By now, every activist is aware that the US Supreme Court “ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5%of design capacity within two years. Finding that the prison population would have to be reduced if capacity could not be increased through new construction, the court ordered the State to formulate a compliance plan and submit it for court approval.” This was an appeal of federal judges ruling 2 years ago that 55,000 prisoners should be released, when there were 148,000 men and women filling a system designed for 80,000.
At first glance, this indicates 33,000 people will be coming home a little earlier than they were (if you take 90 days of every sentence, thousands of people with a few weeks left in prison will be home the next day… while people serving huge sentences won’t notice a thing.) But we must look closer to anticipate the response of the Prison Industrial Complex, allowing us to counter the move.
California should be expected to attempt an increase of capacity through:
- Transferring prisoners to County Jails;
- Building prisons through bonds on the 2012 ballot;
- Sending prisoners into the Private For-Profit Prison gulag;
- Building prisons through Lease-Revenue Bonds (the wolf in sheep’s clothing).
1. County Jails have already pushed back. Feds, states, and municipalities are always trying to slide the tax burden to another entity, as if it were not the same taxpayers funding every level. Although the county jail system is not mentioned in the Supreme Court ruling, they are only slightly overcrowded, yet vastly underfunded. This will be a Cash Grab for the local jails to increase their prison addiction, but the state is offering just $68/day per prisoner. Even less than the $77/day they currently pay.
Ultimately, releasing 33,000 prisoners will not decrease the state DOC budget by much, because no buildings will be closed down and no prison guards will be laid off. Funding the counties, however, would cost nearly $1 billion. With over 30,000 members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, they stand to gain the most from keeping the prisoners incarcerated, and kept in state. If they would each pitch in a mere $33,000 per year, then this would be an easier equation.
2. State bonds to build prisons is the least popular, as this industry has proven to be broadly unpopular when forced to underfund education and many other services. Gov. Schwarzenegger had to learn that building prisons was difficult, particularly in the face of broad statewide coalitions getting in the way, such as All of Us or None, Critical Resistance, Justice Now, Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), and many others. In his about-face, he stated clearly that prisons should never cost more than Higher Ed, as they currently do.
The backdoor way of building new prisons is building “good” prisons, such as medical, mental health, or substance abuse prisons. Considering the deaths in California prisons were largely deemed a direct result of inadequate health care, expect a push for a 5,000 bed “medical” prison complex… costing roughly $200 million to build and $300 million per year to operate. The contract may be for $100 million to try getting it passed, so we need to look at the fine print about “Cost Overruns” so that Halliburton (king of prison construction) or Bechtel (world’s largest construction firm, based in SF) don’t do what they always do… keep adding onto the cost.
3. The private prison gulag is starving for prisoners. The day after this ruling, it is likely that flocks of representatives flocked to the California Bureau of Prisons with proposals in hand. Prices per prisoner per day are flexible- and 33,000 prisoners can force a “deal” better than the federal government rate of $103 day. Some states have paid as little as $80 day, and a bulk rental could likely come at $50/day. In effect, California could be taking over stagnant prisons in Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. Thus, this whole “problem” of overcapacity can be solved with about $1 billion budget increase to the DOC budget. And not a single shoplifter, pot smoker, or wandering mentally ill person will need to get out a single day earlier than expected.
4. Lease-Revenue Bonds are the Weapon of Mass Destruction in this picture. (See CURB’s fact sheet on prison construction) They have been the financial tool to fund many large unpopular construction projects (including prisons), without having to get public support through the ballot process. The concept is simple, like building a giant hotel: The private investors put up the initial construction money (letting the taxpayers think it is no cost to them), and those construction bonds are paid back by leasing the hotel rooms. The “renters” end up paying for the project, thus “Lease-Revenue.”
Although this would work as a business plan in the private sector, in the case of prisons those renters are the same public taxpayers who did not want to pay to build the prison in the first place. Adding insult to injury, the interest ends up being close to 100% over the life of the bonds. A $300 million project will cost $600 million, while the investors who bought up those initial bonds make off like criminals. All the while, they will pay for lobbyists to ensure the prison population does not dip- not a crack in the Drug War, not a diversion program for the mentally ill, and increasing the criminalization of immigrants lacking papers.
It is worth noting that the Massachusetts Inspector General detailed the boondoggle their state fell for through Lease Revenue Bonds when building the Plymouth House of Corrections. They paid considerably more through this tactic (sold as no-cost to the taxpayer) than if they had simply built it with state funds up front. Less than 50 miles away, an insidious push is being made for the state to take over bond repayment of a prison in Central Falls, Rhode Island. The “public” argument is that it will ease overcrowding in the state prison and keep jobs in the private one. The “private” argument is that unless someone takes over these bonds (with a huge balloon payment pending) the prison will go into bankruptcy by paying the debt first and left with no operational funds.
California has two years to comply with the reduction, and a plan should be forthcoming that likely taps a bit of each method. Activists, taxpayers, and politicians should be on the lookout for duplicitous dealings… as the only rightful thing is to simply release 33,000 people. Considering exponential growth of prisons, and Tough on Crime politicians (see the definition of “fascism” here) strive to increase all misdemeanors to felonies, and other such methods of protecting a state-funded industry… they should let out 50,000 because the 137% capacity will be peaked soon enough.
Ultimately, people should be forced to confront the question of the Eighth Amendment, and whether something is Cruel and Unusual Punishment only when we can’t afford it? Communities are decimated. People are incarcerated for things that Jeopardy contestants could never guess carried such penalties. An entire caste of Americans with convictions, along with their friends and families, need to organize with our supporters to say “Enough!”