Today National Public Radio aired a disturbing report on the troubled California prison system, focusing on Folsom prison, where the singer Johnny Cash played a famous concert from a makeshift stage in the cafeteria in 1968.
Built to house 1800 inmates, Folsom now holds over 4400 in racially segregated cell blocks, and its once state-of-the art rehabilitation programs have been stripped to the bone. Violence − or the threat of violence − is omnipresent, with 15 to 20 inmate-on-inmate assaults per week.
Health care is deeply problematic. Facilities throughout the California system are under federal receivership because the state let inmate medical care deteriorate to the point that the federal courts found violations of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The abandonment of any attempt at programming for most inmates contributes to the strikingly high recidivism rate. Seventy five percent of the inmates return to prison within three years of their release.
In its admirably analytic way, NPR offered an informative survey of the policy decisions that have brought Folsom, and the entire California system, to this calamitous state.
• Increased parole sanctions
• Prison time for nonviolent drug offenders
• Elimination of indeterminate sentencing
• 1994’s “3 Strikes” law, which mandated life in prison for a third felony, even if it involved shoplifting
Not surprisingly, these policies led directly to a skyrocketing of the prison population. After holding steady at around 20,000 in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s, it is now over 167,000.
Growing right along with the prison population − and even lobbying politically for that growth − has been the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The union has gone from 2,600 officers to 45,000, with salaries that are now so high that one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year. NPR quoted two recent directors of the state corrections department who asserted that the biggest problem they faced was the political influence of the union.
When will conservative critics who rail against what they claim is heavy-handed and inefficient government intervention in people’s lives turn their attention to the prison-industrial complex?
The truth about what’s going on behind the razor wire cannot be hidden much longer by the shibboleth of public safety rhetoric. It doesn't promote public safety to use prison as some sort of dog house, where people are kicked when they're down and come out of the cage even more dangerous than before. And in a recession like this one, with California’s state government having to issue improvised I-owe-Us trying to cover its debts, $100,000 prison guards and policies that put shoplifters in prison for life are due for a second look. Maybe even a change.