August 2, 2007

Is the prison pendulum reaching its extreme?

And how does a new lactation station fit in?

Those of you who grew up here in the San Francisco Bay Area may remember the corny old radio ad for the Winchester Mystery House. “Keeeeeep buillllllding,” a spooky female voice moaned. According to the lore, the owner of the 19th-century mansion kept adding room after bizarre room until, after 38 years, she finally died.

The current prison construction frenzy reminds me of that wacky homeowner. The other day, I was evaluating a prisoner in a building designed as a gymnasium, now crammed wall-to-wall with metal bunk beds and sardine-like prisoners. The place reeked of stale sweat, but it wasn’t from the rehabilitative exercise for which it was designed. In such situations, I frequently find myself conducting my interviews in the broom closet, or even in the guards' bathroom.

California’s prisons now hold 172,000, twice their designed capacity. And we don’t even rank among the top three states per capita. You probably know the stats – with 2.2 million people (1 out of every 136 adults) behind bars or on probation, the United States ranks tops in the world for imprisoning its citizens.

Yet, like the owner of the Winchester Mystery House, California's governor wants to build more.

The state is already spending more than half a billion dollars a year on overtime pay for correctional staff, with some staff earning as much as $212,179. That, of course, doesn't include construction workers.

And, lest the supply side dry up, more and more behaviors are being criminalized.

You’ve probably heard about the two 13-year-olds up in Oregon who are all over the blogosphere this week because they faced 10 years in prison and lifetime registration as sexual predators for running down the school hallway, slapping other kids on the butts.

If that case seems bizarre, it’s one of many. I’ve posted previously about similar cases:

  • The 6-year-old Florida girl who was handcuffed, arrested, and hauled off to jail for throwing a temper tantrum in class.
  • The 45-year-old Georgia mother of five who was forced to register as a sex offender and lost her home and custody of her children because she let the 17-year-old boyfriend of her pregnant 15-year-old daughter move into the family home.
But in the face of this madness, I’m the eternal optimist.

I’m feeling encouraged by the growing public awareness – books, newspaper exposes, editorials, and blog posts galore about the economic and social costs of incarceration.

I’m encouraged that the federal judiciary is standing up to California’s governor. A recently appointed judicial panel, concerned about inadequate physical and mental health care for prisoners due to the overcrowding, is poised to cap the prisoner population here.

A sane society would take steps to help paroling prisoners, so that they don’t immediately return to prison for “technical” violations as they do here in California. And it would reinvest the enormous savings into our public schools, once the envy of America and now a national disgrace.

Pondering these issues the other day as I strolled into the infamous San Quentin State Prison, I realized that one of the guard stations had been replaced by something quite incongruous – a lactation station.

I want to see that incongruity as an omen. A sign that the prison pendulum – and the underlying incarceration mania in America – may be reaching its maximum swing.

But maybe it's not. Maybe it's just another adaptation to living in a prison-centric culture.

Wikipedia has a nice overview of prison issues in the United States.