Megan Quattlebaum '02 is a fighter. Her cause: prison reform. Her battleground: the rural South. Her weapons: A gift for research and writing, a gentle voice that's powerfully articulate, and a passionate dedication to the issues. And victory? That will come when states invest in higher education instead of incarceration.
Quattlebaum, a recipient of an SLC Briscoe Summer Fellowship in 2000, has spent the last two summers in her home state of South Carolina doing battle for prison reform.
Working with two organizations, The Prison Moratorium Project (PMP) and Grassroots Leadership (GRL), she researched, wrote and publicized a groundbreaking report, "Education vs. Incarceration," on the relationship between growth in South Carolina's per-capita spending for corrections, and the state's decreases in spending on higher education. Now she's compiled similar reports for four other states — time-consuming work that has yielded remarkable results.
In the course of Quattlebaum's work she found that, in each state she researched, a significant amount of money has been moved from education to corrections over the past two decades. Prison budgets, she notes, have risen by as much as 125 percent in the last ten years. The shift has forced states to increase their state university tuition costs, and made it increasingly difficult for young people to afford to enroll. In the meantime, prison populations nationally have more than doubled.
"As doors to higher education close to more and more people," Quattlebaum says, "doors to prisons open. This has an enormous effect on the economy: The change to a service/technology economy means that a college education is increasingly essential. The bar has been raised and it takes more than a high school education to earn a living wage."
Like other areas of the country, the rural Southeast has turned to for-profit prison building for an economic boost. "Some communities are attracted by the prospect of new, well-paying jobs that privatization brings; one community we're working with — which already has five prisons — saw no alternative to its unemployment problem except building yet another one."
And Quattlebaum's research has shown that, in each of the states she studied, the bulk of prison growth (some 60 to 70 percent over the past 20 years) is due to imprisonment of nonviolent offenders — paralleling the situation in the U.S. as a whole. "When people can't support themselves and their families, it's not surprising that some turn to drug-related crime. Incarceration is the unsustainable method we've chosen to deal with deeply rooted social and economic problems, rather than dealing directly with issues like drug use."
Back at SLC after semesters in Switzerland and Madagascar, Quattlebaum will continue to work for the GRL as a part-time grant writer while completing her senior year. "I see what I do on campus and the GRL work as going hand-in-hand: When I develop my writing skills, I develop skills for prison reform.
"Criminal justice issues speak to me because there is a larger picture they fit into. The way I hope my work contributes is to ensure that offenders get drug treatment, rehabilitation, attention from medical professionals, education and access to well-paying jobs — and that building new prisons doesn't continue to be used as a form of development in the rural Southeast."