Privatizing public education is bad. Under the gaze of our new Secretary of Education, Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, many states will likely begin doling out taxpayer dollars to help subsidize for-profit schools. Although voucher programs have long been touted as a way to help poor kids escape the drudgery of failing public schools, it’s a virtual guarantee that most voucher money will go to wealthy and upper-middle-class families. And where will this voucher money come from? Since Republicans loathe the idea of raising taxes (unless it’s for, you know, military spending), those dollars will inevitably be diverted from traditional public schools.
Public schools will be de-funded in order to give subsidies to rich kids whose parents had, until now, been unable to foot the full bill for private school tuition.
The possibility of this future brought about record levels of protest against a cabinet nominee. In the run-up to DeVos’ controversial confirmation, which required a tie-breaking vote by vice president Mike Pence, Senators’ offices were deluged with phone calls, emails, and letters. The pressure was so great that two Republicans actually broke ranks and voted against DeVos. For those who actually voted to confirm the matriarch of privatization…well, let’s just say that they will have tough questions to answer in 2018 and beyond.
But something even more loathsome than the privatization of public education has been occurring in the United States and should shock every citizen: The privatization of prisons.
Under Barack Obama, the Department of Justice was phasing out its use of for-profit private prisons. However, President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have reversed course and ended the phase-out, confirming America’s continued use of private prisons. This news, which comes on the heels of Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration, has caused stock prices for private prison corporations to soar. Investors anticipate that these private prisons will quickly be filled to the brim with illegal immigrants and nonviolent drug offenders.
For-profit private prisons, like for-profit private schools, seek to maximize profits by increasing revenue…and cutting costs. Private schools can increase profits by raising tuition rates, which they will inevitably do if and when parents in various states begin receiving vouchers. These schools will also seek to cut costs through various means, including hiring inexperienced faculty and staff, refusing to provide any special needs services, and using part-time and contract employees instead of full-time workers who demand benefits. Private prisons, which cannot easily raise their per-inmate income, will focus almost exclusively on cutting costs.
This cost-cutting is brutal, especially since the prisons know that there is little public interest in helping prisoners. If any current or former inmate complains about horrible conditions, the prison corporation can quickly and easily paint them as a liar. “This convicted felon” is how their rebuttal will always begin. Will upstanding citizens want to publicly take the word of a convict over a CEO in a fine suit? The deck is tremendously stacked against those who would bring evidence of private prison incompetence, malfeasance, and brutality.
It is easy to get the public to speak out against cost-cutting and service-slashing when it comes to schoolchildren, but we must also be vigilant in demanding fair treatment for prisoners. Most prisoners, after all, have been convicted of nonviolent crimes, especially at the federal level.
Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Nelson Mandela said, “no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” America’s prisons should be focused on rehabilitating those who have done wrong, not allowing corporations to make profits. Cutting costs for the care of our nation’s lowliest citizens in order to make a quick buck is reprehensible.
For most prisoners, life has already kicked them while they were down. Most grew up in poverty, and many suffer from mental illness. They never had the support systems or the opportunity to develop the coping mechanisms taken for granted by most middle-class citizens. For many, violence was a necessary way of life. Too many people find it easy to use phrases like “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” naively assuming that most prisoners consciously chose the path that brought them there. Too many people assume that prison will never happen to them.
Even those of who are sympathetic to the plight of prisoners do not like to spend time thinking about prisons, making it all but impossible for those who are imprisoned to have any sort of voice in our society.
But prison can happen, even to good people. With controversial three strikes laws, people who earn a third strike decades after earning their first two at age 18 or 19 can find themselves with a prison sentence of many years. Should these people be thrown to the mercy of a corporation who seeks to make their lives more miserable in order to squeeze out profits? Private prisons are more violent and more frequently violate prisoners’ rights. Nobody should be subjected to them.
If you have not heard about the horrors of for-profit prisons, please do your research. Trump and Sessions’ decision to reverse the phase-out of for-profit prisons needs to be protested today.