Make Out Like a Bandit

While California college students are racking up loans, it’s unsettling to know that another institution is swimming in funding: prisons. A non-partisan policy think tank, California Common Sense (CACS), released a report last Thursday, Oct. 4, called “Winners and Losers: Corrections and Higher Education in California.” The study exposes how the state has reduced higher education funding while simultaneously increasing funding for the state prison system since 1980. So at a time when students face a financial dilemma, the California prison system has been rapidly moving forward with rising budgets courtesy of powerful lobbies. The prison system, as a result, has been gulping the state budget, leaving sectors like education and public safety diluted, which calls the student body to vigorously engage in prison reform — from salaries to private prison profits.

The gap between the education and prison sector illustrates a percentage increase over time. In fact, the trend began decades ago. For fiscal year 1980, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation received $624 million from state; during the same year, the UC and CSU systems were granted $1.9 billion. Fast forward to 2011: The UC and CSU systems received $5.9 billion from the state. The prisons, on the other hand, accounted for roughly $9.6 billion during 2011 — an amount that constitutes 40 percent more than the UC and CSU systems. The increase in funding for the prison system, along with gutting the education sector, seems counter-intuitive to what will fuel the society of tomorrow. According to an article published by the Huffington Post, since 1980, the UC system built one university (UC Merced) while the CDCR has built 21 prisons . It serves as a testament to the shift we have witnessed over time, as the prison industry has increased its funding to gruesome figures while the California university system funding dwindles.

One of the major problems of the prison systems has been the prevalent forms of incarceration. The United States, including California, incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prison population despite having only 5 percent of the world population. California prisons, as a byproduct, have been bombarded with an overflow of prisoners. Current capacity houses 100,000 prisoners, but currently the prisons are saturated with 170,000 prisoners, which also has contributed to the problem. Experts have debated the rationale behind the high incarceration rates, but the prison dilemma can be stripped down to policy and laws that benefit the prison industries, and policies catering to the private prisons who have grown steadily over the last decade.

As the budgets of prisons have escalated, so have the costs per inmate. The state of California contributes $8,667 per student per year, compared to almost $50,000 per year on a prisoner — meaning the state pays 600 percent more for a prisoner than a student, according to a report on the CNN program, “GPS with Fareed Zakaria.” It is ming-boggling where this funding goes, when a student could live in an apartment in La Jolla, pay full tuition, live comfortably and still not exceed the cost of a prisoner. Even if a prisoner, with all due respect, may require additional treatment such as health and security, it does seem not justifiable to allow such monetary disparity given the impact students have — from taxes to social wisdom. The average correctional officer, for example, makes around $73,000 per year while a UC professor — with a doctorate degree — makes only 20 percent more. This does not take into account entry-level instructors and associate professors that are already underpaid in comparison with a prison guard in California.

Critics may argue that prison employees face difficult tasks, such as long hours and a rough environment, but the facts say otherwise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Californian security jobs make twice the amount as other security guards in states like Arizona or Florida.

Differences between salary pay can be contributed to the nation’s two largest private prison company, Corrections Corporations of America (CCA) and the Geo Group, who have combined lobbied $19.8 million during the last 10 years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The most startling component has been the proliferation of the private prison industry in the last two decades, along with the very influential prison lobbies who have shaped current policy.

Education has always led the way to economic and social prosperity. Even in difficult economic times, the college pathway provides the best opportunity for social and economic mobility. As students part of a system in peril, this is a call to action that we vigorously express our views and facts, because the status quo of diminishing budgets while other agency budgets increase is simply unacceptable.