Locking Down on Captive Labor: California Prison Reform

Things are now so bad here in California that it seems we can’t even do what we’re best at anymore: locking people up. Boy, do we know how to pack them in. Not only has California been sending prisoners to other states due to a lack of facilities, but it is also housing prisoners in our state’s jails that are somewhere near 200 percent capacity, according to CNN.
Exploited, crammed together in inhumane conditions, denied health care and basic rights, the inmates have finally sued California. It seems California’s prisoners are too ungrateful to see what a wonderful opportunity they have to rehabilitate themselves.
The inmates won their legal challenge and a panel of three federal judges instructed the state to reduce its prison population by up to 40 percent. Of course, the governor and others have promised to fight the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, arguing that letting 58,000 prisoners out of jail would not only be a threat to public safety, but it would also unduly tax the law enforcement system. Gov. Schwarzenegger along with the corrections and rehabilitation secretary have argued that the system is not overcrowded and unsafe and that it is not that bad. If that’s the case, then 200 percent capacity and rampant hepatitis must be normal operating conditions in the governor’s office.
Schwarzenegger himself declared a state of emergency for the state’s prisons in 2006 – still in effect – and there have been many proposals to reduce the prison population (shot down by Republican state lawmakers). Assuming this latest ruling holds up in court, the state will have to shrink its prison population to around 125 percent capacity in the course of two or three years. That would mean releasing 20,000 to 25,000 inmates back into society per year.
What will happen to all those drugged-up, bloodthirsty killers back on the streets? Perhaps it will be as awful as Michael Jackson’s “Bad” — dark parking garages crowded with multi-ethnic gangs holding chains and pipes, ready to tear down polite society as we know it (through snazzy dancing). Run for the hills!
Actually, it won’t be that bad. Most of the people who will get released are currently in jail on parole violations – they’ve already “paid their debt to society” – and would be released along with those prisoners who have displayed good behavior or proved to have taken their ‘’rehabilitation” seriously. All of these people will come from the ranks of low-level offenders.
Another method to reduce the prison population would be not to put so many people behind bars in the first place. Jailing is the American way, but perhaps it isn’t the best way. In the last 20 years, while incarceration rates have more than doubled, crime rates have remained stable. Obviously locking more people up has not stopped crime.
On the other hand, according to the ruling, reducing the prison population would save the state an estimated $900 million each year (out of a $6 billion budget) that it could use toward, say, education or drug treatment centers or job programs that would keep people out of prison in the first place.
One of the major problems in any initiative to reduce our prison population boils down to one fact: prisons are a huge industry. Many prisons contract out the labor of inmates to private companies. As one of our top providers of manpower, companies have looked to jails, penitentiaries, prisons and halfway homes as the last refuge of cheap labor in a storm of mandated minimum wages and workers rights. The California Department of Corrections actually has a promotional video it sends to companies touting the cheapness of using prison labor. Why, the line goes, should a company like Nike bother with an unstable Third World factory when even cheaper labor is sitting right here in the United States? The prison labor pool is captive and desperate to do anything at all.
But prison industries are not the only ones fighting change. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the union representing prison guards, is regarded as the most powerful lobby in Sacramento. Any move to reduce prison populations – and thus the number of prison guards – is sure to be met with vigorous resistance from the CCPOA.
At a time when health care, education and other state services are taking a huge hit, shouldn’t the bloated prison industry take one as well? Certainly it is important that prison guards are adequately compensated and taken care of. And certainly it is important that violent and dangerous offenders be put in the custody of a professional prison system. But we cannot continue to incarcerate Americans at this rate. This is an outmoded industry locked in the mindset of the last century. If we are really going to stimulate the economy and move into the future, the state has to do a better job of educating and training individuals so they can participate in society as something other than prison labor.

Brock Cutler is a graduate student in the history department. He can be reached at bcutler@uci.edu.