So — Will We be “On the Charts” or “Off the Charts?”

Penitentiary at Port Arthur, Tasmania

Penitentiary at Port Arthur, Tasmania

Back in 1983 I took what I thought would be a 6-months leave of absence from my law firm to “save” a troubled bank, Park Bank of Florida. But both the 6-month time period I allotted for the task and the idea of Salvation were but dreams of unreality. The bank failed in 1986 and the contentious litigation pressed on, into the early 1990s – all of which became the enlightening subject of my book, Crash Landing, How to Survive a Business Crisis.

On September 24, 1985, still slugging my way through the crisis as the bank’s President, I took a call from St. Petersburg Times’ reporter, Jacob M. Schlesinger, then a recent top Harvard graduate, and ultimately a Pulitzer prizewinner for his 2002 Wall Street Journal article, “What’s Wrong? The Deregulators,” and author of Shadow Shoguns: The Rise and Fall of Japan’s Postwar Political Machine, a book about the corrupt political machine that ran Japanese politics from the early 1970s to the early 1990s, the period during which Japan became the world’s second-largest economy.

In mid-September 1985, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta released a report about troubled banks. Park Bank was “Number One,” the nation’s leader in troubled real estate loans! Jake naturally wanted my comment. So he called. For a long moment, I reflected. All of my professional life I strived to be at the top – but this? Finally, externally calm, I responded,

“All I can say is that we are not pleased about being No. 1, and we’d like to be off the charts.”

I couldn’t help reflecting on Jake’s call and my response as I listen to today’s political ranting about America’s demolished economy and our diminished world position and what it takes to make us “number one” again. The far right Presidential campaigners and Congressmen are quite vocal regarding their solution: less government, less regulation, and fewer taxes. And that means, in the minds of the far right, privatization – particularly our schools and prisons.

As I reflected, I felt compelled to deviate from the prime mission of this blog [inspiring us to care about out planet], slide over to the political realm and hopefully provoke some thought about all this.

First, ranking. Are “congratulations” in order? After all, America already holds a number one position in the entire world – in fact in the known universe! No, I’m not talking about education. We’re far out of the top ten countries in all K-12 science, math, reading and other education categories, and, in fact, we rank 28th when it comes to teaching and learning how to apply critical judgment. No, I’m not talking about the fact that the wealthiest 1% of us control about 40% of all the wealth in our country and make about as much income annually as the poorest 60% of us, although we are probably number one in that category also; but if we are congratulations are not in order.


That’s what I’m talking about.

Prisons. Incarceration.

America has 5% of the world’s population. But we have about 25% of the world’s prison population – 2.3 million people, and that doesn’t include the other 7.3 million on parole or probation. We lead China and Russia. In fact, we’re number one in the entire free world. No one else is close. Prisons are a growth industry. In 2007, states spent $44 million on incarceration, up 127% from 1987. Projected expenditures for 2011 top $65 million. No wonder the idea of privatization of prisons makes sense to the libertarians.

I’m working on a project that reflects my deep concerns about our children‘s future, Getting Our Kids Ready for the Competition. It’s about education. The following discussion is from our chapter on “Education versus Incarceration.”

Some states, like California, have historically spent more on incarceration than education. Inside Higher Education reports that in 1987, for each dollar Florida spent on education it spent $0.34 on its prisons, and in 2007, for each dollar spent on education Florida spent $0.66 on its prisons. Jamal Thalji wrote in the St. Petersburg Times that Florida must build a new prison for every 1,500 new inmates, and it costs Floridians $100 million to build a prison and about $20 million a year to run the prison, $13,300 an inmate, or about twice the cost of educating a youngster – a little better than the national average, illustrated on this table from Mind Dump:

The heavy cost in the growing industry of incarceration may be why states like Florida are attempting to privatize the prison system. Shifting the management of state prisons to private companies, however, creates a private industry profit-center worthy of political protection through lobbying, and may impede necessary state educational budget enhancements that, in the long-term, should dramatically reduce prison costs and the volume of state funds paid to private enterprise for incarceration management. A sobering understanding of this issue can be obtained from reading the annual report of public companies, like Corrections Corporation of America, which includes this risk factor:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

George Lakoff defines and challenges the wisdom of “Privateering” in his The Political Mind as a special case of privatization of governmental functions. Privateering is when “the capacity of government to carry on essential moral missions is systematically destroyed from within the government itself, while public funds are used to provide capital for private corporations to take on those critical functions of government and charge the public a great deal for doing so, while avoiding accountability.”

In Privateering the government becomes a captive market, propelled by lobbying and government’s failure to take steps to reduce society’s need for its services. The Privateers’ mission, Lakoff argues, is to maximize shareholder profits, not to carry out the government’s moral mission of protecting and empowering citizens.

Is the privatization of the prison system “Privateering?” An example of a privately run prison that raises the issue is provided in the November 2011 report from Brave New Foundation:

Correction Corporation of America’s Stewart facility in Lumpkin, Georgia is the largest private detention center in the nation. Stewart currently profits close to $50 million a year. As if that weren’t enough, CCA often cuts costs by denying basic services to its inmates and by limiting access to their family members. CCA charges inmates close to $5 a minute to make a phone call. To pay for this, inmates work in the facility and earn a whopping $1 a day. Five days of hard work gives them just enough time for a one-minute phone call.

The cost of maintaining the prison system does not include society’s true costs, the lost wages, the lost economic production, and the additional health care and welfare costs. Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, published a series of incarceration studies in the summer of 2010 about the relationship of incarceration to school dropout, class, race, and poverty. Sasha Abramsky, in Prisons and a permanent underclass, summarizes the studies:

In devastating detail in Daedalus, the sociologists Bruce Western of Harvard and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington have shown how poverty creates prisoners and how prisons in turn fuel poverty, not just for individuals but for entire demographic groups. Crunching the numbers, they concluded that once a person has been incarcerated, the experience limits their earning power and their ability to climb out of poverty even decades after their release. … In 1980, one in 10 black dropouts were incarcerated. By 2008, that number was 37 percent. … When high school dropouts buck the trend by coming out of prison and finding steady work, they overwhelmingly hit a dead end in terms of earnings. Western and Pettit found that after being out of prison for 20 years, less than one-quarter of ex-cons who haven’t finished high school were able to rise above the bottom 20 percent of income earners, a far lower percentage than for high school dropouts who don’t go to prison. … As this new research so clearly shows, locking up poor people in historically unprecedented numbers has undermined one of America’s most durable, and valuable, traits — social mobility.

The Children of the Code, an organization dedicated to understanding “what’s at stake” with deficient reading, recorded an interview, aired on PBS, between David Boulton, the co- producer of the Children of the Code series, and Dr. Grover Whitehurst:

Boulton: We were interviewing Lesley Morrow, the past-president of the International Reading Association, and she made a statement that flabbergasted me. She said this was a fact: that there are some states that determine how many prison cells to build based on reading scores.

Florida’s far-right legislature is driving to privatize a large number of south Florida’s prison facilities. The rationale? A projected 7% annual savings. Where do the savings come from? Firing the state’s employees and then employing fewer staff personnel and paying them lower wages, while ignoring rehabilitation and education of prisoners to fit them for a return to society. [After publishing this article, the far right lost the privatization vote when a few Republicans joined the Democrats voting “no” – followed by Senator Griffin, the Republican budget chairman, “pointing out” that Florida would have to cut more education and health care to save money, while at the same time he proposed $100 million cut in state corporate income taxes.]

The Winter 2012 issue of the ACLU’s Civil Liberties lead article, titled “A Nation Behind Bars,” points out:

African Americans and Latinos disproportionately bear the brunt of the overincarceration crisis because discriminatory laws and biased enforcement and sentencing, even though white Americans commit crimes at the same rate as people of color. … We’re seeing the resurgence of debtor’s prisons, resulting from thousands of people being put in jail illegally because they are too poor to pay fines for traffic tickets or other minor misdemeanors.

The New Yorker points out in its 2012 article, The Caging of America:

For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

In January 2012, Truthout reported that the number of female prisoners has increased 800% in the past three decades, double the increase in the male prisoner rate. Most are poor, black, single mothers. In addition to the prison cost is society’s cost of their parentless children. The article points out:

People of color are overrepresented in poverty-stricken communities, says Lerner, which are usually also neighborhoods where high schools tend to have high dropout rates and children are likely to enter kindergarten unprepared. In this we see how education, or lack of it, can affect a child’s chances of ending up in prison as an adult: high school graduates are 70 to 75 percent less likely to end up involved in the criminal justice system.

If over half of white American males, or females, spent their time in prison would our response be to privatize the prison system? Or would we seek holistic solutions to reduce American’s “opportunities” – need – to experience incarceration without threatening public safety?

We find ourselves today with an education system that isn’t working and a prison system that provides a growth industry. We have become particularly political, anti-intellectual — and anti-scientific — in our choice of solutions.

Are you comfortable with that? I am not!

I close with this question:

Isn’t it time we got “off the charts” when it comes to prisons and back “on the charts” when it comes to education?

P.S. Florida is also a leader in privatizing education. More on that later.

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18 Comments on "So — Will We be “On the Charts” or “Off the Charts?”"

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Dick, you are number one in our minds when it comes to researching and reporting on issues important to each of us and our world. Thank you for your heartfelt and eloquently presented essays. Now, how to get your words to those who have strong grips on our political institutions. Thank you for keeping us informed.

Again, you hit the nail on the head. It’s “bewildering” that we (the American people) have allowed this trend to continue and to now become the norm. We need to start making some noise! So – thanks for this bit of eloquent noise, Dick.

Oh Dick, I always thought I would be a visiting nurse, a public health nurse and a prison nurse. I am a quaker and my parents sponsored prisoners. But when the door locked behind me in both the psych hospital and the prison, I was not happy. There is such a link between education, poverty, prejudice and prison. I ran a program for pregnant and parenting teens in the 1970s. For a year, 1/3 of the fathers were incarcerated. Last week social media restored funding from the Susan B. Komen foundation to Planned parenthood for breast screening education. This week… Read more »

Dick- Being an educator , I couldn’t agree more.
I definitely believe prisoners should be helping in the community not rotting in a cell. Education should be our top priority! See you in March ! We will be available March 11-23.

Forgot this link to what Eisenhower thought. Republicans have sure changed.

Dick’ You have been obviously been studying this. Your analysis is very good, will you run for the Florida legislature? What do you think about Citizens United that has allowed even more money to influence politicians decisions to privatize? Campaign donations, esp to the superpacs are nothing more than legalized bribery. Why do the Koch brothers get to spend 100 million to defeat Obama? That is a a lot of free speech that 99% cannot buy. If we had publicly financed campaigns certain companies like CCA would not have the influence they have now on our legislators. CCA and other… Read more »
Dick’ You have been obviously been studying this. Your analysis is very good, will you run for the Florida legislature? What do you think about Citizens United that has allowed even more money to influence politicians decisions to privatize? Campaign donations, esp to the superpacs are nothing more than legalized bribery. Why do the Koch brothers get to spend 100 million to defeat Obama? That is a a lot of free speech that 99% cannot buy. If we had publicly financed campaigns certain companies like CCA would not have the influence they have now on our legislators. CCA and other… Read more »

Mike, thanks. This blog is not advocating increased governmental action or spending; it’s about solving problems, like the one you mentioned, which won’t be solved by throwing more uneducated people into prison. You might want to take a look at the comments of S.G. Briggs, who calls the discussion “an excellent bit of analysis” and concludes: “As the writer says, creating a private prison industry will only increase the problem by creating vested interests with a stake in enlarging the prison population.” That is my concern. Dick Jacobs

This is an excellent bit of analysis.The real basis of the problem, aside from the lousy education system we have, is the obsession with drugs. If we released all non-violent and non-dealing drug offenders, , and no longer jailed future such offenders, we would reduce the prison population by up to a third.As the writer says,creating a private prison industry will only increase the problem by creating vested interests with a stake in enlarging the prison population (The powerful prison guard union in California is notorious for working to keep the prison population high and they are working in a… Read more »

Good post, one of your best

Dick, Privatization of Schools, Prisons, HealthCare, Social Security, Insurances, and Defense has two results: Reduced Services and Profit for the Rich. Education and HealthCare are just as important as the National Defense is to the secutity and future of our Free Society. I don’t believe that being free to shop for Health Insurance is a civilized approach to a basic human necessity. I feel that educating the population is as important as educating my own child. The Freedom to make giant Profits without sharing the wealth has only negative results, and effectively enslaves the masses. We must collectivly address all… Read more »

Thanks, Craig, I too remain a bewildered “moderate” Republican.

Excellent. The US has along history of imprisoning large numbers of people and although there have recently been raised a few voices suggesting that some offenses should be decriminalized, the rationale for that has been that prisons are costly, therefore, let’s reduce costs by finding other ways of punishing people.

Real education is the key. And starting with pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and elementary school, not with the high schools, or worse, junior college, which seems to have been the major focus during the past several years. It’s really too late then.


Great example of government is the answer to everything.
I have several friends and relatives who are high school teachers in different states and they all say the same thing.
The “students” have no respect, no discipline and no desire to learn.
Until this is changed their future is indeed bleak. Everyone makes choices in life, and those choices have consequences.
Throwing more money at a problem doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.

Scary stuff!! Rob

Dick, The drive toward privatization is seemingly relentless. As has become so clear, this is in large measure the result of corporate influence on our politicians, and is merely one part of the belittling of good, responsible government. The same is true of privatizing prisons as with privatizing education and even privatizing something like social security. Privatizing social security would expose “investors” to unpredictable markets, while generating billions in profits to the financial entites that would offer their investment “opportunities.” But more to your point,the connection between education and the prison population cannot be underestimated. Along with privatization of prisons… Read more »

As always, spot on and thought provoking. The statistic don’t lie and we all better give it a lot of thought. Thanks again for bringing to everyone attention.

Suzanne Suarez Hurley
Dick: Your piece on prison privitization is so appreciated. I hope that many people become exposed to the information. That our Florida legislature is pushing privitization has been an issue that concerns me so much that, though I am a life-long Democrat, I contacted a Republican legislator who is opposed to congratulate and support her and encourage her to continue her efforts. That was Paula Dockery. She responded in email. It is appalling that the public has so little information on this issue. Please make your words louder in print or, perhaps, a program on radio? And thank you so… Read more »