By Richard Gilliam
File this in the “shooting yourself in the foot” file.
In years past, convicts performed many of the day-to-day jobs that kept a prison running smoothly. I remember arriving at the Reception Center in Chino, to find inmate clerks and trustees on-hand to take your initial mugshot, ethnicity, gang affiliations, commitment offense, medical concerns, and to assign each man to his housing location. Inmate-clerks typed, filed, and kept track of medical records, classification actions, and disciplinary records. They ordered supplies such as food, clothing, soap, stationary, and a myriad of other items specific to the operation of a small city. They saw to it that other items specific to the operation of a small city. They saw to it that cooks were awakened at the right time, and made sure critical positions were manned. it was said that it was the clerks who really ran each prison.
By Nicole Jones
Occupy brought the movement to San Quentin State Prison on Monday afternoon. Over 600 people peacefully assembled in front of the prison’s East gate to protest prison conditions. The San Quentin rally is just one of the 15 that took place as part of National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners.
On a stage outside of the prison gate, people spoke about the impacts of imprisonment for people behind bars and their communities. The protesters called for a number of reforms, including the end to the death penalty in California, the three strikes law, the practice of charging juveniles as adults and solitary confinement.
How should California comply with the Supreme Court’s order to reduce overcrowding in its 33 state prisons? In theory, the state could build additional prisons or transfer more inmates to private facilities, but both of those options would require taxpayer outlays. A new poll of registered California voters suggests that voters would prefer sentencing reform to any option that requires raising taxes. (The full poll, conducted for the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times, is available here.)
Here are some highlights:
- 79% of those polled said they favored moving low-level offenders to the county level — perhaps good news for Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment proposal,
- Interestingly, 69% of those polled said they favored releasing nonviolent offenders early. Both Gov. Brown and CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate have repeatedly said they hope to comply with the court order without doing that — Cate says all the changes will be prospective, so CDCR won’t have to release any current inmates before their term is up.
- 62% of offenders said they’d favor reforming the state’s three strikes law to reduce sentences for third-strike offenders convicted of property crimes.
- In comparison, only 23% of respondents said they favored raising taxes to construct new prisons, against 55% who said they “strongly opposed” such a measure (and another 18% who said they were “somewhat opposed”).
- And a measly 12% said they favored cutting education or health care spending to help pay for prisons.
- Latinos were more likely than whites to oppose shorter prison sentences. 71% of white respondents said they would favor early release of nonviolent offenders, compared to 59% of Latino voters.
As the hunger strike over solitary confinement conditions at the Pelican Bay supermax continues in its fourth week, here are a few updates from around the media:
- The Los Angeles Times has an editorial highly critical of the CDCR’s decision not to allow media access to Pelican Bay. The Times writes:
So who’s right? We might have a better handle on that if prison officials weren’t refusing requests by The Times to interview striking inmates. Oscar Hidalgo, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told Times staff writer Jack Dolan that media weren’t being allowed into Pelican Bay “due to security and safety issues.” We’d be more inclined to believe that, and not that prison officials were trying to avoid adverse publicity, if California’s prisons didn’t have such an extraordinary history of shoddy medical care and inhumane conditions. As it is, we think the public has a right to firsthand accounts of what goes on behind the barbed wire.
- Relatedly, the Sentencing Law & Policy blog has some discussion about whether the CDCR media ban might raise any First Amendment issues.
- CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate says he will seek court orders to force-feed inmates if their medical conditions become dire, KPCC reports. Prison officials walk a fine line with hunger strikes, because prisoners have a right to refuse medical treatment (as well as limited First Amendment rights to protest), but prison officials have a constitutional obligation not to show “deliberate indifference” to any prisoner’s health. KPCC explains:
Inmates have a right to decline food and medical treatment until they’re incapable of making decisions about their health.
A dozen or so inmates have signed advance health directives that order prison medical staff not to feed or treat them – no matter what. But Secretary Cate thinks he can persuade a judge to override those directives. He’ll also seek an order that would apply to any inmate refusing food whose health is in danger.
CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate recently spoke with PBS NewsHour about the recent Supreme Court ruling that California must reduce its prison population. The full video, available here, is worth a watch, but here are some key points from Cate’s remarks:
- On his initial reaction to the Court’s order in Brown v. Plata: “Well, it’s a mixed reaction. I fundamentally agree that our prisons are overcrowded and it makes life very difficult to run an effective, efficient prison system when you have 180% of what you’re designed to have. I disagreed with some of the particulars regarding the status of our medical and mental health care. I think we’re providing pretty good care now. But the bottom line is we had to agree that we’re overcrowded and have been for some time.”
- On the inefficiencies in the California criminal justice system: “We’re spending almost $10 billion on prisons in California and far less than that on higher education. It used the be the other way around. And what’s really changed is that we incarcerate too many short-term offenders and low-level offenders in California. One example would be last year we incarcerated 47,000 Californians for 90 days or less. Incredibly inefficient, ineffective system.”
- On Gov. Jerry Brown’s “realignment” proposal to shift low-level offenders to the county level: “The whole point of realignment is that counties elect sheriffs to make decisions about public safety and they hire probation chiefs to supervise their own offenders. The state has taken on more and more of this responsibility. We think, and [the county sheriffs] think, that they can do a pretty good job. … I think there’s about $1.5 billion coming their way [from the state], so we’re not going to short them on the money … We’re going to do some jail construction as well. The state’s agreed to fund 90% of jail construction in California.”
- On public safety: “Well, there’s a lot of confusion about realignment and the U.S. Supreme Court’s order and you hear the term ‘inmate release’ all the time. From our perspective … anybody who’s in prison today is going to serve their full sentence. All of these changes will be prospective. So it’s diverting tomorrow’s inmate to jail instead of prison, for example, to serve their time.”
The hunger strike that began at the Pelican Bay supermax and spread to other California prisons continues, although it is difficult to know the extent of the strike from the outside. Yesterday, I received a notice from several prisoners’ rights advocacy groups that 200 prisoners were experiencing deteriorating health conditions, including severe dehydration and renal failure. The activist group California Prison Focus also reports a number of alarming updates from friends and relatives of the strikers.
However, a California prison spokesperson says advocates’ claims are “highly exaggerated,” KPCC reports today. Prison officials also say the total number of strikers is now about 795 at six prisons, down from a high of 6,600 strikers at 13 prisons. KPCC reporters requested to visit Pelican Bay but were denied permission by corrections officials.
Santa Clara law professor W. David Ball has recently posted an interesting draft paper that breaks down California incarceration statistics county-by-county. He compares Alameda County to Southern California’s San Bernardino County, and finds a striking difference in how often these counties sentence offenders to state prison:
Overall crime rates are nearly identical: Alameda is a little more violent and San Bernardino is a little worse for property crime. Both counties are part of the same state, governed by the same penal code and state judicial system, yet ten-year averages of prison usage for that time show two radically different outcomes: San Bernardino’s prison population was more than twice as high, on average, as Alameda’s, and it sent an average of more than three times as many “new felons” to prison each year. ….
These two counties, then, are almost identical in material ways when it comes to crime, but they are incredibly different when it comes to their usage of state prison resources. For new felon admissions alone, San Bernardino costs the state, on average, $93,045,566 more each year than Alameda; its total prison population costs the state, on average, an extra $236,761,677 each year. This is not a difference that can be explained by reference to reported crime rates. The state is paying for San Bernardino’s decision to treat crime with prison, but Alameda—indeed, any California citizen who does not live in San Bernardino—has no say in electing the people who design San Bernardino’s criminal justice policies. Why should the state pay for a decision only some of its citizens make, when residents of other counties make different decisions?
How is human behavior shaped by the roles we’re assigned by society? One of the most notorious psychological experiments in recent history set out to investigate that question, and it took place right here in Northern California: Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. In the summer of 1971, Zimbardo and his researchers randomly assigned 24 healthy male college students to the role of “prison guard”or “prisoner” and set up a mock prison in the basement of Stanford’s Main Quad. While the experiment was initially designed to last two weeks, Zimbardo had to call it off after just six days because conditions had degenerated into chaos. The “guards” were taunting the “prisoners,” depriving them of sleep, forcing them to remove their clothes, and more. The “prisoners” had become totally demoralized.
Stanford Magazine recently tracked down participants in the experiment and asked for their reminiscences, forty years later. Continue reading