Five Questions For Mike Farrell – Advocating Prison Reform

(crossposted from Orange County Progressive)

PhotobucketWe think first of Mike Farrell as MASH’s Dr. B.J. Hunnicut.

More significantly, he’s been a tireless advocate against the death penalty for decades and a strong spokesman for prison reform.

California’s prison system has been the only part of the state operations budget that has been growing faster than inflation and population. In 1987-88, California spent 5 percent of its General Fund dollars on corrections, compared to 10 percent in 2007-08. Spending on corrections takes up about twice as much of the state budget as it did 20 years ago.

The  barbaric state of health care for California inmates brought federal intervention and control. For a generation, ToughOnCrime has been a dominant mantra of regressive Republicans with timid acquiescence by gutless Democrats.

And the savagery of Governor Schwarzenegger became apparent over the weekend when he proposed cutting the prison budget to save 900 million a year by scrapping substance abuse counseling, vocational training and other rehabilitation programs for inmates.

In this context of a failing system, we asked Mike Farrell five questions on the subject of prison reform.

You’ve been an incredibly strong voice on capital punishment and prison reform, while America’s prison, including California’s massive incarceration system, are our great national shame. What specific steps should we be taking now to reform our prison system and the massive costs associated with it?

Well, first we should end the use of the death penalty. That will decapitate the system. I see the death penalty as the lid on the garbage can. Once we remove that lid, we’ll be forced to look into the rotten, stinking, maggot-infested mess that is our criminal justice system.

Next we should use the millions of dollars saved by the elimination of capital punishment to fund programs for crime victims as well as efforts that will cut the prison population, like drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, literacy programs, parenting programs, and child abuse prevention efforts.

Within the system we must create true rehabilitation programs (or as I think of them “habilitation” programs). Our prisons have become animal factories as a result of our focus on punishment and warehousing instead of recognizing and valuing the capacity for change in every person.

We should investigate and institute more alternatives to incarceration. Drug offenses should be recognized as a medical problem, not a criminal justice problem. Eliminating prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses would cut down our prison population by approximately one third.

Using parole properly would also cut down our prison population. Properly supervised parole, including more training and better pay for parole and probation officers, would be a big step in the right direction.

In short, incarcerating only those who truly need to be kept away from society and then using the best methods, medicine, training, psychological and therapeutic treatment and other resources available to us to bring them back to a level of humanity wherein they can become productive citizens.

You  wrote eloquently at Huffington Post about prison rape. How can we address this tragic issue when we have a prison system that’s overtaxed?

First we have to take the problem of rape in prison seriously. The federal government finally acknowledged the problem and put forward the prison rape elimination act (PREA), last year. Its existence is due to an organization originally known as ‘Stop Prisoner Rape.’ It has now evolved into Just Detention International. PREA is intended to deal with the phenomenon of prison rape, but little follow-through is evident.

And again, a less punitive, more humane attitude about those in prison would lead to a less tense and anxious population. But one of the primary things we can do is follow the example of some European countries and allow conjugal visits.

There’s a lot of noise about the use of torture by the Bush administration and a huge push for holding those involved accountable, as there should be. Why do you think that the atrocities that occur in our prisons on a daily basis don’t get as much attention or protest from progressives? And how can we change this?

There’s a great unwillingness to face the consequences of our having turned away from those who act out inappropriately. Ascribing “criminals” to a sub-human status allows people to ignore their responsibility to their fellow citizens and leave their treatment up

to “the experts.”

In part, this is due to the remaining vestiges of a puritan ethic; in part it is the result of men and women feeling overwhelmed by the need to provide for themselves and their children. And I believe it is in part a result of a lazy willingness to accept a double standard, a kind of domestic version of what is thought of internationally as “American exceptionalism,” the hypocrisy that believes that since we’re the “biggest and the best,” we don’t have to live by the same rules others do.

Simply stated, people have allowed themselves to be lulled into a kind of selfishness that directly contradicts the golden rule.

There is evidence that capital punishment doesn’t deter and that our justice system is not fool proof, meaning innocent lives are taken for crimes they did not commit. So how do we educate the public about capital punishment, not just as a failure to do what it intends to do but as a humanitarian issue?

As with every other important value, it will take a committed effort on the part of caring people to reach out to their families, friends, neighbors and beyond, pointing out the ugly realities associated with state killing. It’s important that we do not act as if our morality is higher than theirs, but simply appeal to their sense of decency. even one who truly believes that the state has a right to kill under certain circumstances can be brought, if he/she is honest, to an understanding that a system that is racist at its core, is only used against the poor, is rife with police and prosecutorial misconduct, is unfairly stacked against the accused, who, being disproportionately poor and ill-educated (almost all of whom will have a history of abuse), will receive a less-than-adequate defense by ill-prepared and/or overwhelmed defense attorneys, is, at base, not fair.

People want to be fair and they want to believe our systems are fair. When exposed as not only unfair, but also apt to capture and kill innocent people, the system begins to indict itself. (133 people have, to date, been charged, tried, convicted and sentenced to death and spent years awaiting the executioner, only to have finally been shown to be wrongfully convicted, then exonerated and freed. What we don’t know is how may innocent have gone to their deaths at the hands of the state.)

Another point that is gaining currency today, though it’s hard for some to understand because it is counter-intuitive, is that it costs more money to go through the process and kill someone than it does to have a simple, non-death penalty trial and maintain the guilty person in prison for the rest of his/her natural life.

The growing understanding of this last fact is one of the primary reasons the state of New Jersey became the first state in the modern era to do away with the death penalty in December of 2007. It also was a major consideration when the state of Mew Mexico became the second state to give up killing earlier this year.

The cost of capital punishment is causing a reconsideration of the system in many states today. Montana came within four votes of eliminating it this spring, Colorado came within one vote this month and both houses of the Connecticut legislature voted to end it last week. The bill is now on the governor’s desk.

Is there anyone in the California governor’s race for 2010 who is even making the right noises about prison reform and capital punishment?

I don’t know. I haven’t seen a sign of it. Jerry Brown was once a visionary who openly opposed capital punishment and had the courage to advocate thoughtful, humane, progressive ideas. He appears to have devolved into simply another politician.