Prison Break(ing Point)
Our incarceration system is no longer at a breaking point (that point is long past). It's broken.
Last week I wrote about Federal Judge Richard Enslen's outrage at the Michigan Department of Corrections' lethal indifference to inmates in need of --- but not receiving --- adequate mental, physical, and emotional health services. Michigan's failure to handle the basic needs of its prison population is just one travesty amid a systemic breakdown occurring across this country, a crisis borne, in part, out of our swelling prison population.
Another sign of our troubled penal times came from California, where on October 4, 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in his state's overcrowded prisons. The primary purpose of this declaration was to allow the shipment of thousands of inmates to private prisons in Oklahoma, Arizona, Tennessee and Indiana, often in disregard of the inmates' or their families' wishes. Although you would think that California's 33 prisons would be sufficient to manage its prison population, in fact, with a prison population edging towards 175,000, there is severe overcrowding, with more than 16,000 inmates sleeping in gyms and classrooms, 1,500 in triple-decker bunks, and tens of thousands more without meaningful access to education or job-training programs. Over the last 25 years, California's prison population has exploded by more than 500% and added 21 new penitentiaries. Despite this blighted boon, the Golden State shows no signs of slowing down: in 2011, the prison population is projected to be close to 200,000.
Conservatives have suggested building more prisons. That is what America has been doing for over 20 years, and all it has accomplished is to give America the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world and tear poor communities apart, while at the same time doing nothing to curb the prevalence of guns and poverty, stop the deterioration of public education, or close the widening gap between the rich and everyone else.
The inmates have a better solution: have the federal court impose a population cap, limiting "admissions" until the prison population declines (this would at least force the criminal justice system to be far more discriminating in who it "accepts"). Through motions filed in San Francisco and Sacramento by the nonprofit Prison Law Office, the inmates and their lawyers propose diverting low-risk convicts, especially parole violators (of which there are almost 21,000 in California), from prison back to the community (where they could face non-incarceratory sanctions).
The outcome of the inmates' motions aside, moving prisoners from one jail to the next, or from one overburdened state to another, will not solve the problem. If I were governor, instead of shipping prisoners across the country, I would pursue a faster, more effective route to emptier, safer, more competent jails by placing all nonviolent offenders (particularly of drug-related laws) immediately into appropriate rehabilitation, vocational, or educational programs.
Unfortunately, as long as prison building and prison filling remain a lucrative business, as long as we continue to prioritize a failed drug war by robotically policing and prosecuting certain place-specific drug crimes, as long as the people who control our prisons and write our laws are mostly wealthy (and mostly white) while the vast majority of people going to jail are poor (and disproportionately people of color), the prisoners will keep coming in droves, the criminal justice and prison systems will continue to fail their callings, and this country will persist in proceeding pointlessly on a preventable path of dehumanization of millions of its citizens.