Money for prisons, not for schools
by Fred Mazelis
A report issued jointly by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington DC
policy and research organization, and the Correctional Association of
New York, an advocacy group focusing on prisons and prisoners' rights
issues, documents the way in which New York State government has cut
back on higher education spending while expanding state prisons over the
New York's public universities have had their operating budgets cut by
29 percent during this period, while funding for prisons has increased by
In actual dollars, there has been an almost equal trade-off. The
Department of Correctional Services has received a $761 million
increase while funding for the city and state university systems has been
cut by $615 million. The prison figures represent only operating costs,
and do not include the $300 million approved in the 1997-98 budget for
the construction of 3,100 new prison spaces.
Partly to compensate for lower state aid, tuition at the city and state
universities has skyrocketed during this same period. For the state
SUNY colleges, it jumped from $1,350 a year in 1991 to $3,400 in
1997. Including books, extra fees and room and board, the cost of
attending the SUNY system for an undergraduate jumped from $7,319 in
1991 to $11,201 in 1997, a 35 percent increase. For the CUNY system
of community colleges and four-year institutions in New York City the
increase in tuition was from $1,250 to $3,400 during this six-year period.
The tuition hikes were followed by declines in the student body. In the
year following the 1995 tuition increase of $750 a year, SUNY
enrollment dropped by 10,000.
"There is no money" to fund higher education for the working class - that
is the constant refrain of the big business politicians. New York Governor
George Pataki vetoed $500 million for school construction and $77
million for teacher salaries, and cut $17.3 million from the SUNY budget,
$8.6 million from CUNY, and $13.5 million from a program that would
have given students a $65 credit for textbook purchases.
At the same time the Democrats and Republicans have had no difficulty
in increasing spending for prisons and prison construction. Prison
operating costs surpassed higher education as a percentage of the state
budget in 1995 and the gap has kept widening since. State spending on
prisons has grown from $450 million to $1.7 billion in the last two
decades, as the inmate population has tripled to more than 70,000.
This is part of a national trend that has seen the prison population of
US grow to 1.8 million, making this country second only to Russia in the
number of prisoners per capita among industrialized nations. California,
the most populous state, has built 21 new prisons since 1980, while
tuition costs at its University of California and Cal State systems have
risen 303 percent and 485 percent respectively. In Texas, the second
largest state in terms of population, prison spending increased 5.7 times
faster than higher education between 1977 and 1995, the highest gap
between these categories in the country. Twenty other states, including
California, New York and most of the other big population centers, have
more than doubled their prison budgets.
The explosive growth in the prison population has been fueled by a
law-and-order campaign and legislation mandating prison terms or
eliminating parole through such reactionary "three strikes" laws and
similar measures. In New York the so-called Rockefeller drug laws,
enacted 25 years ago, mandate harsh terms for minor drug offenses. An
individual convicted of possessing four ounces of a narcotic must receive
a minimum term of 15 years to life, for instance. These laws have been
used to put away tens of thousands of workers and youth.
As the report shows, both Democratic and Republican politicians have
implemented the policy shifts which amount to a social counterrevolution.
While the growth in prison spending has accelerated under Republican
Pataki, for instance, the shift away from higher education to jails was
begun under Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo in the 1980s.
Black, Hispanic and immigrant youth have been hit hardest by the
cutbacks, and the human toll can be summed up in a number of stark
statistics. While 4,054 black students got SUNY degrees in 1997, for
instance, 4,727 blacks entered state prison on drug offenses. For
Hispanics, the numbers are even worse: 2,563 graduated from state
university, while 4,459 were locked up on drug charges. More than 90
percent of people jailed for drug offenses in New York State are black
The targeting of minority youth is driven not only by racist motives, but
more fundamentally by their position as the most vulnerable sections of
the working class. The poorer sections of workers have been most
immediately affected by the rise in college tuition and cuts in student aid.
Furthermore, the growth of poverty and the disappearance of
manufacturing and other good-paying jobs together have fueled the
conditions of hopelessness in which drug use grows, and these conditions
have most sharply affected the minority and immigrant communities and
The nationwide statistics on prisons and higher education are another
admission of moral and political bankruptcy on the part of the profit
system. While Clinton and his bitter political opponents alike claim that
economic and social conditions have steadily improved in the boom of
the 1990s, these figures show that only the ruling class and the most
privileged upper middle class layers have benefited. The consequences of
the social polarization and the onslaught on the working class cannot be
hidden. A system which is forced to imprison its youth while denying
them the opportunity for higher education is a system which has forfeited
its claim to represent progress.