California can't afford to keep 56-year-old Beverly Henry in prison. But those who work there just won't let her go. Once a struggling Venice Beach drug addict, she was sent to prison in 1998 for 15 years for selling a $20 bag of heroin to an undercover officer in order to support her habit. Taxpayers know that drug treatment is cheaper than prison -- that's why they voted in Proposition 36 in 2000, which would send a case like hers to rehab instead -- but back when Henry got popped, the state lacked the minimum resources necessary to treat drug addiction, so Henry ended up in Chowchilla, at the Central California Women's Facility.
In Chowchilla, she struggles to survive intolerable overcrowding and a health care system so deadly it's been taken over by the feds, and her continued incarceration is costing state taxpayers $34,000 per year, every year, with no relief in sight.
Henry is not unique, either. Over 70 percent of the women in California's prisons are serving time for nonviolent property or drug offenses. Most are black, like Henry, or other minorities, and many have children and families, and for most, prison will provide them with almost no resources to change their lives when they get out. In fact, it will make their situation infinitely worse.
No one benefits from the system as it exists today -- no one, that is, except the state's powerful prison guard union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The CCPOA has emerged as one of the top contributors to every state legislative campaign in the past decade -- it will spend as much as $10 million this fall -- and in the past has fiercely opposed just about every attempt to downsize the prison system. Henry suggests a few in a recent letter, passed along by Justice Now, a prisoners' advocacy organization.
"If California really wants to reduce the prisoner population, they should eliminate nonsense parole violations that cycle people back into prison, and initiate change that happens before a number is attached to an individual's name," writes Henry, who is the author of several eloquent newspaper editorials. "Why not build facilities and use them for drug rehabilitation or work-furlough programs that people can attend as an alternative to incarceration? These programs are sorely needed and incredibly scarce, particularly in Southern California where so many female prisoners come from."
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger agrees with Henry -- or at least he did during the Recall Election in 2003, when he refused to take money from the CCPOA and declared his intention to address the abuse and overcrowding in the state's prison system, close prisons, and cut wasteful spending. His own prison reform commission, headed up by former California Governor George Deukmejian, found in 2004 that one key to reforming the system lies in reducing the numbers of inmates. And the governor repeated this logic only 18 months ago, during his January 2005 State of the State address, in which he announced the formation of a new $6 billion corrections agency that would squeeze inmates and union influence out of the prison-industrial complex.
But suddenly, it's an election year, and the words "reform" and "reward" get terribly confused.
In something of a reversal laid out in this year's State of the State speech and announced again with new emphasis on June 26, Schwarzenegger has proposed a $3.6 billion gift to the union -- an expansion of the state corrections system, easing crowding by building two brand new prisons at $500 million each, shipping as many as 5,000 illegal immigrant prisoners to other states, and moving 4,500 nonviolent women inmates to community facilities closer to their families. He has called for the state legislature to act on these ideas in a special session in August.
"The problem is there is one solution put forward, and that is build, build, build. Increasing the number of cells will only increase the number of people in prison. History teaches us that if you build them, you fill them," says Rose Braz, national campaign coordinator for Critical Resistance, a prison reform organization.
"This is actually a huge expansion that's going to have dramatic impacts on the course of the prisons and criminal justice and all of our other social services, for years and years to come," adds Braz.
This shocking reversal would seem to be a real liability for Schwarzenegger in his bid for reelection as governor -- and would be an even bigger liability if his Democratic rival, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, hadn't proposed an expansion that might turn out to be even more expensive.
Angelides's plan, announced July 6 amidst a ton of hoopla about Schwarzenegger's inaction on the prisons, is to declare an immediate state of emergency, freeing up funds to open two disused prisons, fill up to 3,000 vacant prison and parole staff positions, and appoint new managers at the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Those managers would have 90 days to present a plan to turn the prisons around -- and tell us how much it would all cost.
CCPOA spokesman Larry Corcoran says the union hasn't decided who to back for governor, and there are problems with both proposals. But, he says, "We're happy to see that both candidates are interested in prisons as part of the whole infrastructure problem facing all Californians, whether it be roads, hospitals, or schools." Happy, yes. Because both candidates are now openly competing for CCPOA's approval and campaign money.
And that, says Henry, is a recipe for disaster. In a letter written in opposition to AB2066, an Assembly bill to move 4,500 women prisoners which has now become part of Schwarzenegger's proposal, she ? adds: "AB2066 promotes prison expansion and will result in significant cost increases for the state." She notes that the state will have to build or retrofit new facilities in which to house these women, and that men will simply take the freed beds.
"AB2066 is not a solution. It is part of the problem," she concludes.
Exacerbating the problem, unfortunately, is now the only proposal on the table.
'Abject State Of Disrepair'
Crime-fighters and victims' rights advocates love to put folks in prison, piling statutes like the "three strikes" law on top of ever-increasing mandatory minimum sentence requirements, year after year. As crime drops, sometimes dramatically, the number of prisoners keeps going up, and just about everyone forced to actually interact with California's prison system agrees that the Herculean expansion of the prisons in the last two decades has been a disaster.
Since 1985, the number of state prisons has increased from 13 to 33, all of them overcrowded every step of the way, and the state's Corrections budget has ballooned from $923 million to $5.7 billion in 2004. The state now houses about 171,000 inmates in facilities built for less than 100,000, and supervises 117,000 parolees. Or doesn't supervise them, actually, and has no hope of catching up. That's because the system is designed to stuff itself, and the unions, victims' rights groups, private prison contractors, and state construction contractors have banded together to play on public fears and keep it that way.
"People say the prison population numbers should go down. I don't disagree with that. I don't think anybody does," says Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "But our recidivism rates are going down, they've been going down for the last four years, and the rate of incarceration -- of new commitments -- is lower now than it was 10 years ago. But yet our population numbers keep going up."
Thornton says this is due to better policing and a rapidly increasing population, but that's only a small part of the picture. Prison watchers say the number of inmates as a percentage of population has to go down.
The system was already suffocating under its own weight long before Schwarzenegger came in, and a 1995 lawsuit had required U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson to study the idea of taking the state prisons into federal receivership and to appoint a special master to study a couple of problem prisons. After Schwarzenegger toured his first prison in August of 2004, he cavalierly shrugged off the federal takeover, saying in a press conference, "I don't care. He can take it. It's no sweat off my back."
He started caring soon enough, when the CCPOA started beating on him during his first budget battle. He and the California Senate wanted to trim a 37 percent pay raise promised to the guards by former Governor Gray Davis, but they soon cut a deal with the union to grant them favors in return for postponing the raise. Even while this was happening, a 40-member commission created by Schwarzenegger, and headed by Deukmejian, released its report, "Reforming California's Youth and Adult Correctional System," a 300-page document that suggested over 200 different reforms to the system.
The report pulled no punches, calling the entire state system "dysfunctional," noting that the state's sentencing, parole, and rehabilitation systems were creating a recidivism rate higher than any other state -- in the late '90s, it was up around 66 percent, meaning two-thirds of felons released from prison returned to prison. It noted a "code of silence" that protected rogue guards. It faulted the CCPOA directly, saying it had too much influence over management decisions and needed to be limited to issues of pay and working conditions.
That report recommended downsizing, but not until the system eliminated "ugly beds," meaning beds that were stacked six to a one-man cell, in hallways, in gymnasiums, and sometimes in tents outdoors.
Schwarzenegger seemed to take this to heart, and appointed Jeanne Woodward as his corrections secretary to do battle with the union and begin the arduous task of reducing the number of Californians in prison. But in October 2005, after losing badly on all four of his ballot measures in an expensive and much-ballyhooed special election, Schwarzenegger made changes to his administration that apparently complicated his tough stance on prison reform.
According to a report made public in June by Special Master John Hagar, Schwarzenegger's new chief of staff, Democratic operative Susan Kennedy, re-opened lines of communication with the union and began negotiating in order to move the reform agenda. By January 2005, Woodward had quit. She cited personal reasons, but Hagar stated that she resigned after Kennedy and another Schwarzenegger staffer helped the CCPOA torpedo Woodward's choice to run the Labor Relations Department. Schwarzenegger responded by renaming the entire department the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and appointing Rod Hickman as secretary. Within a month, Hickman had also quit, and told the Los Angeles Times that he left because of CCPOA interference in the Schwarzenegger administration. The union's Lance Corcoran dismissed these charges as "lunacy."
In his report, however, Hagar excoriates Kennedy, saying she's "in the pocket" of the union.
"The special master has made egregious allegations based on a report that is riddled with errors," says Bill Maile, the governor's spokesman.
And the news keeps getting better. Earlier in 2006, Judge Henderson put the state prison's $1.4 billion health care system into federal receivership, citing a horror in which an average of one state prisoner was dying per week. On July 6, Receiver Bob Sillen said the entire system was in an "abject state of disrepair."
Building To Rehabilitate
On that festering wound, both Schwarzenegger and Angelides propose pouring the salve of more prisons.
"There's absolutely nothing being done to decrease the prison population and to make prison conditions better," says Geri Silva, director of Families Against California Three Strikes, or FACTS, which aims to keep nonviolent repeat offenders from getting outlandishly long prison terms. "The only thoughts in mind are to plow more money into it.
"There is no correlation between their solution and the problem," she adds, "And, of course, again, the only people that it works for are the building trades -- they're just making huge amounts of money -- and the prison guards union."
The people of California evidently agree with Silva. In a statewide Field Poll released on March 1, 76 percent of Californians said they were willing to pay for new road construction, but only 36 percent backed new prison construction. A similar recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found crime didn't make the list of top priorities that the governor should address, and only 24 percent backed new prison construction.
The Angelides team, however, see this as an issue where the governor is vulnerable to attack, and they mean to exploit it.
"What you've had is a governor who's been in office for three years, who's stood by, idly and incompetently," says Dan Newman, a spokesman for Angelides. "You've got a prison system that even his own people have been warning is a threat to public safety. The courts have been threatening to release tens of thousands of people back into the public.
"Like on so many subjects, he's done nothing or the wrong thing until we're 100 days before an election. Then suddenly he's developed a new election-year interest in this crisis," Newman adds.
Angelides said in a press conference that Schwarzenegger had developed a case of CYA, or "cover your ass." But both asses must be well covered, because there's not much difference between the two plans -- both emphasize build-and-hire. Angelides has said in interviews that reforms would take shape under his new corrections management. The Schwarzenegger camp has charged Angelides with "me-too-ism."
"People are sleeping in day rooms and gyms, and that makes it really hard to rehabilitate," says Elaine Jennings, spokeswoman for the state corrections department. "It's about, a) getting enough beds; and b) putting these reforms into action."
To that end, the governor's latest budget designated $52.8 million for in-prison programs -- up from $7.5 million last year -- meaning job training, education, counseling, and family support services.
"We have to break the cycle of recidivism," she adds.
CCPOA's Lance Corcoran said he thinks that neither plan would take the "drastic measures" necessary to address the current crisis. By that, he means neither plan would build prisons fast enough to alleviate overcrowding, stating that "during the Wilson years, we used to be able to get a prison built in two years."
Having perhaps taken a hard look at those recent poll numbers, however, Corcoran also admits that the CCPOA agrees with the goal of reducing recidivism.
"Absolutely," he says. "We'd like to see prisons be more successful, meaning that fewer and fewer people come back to them. If the public doesn't believe that the prison system is effectively helping people to correct their behavior, they lose faith, and that becomes something from a taxpayer perspective that I'm not willing to invest in.
"However, there's more to corrections than just the four walls of the institution," he adds. "There's what led to incarceration, and what types of opportunities were provided to the felon before they actually became incarcerated. And there are the services that are provided within the four walls of the institution during their stay in prison. Those types of services, whether they be educational or rehabilitative, have been drastically slashed under the Schwarzenegger administration."
That is, until this year.
Corcoran also notes that the union supports sentencing reform, to get away from mandatory sentences and return to what he calls "indeterminate sentencing," and backs parole reform to get low-level offenders out of the system rather than sending them back for something as silly as missing a meeting. He says the union also disagrees with laws that won't allow felons from being licensed by the state, as that won't allow many former inmates a clean slate and a second shot at life.
However, just like the prison reform advocates, the CCPOA isn't seeing any of these proposals on the table.
"We're reluctant to say that anything is a good idea, at this point," says Corcoran. "Given political whims and political winds, we have an ever-shifting leadership team, with differing priorities. When that mission is constantly changing it just leads to confusion."
Angelides spokesman Newman says he can settle the leadership question. "Mr. Angelides has compared it to taking over a bankrupt company. It needs a new CEO to come in and roll up his sleeves and fix it," he says. "No one's being served by the system we have in place now, by having a prison system in meltdown and a governor determined to ignore the crisis."
Perhaps Schwarzenegger put it more succinctly in his State of the State speech this year: "Our proposal provides for two new prisons, a new crime lab, emergency response facilities and space for 83,000 new prisoners over the next ten years. We must keep the people safe. I say build it."
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