This piece was originally published by the California Progress Report.
Posted on 02 May 2012
By Emily Harris
Californians United for a Responsible Budget
If the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) public relations are successful, people across the state are thinking that the CDCR has finally got the message: our prison system is too big, too expensive, and locks up way too many people.
Last week, the CDCR released a master plan for the state’s prison system, ambitiously called “The Future of California’s Corrections,” that was touted as an outline of drastic shifts in how CDCR will operate the prison system to reduce its size and budget impacts. A closer look reveals a few positive changes and a lot more business as usual.
For decades, the CDCR has been locked into an endless strategy of prison expansion, building 22 prisons in just over 20 years. The Department has grown California’s prison system to be one of the largest in the world, while community opposition and public opinion against expansion and the atrocious conditions inside has mounted steadily.
With the budget crisis in California, this opposition has deepened as the corrections budget continue to soar while funding for education, health and social services is put on the chopping block. Faced with a Supreme Court order to reduce the prison population, a massive statewide prisoner hunger strike, and Governor Brown’s new realignment policies, which send people convicted of low-level crimes to back to counties for supervision, the CDCR realized they had to project a new path forward.
The Future of California’s Corrections,” reflects some important changes that organizations like Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), our members, and communities have been recommending for years. The CDCR is proposing to cancel $4.1 billion in remaining bond authorization for prison and jail construction. The bonds were authorized in 2007 under the notorious AB 900, a plan to build 53,000 new prison and jail beds that passed with no public review and immediately provoked public outrage. CURB has been calling for the cancellation of all AB 900 bonds, and while CDCR’s proposal is a big step in the right direction, it still leaves $1.9 billion on the table for prison and jail expansion.
The plan also proposes to bring back all prisoners that are being held out-of-state and to reclassify 17,000 prisoners who are unnecessarily held in higher security conditions. These changes are important steps forward that are a direct response to the hard work of residents across the state.
After these laudable steps forward, the public relations charade kicks in: the CDCR hopes to convince us, and our legislators, that they are truly shifting their management strategy in the next ten years. Unfortunately, the details hidden behind the highlights reveal another story.
The CDCR plan includes $810 million for prison expansion, and plans to refurbish the Folsom Transitional Treatment Facility to a women’s prison. This expansion would offset the CDCR’s proposal to close the California Rehabilitation Center at Norco. The plan makes no mention of on-going prison construction, such as mental health units going in at many prisons and a large prison/medical complex being built in Stockton.
The CDCR clearly still believes that the solution to any and all problems is to build more prison cells. In fact, in June 2011, Secretary Matthew Cate reaffirmed plans to build more high-security cells. “In our level IV facilities – our highest level facilities – crowding rates remain at near 200 percent. We should not and will not reform our way out of that problem. That problem requires construction.”
That the CDCR is planning to follow the entrenched path of prison expansion is abundantly clear in the lack of sentencing and parole reform measures proposed in the plan. The report includes only two measures to reduce the number of people inside, totaling a reduction of a mere 500 prisoners a year, when there are dozens of common sense reforms that can be safely implemented, ranging from instituting geriatric parole to abolishing the Draconian three strikes policy that will drastically increase the number of senior citizens wasting away in cages in the next decade.
Instead of prioritizing compliance with the Supreme Court order to reduce overcrowding, the CDCR proposes to raise the maximum overcrowding level from 137.5% of capacity to 145%. One would think, given the medical crisis inside, a judicial mandate, the public outcry against the prison system, and the fact that thousands of prisoners inside have gone on hunger strike over the past year to protest torturous conditions, that permanently reducing overcrowding would be a main focus of the ten year plan. Instead, the CDCR will be asking the Courts for legal permission to overcrowd another 10,000 prisoners.
The “Future of Corrections in California” is responding to increased public pressure to reduce the prison system and its ravenous bite out of the budget. The plan reveals some important victories in the fight to end mass incarceration in California. These victories do not signal the large-scale changes that the CDCR would have us believe, but they do signal the opportunity for a meaningful shift in California’s prison system – if we demand it.
Let’s hope that our lawmakers and our fellow residents read beyond the press releases and continue clamoring for a deep re-prioritization of public resources, away from prisons and into education, health care and services that are a true investment in the well being and safety of Californians.
Emily Harris is the Statewide Coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget.