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Rotten America – Big Prison, Arrest Quotas, and What Education Really Pays For

this-school-closed sign

ResearchBlogging.org Sure, learning the times table isn’t going to make you any less likely to stab someone at age 25, but one thing that education critics don’t understand is that it’s the experience in its entirety which is important, not each individual class. School is where people learn some of life’s most important lessons, such as the importance of friends, the benefits of working hard, and the fact that there are various people with different ideas about the world. As it turns out, studies have even been showing that educated people are far less likely to commit crimes than uneducated people. So why is it that there are so many cases of schools in the US closing down in order to build more prisons? Well look on the bright side – students won’t even need to go to school to learn the most important lesson the American education system has to offer: Life is not fair.

What Education (and Prison) Pays for

Perhaps people who go through formal education have more to lose by being convicted, so they refrain from committing crimes; or maybe educated people, who earn more money than their non-educated contemporaries, have less of a need to engage in criminal behavior associated with money. Or – who knows? – maybe education actually makes people smart, and smarter people are less likely to get caught and, in turn, go to prison. There are many reasons that it may be true, but the fact of the matter is that education correlates with a reduction in crime. That’s why the gradual transformations happening in America are so troubling.

The newest case of absurdity in American education is in Philadelphia, where 23 public schools are being shut down in order to create a $400 million prison just outside the city. We’re talking about 23 schools, and around half a billion dollars. The Young Turks discussed this in the following video:

I understand that education costs a lot of money and prisons are of course necessary, but this is perhaps the most disturbing self-fulfilling prophecy I have ever seen.

In a research paper published in 2003, Lance Lochner from the University of Western Ontario and Enrico Morette from University of California at Los Angeles wrote this:

The impact of education on crime implies that there are benefits to education not taken into account by individuals themselves, so the social return to schooling is larger than the private return. The estimated social externalities from reduced crime are sizeable. A 1% increase in the high school completion rate of all men ages 20-60 would save the United States as much as $1.4 billion per year in reduced costs from crime incurred by victims and society at large. Such externalities from education amount to $1,170-2,100 per additional high school graduate or 14-26% of the private return to schooling. It is difficult to imagine a better reason to develop policies that prevent high school drop out.

Considering how the US has more inmates than the top 35 European countries combined, you’d think crime reduction would be on the top of their to-do list. But luckily for America – with its damaged economy – prison is big business. One writer wrote the following for Global Research in 2001.

Like the military/industrial complex, the prison/industrial complex is an interweaving of private business and government interests. Its twofold purpose is profit and social control. Its public rationale is the fight against crime. [. . .]

As “criminals” become scapegoats for our floundering economy and our deteriorating social structure, even the guise of rehabilitation is quickly disappearing from our penal philosophy. After all: rehabilitate for what? To go back into an economy which has no jobs? To go back into a community which has no hope? As education and other prison programs are cut back, or in most cases eliminated altogether, prisons are becoming vast, over-crowded, holding tanks. Or worse: factories behind bars. [. . .]

For private business, prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation to pay. No language problem, as in a foreign country. New leviathan prisons are being built with thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret. All at a fraction of the cost of “free labor.” [. . .] Prison labor is undercutting wages –something which hurts all working and poor Americans.

Considering how the American culture makes people so inherently obsessed with money, it’s no wonder that they’re shutting down schools. When you start seeing the money that is being made from Americans in prisons, it’s clear that there’s more profit for the decision makers in Philadelphia in prisons than in schools.

[July 7 Update: It has been learnt that a fifth of all American states actually spend more on prisons than education.]

Meeting the Quota and Filling in the Gaps

This brings us to what some have been calling “arrest quotas,” which is an arbitrary number of arrests that police are supposed to make in a given time. It is considered poor performance for these law enforcers not to meet that quota, and that could mean serious consequences for their advancement in their position in the force. But of course, almost no police force has ever admitted to a quota system, instead opting to call them “performance goals.”

By no means it this unique to America – investigative reporters on W5 showed a similar quota issue in various Canadian cities, where police basically set up ‘traps’ for drivers to commit arbitrary crimes, just to collect more money. Of course, plenty of other countries outside North America have arrest quotas too, such as France, RussiaEnglandChina, Spain, etc. But America is unique, because it is more invested (by incentivizing arrests made by police officers) in incarcerating people than any other country in the world.

Prisoner Population Rate UN map

I won’t even entertain the idea that Americans are so delinquent that they commit more crimes than people in any other country in the world. I think a much more realistic explanation is that the culture of America has evolved into a largely greedy and opportunistic one, which reflects in the prison-industrial complex.

If you don’t have enough people committing violent crimes, police tend to go for the lesser crimes, such as possession of marijuana. In fact, in 2011, a New York Police Department (NYPD) detective blew the whistle in court on how they had been fabricating drug charges against innocent people in order to meet their arrest quotas. Well… how else would they fill those prisons? [August 13 Update: A video called “Harsh US Drug Laws To Change, Says Eric Holder,” shows an appropriate update to the draconian US drug laws.]

The pressures of the arrest quota were recently highlighted in the media again, when two more police officers from the NYPD came forward a few months ago. One refused to make the quota, which begets an interesting question: Is a police officer who doesn’t meet a quota not fulfilling his duties? Or could it just be the system rewards the police officers who do meet the arbitrarily-set quota – in this case, “20 summonses and one arrest per officer” every month? If that’s the case, you may see police officers more motivated to arrest people. Why is that the case? Naturally, as with everything in America, it’s all about money.

Just like a regular business needs enough workers, prisons – now a disturbing mix of the legal system plus for-profit business – need enough inmates to keep up profits. Usually when a prison is not full, this would be seen as a good thing, because it implies that crimes are not being done. But in the backwards world of the American justice system, all it means is that police are not arresting enough people; and that means a loss of profits.

Since a full prison is considered a good thing, police officers need to fill their quota and keep the fresh labor coming in. So the majority of Americans in prisons are criminals of nonviolent, minor crimes (not to mention the disproportionately high amount of non-white inmates).

Rich people who run the country and make decisions for everyone else are unfortunately motivated to increase profits at the expense of the people they are employed to represent. Don’t even get me started on the fact that, the US Department of Education is estimating that 2013 will yield a record $51 billion profit off of student loans. If investing in the future was a major priority for lawmakers, they must still be living in the past.

And when it comes to education, who could blame someone for wanting to live in the past? As the Wall Street Journal said last year:

Throughout American history, almost every generation has had substantially more education than that of its parents.

That is no longer true.

Back when a degree actually meant something, and American students weren’t drowning in student loan debt, it didn’t seem so laughable to call America the “Greatest Country in the World.”

The Bottom Line

In the 2004 Union Address, President George W. Bush called America “the land of the second chance,” saying “when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” But considering how prisons are requiring inmates to pay for everything from room and board to toilet paper, it seems that prison is just another business. As Sarah Geraghty from the Southern Center for Human Rights says, “It makes no sense to release people with $25, a bus ticket and $40,000 in reimbursement fees. Saddling people with thousands of dollars in debt is contradictory to helping someone become a functioning member of society.”

As I said, this may be the most disturbing self-fulfilling prophecy I’ve ever seen. That is to say: Now, more than ever, America needs its prisons… especially because the closing down of schools is likely to result in an increase in criminal behavior. As the great French writer Victor Hugo once said:

He who opens a school door, closes a prison.




Lochner, L., & Moretti, E. (2004). The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports American Economic Review, 94 (1), 155-189 DOI: 10.1257/000282804322970751

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