Brown Calls California's Prison Crisis Over: "Ridiculous," Say Reform Advocates
By Dan Aiello
Citing California Governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, Jr.'s veto last session of a bill that would have allowed reporters access to prisoners protesting conditions within the state's 33 prisons, reform advocates called on judges, legislators and news media to ignore Brown's claim that the state's prison crisis "is over."
The Brown administration began the past week in court with a motion before the 9th Circuit Federal to vacate the population cap imposed on the state's overcrowded prisons, citing the state's realignment plan as evidence the cap is both dangerous and no longer needed.
While discussing his budget, Brown told reporters the state's correctional system "should be a model" for prison systems nationally.
Jessica Whatcott, a Social Sciences lecturer and professor at Humboldt State University who has been active in the Pelican Bay prisoner solidarity organization, Bar None, told the Vanguard that those who know California's prisons, both in and outside law enforcement, believe the governor's claims are not credible.
"I spoke with our local parole supervisor here [Humboldt County], and we both agreed that most of the comments of the governor are just ridiculous," said Whatcott.
"From my perspective the prisons are better and some progress has been made in healthcare and three-tier bunks are no longer in gymnasiums, but to claim California, the state that continues to lead the nation in failed parole returns to society, or recidivism, overcrowding [and continues to maintain solitary confinement, or housing, units - SHU's Amnesty International only recently cited as "inhumane"], caught us off guard. We thought it was unbelievable he would think anyone would buy that. No one should," Whatcott said.
"Here in Humboldt County, which I believe is one of the state's more progressive counties, I've been told all of our local resources are used in dealing with sex offenders and because the county is required to adhere to state law that restricts housing sex offenders none of the other services like re-entry programs [vocational, educational, job training and post parole drug rehabilitation] are funded.
"In other counties, they use re-entry money, really all their funding, to increase prison capacity at the expense of the programs [mental illness treatment, job training, drug rehabiliation and education] that would help keep parolees from returning to prison," said Whatcott.
"There's little incentive to reduce the prison population, even with realignment."
It costs $72,000 a year for California taxpayers to house just one inmate, and with the highest recidivism rate in the nation (neighboring Oregon has the lowest), Whatcott says the state's funding shortfalls on re-entry programs are essentially penny-wise and pound-foolish.
More than 46,000 California parolees return to prison every year for 'administrative parole violations including missed appointments with parole officers, positive drug tests and missed court appearances, a failure (or recidivism) rate 20 percent higher than the next highest state correctional system. The cost to California taxpayers for these non-felony re-incarcerations is a staggering $1 billion dollars.
Beyond California's unfortunate claim to operating a correctional system with the highest failure rate in the nation, the state's prison reform organizations are asking how the state's prison system could be a model when the governor has forbidden the media access to specific prisoners and allows only limited access at the whim of the individual prison's administrators.
In vetoing AB 1270 (Ammiano-D) last session, Brown, a Democrat, avoided the Freedom of Speech and First Amendment debate by arguing criminals should not be allowed the opportunity to become celebrities. The governor felt that state government, not the public or news media, was best suited to make the decision as to who should and who should not have notoriety.
AB 1270's author, San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, was not willing to be critical of the governor's veto of his legislation nor the administration's Motion to Vacate, filed with the federal court judges who last year placed a cap on the inmate population of California that forced the state realignment plan Brown now touts as a model for the nation.
"We haven't seen the Governor's filing yet, but we continue to believe that California still needs to do more to reduce prison overcrowding and improve health care in the prisons," Ammiano said. "As head of Assembly Public Safety, I hope to work with the Governor's staff on prison crowding issues. In the meantime, we will watch to see what kind of direction the courts give."
According to Ammiano's office, the Assemblyman is scheduling a visit to Pelican Bay, one of the State's maximum security prisons in Crescent City next month. Pelican Bay was the site of a hunger strike that was hushed by the state's media access ban but became known publicly after advocates for the prisoners filed suit in federal court.
California's prison system failure is not entirely the fault of the government. Voters passage of a "Three Strikes" law tripled the state's prison population, but voters then balked at any legislation to pay for the popular tough-on-repeat-offenders laws.
The nation's war on drugs and "not in my backyard" restrictions and lifetime monitoring of those labeled as sex offenders put even more strain on the system, while privatization and strong unions helped to turn inmates into a profitable commodity with scant incentive to reduce their numbers.
Finally, the CDCR continues proudly to be an employer of many of the nation's heroes, its returning veterans. But one of the claims heard from inmates in prisons throughout the country is that the same difficulties many veterans have experienced returning home, they have brought to their job as correctional officers. The difficulty soldiers must face in leaving the war in their past and adjusting back to life in a peaceful society is a problem concentrated in correctional systems with large numbers veterans as guards.
"Some soldiers stepped out of one uniform and into another" according to Oakland's prisoner solidarity collective volunteer, Penny Schoener. That included veterans who suffered or are suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that can lead to abusive prison guards, Schoener explained.
Schoener claims the issue of Solitary Housing Units, or SHU's, remains the single most contentious issue and one she says the governor ignored in his remarks last week. Schoener said her organization plans to pepper the governor's choice to head the CDCR when he appears before the Senate for confirmation "to draw out his support for solitary confinement," which Schoener believes is (and Amnesty International reported last year to be), "inhumane."
A request for comment placed with the governor's office Wednesday was not immediately returned.
Dan Aiello reports for the Bay Area Reporter and California Progress Report.