Imagine a society in which vast numbers of young people are trained to administer, service and guard hordes of other young people incarcerated in prisons.
A weird sci-fi story? An episode of “The X Files”? Unfortunately not. Prisons are to the 1990s what plastics were to the ‘60s: the growth industry of the future.
The young, as you might expect, already know this.
University undergraduates have an uncanny ability to sniff out future growth industries. Every year dozens of students troop into my office to participate in a ritual known as “academic advising,” to talk about their goals. In response to my gentle inquiries about their interests, they spit out rehearsed answers to prove that they are not among the “undeclared” majors. (Most of the pressure is self-generated. They do not realize that in my generation to be undeclared was proof of one’s independence and curiosity.)
I’m often stunned by the inventive scenarios students fashion for their futures. One young woman explained that her double major in history and environmental design would prepare her for a career as a set designer on historical films.
Most, however, follow the trends. During the ‘70s, many upwardly mobile students sought security in law or psychology. In the ‘80s, droves of graduates crowded the nation’s business schools.
Now, in the nervous ‘90s, prisons are all the rage.
Growing numbers of undergraduates I’ve encountered during the past year regard themselves as future employees of the California correctional system. One young woman majoring in nutritional science tells me she plans to work as a prison nutritionist. A physical education major hopes to find a job working with prison inmates. A bilingual freshman reveals her ambition to teach English as a second language in prison.
I feel enormous compassion for today’s young people. From their perspective, the professional market has been glutted by baby boomers; industrialists have moved factories and assembly-line jobs overseas. Harsh prison sentences and the “three strikes and you’re out” movement have created a frenzy to build more prisons, which, young people accurately surmise, will need to be filled to justify their construction. If they want to work in the human and social services, prisons are where the jobs will be.
Prisons are being built at the expense of public education. This year, California will spend more on prisons than on the University of California and the state university systems. The state estimates that it will need to build 15 more prisons by the year 2000. The cost to taxpayers will be $4.5 billion. The RAND Corp. has projected that the three-strikes law, if fully enforced, will consume 18% of the state budget by 2002. Universities will be left with only 1% of state funds. We need prisons to protect us from society’s most violent criminals. But prison building has not proved to be the best way to fight crime. It’s no secret that severe drug laws, with long mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenses, are the major cause for the enormous increase in the recent prison population. Nor has prison proved to be a deterrent for nonviolent drug crimes. Crack and other drugs are still as plentiful as ever on the street.
None of this is rational. It costs far less to educate young people than to incarcerate adult prisoners. The so-called California Dream, moreover, didn’t emerge from thin air; it was built on a world-class public educational system that produced a skilled and literate work force.
Consider what kind of society prepares to incarcerate rather than to educate its young. Think about which “traditional values” we embrace when we prepare one sector of our young to stand guard over a large chunk of its own generation.
It could be an Orwellian dystopian tale, but alas, it’s the harsh reality that American students face the ‘90s.