Vanessa Huang

10 Reasons to Oppose Plans for More Prisons

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.

Unlocking the System

Four young people died in California’s youth prisons last year, including Durrell Feaster, 18, and Deon Whitfield, 17, both of whom committed suicide by hanging themselves with bedsheets. In April of 2004, the release of a “Rodney-King-style” security video that showed prison staff restraining and viciously beating youth — punching one 28 times in the face — and later spraying them with chemicals, made national news. Since then, young men and women have also filed suit for sexual assault by prison staff.

To the young people locked up in the CYA and their families on the outside, these stories are nothing new. Families and communities impacted by the juvenile justice system have long been organizing to expose these systemic abuses. Groups such as Books Not Bars and the youth-led Let’s Get Free of Oakland, Calif. held candlelight vigils for Durrell and Deon, hosted community forums and were involved in the making of a documentary film called System Failure: Violence, Abuse and Neglect in the California Youth Authority.

Recently, such ongoing efforts appear to have made some actual headway. At the end of last month, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s California Youth Authority chief announced a plan to transform the CYA into an institution that rehabilitates, rather than merely punishes, youth.

The story behind this new plan began in 2003, when the Prison Law Office filed suit on behalf of California’s taxpayers, on the grounds that the CYA was failing its legal mandate to provide rehabilitation for young people in its custody. The court commissioned an independent group of investigators who found that prison staff regularly initiate fights between young people, spray them with chemical weapons and high-pressure hoses, and lock them up in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day – often for months at a time. The state settled last fall, requiring the CYA to report a plan for reform by the end of last month.

If the plan is executed, it will mean keeping young people near their homes, including families in the treatment and rehabilitation process, providing a truly rehabilitative environment, and staffing the programs with trained specialists. Such models have worked in other states—Missouri, which committed to this course some 20 years ago, is now seen by many as a national model. According to the plan, the CYA has until Nov. 30, 2005, to develop a detailed plan for implementation.

Earlier this year California State Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) also announced her intention to introduce a bill with similar aims. The bill she hopes to pass would call for the immediate closure of the most dysfunctional facilities and place all girls and young women in county programs. The bill would also call for the eventual redesign of the rest of the CYA’s prisons to become small-scale, rehabilitative programs housing only young people’s whose families and communities are nearby.

While encouraged by these recent developments, many youth of color, families and allies involved in the movement are wondering: Is this just an attempt to end the controversy? Or have the decision-makers finally gotten the message?

A Broader Vision

David Kahn, youth program director at Let’s Get Free, says there are several places where the plan should push farther, such as developing a strong community oversight process to ensure that the CYA adheres to its commitment. “There’s also no mention of closing the facilities and opening new ones,” Kahn adds. “In order to provide a safe and supportive environment that is close to home, those that exist now won’t work.”

Let’s Get Free also hopes to intervene on a larger, systematic level. The group wants to see an end to what they see as racist sentencing practices, which they believe result in the over-representation of youth of color in places like CYA. They also hope to monitor the prison guard lobby. Some of the loudest and most colorful opposition to the CYA’s new plan so far have come out of from this lobby – the Los Angeles Times recently quoted a former prison officer asking, “Who wrote this plan, Walt Disney?” The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the state’s prison guard union, is one of the highest contributors to legislators across the political spectrum. Anti-prison and prison reform activists have long cited this lobby as a driving force behind what they call “the punishment industry,” by fostering a tough-on-crime climate that ensures their jobs won’t be taken away.

Scyentiffick Herbert, a youth organizer for Let’s Get Free, says he is dissatisfied with any plan that involves locking young people up. In the long term, Herbert believes that youth of color need communities and educational practices that affirm and nurture their growth by respecting their ideas and self-expression. “So we’re going to fight for our programs and what other organizations like us offer – instead of the CYA,” he says.

As youth program director, Kahn explains, “We think that Let’s Get Free can be a model community that demonstrates the results you get when you respect young people, when they have opportunities to take leadership positions and make decisions. So while the immediate family of people in the Youth Authority are experts on the problems in the system, Let’s Get Free builds our members’ expertise on the solutions.”

In the coming year, the group also plans to investigate and document effective interventions and alternatives to incarceration, and work to build consensus around them, according to Kahn.

Building Communities of Resistance

Another group that recently began partnering with Books Not Bars in its longer-term vision is Asian and Pacific Islander Youth for Advocacy and Leadership (AYPAL). Like Let’s Get Free, AYPAL is also Oakland-based and youth-driven but it also has an annual issue-identification process in which its membership collectively decide on each of their year-long campaigns. Minorum Nok, an AYPAL intern, says the group chose to collaborate with Let’s Get Free and Books Not Bars’ efforts after watching System Failure.

“After the screening, we were all mad — and sad — because all the youth are getting abused and harassed by guards for no reason,” Nok says.

Nok, whose uncle is currently incarcerated in an INS detention center, was also active in AYPAL’s last campaign challenging deportations.

This collaboration between AYPAL and Books Not Bars has powerful potential to transcend organizing practices that haven’t always actively brought together immigrant and U.S.-born communities of color. The hope is to challenge the criminalization of young people in both communities in a way that builds on what the groups have in common.

Claire Tran, youth organizer at AYPAL, says that deportation and the incarceration of CYA youth are both cases where people get separated from their families and communities, and where the punishment does not always fit the crime. And while many of the people who have been deported since 9/11 are in their late 20s, Tran explains that this phenomenon has to do in part with the sentencing people received when they were youth.

The Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IRAIRA) of 1996 made people with one-year prison or probation sentences deportable — and it was retroactive. “Because youth of color are punished more harshly for the same crimes as white youth, they [can] receive doubly harsh punishments [after IRAIRA],” Tran says.

Looking forward, Tran says, “There’s a lot of solidarity that’s going to be built between the youths. We definitely have their back and they have our back, and that’s going to make our fight stronger. “

Potential Ripple Effect

While California is the home to one of the nation’s worst juvenile systems, Kahn of Let’s Get Free acknowledges that it has the potential to be a big agenda-setter for the rest of the country.

“A lot of people were convinced that the rehabilitative model would work in Missouri but not California,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s totally accurate. There will be differences but the philosophy can and will work. Once California changes to a therapeutic, rehabilitative model with measurable, positive results, other people in smaller states like Connecticut or Rhode Island can look at us and say, ‘If it works for a state that big, with that level of complexity, then we can make it work, too!’


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.