age are summarily locked out of the process. Stripped of their rights to vote and participate in influencing the direction of this democracy, that is counter-intuitive to what is needed most- more voters.

Why aren’t we letting the huge numbers of black and brown men and women of legal voting age, to participate? And we shut many of them out for life. Is it not true that people do make mistakes, especially young people? Do we not believe that people can change? Or is it only some people? Who does this serve? Certainly not the interests of black people, whereby many of their arguments and societal concerns lie at the heart of politics. Coincidentally, their cries and causes are neither novel nor illogical-they have only been allowed to linger for generations. No vote equals no hope for change.

Changes such as these, come primarily from public demand for them. We decide what must change and where we expect our money to go. We decide whether black lives matter much more than being complicit in maintaining their mass disproportionate incarceration, mis-education and marginalization. We demonstrate what we value more-learning or prison. What’s your choice?


See more data here: The State of America’s Children 2020


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