Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Jail Bites Back

It's never been something I gave much attention, but the series MotherJones.com is publishing now on prisons has given me a great deal to consider. We've been shutting away problems, and now those problems have grown, festered, and are eating us alive. The expense of throwing people in jail is huge, in many ways we are just beginning to be socked with.

Judges have repeatedly found that California has violated the constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment and ordered sweeping improvements. In each case, the Prison Law Office has won the right to oversee the fixes, which can take ages; the case heard in January is about 29 years old. Specter and his 11 colleagues currently oversee court orders covering medical, dental, and mental health care for inmates; disabled prisoners; the parole system; and juvenile prisons, among others. The firm's $3 million budget is largely supplied by the state, which has to pay the plaintiffs' fees every time it loses a case, which is just about every time.

"We don't like to say it, but they practically run things," explains Jeanne Woodford, who went from being a guard at San Quentin to becoming its warden and then the head of the state corrections department under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger until she quit in frustration two years ago. "The bureaucracy, the way it is structured, cannot keep up with what they have to do at all. Under the normal process, it takes a year to change a rule, a simple rule. The court says, 'Do this,' and you just do it. Believe me, we'd get none of the resources we really need if it weren't for the litigation and the Prison Law Office."

Even James Tilton, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, admitted in an interview before his sudden resignation in April that Specter's work serves a purpose. "I'm trying to break that old system down," he said, "but there are some areas where the litigation can be helpful."

Specter doesn't embrace the burden of reforming the prison system one lawsuit at a time, but he sees little alternative. "I've tried persuasion," he says. "We tried coercion. We've tried the press. I haven't found anything else except litigation and the courts. As frustrating as litigation is, it's the only thing that I've seen that's effective—and it's not very effective."
There is little disagreement that the status quo is unsustainable, yet the system just keeps on ballooning. Even as Schwarzenegger has promised reform, the corrections budget has exploded during his term, from $4.7 billion in fiscal 2004 to nearly $10 billion in fiscal 2007, or about $49,000 for each adult inmate. In contrast, the 220,000-student University of California system gets less than $4 billion annually. The prisons' operating costs do not include the $7.7 billion that Schwarzenegger and the Legislature have agreed to spend on adding thousands of new beds to ease overcrowding. Nor does it include the additional $7 billion the state will spend to improve health care for prisoners—as mandated by yet another federal case won by the Prison Law Office.

Meanwhile, services for prisoners have all but collapsed, from literacy classes (nearly one-fifth of California's inmates leave prison totally illiterate despite a law mandating that they read at a ninth-grade level before release) to medical care. In 2005, after a federal judge found that an inmate a week was dying due to incompetence or inadequate care, he placed the prison health care system under a court-appointed administrator. "This statistic, awful as it is, barely provides a window into the waste of human life occurring behind California's prison walls," wrote the exasperated judge.

There is much more to this article, and it hits me hard in the gut that we are not so much locking up criminals, but sweeping them under the rug. That rug isn't an answer, and it's no longer even a hiding place.

We all got a chuckle out of the Dallas County idea to charge prisoners for their luxury suites. It's not going to work, but what is going to work may be about to latch onto us all, in a very real way.

The problems are growing in every area while the right wing keeps high offices well supplied with non-functional paycheck recipients. We will have a lot to deal with when we finally get them out.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just "sweeping them under the rug". It's sweeping them under the rug for profit. Depriving people of their liberty represents a profit potential for some. When incarceration is for profit, due process is seen as an impediment to that profit.

12:10 PM  
Blogger AnnPW said...

Eight years ago, we handed the keys to our shiny new Corvette to a spoiled, power-drunk frat boy who proceeded to drive it off a cliff. Yes, we've got a lot of clean up to do, and some of it won't be fixable. This problem you speak of is, of course, older than Bush, but 8 years of "Wrecking Crew" management has not only exacerbated existing problems but created a whole slew of new ones.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Ruth said...

The actual MoJo article is so long, I couldn't do it justice. There is so much wrong, in the prison systems and in our sentencing practices, it boggles the mind. And it is infecting our immigrant detention system too. Lots of unpunished crime is happening, and the administration of these system is among the worst crimes.

2:56 AM  

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