CUNY, The PSC and the Prison- Industrial Complex

By Clarion Staff


MAY 2001

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The US has more than two million people in prison, a greater percentage of its population than any other country and disproportionately people of color. Less well-known is that the vast majority are nonviolent offenders—and that half are of student age.

“The prison-industrial complex thus draws off both funds and potential students from our universities,” said Tony O’Brien, a PSC activist who was one of 3,000 people at “Critical Resistance East,” a conference on prisons and society held at Columbia University March 9-11. The meeting was an outgrowth of a similar session held at UC-Berkeley in 1998; this fall PSC Secretary Cecelia McCall and University-Wide Officer Frank Deale spoke at a related conference in Harlem. Over a dozen PSC members and others from CUNY took part in “Critical Resistance East,” taking stock of the many ways in which America’s jails are connected to its classrooms.

Maria Elena Torre is a student at the Graduate Center whose doctoral research is on the rebirth of a college education program in Bedford Hills, a maximum security women’s prison in New York. Interviewed after the conference, she spoke about the 1994 suspension of Pell Grants for prisoner higher education, which had shut down college courses at Bedford Hills. Her collaborative research team (on which inmates are a majority), directed by the CUNY social psychologist Michelle Fein, studies the way Bedford Hills women won the support of the prison administration and several presidents of women’s colleges. They now take courses again in a four-year degree program run by a twelve- college consortium.

But there is more to this story than a victory against great odds, or a hunger for education. The new college program comes out of the private sector, and so is part of a huge shift in public funds in New York State away from universities and into prisons. Since 1988 there has been a nearly equal trade-off between the increases for the Department of Correctional Services and the decreases for SUNY and CUNY. In other words, the de-funding of CUNY has in part been driven by the prison boom.

Leith Mullings, a PSC delegate from the Graduate Center, participated in two conference panels organized by the Black Radical Congress, which runs a national campaign called “Education not Incarceration.” She said she was most encouraged by the large number of young people present—among them Hunter students who were distributing leaflets for “Teach CUNY” and CUNY graduate students who have helped organize protests over globalization. Mullings stressed that the concerns of these social justice movements overlap with those of a university union such as the PSC, and argued that this challenges the PSC to expand its horizons. If our union ignores student and youth organizing on prisons or sweatshops, she said, we deprive ourselves of an important source of strength.

Equally encouraged by this new youth activism were Baruch faculty members Marilyn Neimark and Alisa Solomon, active on the PSC Finance Committee and Newspaper Committee, respectively. Neimark noted that half the prisoners in the U. S. are between the ages of 17 and 25, and thus of student age. With so few jobs available at a living wage, this was “an allocation of people” as well as resources, she said, in effect a criminalization of youth unemployment. Solomon stressed the grassroots character of Critical Resistance East, the many prisoners and prisoners’ family members who have been stirred to action by this movement and are taking leadership in it.

PSC President Barbara Bowen spoke at a panel on prisons and labor organized by Michael Letwin, president of the legal aid lawyers’ union UAW Local 2325.  Letwin began by asking the overflow crowd of 50-60 people how many had worked as labor organizers. O’Brien, who is the PSC’s contract liaison for Queens College, said he was amazed to discover that although most of the crowd looked to him like undergrads or recent graduates, almost all had already worked in unions.

Companies that now use prison labor include Boeing, Eddie Bauer, Microsoft, TWA and Victoria’s Secret. Organized labor often regards prison labor simply as competition undercutting union wages, and therefore urges that it be banned. But most prisoners would rather be doing productive labor than sitting idle. Bowen spoke about this contradiction, and suggested that one way to resolve it would be to support prisoners’ right to form unions. (One panelist noted that inmates at New York’s Greenhaven prison had raised this demand in 1999.) Bowen also called on New York state to invest in educating its young people, not imprisoning them.