Budget Crunch: Drug War Fuels Mississippi Prison Binge, No Money Left for Education 5/24/02

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Along with more than 40 other states, Mississippi is contending with a brutal budget squeeze. But while the crunch has hit most state departments hard, the state's booming prison system remains largely unscathed. A report released Monday by the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership group detailed the tradeoffs required to support Mississippi's hard line on criminals, including drug offenders, who make up nearly one-third (31.62%) of the state's inmate population.

According to the report, "Education v. Incarceration: A Mississippi Case Study," during the tough-on-crime decade of the 1990s, per capita prison spending in Mississippi more than doubled, increasing by 115%. During that same period, the report found, per capita spending on higher education stagnated, increasing by less than 1%. Mississippi added 16 new prisons during that period, the study found, including six private prisons.

It isn't just education that is suffering to pay for the prison binge. The state Division of Medicaid is projecting a $120 million deficit for the coming fiscal year, while the Department of Human Services is threatening to lay off employees and reduce services if it cannot obtain a $20 million increase. As for education, the state College Board earlier this month hiked tuition by 8% for the coming academic year to make up for $98 million cut from its budget, and the legislature shaved $60 million more from the public schools budget.

But while the state struggles to fund essential services, private prison contractors are guaranteed payment in full.

"We're asking Mississippi and other states to say 'What kind of future do we want to build and how best to we build that?'" said Grassroots Leadership head Si Kahn at a Monday press conference at the state capitol. "For me, the lesson is that public policy shouldn't be determined by long-term contracts that benefit a private corporation."

Mississippi spends more to imprison its citizens ($10,672 per year) than to send them to college ($6,781 per year), the study found. "Mississippi is prioritizing locking up nonviolent offenders over preserving and expanding access to higher education for its citizens," the report noted.

More than two-thirds (67%) of Mississippi prisoners are nonviolent offenders, and 72% of Mississippi inmates are black. Blacks make up 80.35% of all convicted drug offenders in Mississippi, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. According to the Grassroots Leadership report, there are nearly twice as many black Mississippians in prison (13,837) than there are in colleges and universities (7,330).

The costs and opportunity costs of incarcerating a sizeable percentage of the state's population is attracting growing opposition. After Cleveland School District Superintendent Reggie Barnes heard his district was losing $402,000 in the coming fiscal year, he told the Bolivar Commercial he didn't think the legislature "gives a damn" about the public schools. "Give us half the money that you use to put them in prison and let us educate them, and I guarantee we will cut the numbers in half," Barnes said.

Newspapers in the state are also clamoring for changes. In an editorial on Wednesday, the Bolivar Commercial warned legislators to keep two points in mind: "First, the state will always be poor until it dramatically improves its educational system, which has thus left a fourth of our adults either illiterate or functionally illiterate. That lack of education feeds not only the prison rolls, but the rolls of our social service programs. Somewhere down the dead-end road of ignorance and poverty, Mississippi is going to have to build a bridge to success by making good education for all our citizens our top priority," the paper editorialized.

"Second, legislators are going to have to at least stop wasting money on silly, feel-good, 'tough-on-crime' items such as requiring prisoners to wear striped uniforms. When it did that a few years ago, Mississippi taxpayers had to fork over around $1 million."

And the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, one of the state's most prominent newspapers, also weighed in this week. Referring to the scheme to ensure that private prisons get paid in full while other state services go begging, the paper editorialized that: "This type of public policy is criminal. Those who own private prisons -- and apparently those charged with paying their bills -- have a vested interest in the fate of citizens who become involved in criminal activity," the paper noted. "To continue a public policy that favors an unbalanced system that send more of us to cages than to college is simply insane."

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Issue #238, 5/24/02 Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform Joins with Members of Congress at US Capitol to Call for Repeal of HEA Drug Provision | British MPs Call for Massive Drug Policy Reform, But Reject Legalization -- for Now | Incoming Dutch Government Threatens Coffee Shops | Budget Crunch: Drug War Fuels Mississippi Prison Binge, No Money Left for Education | High School Drug Courts Spreading in West Virginia | Newsbrief: Marijuana Exile Steve Kubby Claims Refugee Status in Canada | Newsbrief: British Cannabis Cafe Owner Freed | Newsbrief: North Carolina Drug Courts Face Ax Because of Budget Woes | Newsbrief: New York City Cops in Paraphernalia Sweep, Big Hoopla, Misdemeanor Arrests | Newsbrief: Seattle Marijuana Initiative Signature-Gathering Now Underway | Newsbrief: Santa Cruz to Place Needle Disposal Boxes in Public Restrooms | Errata: Different Kinds of Mushrooms | The Reformer's Calendar

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