Private Prisons Profit During Budget Crisis
Budget Crunch: Drug War Fuels Mississippi Prison Binge, No Money Left for Education
It's becoming easier to find scandalous news. Here, a government has become enslaved to private privilege, as the private prison lobby seeks subsidies -- while public education suffers and continues to be the worst in the USA.
Instead of investing in Mississippi's future, politicians are shoveling taxpayer money at prisons for nonviolent drug users. Here's the report from our friends at drcnet.org
Along with more than 40 other states, Mississippi is contending with a brutal budget squeeze. But while the crunch has hit most state departments hard, the state's booming prison system remains largely unscathed. A report released by the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership group detailed the tradeoffs required to support Mississippi's hard line on criminals, including drug offenders, who make up nearly one-third (31.62%) of the state's inmate population.
According to the report, "Education v. Incarceration: A Mississippi Case Study," during the tough-on-crime decade of the 1990s, per capita prison spending in Mississippi more than doubled, increasing by 115%. During that same period, the report found, per capita spending on higher education stagnated, increasing by significantly less than inflation. Mississippi added 16 new prisons during that period, the study found, including six private prisons.
It isn't just education that is suffering to pay for the prison binge. The state Division of Medicaid is projecting a $120 million deficit for the coming fiscal year, while the Department of Human Services is threatening to lay off employees and reduce services if it cannot obtain a $20 million increase. As for education, the state legislature's most recent response to the crisis was to shave $60 million more from the public schools budget.
Meanwhile, private prison contractors are guaranteed payment in full.
"We're asking Mississippi and other states to say 'What kind of future do we want to build and how best to we build that?'" said Grassroots Leadership head Si Kahn at a press conference at the state capitol. "For me, the lesson is that public policy shouldn't be determined by long-term contracts that benefit a private corporation."
Mississippi spends far more to imprison its citizens ($10,672 per year) than to send them to college ($6,781 per year), the study found. "Mississippi is prioritizing locking up nonviolent offenders over preserving and expanding access to higher education for its citizens," the report noted.
More than two-thirds (67%) of Mississippi prisoners are nonviolent offenders.
The costs and opportunity costs of incarcerating a sizeable percentage of the state's population is attracting growing opposition. After Cleveland School District Superintendent Reggie Barnes heard his district was losing $402,000 in the coming fiscal year, he told the Bolivar Commercial he didn't think the legislature "gives a damn" about the public schools. "Give us half the money that you use to put them in prison and let us educate them, and I guarantee we will cut the [prisoner] numbers in half," Barnes said.
Newspapers in the state are also clamoring for changes. In an editorial, the Bolivar Commercial warned legislators to keep two points in mind: "First, the state will always be poor until it dramatically improves its educational system, which has thus left a fourth of our adults either illiterate or functionally illiterate. That lack of education feeds not only the prison rolls, but the rolls of our social service programs. Somewhere down the dead-end road of ignorance and poverty, Mississippi is going to have to build a bridge to success by making good education for all our citizens our top priority," the paper editorialized.
"Second, legislators are going to have to at least stop wasting money on silly, feel-good, 'tough-on-crime' items such as requiring prisoners to wear striped uniforms. When it did that a few years ago, Mississippi taxpayers had to fork over around $1 million."
And the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, one of the state's most prominent newspapers, also weighed in this week. Referring to the scheme to ensure that private prisons get paid in full while other state services go begging, the paper editorialized that: "This type of public policy is criminal. Those who own private prisons -- and apparently those charged with paying their bills -- have a vested interest in the fate of citizens who become involved in criminal activity," the paper noted. "To continue a public policy that favors an unbalanced system that send more of us to cages than to college is simply insane."
For more criticism of Mississippi see this recent editorial by Fred Foldvary
What's your opinion on the government's priorities? How important is expanding imprisonment of nonviolent offenders, compared to other possible uses of taxpayer money (or simply lower taxes)? Tell your views to The Progress Report:
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