California’s Crisis

In the cover story for this month’s issue of In These Times, Sasha Abramsky takes a hard look at overcrowding in the California prison system and concludes with a shocking projection: If current trends continue, the state will soon be spending more on incarceration than education.

His exposé focuses primarily on the enormous failures and unsustainable expansion of the state’s adult prison warehouses. But given the parallel failures of the California Division of Juvenile Justice–which I wrote about last year in an investigative piece for The Nation–and the high recidivism rate among young offenders, it’s clear that the two are inextricably linked. In the absence of adequate programming, education and treatment, wards of the state are essentially treated as adult prisoners-in-training; juvenile prisons have become a training ground for a life of incarceration as adults. Conditions have gotten so bad, in fact, that the state, facing a raft of lawsuits and the possibility of federal receivership, has been forced to make drastic structural changes. As Abramsky notes,

The state’s youth authority has also been beset by scandals, with videos surfacing that show gangs of officers severely beating juvenile detainees. Large numbers of teens have been held in lockdown conditions that make it impossible for them to attend school. Not too many years ago, close to 10,000 teenagers and young adults under the age of 25 were held in these state-run, youth authority institutions, which were supposed to emphasize education and intensive rehabilitation. In practice, they have become little more than warehouses for young people whom the state has given up on. Today, these institutions hold only 2,500 teenagers and young adults, and current plans envision scaling the number to 1,500. Increasingly, as courts have lost confidence in the state system, juvenile offenders are instead being channeled into juvenile halls run by counties.

California’s troubles are in many ways unique, but they reflect national trends, too. As Abramsky explains, “The growth in California’s carceral infrastructure is in keeping with changes that kicked in nationally during the ’70s–a few years before California abandoned its liberal criminal justice policies–and that continue to the present day, resulting in a five-fold increase in the number of prisoners nationally.”

The underlying causes of this explosion are familiar to those who follow the issue. Thanks to the “war on drugs” and such draconian legislation as three-strikes laws, vast numbers of nonviolent offenders (disproportionately minorities) have been locked up. Lack of care for the mentally ill has made prisoners out of people who would otherwise be patients. In the wake of Willie Horton and faced with a surging “victims’ rights” movement, liberal politicians have been loath to support rehabilitation for fear of being labeled “soft on crime.” The list goes on; sadly, it’s a long tale, well rehearsed but rarely heeded.

Abramsky touches on all these points, and does so with the elegance and sharp reporting that distinguish him as one of the nation’s top critics of the prison pathology. His narrow focus on California places the broader, national scandal in stark relief. It’s a devastating indictment, and an urgent red alert. If California is indeed a national bellwether, as it’s so often described, then the overcrowded United States prison system–the world’s largest, with an estimated daily population of 2.2 million–is headed for the brink.

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