† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Prison Privatization Part 1, Another Cautionary Tale from California
by nancy a heitzeg
For some time now, we at Criminal InJustice have been asking what the real end game of the “bi-partisan” prison reform was going to be. Was the “Right on Crime” Right really interested in reducing mass incarceration? Are “Law and Order” Democrats ready to turn their backs on the harsh Drug War mandatory minimums that were promoted a nd passed on their watch? Given the opportunity to really reduce the size and scope of the prison industrial complex would either side take it? Would they reject th elkong lingering influence of ALEC inspired legislation? Or would this be just another shell game, where the public costs of mass incarceration are funneled instead towards private sector profit, with little concern for remedying the inherent race, class, gender, and sexual biases of the criminal legal system?
We suspected the latter, and early evidence out of California suggests that this is the case. As, and as with all aspects of the contemporary prison industrial complex, the path California takes may be the bell weather.
It is California - the Golden Gulag – that brings us the expansion of the modern pic – driven by a draconian three strikes law ( just recently revised), the proliferation of gang legislation, correctional spending that far outstrips educational investments, excessive use of solitary confinement and SuperMax conditions, and a powerful police officer and prison guard union that stands in the way of any meaningful efforts to reduce mass incarceration. (See The PIC Old School/New School 2 for a complete discussion of these issues and their impact on the California “correctional sysem”).
California engineered a prison-building and filling project that is “”biggest in the history of the world”, which until recently imprisoned in sheers numbers more than any state. More prisoners than Louisiana, than Florida, probably still more than Texas even if we count those transferred to county jails — nearly a quarter million locked away. Numbers so excessive they made the SCOTUS blink and declare that the extreme over-crowding must be reduced by as many as 30,000 inmates. This over-crowding is especially egregious at the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla, the world’s largest prison for women, which is currently housing nearly double capacity. And although California has not conducted an execution in 7 years, it still retains – by far – the largest death row in the nation.
Almost three years ago the Supreme Court ruled that the California system was so over-crowded that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The case, Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Governor of California, et al., Appellants v. Marciano Plata et al., centered on shortage of health care and the resultant de facto denial of mental and physical treatment. An average of one inmate per week died as a result of malpractice or neglect. (Please see Prison Health Care as Punishment for an overview and Shumate v. Wilson for a specific look at health care issues for women in California’s prisons).
The Court affirmed a federal decree requiring state officials to reduce the prison population to 110,000, which is 137.5 percent of the system’s capacity (At the peak of over-crowding, the system was at 200% capacity, even with some 9000 prisoners housed out of state. Inmates were housed in bunks in gyms, hallways and any extra nook and cranny). California is required to reduce the population by 30,000 inmate< by July of 2013.
An opportunity, right?? A chance to reduce the prison population with relatively little political fall-out — just following SCOTUS orders – with the support of a Democratically controlled State Assembly.
Did Governor Jerry Brown take this opening and put action to the rhetoric of “criminal justice reform”?
To the contrary, Brown tripled down on incarceration with a dangerous new twist. Since the Supreme Court order, Governor Brown has resisted in every way possible and engaged in an elaborate shell game designed to maintain or increase actual incarceration rates.
Some low-lights follow.