Prison vs. The Captive Mind?

It’s apparently big news that it now costs more to house a prisoner in California than it does to send someone to Harvard for a year. From the Los Angeles Times:

The cost of imprisoning each of California’s 130,000 inmates is expected to reach a record $75,560 in the next year. That’s enough to cover the annual cost of attending Harvard University and still have plenty left over for pizza and beer. . .

The price for each inmate has doubled since 2005, even as court orders related to overcrowding have reduced the population by about one-quarter. Salaries and benefits for prison guards and medical providers drove much of the increase.

The result is a per-inmate cost that is the nation’s highest — and $2,000 above tuition, fees, room and board, and other expenses to attend Harvard.

The trouble is, sending a young criminal offender to Harvard might be worse than sending him to prison. Seriously—I don’t mean this as one of my usual sarcastic sideswipes. At least in prison you might learn something true and useful. Whereas at Harvard, the latest shiny thing is a “social justice certificate course.” My favorite among the social justice offerings is the course on “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” Here’s the summary:

This course examines the sociohistorical legacy of chocolate, with a delicious emphasis on the eating and appreciation of the so-called food of the gods. Interdisciplinary course readings introduce the history of cacao cultivation, the present day state of the global chocolate industry, the diverse cultural constructions surrounding chocolate, and the implications for chocolate’s future of scientific study, international politics, alternative trade models, and the food movement. Assignments address pressing real-world questions related to chocolate consumption, social justice, responsible development, honesty and the politics of representation in production and marketing, hierarchies of quality, and myths of purity.

By contrast, check out some time Earl Shorris’s 2013 book The Art of Freedom: Teaching Humanities to the Poor. Shorris tells the story of teaching old fashioned humanities to prison inmates and other disadvantaged and poor people in settings all over the world, and the liberating and enriching effect it has on their lives—the kind of effect once delivered by our best universities, but less and less with each passing day. As the dust jacket describes Shorris’s experience in seeking answers to the toughest questions about poverty in America, “At last one resounding answer came from a conversation with a woman in a maximum-security prison: the difference between rich and poor is the humanities.” Read the whole first chapter—”A Prison Romance”—to get the complete story.

In other words, Harvard and similar institutions may well represent a much more pernicious form of captivity these days.

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