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10 Reasons to Oppose Plans for More Prisons

Opinion: Young community organizers argue that California officials' version of prison reform is counterproductive.
California officials on June 1 last year officially unveiled the controversial Delano II prison, stating that it would be the state's "last prison" and proudly declaring the end of an unprecedented 20-year prison building boom. That was then.

Only 14 months later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who spoke of closing prisons during his first State of the State address -- will open a special session of the legislature with just one proposed "solution" to the debacle that is the California prison system: build and build some more.

California's $8-billion-a-year prison system has consistently failed to deliver on its promise of public safety. Schwarzenegger's unimaginative answer is to make this disaster even bigger by adding at least two new state prisons and 35 to 50 new, smaller prisons scattered around the state.

One could write a book on the reasons to oppose this plan, but here are just 10:

1. As State Senator Mike Machado and others have cautioned, "You can't build your way out of this problem." Increasing the number of cells will only increase the number of people in prison. History teaches us that if we build them, they will fill them.

Since 1882, when Folsom Prison was built to replace the already decrepit San Quentin, expansion after prison expansion has failed to address the rising number of inmates, poor prison conditions, public safety and the lack of programming.

2. The governor's own Commission, headed by former Gov. George Deukmejian, concluded that the "key to reforming the system lies in reducing the numbers."

There are hundreds of ways to reduce the number of inmates. For example, if California simply reduced to the national average the rate at which it jails people for parole violations, the number of inmates could be reduced by more than 20,000.

3. Californians don't want more prisons. Four recent statewide polls of likely voters all found the that Californians consistently point to prison spending as the budget item they most want cut. Also, a May 2006 poll of California voters found that 61 percent supported the notion that "we have built enough jails in California."

4. You as a taxpayer will lose your vote on whether California should build more prisons. State bond measures must go before the voters. In the past two times that voters were asked to approve prison construction bonds, they overwhelmingly rejected them.

After seeing his November initiatives go down in defeat, Schwarzenegger wants to use a loophole called lease revenue bonds, to bypass the need for voter approval of the more than $1 billion tab for just the two new state prisons he proposes. It's money that won't be available for our children's or grandchildren's schools, libraries, public transportation or health care.

5. California can't afford more prisons. Lease Revenue Bonds carry higher interest rates than General Obligation Bonds. The governor's two new prisons will cost $500 million each. By using lease revenue bonds taxpayers actually would have to pay back about $1 billion for each. Operating costs would be at least $100 million per year.

6. Prison reform can never mean building new jails. In response to wide anti-prison public sentiment, the governor is packaging his new plan as "prison reform" and part of "gender responsiveness."

Corrections officials have identified 4,500 women who, by their own criteria, do not need to be incarcerated. The governor has responded by proposing that 4,500 new prison beds be built throughout the state. Why not let these women go home to their families, rather than build dozens of mini-prisons?

New prison construction is not and never will be "prison reform." Private prisons are not "prison reform." Building new, smaller prisons in local communities is not "prison reform." Moving men into women's prisons is not "prison reform."

7. Women inmates oppose the governor's plan to transfer women across the state. Over 1,000 women at the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) and Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) have signed petitions against the governor's plan, including the addition of 4,500 women's beds proposed in their name.

Misty Rojo, currently at CCWF and a board member of Justice Now, said, "In all the 'prison reform plans' in Sacramento these days, everyone has forgotten the most important people: those of us in prison who suffer the consequences of these actions."

8. Prison policy can't be based on election-year politicking. One can't help but suspect the pre-election timing of Schwarzenegger's special session. The problem has been building for decades. Does he really think good public policy can be accomplished in a quick-fix, three-week special session just before his re-election bid?

9. The governor's own experts reject his plan. Dr. Joan Petersilia, one of Schwarzenegger's chief corrections consultants, labeled the plan "a fantasy," saying, "It's looking backward, not forward."

10. All experts - from the Little Hoover Commission to the Governor's own experts - agree: Real solutions begin with changing sentencing and parole policies, changes that are nowhere to be found in his proposals.

We all want safe and healthy communities. But bankrupting the state to expand a prison system that hasn't made us safer is bad public policy.

Studies have also shown that more prisons do not make our communities any safer. For example, counties that have strictly enforced the three strikes law saw a smaller decrease in crime than counties that did not (Justice Policy Institute). States with more prisons and more people in prison experienced a smaller decline in crime in the 1990s than states with fewer inmates and fewer prisons (Sentencing Project).

Dollars currently spent on our bloated prison system should be reinvested to expand jobs, housing, education and health care resources. This is the only way to truly build safe communities.

It's time to stop pretending that increased prison capacity is part of the solution.
Roze Braz is the director of Critical Resistance. Vanessa Huang is an organizer with Justice Now and used to be a frequent contributor to WireTap.
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