(Hey, look who it is, and he’s drawing attention to the prison crisis again. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)
(this is cross-posted at FDL News)
When I wrote regularly for Calitics, the progressive blog for California politics, I took a particular interest in the prison crisis, which has reached epidemic proportions in the Golden State. The health care system has already been taken over by a federal receiver because it violated the prisoners’ Constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment, with at least one prisoner dying each week from medical neglect. The entire system, which fits 170,000 convicts into jails with 100,000 beds, may get taken over by the courts as well. Severe overcrowding, cutbacks to rehabilitation and treatment programs, and an insane parole policy which sends 2/3 of all recidivists back to jail for technical parole violations have contributed to the problem. As has the pervasive “tough on crime” stance from the political leadership of both parties, which has yet to be contrasted with any kind of progressive message on how to fight crime smartly and safely, at lower cost and with corresponding lower incarceration and crime rates.
Here are a few stories that all happened within the past 24 hours in California, regarding these matters: (over)
1) The State Assembly, dominated by Democrats with a 50-29 majority (with one independent), voted down a bill that would have allowed courts to review cases of juveniles sentences to life without the possibility of parole. The sponsor of the bill, LeLand Yee (D-San Francisco), noted that “No other country in the world outside of the United States allows children to be sentenced to life without parole.” But over a dozen Assembly Democrats, either worried about close races in November or future statewide races (and the hopes of gaining support from police officers, prison guards or other interests that support the “tough on crime” status quo), either voted against the bill or walked away from the vote. This bill would have affected a grand total of 250 inmates and gave them the opportunity to prevent being locked up from a mistake made when they were children.
2) While only 34 of an 80-seat Assembly could bother to vote to end life sentences for juveniles, the entire state Senate voted unanimously for something called “Chelsea’s Law,” another in a parade of sentencing constrictions against sex offenders. I believe this adds the death penalty into the mix, in addition to raising sentences for all permutations of the crime. California has already deprived sex offenders from living in homes if they ever manage to get out of prison, leading them to sleep under bridges and get lost in the system, which defeats the entire purpose of making children safer.
This is part and parcel with 30 years of stiffer sentences coming out of the state legislature – over 1,000 sentencing laws in that time and every single one of them increased sentences.
3) LA County has a new toy, a “gift from Raytheon,” as it was put on the radio (does it come in blue?), called an Assault Intervention Device, basically a modified taser that gives the sensation of extreme heat and forces any instigator into submission. This should be a nice experiment in efficient torture of the “pain without injury” variety, with the prisoners used as guinea pigs. Hopefully the guards will get to see how far it can go!
4) The prison health care system has actually not fully improved under federal receivership, with prisoners still suffering from extreme medical neglect. One woman told the story of a convict relative who was refused treatment for glaucoma for so long that his eye exploded.
Again, most of this washed over me in one 40-minute car ride. And nobody seems to care much about it. There’s precious little organizing on this topic from the “smart on crime” perspective, outside of the Ella Baker Center and a couple other underfunded concerns. In my time at Calitics I probably wrote 40 posts about the prison crisis, and maybe drew a half a comment per. I don’t know whether it’s the racial and socioeconomic composition of the blogosphere or the “out of sight, out of mind” tendency of most people, but here we have the vulnerable and the voiceless who are basically getting their Constitutional rights stripped away in some of the most unjust ways imaginable, and they need someone speaking up for them.
Furthermore, the prison crisis connects to virtually everything that’s wrong with California. The white flight ushered in by inner-city riots in the mid-1960s prefigured movement conservatism in places like Orange County. Nixon was among the original law and order candidates, and that perspective gets a lot of support among the sprawl of California, regardless of party. This sprawl, of course, breeds entitlement on the part of the suburban classes, as they want their tax dollars to go to their infrastructure to support their gas guzzlers, and not to turn around the inner cities that house “those” people. Environmental issues, land use, water, immigration, race – all of this can be traced back to the crisis in the prisons, or at least shown as a major symptom.
It’s pathetic that every leader in this state for the last thirty years has looked to the empirical political disadvantage of standing against this human cruelty, and the advantage of steering clear of the issue. The leadership vacuum has led to a severe loss of dignity and justice, and worse, it could lead to a systematic decline in political participation, according to a fascinating new paper.
Weaver and Lerman argue that experience with police and prisons is an important contact — indeed, perhaps the only contact — between many citizens and their government. This contact then socializes people to have particular attitudes toward that government. And these attitudes are far from democratic ideals […]
It shows the apparent effect of contact with the criminal justice system on whether people are registered to vote, actually vote or participate in at least one civic organization. People are far less likely to do any of these things as their contact with police and prisons ranges from no contact to being questioned, arrested, convicted, serving time in prison or serving at least one year in prison (“serious time”).
Meanwhile, distrust in all levels of government increases as contact with the criminal justice system increases […]
Weaver and Lerman conclude:
If we take seriously the results presented here, they suggest that those with contact at every level of criminal supervision withdraw from political life – they are not in civic groups, they are less likely to express their political voice in elections, they are less involved in their communities. Thus, the carceral state carries deep implications for who is included and how they are included in the polity.
This is not a joke or something to easily dismiss. So much flows from this mindless, Hammurabic-style cycle of vengeance that creates terrible outcomes for society. I wish someone would have the courage to speak about it.