WASHINGTON — More than three times as many black people live in prison cells as in college dorms, the government said in a report to be released Thursday.
The ratio is only slightly better for Hispanics, at 2.7 inmates for every Latino in college housing. Among non-Hispanic whites, more than twice as many live in college housing as in prison or jail.
The numbers, driven by men, do not include college students who live off campus. Previously released census data show that black and Hispanic college students — commuters and those in dorms — far outnumber black and Hispanic prison inmates.
Nevertheless, civil rights advocates said it is startling that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to live in prison cells than in college dorms.
“It’s one of the great social and economic tragedies of our time,” said Marc Morial, president and CEO of the Urban League. “It points to the signature failure in our education system and how we’ve been raising our children.”
The Census Bureau released 2006 data Thursday on the social, racial and economic characteristics of people living in adult correctional facilities, college housing and nursing homes. It is the first in-depth look at people living in “group quarters” since the 1980 census. It shows, for example, that nursing homes had much older residents in 2006 than in 1980.
Commuter students not included
The new data has limitations. In addition to not including commuter students, it does not provide racial breakdowns by gender or age, though it does show that males make up 90 percent of prison inmates.
Also, most prison inmates are 25 or older while 96 percent of people in college housing are age 18 to 24.
The data show that big increases in black and Hispanic inmates occurred since 1980. In 1980, the number of blacks living in college dorms was roughly equal to the number in prison. Among Hispanics, those in college dorms outnumbered those in prison in 1980.
There are a lot of reasons why black students do not reach college at the same rate as whites, said Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Black students are more likely to attend segregated schools with high concentrations of poverty, less qualified teachers, lower expectations and a less demanding curriculum, she said.
“And they are perceived by society as terrible schools, so it is hard to get accepted into college,” Wells said. “Even if you are a high-achieving kid who beats the odds, you are less likely to have access to the kinds of courses that colleges are looking for.”
Students who don’t graduate high school are much more likely to go to prison, said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Nearly 40 percent of inmates lack a high school diploma or the equivalent, according to the census data.
“The criminal economy is one of the only alternatives in some of these places,” Orfield said. “You basically have the criminalization of a whole community, particularly in some inner cities.”
Further report details
Blacks made up 41 percent of the nation’s 2 million prison and jail inmates in 2006. Non-Hispanic whites made up 37 percent and Hispanics made up 19 percent.
Morial, who is a former mayor of New Orleans, said the political debate over high incarceration rates for minorities hasn’t yielded results. He said conservatives blame a lack of family values while liberals blame a lack of government programs, with neither side seeing the whole picture.
“We do, in the African-American community, need to instill a stronger value on education,” Morial said.
But, he added, minority students also need more early childhood education, longer school days, longer school years and more meaningful summer job opportunities.
“We need to get serious about true investment on the front end,” Morial said.
Among the other findings in the census data:
- Men made up about 90 percent of prison and jail inmates in 2006, down from 94 percent in 1980.
- About 9 percent of prison inmates were immigrants last year, up from about 4 percent in 1980. Immigrants made up about 13 percent of the total population in 2006.
- Non-Hispanic whites made up about 73 percent of the 2.3 million people living in college housing in 2006. Blacks made up about 12 percent, Asians about 7 percent and Hispanics about 6 percent.
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