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The California prison crisis

by Bob Morris, published

The US Supreme Court recently ruled that California's prisons are unconstitutional due to overcrowding. California prison inmate population is currently at a staggering 179% of design capacity, and the court has ordered the prison population be reduced to 137.5% by November 2011, just five months from now.

How did California prisons get so jammed? What led to conditions being so substandard that the Supreme Court ruled healthcare in California prisons was unconstitutional, and that conditions were dangerous both for guards and inmates? And how will California fix these conditions in the short time it has been allotted to do so?

In reality, this isn't just about prisons. The underlying issues are economic, political, and social, and they affect all of us in a surprising number of ways. As a result, CAIVN will be running an in-depth series of articles on all of these issues in subsequent weeks.  This introductory article presents a brief layout of the pertinent issues.

First off, let's clear up a common misconception. California does not have the highest percentage of its population in prison. Mississippi does, with 702 per 100,000. Several other states, mostly in the South and West also have higher rates than California's 458 per 100,000. California does have the highest number of people in prison, but it also has the biggest population of any state, about 12% of the entire nation's, so this is hardly surprising. 

Now, here are several of the key factors which CAIVN will be addressing over the next few weeks:

Three Strikes: A primary reason that California prisons are overcrowded is the stringent determinate sentencing mandated by Three Strikes. Very few (if any) other states sentence people 25 to life on a third conviction. Sometimes the conviction is for a non-violent crime too. Families to Amend California's Three Strikes has a sobering 150 stories of inmates doing 25 or 35 years to life for what many of us would consider to be minor offenses. Maybe you think they deserve it, but Three Strikes sentencing plays a causal role in overcrowding. Good time is reduced to one-fifth the sentence on a second or third strike rather than the normal one-half, which further increases the length of sentences. Plus, judges have little leeway in sentencing, and extenuating circumstances are not considered. A majority of Californians now favor changes in Three Strikes. But will it happen?

Health care: Aging inmate populations, many of whom are serving time on a second or third strike, increasingly need more medical care. For anything serious they must be transported with guards from the prison, which is usually in a rural area, to a medical center which is generally in an urban area. This is inefficient, expensive, and cumbersome. Is a 70 year old inmate in failing health, who needs a walker to get around, still a threat? Well, maybe a few are but most probably aren't. Keeping them in prison is expensive. Perhaps there are better alternatives.

Federal unfunded mandates: The Supreme Court has told California what it must do but makes no allowance for how it will be paid for. But, California is broke. While a court can certainly order something done, the US government often mandates that states do something without giving or even considering funding. This gets into the whole issue of states' rights, which is a whole other can of worms. Gov. Brown is planning to comply with the court order by sending low-risk inmates to county jails, maybe with funding, but maybe not. It's difficult to see how this is anything but kicking the can down the road again, as county jails are probably unprepared to handle a big, new influx of inmates.

The power of the prison guards union: Their official name is the California Correction Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) and it's long been assumed by many that CCPOA has some mighty powerful juju at the lobbyist and legislative level, and thus get themselves sweet contracts, even to the point of being able to determine work hours, etc. Is this true? If so, are they being singled out? Other big unions certainly have major clout too. And of course it must be said that prison guards, like cops on the outside, get to see the worst in human nature on a continuing basis, which may be one reason there is a shortage of correctional officers.

Prison guard furloughs: Well, this seemingly blew up in former Gov. Schwarzenegger's face. He thought that ordering prison guards to take furlough days each month would save money. But since there is a shortage of guards, many worked on furlough days and banked paid-time off hours which now amount to a liability of $1 billion. The Law of Unintended Consequences certainly is applicable here. 

Drugs and rehabilitation: Many of those in prison are there because of crimes they committed while under the influence of alcohol and drugs, others because they possessed or sold small amounts of drugs. Most low-level drug dealers do so to pay for their own habit. The best possible outcome would be to get these inmates clean and sober. Then they'd probably become law-abiding taxpayers rather than being a drain on society, as well as being dangerous. Everyone could then benefit. But, there is a lack of organized rehabilitation programs in the prison system that helps inmates get clean and sober, and then remain so when on the outside.

Also, ahem, some former prison inmates say they did more drugs in prison than on the street. So how do the drugs get inside? Are they smuggled in by guards? Is it by deep and long kisses from a spouse with little plastic bags being passed? Could it be that drugs are flown over the walls by remote controlled miniature helicopters? Inquiring minds want to know. This also applies to cell phones, which mysteriously manage to find their way into prisons too. Also, how do powerful prison gang leaders manage to pass messages to the outside on a regular basis? California prisons do not appear to be particularly secure.

The prison-industrial complex: If everyone agrees that something is a problem and resolutely looks for answers, yet the problem persists, then it's pretty much a given that vested interests don't want change to happen. California's prisons cost billions to build. Someone profits from that, as do those who supply prisons. In prison, inmates have to pay exorbitant rates to make phone calls. Inmates are also increasingly used by private sector businesses as cheap labor while getting paid a pittance. Thus, these companies are subsidized by us, the taxpayers. The trend towards the privatization of prisons is troubling to many, as inmates then become an income stream and costs get cut to the bone. Plus, it is simply not in the financial interests of a privatized prison to cut down on recidivism. 

Rape: It happens far too often in prison. It should not happen at all. The threat of it can be used by guards as a way to control the population or by inmates wanting revenge or just because. The suicide rates of those who are repeatedly raped are, not surprisingly, extremely high.

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