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Cleaning Up California’s Cruel Prison System

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Posted on May 25, 2011
AP / California Department of Corrections

Inmates sit in crowded conditions at the California Institute for Men in Chino, Calif.

By Bill Boyarsky

Much as it did with the South regarding segregated schools and other public facilities in the Jim Crow days, the Supreme Court has ordered a recalcitrant California to obey the Constitution. Finding that the state violated the Eighth Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment, the high court told California to end the inhumane conditions of a prison system overcrowded with inmates who are mostly African-Americans and Latinos.

It was an amazing decision for this conservative Supreme Court. The impact could well reach throughout the country. The decision raises the standard for prisoner care, opening the way for lawsuits in other states that egregiously mistreat inmates. And it was a rare victory for inmates, their families and the lonely advocates for prisoners’ rights. The case, Brown, Governor of California, et al v. Plata et al, won’t be as famous as Brown v. Board of Education, the great school desegregation decision. But it may bring some relief to thousands of society’s despised—the many victims of racist police, prosecutors, courts and prisons.

The author of the 5-4 opinion was Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. A conservative, he has been the vote swinging between Supreme Court liberals and conservatives. This time, he joined with the more liberal faction to rule on a situation with which he may be somewhat familiar as a California lawyer, constitutional law professor and appellate judge.

Kennedy’s opinion ordering California to reduce its prison population of 143,000 by more than 33,000 didn’t mention the racial aspect, although race should be part of every discussion of prison life. Rather, he wrote of the intense suffering the overcrowding had caused to mentally and physically ill prisoners. Such inmates initiated the lawsuits that brought the issue to the Supreme Court.

He declared California had long failed to meet inmates’ “basic health needs.” In a stinging rebuke to his native state, Kennedy wrote, “Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.”

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California has long lost its luster as a progressive state or an admirable example to the rest of the country; instead, it is now often an illustration of how not to do things. Nowhere is this truer than in the combination of police, courts and prisons known as the criminal justice system.

Beginning in the late 1960s, an epidemic of fear of crime swept through the country. Whatever the reason, politicians reacted by imposing excessive sentences and the federal government launched the “war on drugs.”

No state was more enthusiastic than California. Sentences were increased and more prisons were built. Pork-barrel politics and cheap land put them in economically strapped rural areas. The prison replaced the public university as a symbol of California. Anyone driving through rural California could see them, but few motorists were interested enough to look closely.

I’ve always felt there is a great hypocrisy in California, the sunshine exterior masking a dark underside. This is particularly true in the field of crime and prisons. While California’s business, political and cultural leaders bask in the glories of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, real estate and sunshine, the state is on a disastrous course.

Voters and legislators limited taxes and at the same time increased criminal penalties, passing the draconian three-strikes law. The law imposes a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life for anyone convicted of a felony if the person has two previous felonies. In many California counties, law-and-order district attorneys made a third offense a felony even if was a nonviolent offense, such as stealing a pizza, golf clubs or videos. The law gives them that latitude.

Meanwhile, police engaged in the war on drugs repeatedly moved into poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods, sweeping up dealers, minor offenders and even those who had committed no offense at all.

The prison population swelled. Meanwhile, a new political force emerged, the prison guards union. Raising money from its rapidly increasing membership, the union fought any attempt to ease the penalties or put nonviolent offenders on parole, paying for the campaigns of supporters and attacking their critics. While state costs for prisons increased, taxes were reduced. Inmates were stuffed into prisons, and African-American and Latino neighborhoods were decimated. But imprisoned neighborhood crime bosses were still able to run their enterprises from prison—and run some of the prisons, too.

Kennedy detailed the results in many graphic passages in his opinion. One of them: “Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets. A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic. Prison officials explained they had ‘no place to put him.’ ”

There are solutions to this. Nonviolent offenders, including those imprisoned on three-strike charges, could be paroled. Others not ready for parole could be shifted to county jails near home and possibly be made eligible for early release. In fact, Gov. Jerry Brown supports legislation to accomplish this although there is no state money to pay the counties for the additional prisoners. And—of course this would not happen in this punitive age—the excessive sentencing laws could be made more sensible and humane.

The Supreme Court gave California two years to obey the Constitution’s Bill of Rights ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state that dreamed up Hollywood and Silicon Valley will be forced to figure this one out.


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By Navid, June 20, 2011 at 4:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Kudos to you! I hadn’t thgohut of that!

Report this
LocalHero's avatar

By LocalHero, May 29, 2011 at 11:10 am Link to this comment

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a badge of honor to be put in prison by this boot-licking, Fascist state.

As a percentage of the population, there are more sociopaths and psychopaths in government and the military than there are in prison.

Report this
MarthaA's avatar

By MarthaA, May 28, 2011 at 5:44 pm Link to this comment

TruthOut, May 28 at 1:49 pm,

“Why am I supposed to feel sorry for people who COMMIT CRIMES,
then are sentenced to JAIL?  Why are any of you?”
TruthOut, May 28 at 1:49 pm (unregistered commenter)

You tell me, because sorry is NOT a remedy.

But first, tell me what a crime is -

Is a crime an act of patriotism on behalf of the best interest of
yourself and the community?

Is a crime an act of civil disobedience against an oppressive and
tyrannical government?

Is a crime withdrawal from participation in and support of
tyrannical and oppressive governance?

What is it that constitutes a crime?

Is it a crime to want to be free?

Is it a crime not to have life and a standard of life worth living?

Is it a crime to want to have an equivalent standard of happiness
as others in a society?

Is it a crime to want to have an equivalent standard of justice as
others in a society?

Is it a crime to not want to be hungry?

Is it a crime to not want to be uneducated?

Is it a crime to want equal opportunity and benefit from society?

Is it a crime to criminalize others for wanting the same thing that
those who are advantaged in society have?

What is a crime?

Because this nation has more people in jail than China and more
people in jail than all other nations combined on the face of the
earth, we as a nation, the United States, must start to look inward
and determine “what is a crime and who is the criminal?”

Is the government of the United States of America a criminal
regime that is oppressing and tyrannizing its people by harsh and
wrongful use of power and authority that criminalizes the general
population as a means of political control? ———

And, if this is not the case, what is the reason that so many more
people are criminalized in the United States than the combined
total of all other nations on the face of the earth?

Report this

By TruthOut, May 28, 2011 at 1:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why am I supposed to feel sorry for people who COMMIT CRIMES, then are
sentenced to JAIL?  Why are any of you?

Report this
MarthaA's avatar

By MarthaA, May 28, 2011 at 8:29 am Link to this comment

RAE, May 28 at 5:12 am,

“Why is it that so many fail to understand that humans WILL
NEVER COOPERATE with those who mistreat them?” —RAE,
May 28 at 5:12 am

They may not cooperate, but they accept the frame of that
mistreatment as legitimate.

So long as an illegitimate frame is accepted as legitimate that
presents a false sense of advantage, as advantage, the cycle of
“Lock-em-up and throw-away-the key” as a Model of Justice will
remain in place to perpetuate advantage for those who present a
false sense of advantage to others for their own greedy benefit.

To accept an illegitimate frame of governance as legitimate, and
then to bring yourself in conflict with that same frame, is to choose
to be a criminal and act as a criminal in conflict with the accepted
system———Does this make sense?

It makes more sense to NOT accept an illegitimate frame of
governance as legitimate governance and thereby, by
nonacceptance and rebellion against illegitimate governance,
choose to be a patriot to a cause of legitimate governance.

So long as the American Populace as a class and culture, the 70%
majority common population of the United States accept a frame of
American governance as legitimate that does NOT represent their
interests in the making and enforcing of legislated law and order,
they will be criminals instead of patriots, and “Lock-em-up and
throw-away-the-key” will continue as legitimate governance.

Cows will never be patriots to the Farmer.

Report this
MarthaA's avatar

By MarthaA, May 28, 2011 at 8:25 am Link to this comment

RAE, May 28 at 5:12 am,

“Why is it that so many fail to understand that humans WILL NEVER
COOPERATE with those who mistreat them?” —RAE, May 28 at
5:12 am

They may not cooperate, but they accept the frame of that
mistreatment as legitimate.

So long as an illegitimate frame is accepted as legitimate that presents a
false sense of advantage, as advantage, the cycle of “Lock-em-up and
throw-away-the key” as a Model of Justice will remain in place to
perpetuate advantage for those who present a false sense of advantage
to others for their own greedy benefit.

To accept an illegitimate frame of governance as legitimate, and then to
bring yourself in conflict with that same frame, is to choose to be a
criminal and act as a criminal in conflict with the accepted system———
Does this make sense?

It makes more sense to NOT accept an illegitimate frame of governance
as legitimate governance and thereby, by nonacceptance and rebellion
against illegitimate governance, choose to be a patriot to a cause of
legitimate governance.

So long as the American Populace as a class and culture, the 70%
majority common population of the United States accept a frame of
American governance as legitimate that does NOT represent their
interests in the making and enforcing of legislated law and order, they
will be criminals instead of patriots, and “Lock-em-up and throw-
away-the-key” will continue as legitimate governance.

Cows will never be patriots to the Farmer.

Report this
RAE's avatar

By RAE, May 28, 2011 at 5:12 am Link to this comment

So much rhetoric. So little understanding. Pathetic.

I wonder how many decades must pass before it dawns on “authority” that ANY system that chooses the “lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” model of justice, which is little else than brainless revenge, only serves to exacerbate the situation.

Admittedly, it is difficult and expensive to “deal with” miscreants in society in a manner that seeks to understand and resolve the underlying reasons for their offensive behavior, and to provide appropriate and effective programs to correct the situation. It is difficult to remember that when you’re up to your ass in aligators that the original objective was to drain the swamp thereby PREVENTING much of the problem.

It is far easier and FAR MORE EXPENSIVE to just build more prisons (aka lucrative businesses), pass racially biased draconian laws, and create a thriving criminal justice system which profits the elite at the expense of everyone else.

Why is it that so many fail to understand that humans WILL NEVER COOPERATE with those who mistreat them?

Report this
zonth_zonth's avatar

By zonth_zonth, May 28, 2011 at 12:22 am Link to this comment

“you have no empathy for your fellow man”

Spoken like someone who is not trafficking with fellow man. Insular, Insulated, typical upper echelon American ignorant of human nature.

Report this
MarthaA's avatar

By MarthaA, May 27, 2011 at 3:40 pm Link to this comment

Russell Smith, May 27 at 12:45 pm,

A sick system, as you say, reflects a sick society.

The American Populace, needs to start questioning how it is that a
nation that claims to be the world’s leading democracy, can have
more people in prison than China, more people in prison than the
rest of the world combined.  Is this exemplary of life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness with freedom and justice for all
as the world’s leading democracy?

Or, is this exemplary of selective democracy for the few with life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for the few at the expense of
the many, that offers ONLY oppression, tyranny, poverty, hunger,
and prison to the many as the workforce that maintains the living
standard of the few at the expense of their own oppression and
tyranny?

My evaluation is that it is exemplary of the latter, rather than the
former; that of selective democracy for the few with life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness for the few at the expense of the
many, that offers only oppression, tyranny, poverty, hunger, and
prison to the many as the workforce that maintains the living
standard of the few at the expense of their own oppression and
tyranny.

This is What a Police State Looks Like:
http://www.readersupportednews.org/off-site-opinion-section/64-64/6057-this-is-what-a-police-state-looks-like

America the Great .... Police State:
http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20090728_america_the_great_police_state/

U.S. Has Highest Income Inequality Rate in the World:
http://www.alternet.org/newsandviews/article/599266/us_has_fourth-highest_income_inequality_rate_in_the_world/#paragraph2

Report this

By Russell Smith, May 27, 2011 at 12:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m glad Kennedy went with the Lefties this time around. Prison conditions in
California and across these United States are deplorable. People die in prison all
the time from lack of medical attention or murder. The state has a responsibility
to provide a safe harbor for these people. I agree that the problem goes deeper
than the 3 strikes law, but that law did not help the situation at all. Black men are
looking at 50% unemployment. That is unconscionable. Many kids would rather
flip burgers than sell dope on the street, but those jobs have been taken by men
and women who are trying to feed their families. I lived in Wheeling, WV in the
Eighties, and grown men were delivering papers because jobs were so scarce. Is
West Virginia the future of America? Also, privatization of prisons creates an
incentive to imprison people. Simple economics shows that these private prisons
must grow to increase profit margins. It’s a sick system and should be done away
with. As usual, in California, legislators pass the buck systematically.

Report this

By Steve E, May 26, 2011 at 5:55 pm Link to this comment

The “law industry” has always been very lucrative.

Report this

By rollzone, May 26, 2011 at 5:51 pm Link to this comment

hello. in the photo, as is the case in the Chino men’s
homeless shelter, and many others across the state:
there are no disproportionate “African Americans”. it
is mostly “Hispanics”, since racial is key, and 3
strikes is not the cause. unemployment, and the lack of
jobs is the cause; and all the chasing of business out
of the state. it can all be traced to the EPA- that’s
the cause of prison overcrowding: regulations and
taxes. the system profits once they are in it, but very
few have a better choice than crime, or a better way to
survive than three hots and a cot. they came for jobs.

Report this
MarthaA's avatar

By MarthaA, May 26, 2011 at 4:02 pm Link to this comment

PatrickHenry, May 26 at 3:13 pm,

Where is your mercy for your fellow man?

Report this
PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, May 26, 2011 at 3:13 pm Link to this comment

Build a big prison over in Afghanistan and send them there.

We outsource everything else.

Report this
MarthaA's avatar

By MarthaA, May 26, 2011 at 1:06 pm Link to this comment

The prison systems in all states all over the United States should
never have been privatized for profit.  Usury in all forms has been he
down fall of our nation.

Report this
politicky's avatar

By politicky, May 26, 2011 at 11:53 am Link to this comment

The immigrant bashers who don’t know my state might
continue to read, please.

WHY ARE CALIFORNIA’S PRISONS SO CROWDED?
A lot of California’s overcrowding problem is the result of the
state’s punitive “three strikes law,” which puts third time
offenders in jail for life, regardless of their crime.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/californias-
prison-disaster-heres-what-you-need-to-know-2011-
5#ixzz1NUCXHL00

Report this

By gerard, May 26, 2011 at 11:51 am Link to this comment

“... a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life for anyone convicted of a felony if the person has two previous felonies”

That right there is the heart of prison problems.  It frankly admits that two previous sentences served under the degrading prison/private profit “system” has not done anything to prevent recidivism. So the “criminal” commits to “criminality” again—naturally, since that is probably all the “criminal” knows, plus he’s the victim of a ruinous label.

So ... time to try the Alternatives to Violence Project—people who are trained in helping violent people (which means almost anybody, but particularly “criminals” think about alternatives to the past behaviors that have landed them in jail in the first place.  It offers multiple chances to learn new ways of thinking, look for new ways to live that are more rewarding than the crime/punishment stalemate. 

Some enlightened wardens have instituted these programs, but they are all too few.  Some prison guards and police are trained in these methods, but again, not many.  But in places where Alternatives to
Violence are conscientiously adopted, taught and followed, great improvements have occurred. 

There was a time fifty years or so ago when prisons were not so overcrowded and where rehabilitation was looked upon more carefully.  But since we are into fighting “wars on this or that” here and there, progress on alternatives to violence have almost dropped from sight in the public mind.  They are still there, waiting to be promoted and used.  (Google Alternatives to Violence Project and hook yourself in.  Help is always needed.)

Report this
John M's avatar

By John M, May 26, 2011 at 7:57 am Link to this comment

Kennedy was never a conservative - and since California
has 27000 illegal alien felons in it’s prisons they
should just turn them over to the feds or dump them
back over the border, problem solved. But they continue
to be a sanctuary state.. glad i don’t live there.

Report this
drbhelthi's avatar

By drbhelthi, May 26, 2011 at 1:10 am Link to this comment

Violating immigration laws for two terms, only to imprison too many
immigrants for pittance offenses, further demonstrates the tendency of
the “Terminator-Adulterator,” Arnold Schwarzenneger.  A product of NAZI
lineage, Schwarzenneger made a speech in support of “Junior Bush” at
the Republican national convention, 2007.  With his Austrian village
accent, A. Schwarzenneger repeated in American, numerous “victory”
statements of A. Hitler.  His performance was a remarkably accurate
monkey-see, monkey-do replication.  The report of senior journalist,
John Buchanan, reveals details: 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4-TL5AGHFY

It is logical that a few million parents would like to see this NAZI
import return to his home village, and take all the socially-destructive
movies, with their destructive social influence, with him.  Such a
healthy, social action might weaken the furtive nazification of the
U.S.A. by the NAZI-GHWBushSr entourage.  It is sad that such examples of
asocial deportment, basically mental derangement, receive wide
publication, while upstanding Austrians in the U.S. never receive
mention.  Is this simply further influence of nazi-ism in the media ? 
Which nazi-ism has spread to the legal system of the U.S.A., not just
California.

Now, let us see which of the NAZI shills, Terminator-Adulterator-type
sympathizers and wanna-bees, jump in to call me “racist,” “Jew-hater,”
“bat-shit-crazy,” and other scapegoat-terms they typically apply in
their refutations.  While it has been variously attempted, refutation of
“George Bush: The Unauthorized Biography,” by Webster G. Tarpley & Anton
Chaitkin, is attempted only by rash idiots.  The asocial illogic of
which idiots is sometimes discernable in Truthdig blogs.

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