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The Cost of Education vs. Incarceration

What is a Black life worth in America?

Just how much is Black life worth?

Over the past four centuries, the answer to this question has been complex. And the disturbing number of Black bodies populating the prisons and the morgues of one of our Black metropolises makes it as salient as ever.

The West and South Sides of Chicago have become a breeding ground for young Black men and women to become entrenched in an unforgiving prison system. Investments in their futures are directed toward the prison system, not their schools. Chicago Public Schools receive inadequate funding for valuable programs that could resurrect these communities, as monetary resources are given to maintain a thriving prison industry and a dilapidated infrastructure remains. School closings in Black neighborhoods are commonplace as more funds are allocated to predominantly White and non-Black neighborhoods.

According to a new study by The Chicago Reporter, state taxpayers have contributed $5.3 billion over the past decade to incarcerate their native Chicagoans. This amount stems from more than 147,000 prison sentences handed out between 2000 and 2011. The same study showed that it costs $143 per day to house one inmate in Cook County’s jails as opposed to $58 per day to house an inmate in Illinois state prison facilities. However, as many people spend months in jail before trial and are credited for time served there, it is actually cheaper for the state to keep inmates incarcerated in Chicago’s prisons.*

The Reporter has also found that the enforcement of enhanced drug laws in Chicago has led to 5,761 new prison sentences costing the state an estimated $220 million. Many of these prisoners have received heavy sentences for nonviolent crimes. Due to mass poverty and unemployment these same individuals return to prison because of limited opportunities in their communities. The Illinois Department of Corrections reported at the end of 2011 that Cook County committed 24,297 prisoners, which far exceeded the amount prisoners committed by other surrounding counties in the state. Blacks accounted for approximately 56.7 percent of the prisoners in Illinois state penitentiaries.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a reality in Chicago.

According to Annie E. Casey Foundation, 33 percent of children in Chicago live in poverty. Chicago students have shorter classroom hours than the national average. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress testing, Chicago students under-perform their counterparts by a notable percentage. To the city’s credit, they’ve made a considerable turnaround in students’ performance since 2003. But Black students remain at the bottom in all major statistical categories that measure academic excellence. According to the Chicago Teachers Union, 42 percent of the city’s schools lack full funding for music and art programs as well as equipment for physical education classes.

In 2011, Chicago Public Schools made the difficult decision to not invest in improving crumbling schools that they were going to close in the next five to 10 years. Meanwhile, schools in more affluent areas continue to receive the bulk of the city’s funding. A recent analysis by the Chicago Sun-Times states, “Nine out of ten of the Chicago Public School students potentially affected by school closings this year are Black. Of those 129 schools located mostly on the South and West sides, 117 are majority Black. And 119 of them have a percentage of Black students higher than the district average.”

Only 19 percent of the teaching force in Chicago is Black. In 1995, Blacks constituted 45 percent of the teaching force. About 42 percent of the city's 400,000 public school students are Black and 87 percent reside in low-income areas. It makes one wonder if there is a larger conspiracy to keep our children and young adults in a perpetual cycle of failure and dysfunction.

From a federal level, funding for the Department of Education increased 2.5 percent to a gargantuan sum of $69.8 billion in 2013, but this money doesn’t seem to reach those most vulnerable or account for after-school programs that are desperately needed in cities like Chicago where the stronghold of the streets is often more alluring than dilapidated and antiquated classrooms manned by young, White teachers from the suburbs.

It seems that to the powers that be, a Black life is worth more imprisoned than educated in Chicago.

*Edited on 3/13 at 5:28pm

Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.