Education not Incarceration

Michael McCormack
1.1. I would like to shine some light on an issue that,
unfortunately, is becoming increasingly prominent in the land of
the free.  It is an issue of which many of you may be aware, for
it has grown to unprecedented proportions here in the United
States.  It is one which all Americans should be concerned with,
if they value such things as freedom, equality, and justice for
all.  A state of freedom exists only if all individuals are free.

1.2. The issue in question is the major expansion of the U.S.
prison population and prison system, otherwise known as the
Prison Industrial Complex.  The Prison Industrial Complex is
giving rise to policies such as those in California, where more
money is currently being spent on incarcerating young people than
on educating them.  California spends nearly 30,000 dollars to
jail a juvenile, while devoting only 8,000 dollars to that
youth's education.  In addition, it is important to understand
how the policies of states like California have been responsible
for criminalizing a generation of young people.  Moreover, we
must realize how this criminalization, not only of a generation
but of poor people as well, has played a significant part in the
recent doubling of the U.S. prison population--in just 10 short
years from one million in 1990 to two million in the year 2000. 
Currently the U.S., with 280 million people, has the largest 
prison population in the entire world, even higher than
China, whose population is 1.2 billion.  You have got to admire
America for living up to its motto of wanting to remain #1.

1.3. The existence of the Prison Industrial Complex drastically
restricts the possibilities of establishing a society which can
call itself just, free, or democratic.  If what I have been led
to believe is true, two things are necessary to obtain a just,
democratic society.  First, a knowledgeable and informed
citizenry, which can practice self-determination by participating
in the political process and the decisions that affect their
lives.  Second, a society that is deeply rooted in and based upon
equality.  It is safe to say that without equality for all from
cradle to grave, it becomes impossible to obtain a just,
democratic society.  My worldview leads me to believe that
equality, justice, and freedom are being reserved for the few and
denied to the many, and that this is the essence of America. 
This is what the nation's foundation is built upon: injustice and
inequality.  This fact needs to be established before we talk
about our American-made atrocity, the Prison Industrial Complex. 

1.4. What are the dynamics of this new feature of U.S.
democracy?  The number of men, women, and young people being
incarcerated, especially people of color and the poor, has risen
drastically in the past ten years.  Laws such as mandatory
minimum sentencing for non-violent first time drug offenders (who
currently make up 60% of the prison population) have been
enacted.  There is a racist discrepancy in sentencing those
convicted for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine offenses. 
Sports slogans have become the basis for criminal justice
policies, for example, three strikes you're out.  We witness the
largest gap between rich and poor in U.S. history.  Homeless
populations in cities across America are criminalized.  For
example, thanks to Mayor Willie Brown in San Francisco, pushing a
grocery cart can now be a jailable offense.  Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani in New York City has helped raise homelessness to levels
that have not been seen since the Reagan administration.  Our
public education system is being devastated, Kansas City being a
case in point.  Its schools would be a joke, except that their
abuse of students is very sad.  Harsher so-called "juvenile
justice" laws, such as Proposition 21 in California (to which I
will return in a moment) have been passed, preparing for the
proposed new federal version of the same law, titled the "the
violent youth predator act".  Bear in mind that all this is
occurring in a nation where juvenile and adult crime is at record

1.5. Furthermore, the incarceration rate of women in America is
skyrocketing.  Although imprisonment rates for women are
relatively low, they are rising rapidly.  According to government
statistics, the number of women prisoners has increased 244
percent since 1992, as compared with an increase of 188 percent
for men during the same period.  The mass imprisonment of women
has a major effect on families, quite devastating in families
headed by a single mother.

1.6. The poor and people of color are disproportionately
targeted, criminalized, and imprisoned at much higher rates than
the rest of the population.  Such a policy exacerbates existing
inequalities in today's criminal justice system, or, as it should
be called, the criminal injustice system.  The kind of so-called
justice you will receive depends on the color of your skin or the
size of your bank account.  Statistics released by the U.S.
Bureau of Prisons provide glaring examples of these blatant
racial and class disparities.

1.7. Out of two million prisoners currently being held in U.S.
penitentiaries 65% to 70 % are people of color.  Of these 50% are
African Americans.  Keep in mind that African Americans in this
country only comprise 12% of the U.S. population.  At the current
rate of incarceration the majority of African American males
between the ages of 18 to 39 will be in prison by the year 2009.

1.8. It is also very important to realize that about 65% of
inmates were at the time of their arrest unemployed, poor, and
did not have a high school diploma.  Individuals are not being
given access to the means to compete in the job market, such as
an education that does not seriously limit opportunities to gain
employment.  Most people depend on their wages for the
necessities of life.  In a system that puts price tags on
essentials such as food, clothing, and shelter and then denies
access to them by paying substandard wages, crime becomes by and
large the occupation of the poor.  A recent Hip-Hop artist
stated, "Some steal for fun, but most steal to eat."  At the same
time, the dominant culture educates or indoctrinates individuals
into the supreme value of greed as the symbol of "making it" or

1.9. Another aspect of the prison industry is the emergence of
privatized for-profit prisons.  Corporations such as Wackenhut
and the Corrections Corporation of America are just two of the
market pioneers tapping into the fourth largest industry in
America, the construction and maintenance of prison facilities. 
Not to mention a corporation directly linked both to privatized
prisons and this very University, Sodexho Marriott, which runs
the cafeteria here at UMKC.  I would like to thank the UMKC Tea
Society for exposing these links in the one week boycott of the
cafeteria they have called, starting this Monday.

1.10. The world of privatized prisons creates a number of
problems.  For example, privatized prison corporations have a
vested interest in seeing the incarceration rate rise, in order
to see their stock prices rise.  In addition, in order to
maximize profits by reducing costs, some privatized prisons cut
services.  These measures include restricting inmates' access to
medical treatment, adequate clothing, education, decent food, or
even electricity.

1.11. A growing component of the Prison Industrial Complex is the
use of forced and/or slave labor.  Contrary to what most
Americans may believe, slavery was not abolished under the 13th
amendment, it was legalized.  It states that the use of slave
labor can be justified in the case of incarceration.  "Neither
slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a
crime [emphasis MM], shall exist within the United States." 
Typically, if prisoners refuse to work, they are punished with a
loss of privileges, denied access to the phone or mail, placed in
solitary confinement, etc.  The captive labor force of low-wage,
non-unionized workers without healthcare or retirement benefits,
the absence of safety and health standards, e.g. for handling
hazardous materials, an unlimited workday, no strikes, actions,
or pressure for better wages or working conditions, and a
workforce that is never late is a dream come true for Corporate
America.  TWA, McDonald's, Starbucks, IBM, Motorola, Victoria's
Secret, and Toys 'R Us are just a few of the corporations
exploiting prison labor.  As an example of the size and range of
prison industries, in the year 2000 alone prison labor made over
9 billion dollars in shareholder profits.

1.12. Most crimes committed in the U.S. are economic.  Corporate
crime feeds profits, while poor people have to feed themselves
and their families.  For example, the San Francisco Hilton
contributed 50,000 dollars to a campaign to pass harsher juvenile
laws in California.

The Juvenile Justice System

2.1. The policy of "Incarceration instead of Education" is best
understood when we look at the California model.  Since 1984
California has built 21 prisons but only one university campus. 
It is also the state with the largest prison population in the
country.  Proposition 21, a recent state initiative that passed
in March 2000, gives us a clear view of how government officials,
school boards, and lawmakers prefer to deal with the so-called
"epidemic" of youth and school violence.  The new law, called the
"Juvenile Crime Initiative," with its 43 pages of text
effectively sought to divert additional funds from educational
facilities and other social programs to build more new prisons. 
Here are some of its provisions:

2.1.1. It creates a new system of "prosecutorial judgement," a
power now taken from judges and given to prosecuting attorneys to
decide if a juvenile should be sentenced as an adult.  A
prosecuting attorney may not be the most unbiased person to
decide the fate of a juvenile, since his or her job is to gain
convictions.  He may bar testimony from parents, school
officials, psychologists,  and others when arguing for a
conviction.  Especially if the case is high profile and has
received much media attention, the prosecutor will not want to
"appear soft on crime" and will usually seek the harshest

2.1.2. It allows juveniles as young as 14 years old to be
sentenced as adults and sent to adult facilities, where they will
be put into the general population.  Studies show that juveniles
housed in adult prisons are five times as likely to commit
suicide and are much more likely to be raped and physically
assaulted.  These two policies, enacted earlier in Florida, have
resulted in 117 kids being placed in adult facilities, some as
young as 12 and 13 years old (Florida has lower age minimums). 

2.1.3. It defines a "gang" member as an informal group of three
or more people wearing a certain kind of clothing, and sentences
juveniles as young as 14 to death for certain "gang related"
crimes.  Police on the beat, a not exactly impartial authority,
decide who is and is not a "gang" member.  A young person deemed
a "gang" member will be sentenced much more harshly than others. 
There is no probation system for anyone who commits a crime while
being a so-called "gang member."  Now even a misdemeanor results
in automatic prison time.

2.1.4. It expands the three strikes law for juveniles.  For
example, a juvenile convicted a third time while a minor will
receive a minimum sentence of 25 years to life.

2.1.5. It lowers the dollar amount triggering felony vandalism
charges, like graffiti, from over $50,000 to $400, and sets a
minimum penalty of one year in jail or thousands of dollars in

2.1.6. It mandates six months of prison time for truancy offenses
(skipping school).

2.1.7. It destroys the privacy and confidentiality of juvenile
criminal records.  Now schools, the media, and employers have
access to their records, making it very difficult for young
people who are labeled criminals to go back to school or get a

2.2. Is it possible that California forgot to look at the facts
before passing this new law?  The facts are that in California
and across the nation youth crime is down, even violent youth
crime.  Juvenile homicide is down 56%, and fewer than one half of
1% of youth are charged with violent crimes.  But two-thirds of
the public believes that juvenile crime is increasing.  The
chances of being killed in one of today's schools is 1 in 2
million.  But opinion polls show that 7 out of 10 people think a
shooting is likely to happen in their school.  Perhaps it was of
no importance that Proposition 21 would cost the taxpayers one
billion dollars in prison construction and another 330 million
just to get it off the ground.  That money is being taken away
from schools.

2.3. The fact that incarceration has been substituted for
education depends on how perceptions have been shaped, the
perceptions of legislators, judges, attorneys, school board
members, and the public as a whole.  One of the core issues is
the media's portrayal of youth, and how these depictions
determine how youth are treated and viewed in our schools,
society, and in the courts.  The sad truth is that the media are
more concerned with sensationalism, to boost their readership and
gain larger profits from advertisers, than with reporting the
facts.  Sensationalism easily swamps the facts associated with
youth, violence, crime, and prison issues.  Media-hyped public
perceptions fuel harmful policymaking, and support politicians
who proclaim the ever increasing need "to get tough on crime," at
the expense of young people in ghettos or rural areas, where most
politicians will never go.  The politicians' children generally
have class privilege and the right skin color to protect them
from confronting the juvenile injustice system.

A Process of Alleviation

3.1. How can this system be changed and what might an alternative
look like?  Ultimately, we are talking about a process of
alleviation: to end these acts of barbarism that we see committed
every day of every week in America.  Acts of legalized barbarism
are occurring not only in the courts, or in the forgotten urban
schools of America, or in the dungeons of American correctional
facilities, or in some far off ghetto of poor oppressed people
across town, which exists only in one's mind, or in books,
statistics, and pie charts.   Legalized barbarism is also evident
in the raping and pillaging of the Third World, supposedly done
for our benefit, or in the destruction of millions of jobs and
pensions and the mental health of the victims of downsizing.  Our
inability thus far to unite and to truly act as one people for
self-determination and equality is good only for the American
status quo.  We must get off the treadmill of indoctrination in
our schools, get out of our monotonous alienating routines,
including marches and rallies, and get out into our communities,
to put an end once and for all to the oppressive exploitative
nature of America.  For I know that our hope for tomorrow depends
upon our actions today.

3.2. It is traditional to end a speech with a quote, and the one
I am about to read is fairly famous.  It comes from a man about
whom I know little but still admire.  The man is Mario Savio and
the quote is as follows:

There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can't take part, you can't even tacitly take part.  And you've got to put your bodies on the gears, and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus.  And you've got to stop the machine.
3.3. This is the challenge before us, and I believe we can live
up to it.

Michael McCormack ( is an organizer in
Kansas City and co-founder of Solidarity and Unity Now












Return to Table of Contents