Tag Archives: Total Recall

Total Recall: The Courage Campaign Governor Watch – Prison Reform

(The prison system is a mess and there is not a lot of political will to fix it, thus the federal courts have stepped in. – promoted by juls)

Total Recall, a new series here at the Courage Campaign, examines a simple question.  How well has the governor kept his word and delivered on his promises?  As Mr. Schwarzenegger begins his first full term as governor, rest assured that we're watching Arnold like a time-traveler.  As news events warrant, we'll have a new installment here on the blog, looking at how Arnold's performance while governing lives up to his campaign promises.
This second installment of Total Recall focuses on prison reform.   Our first installment looked at health care.  Check back for posts on the environment, electoral reform, immigration, and more in the coming weeks.
Let's start by recalling Governor Schwarzenegger's promises on prison reform, and then we'll see how his actions so far have lived up to those promises.   To end on a hopeful note, we'll end by looking at prospects for change in the future. 


Recalling Arnold's Promises


Given the dire state of the prison system in California, it's no surprise that one of Arnold's top promises in 2003 during the Recall election was to provide prison reform.  Sure enough, on his second day in office, Arnold appointed a tough new leader of the department of corrections, and stated that "Corrections should correct."  It seemed that serious reform of the prison system was soon to follow.


Instead, little changed in the three years that followed.  The prison system got even worse.  But, during his 2006 reelection campaign, Arnold again stated that prison reform would be at the top of his agenda for his new term.  This time, Arnold gave some specifics.  Schwarzenegger:


  • Promised to create a new program to help people released from prison find counseling and life-skills training.
  • Promised to build two new prisons using "lease-revenue" bonds.
  • Promised to hire more correctional officers, to essentially make the bloated prison system even bigger.
  • Promised to use private prisons – for-profit, non-state facilities – to house some people sentenced in California.


What Arnold Has Done So Far


The need for urgent change in California prison system is extremely dire.


California's prisons are in an unprecedented crisis.  Experts note that California's prison system is the largest in the Western world, with more than 170,000 people in prisons designed for, at the very most, 90,000 people.  Overcrowding is so bad that 16,000 people (again: Sixteen Thousand People) held in the system don't have regular prison cells – they're given cots in hallways and gyms.  California has more people in prison than does Germany, Britain or France.  The system simply cannot cope with the surge of people given to it by the criminal justice system.


The problems at the prison system go far beyond finding enough beds.  The system's health care system is unable to provide basic service.  Conditions inside the prisons are often inhumane.  Deteriorating facilities, inadequate supplies, and the constant threat of violence keeps people in prison in a situation so close to "cruel and unusual," the courts are already monitoring nearly all aspects of the system's operations, and the entire system might soon come under direct control of the federal courts.


Fixing the prison system is a complex task that demands bold leadership.  Since taking office, Schwarzenegger's actions on prison reform have been spotty.


A federal investigator, John Hagar, specifically singled out Schwarzenegger's administration for failing to carry out reforms.  "Beginning January 2006… it appears that the requisite leadership has been absent from the governor's office," Hagar concluded.


The same investigator also heaps plenty of blame on the Correctional Officer's union.  But the real problem is severe overcrowding.  The union reports that almost 4,000 correctional officer jobs remain unfilled – because work conditions are so terrible they simply cannot find people to do the job.  Bold leadership – not pointing fingers at the people who dedicate their lives to public service in prisons – is required to solve our state's prison problems.


Arnold's boldest effort at reform didn't come until June 2006, when his reelection campaign was in full swing.  Arnold declared a state of emergency in the prison system, a move which gave emergency authority to the governor to take drastic action.  He then called for a special Session of the Legislature, to request nearly 6 billion emergency dollars.


Then, Arnold began to fulfill one of his campaign promises for reform.  He ordered the Department of Corrections to move some of the people in its custody to private jails in Tennessee and other far-away states.  This move has been criticized as expensive and at best a stop-gap measure.  Worse, the program provides no effective oversight for the private prisons outside of California.   Many critics say that this new program is probably unconstitutional.


In addition, Arnold has taken no action to deal with the systemic problems that underlie the severe overcrowding in our state's prisons.  The high recidivism rate – 2 out of 3 people released from California prisons are back in prison within three years – and the unreasonably long sentences given for minor offenses are the two most obvious systemic problems.


To date, Arnold has taken no action on creating the new rehabilitation programs he promised during the campaign.  These programs would reduce the unacceptable recidivism rate and are a necessary first step.


Arnold has also been silent on changing California's broken sentencing system, which might very well soon be declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.  The sentencing system in our state all too often demands unreasonably long sentences for very minor offenses.




The Future: Prospects for Change


Societies, the saying goes, will be judged on how they treat the young, the elderly, and the imprisoned.  Correctional facilities – prisons – are not supposed to be overflowing human warehouses.  We spend too much on prisons and not nearly enough on education.  California can do better.


Changing California's unreasonable sentencing laws must be step one in any real effort at reform.  Far, far too many people in California prisons are there for non-violent, victimless crimes like simple drug possession.  The "three-strikes law" means that many people end up sentenced to decades behind bars for trivial offenses.  Experts predict that if sentencing guidelines are left unchanged, the prison population in California will increase even further over the next five years to the tune of 21,000 more people.  This rate is astronomical and will defeat any prison-building plan.  California can do better.


It's hard to find a silver lining for this issue.  But the prison system is in such dire straits that the crisis itself might become a silver lining.  The situation demands immediate, drastic reforms.  If the Governor can provide bold leadership through this crisis, our correctional facilities might become something to be proud of.  As they are now, California's prisons are overcrowded, inhumane, cruel, and deadly.  We can do better.