A Fiery Flying Roule:

to all the inhabitants of the earth; specially to the rich ones

prisons primer

A few dots to connect following yesterday’s invigorating afternoon at San Quentin, where we were reminded that, as San Quentin death-row prisoner Kevin Cooper put it, “The 99 percent has to be concerned about the bottom 1 percent.”  

Dot the first, in re: realignment  |  In May 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the “grossly inadequate provision of medical and mental health care” in California’s overcrowded prison system constituted “Cruel and Unusual Punishments.” As Justice Kennedy wrote: 

California’s prisons are designed to house a population just under 80,000, but at the time of the three-judge court’s decision [11/2006] the population was almost double that. The State’s prisons had operated at around 200% of design capacity for at least 11 years. […] Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result. […] The consequences of overcrowding identified by the Governor [Schwarzenegger, in fact] include “increased, substantial risk for transmission  of infectious illness” and a suicide rate “approaching an average of one per week.”

The Court ordered upheld the lower court’s order that the state reduce its prison population from 143,000 at the time of the ruling to 110,000 by mid-2013. The term of art for this process is “realignment.”

Connection the first, local interest sidebar | Federal Judge Thelton Henderson, who’s been monitoring an obstreporous Oakland Police Department since the Oakland Riders catastropheappointed a federal receiver in 2006 to oversee the state’s deadly prison health care system (a receivership that now, in light of realignment, is coming to an end).   

Connection the second, structural inquiry | But how did those prisons get so obscenely full in the first place? This requires us to remember the disastrous passage of California’s “three strikes” law in 1994. 25% of CA’s prison population are serving enhanced sentences under this law, more than half of them for non-violent crimes (“violence” was the rhetorical target of the original ballot measure). The Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project notes that

Statistics from the California Department of Corrections demonstrates that the law disproportionately affects minority populations. Over 45 percent of inmates serving life sentences under the Three Strikes law are African American. California’s State Auditor estimates that the Three Strikes law adds over $19 billion to the state’s prison budget.

In case “$19 billion” is an inconceivably difficult figure to imagine, we might compare it to the monies opened up in the state budget by the dissolution of the redevelopment agencies earlier this year: “Killing the agencies pours about $1 billion into the current spending plan, and $430 million in next year’s, the governor’s office has said.” Three strikes has cost the state more than 10 times these savings…. 

Connection the third, synchronic structural inquiry | What else happened in 1994? This was back in the good old days of irrational exuberance when Gingrich and Clinton were doing their speedball neoliberal tango. One of their more notorious offspring was the 1994 Crime Bill, which among other things with the stroke of a pen disappeared Pell Grants for prisoners, effectively destroying the widely documented salutory role played by community colleges in prisons. [ update ]

In the years since this unforced error the total population of incarcerated persons in the U.S. — 2.4 million in 2008 — has ballooned to a little less than the population of Chicago, and the total number of persons under some form of correctional supervision (prisoners and parolees, i.e.) — 7.3 million in 2009 — is roughly half a million shy of the population of New York City. The tragedy is that this unnatural inflation in prison population (to say nothing of the skyrocketing costs to states) could have been mitigated by well-known noncoercive means. 

Recidivism rates, to take one example, are inversely related to participation in education programs while incarcerated. According to a 1997 Department of Education report (cited in this Bard Prison Initiative paper):

simply attending school behind bars reduces the likelihood of reincarceration by 29%. Translated into savings, every dollar spent on education returned more than two dollars to the citizens in reduced prison costs.

By removing the very possibility of higher education inside, the 1994 Crime Bill guaranteed a dramatic increase in the number of return customers to the prison complex. Once prisons got embedded as an ineluctable exception to the neoliberal dogma of minimal state spending, the ugly genius and devastating consequences of that crowdpleasing crime bill become clearer still.  

A preliminary conclusion | Here at the Roule we are dedicated to the project of prison abolition. The riddle remains how to bring that objective about. As a friend put it to us the other day:

Until that jubilee bell gets rung gets rung (whenever that might be, and by whomsoever’s hand) this econometric about education as crime prevention needs remembering.

Why not restore Pell Grants for all students and return community colleges to the prisons? Then we can begin to undo the damage done by the last 20 years of wrong policy.

If we wisely spend the money we know we’ll save (remember: 2 bucks in future savings for every buck spent on prison education), we may also have a shot at interrupting the system from unjustly incarcerating yet another generation. 

Perhaps the best way to kill the beast is by putting it out of business. 


~ realignment | You can track CDCR’s progress here; see also the stories in The Chron on the Court decision and on CA prison reform efforts

~ three strikes | See the Legislative Analyst’s Office 2005 assessment, and The Chron's story about a remorseful judge

~ prison education | The Bard Prison Initiative and the Prison University Project have been filling the gaps for several years. A piece about rethinking prison education; and some more useful #s.

~ more generally | Glazek in n+1 (and this rejoinder); Gopnik in NYr; David Kaiser & Lovisa Stannow’s three articles on prison rape; James Forman, Jr.’s fruitful hesitation over the analogy to Jim Crow; and Eric Schlosser with the view from 1998.

  • 21 February 2012