Once again, California has been hoist by their own petard. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that California has to reduce their bulging prison population. There’s little question that the conditions are pretty grim:
California is housing far beyond the design capacity of its prisons–double. That is, it has designed a system for 80,000 but has stuffed 160,000 into the buildings. The sheer number of inmates has overwhelmed the facilities and staff. Kennedy’s opinion details the abysmal conditions, but I will mention a few:
- In one prison, 54 men share one toilet
- medical staff sometimes use closets and storage rooms for ill patients-rooms without adequate ventalition
- exam tables are not disinfected after use by prisoners with communicable diseases
- men held for hours and hours in telephone booth sized cages with no toilet
- California’s prison system averages one suicide a week (80% higher than the national average)
- Men with medical problems go untreated and die. These are not cancer patients. These are preventable deaths. For example, a man with stomach pain goes five weeks without medical treatment and dies.
A corrections official from Texas toured California’s facilities and he testified that he has been in the field 35 years and was just appalled. He’d “seen nothing like it.”
Pay particular attention to that last quote. An official from Texas — not exactly a prisoner-coddling state — thinks the conditions are terrible. Think about that: despite its current budgetary problems, Texas has less debt, a lower deficit, lower taxes, has created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the last couple of years …. and still has a better funded and more humane prison system than California.
Part of the problem, as you might expect, is that prison money in California is mostly going to union benefits. I actually think that prison guards should be well-compensated — the job is incredibly stressful and dangerous. But the problem in California isn’t just the union benefits of the prison guards — it’s everything. The state is overspending everywhere and even Schwarzeneggar’s and Brown’s modest attempts at spending restraint are being fiercely resisted in favor of calls to raise taxes in one of the most heavily taxed states in the nation.
The difference is not really unions, per se — the difference is that Texas has made a reasonably-funded prison system a priority; California has not. And now it’s going to bite them. We can hope that California will prioritize releasing the non-violent: drug users and non-violent dealers and so on. They might be able to use some combination of probation, GPS ankle bracelets and house arrest to minimize the impact of this. But, being California, they’ll almost certainly fuck it up. They’ll probably release prisoners based on seniority.