Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The costs of incarceration: how putting more people in prisons hurts the rest of us

This week’s interview was, for me, among the most thought-provoking conversations I’ve had recently. Heather Thompson is a historian who’s writing a book about the Attica prison uprising in 1971, but her research suggests some new ways of thinking about what’s happening with prisons in America today. She argues that what happened at Attica contributed to changes in U.S. laws that have increased the prison population by more than 2 million. Thompson suggests that this increase is having a detrimental affect on the American economy and our society.

I’ve heard lots of discussion about prisons that focus on the poor conditions in which prisoners live. But Thompson takes a different approach; her focus is on how the growing prison system hurts the rest of us. Setting aside entirely the cost of keeping so many people in prison, large-scale incarceration has other social and economic costs. It breaks up families and communities, creates economic incentives for business and communities to maintain or even increase crime rates, and reduces the number and quality of jobs available to those who are not in prison.

The first point seems somewhat obvious: when a parent or spouse is in prison, the family suffers, and when people who might otherwise contribute to community life are in prison, the community suffers. No doubt, some of those who are in prison were not model parents or citizens, but in prison, whatever ties prisoners, their families, and their communities may have had get broken. This happens in part because the private prison system often sends criminals to prisons far from their families, making it impossible for them to maintain relationships that might help them return more successfully to the community when their sentences end. Add to that the loss of any income they might have contributed to the family, taxes they might have paid locally, and prison conditions that encourage mental illness and asocial behavior, and we have a system that seems to be designed not to rehabilitate prisoners but rather to ensure that they will return to prison soon after they are released.

And that’s just one way the current prison system ensures that crime will not be decreased. As the private prison system grows, with publicly-owned companies that have stockholders demanding ever-increasing profits, the prison industry has an incentive to incarcerate more and more people. They need crime to go up in order to prosper as a business. So do local governments, which often view prisons as a source of economic growth. It’s strange enough, I think, to view prisons as economic opportunities, but it’s even worse to realize that this means that it’s in our interests to have more crime, not less. Now that’s twisted.

Finally, Thompson points out that prisoners are increasingly working for private firms, earning much less than minimum wage (try 21 cents an hour), doing jobs that might otherwise go to people who have not committed crimes. Prisoners make clothing, auto parts, and other goods. They stock shelves at major retailers and take telephone orders in call centers. Of course, free people can’t compete for these jobs, not only because the contracting process excludes them, but also because they can’t work for $2 an hour. Indeed, the Federal Prison Industry program admits that non-prison employment has declined in some of the sectors that use prison labor. So again, business has an incentive to see crime rates maintained or increased, and giving jobs to prisoners takes jobs away from others. Companies make larger profits, but ordinary people miss the opportunity to work for a decent wage.

The whole thing seems wildly contradictory to me. We changed the laws to put more people in prison in order to make America safer. But in the process, we’ve created a system in which business benefits from increased crime, that almost ensures that once someone has gone to prison they will return, and that undermines economic opportunities for people who are not in prison. All of this seems like way too good an example of the law of unintended consequences. Is this really the best way to fight crime and improve our society?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On the streets and by the river: The Mahoning River Education Project

In order for a community to function well, its citizens must not only have a sense of connection with each other and the place they live. They must also understand their history, good and bad, so that they can build on strengths and address problems in planning for the future. One way to foster that sense of community is to engage people when they’re young. Holly Burnett-Hanley, my guest on Lincoln Avenue this week, has developed a multi-year, multi-disciplinary, hands-on program for elementary and middle-school students that fosters that kind of citizenship.

The Mahoning River Education Project started 7 years ago, and it’s grown to include thousands of children in Youngstown and other area schools. Combining science, math, language arts, local history, ideas about neighborhood and community, and the arts, the program engages students in learning about the place they live in new and exciting ways. I’ve been a fan of this project since I first heard about it. That’s partially because of Holly’s enthusiasm, but it’s also because value this approach to education. I think it works on many levels – engagement, improved comprehension and motivation, generating awareness of how different school subjects and varied aspects of daily life all fit together.

Beyond the goal of helping students understand and feel connected to their community, the project achieves two other outcomes which are, some might say, a bit subversive. The first is that it helps them move from understanding to action. In our interview, Holly tells a story about a class that developed a research project on small parks in Youngstown and ultimately wrote a proposal to city council. Ideally, the kind of engagement this project generates will lead many students to not only want to get involved in local issues but also have the skills and understanding to do so effectively.

A second somewhat subversive aspect of this project is that it models a very different and effective way of thinking about teaching and learning. The Mahoning River Education Project integrates different subject areas, connects hands-on experiences with the information and concepts in the state education standards (and on the Ohio Achievement Test that we use to measure school success), and links students with the world around them. This kind of teaching works, and I hope that Holly’s example will inspire teachers and district leaders to develop more projects like this.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Changes at YSU: Still Up in the Air

Change, it seems, is a constant in higher education, and YSU seems almost always to be just about to make some kind of big change. This week, I’m talking with YSU Board of Trustees member Harry Meshel, about how YSU and the local community might be affected by a report from the Northeast Ohio Universities Collaboration & Innovation Study Commission, which includes, among other things, a call to “explore the creation of a Mahoning Valley community college.” Because of Meshel’s long history with the University and with state and local politics, I asked him to comment on the Commission’s recommendations and the future of YSU in general.

Meshel brings a unique perspective, in part based on his own memories of attending YSU full time while also working in the open hearth in a local steel mill. He also taught at YSU, on and off for about 20 years. He worries that higher education has gotten a bit soft, that students aren’t struggling enough, and that we focus too much attention on frills, like the wellness center. No doubt, I see more students today who have the privilege of not working while they go to school, I also work with many who are working every bit as hard as Meshel did when he was a student. Of course, those students are usually not the ones using the wellness center. I worry that balancing work, family life, and school too often means that education is the thing that’s easiest to let slide. Given the choice between taking care of a sick child or responding to a boss’s request that you work an extra shift, it’s hard to put school work first. But that always comes at a cost.

Meshel sees two promising things emerging from the Commission report. The first is the recommendation not to change the structure of the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine (NEOUCOM). As Meshel explains, not only does the current program work, but expanding it meets current economic needs. There are jobs for health care workers in this area and elsewhere.

Meshel also likes the report’s call for a community college. People at YSU have been talking about this for more than two years, and the commission report brings us no closer to real strategies. It simply recommends exploring the idea; it does not yet suggest how to turn the idea into reality. Nonetheless, Meshel thinks that a community college might be able to serve the training needs of area businesses more efficiently and effectively than the University can. Some of that has to do with accreditation: a community college might be able to have students focus more of their time on specific workplace skills and rely more on part-time faculty or instructors who don’t have Ph.D.s.

In part because the community college is still more an idea than a concrete plan, we don’t yet know what it will accomplish. For me, the idea raises several questions:

  • What role will YSU’s faculty, administrators, staff, and students play in creating the new college?
  • How will a community college, which plans suggest could set tuition much lower than YSU, affect enrollment and academic programs at YSU?
  • How will a community college achieve that lower tuition rate?
  • Would the option of a local community college increase the number of people pursuing higher education in our region? Or would it encourage them to settle for a 2-year degree instead of getting a bachelors? And how would that affect long-term economic opportunities in the area?

I don’t necessarily oppose the idea. I’ve been an advocate of better education for first-generation and working-class students for well over a decade. But I am frustrated that at this point in the discussion, we still know so little. I keep hearing conversations on campus about how the community college will change things, but this is a change that seems to be permanently in the wind, not yet reaching the ground.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Educational reform is not for sissies

Anyone who’s paid any attention to discussions about education knows that we have no shortage of problems and no shortage of ideas about how to address them. The real challenge is creating change. This week, I’m talking with Bill Mullane, a local educator who’s spent years working for change in local schools and districts. He served as principal at Warren Harding High School for a number of years, and he now serves as supervisor of School Improvement and Community Relations for the Ashtabula County Educational Service Center in Ohio. He’s been both an observer and an active participant in K-12 education in our community.

In our interview, Mullane talks about two aspects of the efforts to improve education. First, he notes that we’ve undergone a major change in what we expect from students and from schools. In the past, schooling was organized around rules and requirements. Students were viewed as having met expectations if they completed the requirements, and those requirements were often different depending on the student’s future plans. That system was built around the assumption that students have different needs and abilities and that education was about having the right set of experiences. Today, education is organized around competency, defined almost entirely by tests, and all students must meet the same standards. Mullane doesn’t reject the idea of testing, though he does question the ways that test results are used. He points out that changing the model creates changes in how we manage schools and how we think about education.

Mullane also notes the difficulty of changing the educational system. After all, most Americans experienced public education first-hand, and despite our critiques of the system, we are also attached to it. It feels natural and therefore unchangeable. So many people – teachers, parents, community members, school board members – object to ideas that would change the basic structure of the school or the pattern of the school day. Changes do occur, gradually, but as Mullane suggests, any serious overhaul of our educational system will always be met with resistance, simply because it’s different.

I’m working with a group of YSU honors students this semester, all of whom are writing research papers that address, in a variety of ways, the question of how YSU could do a better job of helping students from urban districts succeed in college. We had an interesting but frustrating discussion last week about how difficult it is even to know where to begin to improve education, because what happens in school is influenced by so many factors. The conversation made me think of one of my favorite lines from the Jewish Talmud: “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We may never find the complete solution to the problems of education, but neither should we ever stop trying to make it work better.