The Fierce Urgency of Now

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The state prison system is a bit like a B-grade slasher flick. You really don't want to look, but you can't help wanting to see a head split open with a chainsaw, can you?

We don't like to think of California as a third-world country, but that's what it's like behind bars. Prisoners are housed in conditions that might actually violate generally accepted human rights conventions. Am I exaggerating just to fill column space?

Tell that to the federal court that declared the prison's health care system so dysfunctional that a federal receiver was assigned to fix it in 2006 (nearly three years and we're not there yet). It seemed pretty clear to a judge that we were forcing human beings into a system that was literally a danger to their health and could kill them (by the judge's estimate, one inmate dies every month due to the lack of health care).

Last month a three-judge appellate court told the state that it would have to reduce prison population by about a third, or 55,000 prisoners, because the conditions are unconstitutional. Talk about a prison break.

Don't worry, the Governator won't let bad guys go. This case is going up to the Supreme Court. But the fact that it's come to this-where we have more than 150,000 prisoners living in a system built for 84,000-is shameful.

There are many, I know, who think we should be going for the world record for inmate population. Let's lock up as many bad people as we can to keep us safe. This was the reasoning of the 1990s, when we passed gems like the three-strikes law and other harsh mandatory sentencing requirements. It's hard to convince these people that locking people up, training them to be more violent, more addicted to drugs and better criminals may not be the greatest idea.

But I believe there are plenty of people at UC Berkeley and at other UC campuses-maybe even some who have a relationship with someone on the "inside"-who are outraged that in America we have allowed this human rights violation to happen.

For those who shrug off the human rights argument, how about a fiscal one-we spend about $10 billion a year on prisons, nearly three times that of Texas, the state with the most inmates in the nation. We're doing something seriously wrong here, from BOTH a fiscal management and human rights point of view.

Attempts at reform, such as they are, have all failed in the face of two major political hurdles: the power of prison guards, and the public's intransigence on ideas of crime and punishment.

The prison guards union is one of the most powerful in the state, next to the teachers union. Through strategic (and very large) political campaign donations to candidates and initiative campaigns, they have set the tone on prisons. But the union agenda-basically to protect their members and maintain their pay scale-has nothing to do with sound prison policy. And who wants to have a fight with people who arguably have one of the most difficult jobs on the state payroll?

Public opinion is the real criminal here. Our attitudes, according to recent polls, are completely contradictory. We're for rehabilitation, but won't fund it. We believe prisons are criminal training grounds, but we consistently rate prison reform as a low priority in a list of other issues. We generally favor tinkering with sentencing to make sure low-level offenders don't get thrown in prison for long stints, but we voted down Proposition 66 in 2004, which would have "fixed" the three-strikes law.

Reforms happen during crises. They happen when, as MLK and Obama have said, there's a "fierce urgency of now" in the air. The budget behemoth and the state's dismal human rights record must push something to happen this year.

A real reform package will have something for everyone to hate. A proposal balancing low-level offender transfers to counties and rehab programs, more proportional and flexible sentencing, support programs for released inmates and upgrades in health and building facilities are long overdue.

If the governor wants to leave a legacy when he exits in 2010, he has diminishing options. At this point, he's just the actor who thought he could change Sacramento and got his cigar snuffed out instead. Arnold, fix the prison system, and you'll win some hearts and minds among those in blue country, red country and all the colors in between.

Tags: COLUMN, JOSH GREEN


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