September 25, 2013

California prisons careening closer to cliff

For a minute there, it looked like California's prisons were on the verge of positive reforms. But the current situation in the state's massive prison system -- one of the largest in the world -- is far from encouraging. It's been a kaleidoscope of bad news lately.

Chemical weapons

Private prison company annual report (credit Huff Post)
Guards have been videotaped tossing chemical grenades and pumping pepper spray into the cells of psychotic prisoners, some of them screaming and delirious. In one case, the prisoner's offense was not taking his psych meds; an asthmatic prisoner was sprayed for refusing to leave a holding cage, according to AP news coverage. A federal judge will rule next week on whether the public has a right to see the disturbing videos as part of a legal case challenging abusive discipline of mentally ill prisoners and inadequate mental health care for prisoners on death row. An expert observer described the chemical arsenals possessed by California guards as "shocking."

Realignment woes

Another snippet from the Correctional Corp of America
Meanwhile, things are getting worse in many of the state's 58 county jails. The state's "realignment plan," in which nonviolent offenders stay in county jails rather than going to prison, is causing lots of headaches for jails and prisoners alike. The idea was to reduce prison overcrowding while keeping prisoners closer to home and within range of reintegration services. But the plan shifts the burden onto cash-strapped counties that are ill-equipped to handle a large influx of convicts. In state prisons, convicts get yard time and some educational or vocational programming. In many jails, in contrast, they can sit in a room the size of your bathroom for five years or more. Sheriffs are complaining of a rise in violence, and forecasting a rash of lawsuits like those dogging the state prisons. According to an ACLU report, rather than reforming incarceration policies, counties are scrambling to add new jail beds. One exception is in progressive San Francisco, where jailers, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike have embraced realignment as an opportunity to create community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Hunger strike

Private prisons benefit from immigration crackdowns
After two months, prisoners ended their hunger strike over long-term isolation without any tangible victories. In a remarkable show of solidarity, the strike initially included more than 30,000 prisoners from around the state. By the end, the numbers had dwindled to about 100. The strike was called off after two legislators – Loni Hancock and Tom Ammiano -- announced they would hold public hearings into the prisoners’ complaints over the security housing units, or SHUs. Hancock said that concerns over the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California's prisons "can no longer be ignored."

Private prisons

Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, on Monday a massive private prison corporation announced that state Governor Jerry Brown had signed a deal to ship 1,400 prisoners to its private facilities. The GEO Group, formerly the infamous Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, is a Florida-based corporation that manages 96 facilities with about 73,000 beds worldwide, including in the USA, Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom.  

Click on image to visit Huffington Post infographic and related resources
The states of fiscal emergency in the public sector encourage governments to contract with private prisons that promise cost savings. But private prison corporations like Geo Group and the Corrections Corporation of America are short-sighted quick fixes. They encourage prison growth by mandating that governments guarantee them a certain minimum occupancy. It's kind of like when the American Psychological Association contracts with hotels in a convention city; if not enough psychologists rent rooms, the APA must pay the difference. In a report released this month, In the Public Interest found that nearly two-thirds of contracts between private prison companies and state and local governments included such quotas. Arizona recently paid $3 million to a prison company for failing to meet a 97 percent occupancy quota, the Huffington Post reported.  

The Post, one of the few media outlets to regularly cover this disturbing trend, has published an infographic illustrating the widespread nature of these contracts, which discourage criminal justice reform by "leaving taxpayers footing the bill for lower crime rates." As part of its coverage, the Post took a peak at annual shareholder reports of the Corrections Corp. of America that reveal its "aggressive business strategy based on building prison beds, or buying them off the government, and contracting them to government authorities." (The drop quotes in the post are just a few of the nuggets they unearthed.)

"Profits, after lining the pockets of shareholders, are used to create more beds and to lobby state and federal agencies to deliver inmates to fill them," the Post reports. "The resulting facilities can be violent and disgusting."

As one example, the Post reported on the horrendous conditions that quickly developed after the Corrections Corp. of America bought a formerly public prison in Ohio. Educational programming for prisoners and salaries of staff were slashed, violence and drug use skyrocketed, and correctional officers jumped ship en masse, leaving newcomers to run the facility. Prisoners in isolation were left to wallow in their own filth, with no access to running water or toilets.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is disturbing that we treat prisoners like this. After all, most will eventually return to society. We need rehabilitation, vocational training, education, psychological treatment where indicated, and must limit time spent in isolation. This should be a minimal standard. These are human beings, and must be treated as such and not as animals. If you treat people as animals, many of them will become the animals they have been treated as. You must release them at some time. What do you think will happen when they are returned to the community?
The other part of the equation is "How do we treat a person once they have been released from prison?" but that is a question for another article.