Work in the Prison

Jospeh T. Hallinan’s Going Up the River has countless revelations for anyone interested in how the prison-industrial complex has changed American life. But two, so far, have particularly stuck out for me:

“Well,” he says, “my wife and I have been married twenty-eight years and lived nineteen years in a travel trailer.” He looks me dead in the eye. “Do you have any idea?”

After ten years, he will be eligible to receive medical coverage after retirement, a benefit so precious, he says, that he is willing to spend his days among killers and thieves. “Be fifty-four and try to go out and buy health insurance.”

The second item concerns teachers attracted by the increased pay rate afforded to public school teachers who have since moved on to educate prisoners in Beeville, Texas:

He and Dave, I knew, feel a little guilty about their defection. Both mention repeatedly, for instance, how much they miss working with kids. But they don’t feel that guilty. “I’m much more relaxed,” Dave says. “I have more time with my family. My lesson plans are a lot easier to write. I haven’t had a parent come to see me yet. And all in all besides that I got about a six-thousand dollar raise.”

Stafford will be fifty-six in a few days, and Texas has mandatory retirement at sixty-five, which means he’s got nine years left. Whether he’ll stay that long, he doesn’t know. “I tell everybody I’m doing five to ten,” he says. “My inmates like that.”

Beyond the rising incarceration rate, and beyond the ways in which corporations have cut exclusive deals for both the products used in penitentiaries and the labor employed to manufacture American goods, is the startling realization that the penitentiary, in some impoverished towns, has become the new Wal-Mart. If your employer won’t pay your health benefits, or if you can’t afford the exorbitant rates of an HMO, work in the prison. If you want to really teach, but can’t afford to live on the impoverished rates the school districts are paying teachers, work in the prison. Not only will they pay you more, but your teaching demands will be considerably less. Because most of the inmates are high school dropouts (in Texas, 60% are, and Hallinan notes that this is about equal to the national average). Of course, even if you rehabilitate prisoners through education, their prospects are grim. In the 1960s, there was a brief moment in which grants were given out to prisoners so that they could earn four-year degrees. The grants were killed in 1994.