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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Our Rotten Prisons (A California Gripe)

A Penitentiary-house, more particularly is ...what every prison might, and in some degree at least ought to be, designed at once as a place of safe custody, and a place of labour. Every such place must necessarily be, whether designed or not, an hospital -a place where sickness will be found at least, whether provision be or be not made for its relief.

Jeremy Bentham
The Panopticon, Letter VII Penitentiary Houses-Safe Custody, 1787

Whatever you think about the worth of imprisoning felons on the wholesale basis California has since the early 1980s, whether you consider yourself "tough on crime," or a "bleeding heart, blame it all on society" type, if you live in California you ought to be pissed off at the atrocious prisons the state built in the intervening decades. In the name of housing prisoners as fast and as cheaply as possible, we built prisons that are impractical and dysfunctional, and which may now require billions to be spent in medical upgrades.
It was common sense more than two hundred years ago already, that if you are going to put people in a prison you need to plan for three things.

1. Provide safe custody

2. Provide a place for labor (or perhaps learning) to keep the prisoners peaceful if not productively contributing to their upkeep.

3. Provide medical care for a population that whether from self abuse or poverty (or both) is always a lot sicker then the general population.

These simple truths guided prison design across the globe until California's leadership committed itself to a reckless policy of warehousing its felon population as fast as possible in state prisons designed for nothing but maximizing custody capacity. The resulting prisons are not safe, cannot provide labor or any other kind of programming on a regular basis to most of their inmates, and are now famously incapable of delivering constitutionally adequate health care to its incarcerated population.

The next Governor of California will have a good basis for washing his or her hands of this mess. Jerry Brown was the last Governor to preside over a pre-mass incarceration prison system, one that functioned well at a comparative pittance. Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner come from the private sector and can claim (I hope) to have never signed off on such stupid investments as California's prison building boom of the 1980s and 1990s. Whoever is elected should take three first steps.

1. Repudiate mass incarceration and honestly explain to the public that as presently constituted, California's prisons are a poor investment in public safety and an unsustainable burden on our fiscal condition.

2. Cease appealing the Plata/Coleman 3-Judge order to reduce CDCR's population by at least 40,000 inmates in two years and announce that your administration will seek to push reductions even further by redirecting non-violent felons and parole violators to probation and where necessary, county jails, all of which will be supported by state funds currently spent on prisons.

3. Plan to close at least 10 of the worst designed and situated prisons completely within five years. The remaining prisons should be those best capable of meeting Bentham's 3 minimum requirements. This should allow the state to avoid any major investments in new prison hospitals and dramatically cut the prison share of the budget. While a major portion of the savings should be redirected to counties to pay for additional probation and police officers, savings should if possible go to higher education and to meeting the health care needs of California's non-incarcerated population.

Cross posted at Governing through Crime

Posted by Jonathan Simon on February 9, 2010 at 01:45 PM in Criminal Law, Jonathan Simon | Permalink


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I suppose that #1 and #2 make sense if you have unreflectively decided simply that more people need out of jail, without regard to the danger they pose or the severity of their crimes.

On the other hand, if you're going to make a reasoned argument, then perhaps you need to think things through a bit more and at least address these issues.

Posted by: slimjim | Feb 10, 2010 4:11:13 PM

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