A recent inquiry has found that 5 of the 6 private prisons that CA contracts out to failed to provide adequate medical care for inmates in 2016.
The audit findings include patients not being seen in a timely manner, patients not receiving their medications as required, and failing to properly dispose of used needles. In several facilities, nurses didn’t refer patients to a physician. In some instances, nurses didn’t confirm the identity of an individual before administering medications.
This is problematic, folks. Follow the layers: The Supreme Court mandated CA to reduce prison overcrowding in order to provide better healthcare to inmates. CA responded by shipping non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders to county jails to alleviate overcrowding, but these facilities don’t have expansive medical units because they are designed for temporary housing. One of CA’s other responses was to rely more on private prisons to warehouse inmates, facilities which — you guessed it — fail to provide adequate healthcare. Ostensibly CA is committed to providing healthcare to inmates, but empirical trends paint a different picture.
According to the CA Attorney General’s Open Justice Database, nearly every category of crime in CA has decreased substantially across the board. Violent and property offenses, which account for the majority of CA prisoners, has decreased in both overall number and rate per population. CA’s property crime rate (burglary, motor vehicle theft, and larceny-theft) declined dramatically between 1982-2014 for each offense. Burglary decreased by 74%, motor vehicle theft by 41%, and larceny-theft by 59%. Since 1980, CA has also experienced a dramatic decrease in its violent crime rate (homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault). In comparing 1982 to 2014, rates for homicide decreased by 61%, rape by 52%, robbery by 66%, and aggravated assault by 37%.
In 2015, the arrest rate in California overall was 4.4% lower than the arrest rate in 2014. The majority of the decline was due to a 17.1% decline in juvenile arrests. The felony arrest rate decreased by 29%, while the total misdemeanor arrest rate increased by 8.8%. 45.4% of misdemeanor arrests were either alcohol or drug-related. 66.9% of felony arrests resulted in a conviction.
The simple equation that more crime leads to more arrests and thus to more convictions and prisoners is cast in doubt by these recent statistics. Crime is lower than it’s been in nearly half a century, but prison admission rates have not seen a similar drop in response. It’s true that CA prisons have dropped from a peak of 173,000 inmates in 2007 to 118,560 in 2017, but this is due to Realignment, changes to the Three Strikes law, and Prop 47 (with Prop 57 soon to contribute to reducing prison populations). These changes have occurred irrespective of falling crime rates.
Prosecutorial behavior is almost impossible to study with any accuracy, but it seems like the logical place to start for trying to unpack this current paradox. Prosecutors are the gatekeepers of prison admissions, but they are directly elected and we’ve seen how politically popular tough on crime rhetoric is. It seems safe to assume that most Californians would be surprised to learn crime is exceptionally low. Media representations of crime are partially to blame, but a larger culture of fear seems particularly onerous in compounding these issues. It’s almost as if CA is governing through crime.
How does one grapple with the diverging paths of reform vs. abolition efforts? Reform is clearly needed, but such efforts serve to reinforce and re-legitimize the system as a whole. Abolition is the radical approach, but mass incarceration wouldn’t happen if there were not already a dispensable subclass of society deemed unworthy of freedom. Is there a way to reform a system that relegates large numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked by authoritarian regimes and technologies of seclusion that produce severe mental and spiritual instability that doesn’t involve scrapping it entirely?
Reform efforts could potentially remedy a plethora of crucial issues central to mass incarceration, but it seems unlikely that anything short of abolition could correct minority over-representation. Throughout history, crime and punishment has always been married to race. In 1900, the black-white incarceration disparity in America was seven to one — roughly the same disparity that exists today on a national scale. The same regions of the country that employ capital punishment the most frequently today are the same regions that had the greatest concentration of lynchings in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
A serious redesign of our carceral state would start be envisioning a smaller prison population. But to return to pre-1972 levels of incarceration America would have to cut it’s by prison and jail population by nearly 80 percent. The task is Herculean. Such restructuring efforts cannot pretend that the past fifty years of criminal justice policy didn’t inflict nearly-unimaginable mistreatment and damage. We cannot adequately reform the justice system if we refuse to see the interconnectedness to institutions, communities, and the politics that encompass it.
Let’s imagine for a moment the impact of tangible reform efforts such as sentencing re-evaluation or the softening of post-release legal barriers. If crime rates were to swell in this reformist realm, there is no reason to believe that communities of color would not be disproportionately imprisoned again. State sanctioned devastation is generational for communities of color in America — and incarceration is the current mechanism that ensures devastation continues. Incarceration diminishes any hope of upward economic mobility. Incarceration disqualifies one from feeding their family with food stamps. Incarceration allows for housing discrimination based on criminal background checks. Incarceration increases the risk of homelessness and mental health issues. Incarceration increases the chance of being incarcerated again. If generational devastation is the black hole in which communities of color reside, incarceration is the door closing overhead.
Enslavement lasted over 250 years. The next 150 years involved Jim Crow, convict-leasing, and mass incarceration. Perhaps the only response to the State trying to abolish certain communities is abolition in return.
Previously, we took a cursory look at what the top candidates for CA governor in 2018 think about the criminal justice system. To summarize, it was rather underwhelming. John Chiang, current Treasurer, was the wildcard of the group with little accessible information available on his views. Recently, this blogger had the privilege of attending a lecture on the UC Berkeley campus in which Chiang shared his various policy positions. It is immediate clear to observers that Chiang really, really knows what he’s talking about. Unlike other desultory politicians who tend to harp on superficial buzzwords to generate awe, Chiang comes off as informed, sharp, and acutely aware of the barriers to prison reform in CA.
Chiang started his conversation going in depth about what has driven CA to become the 6th largest economy in the world. But despite all of our economic might, 1 in 5 Californians live in poverty. What good is this status if cyclical entrenched poverty cripples communities and severely restricts upward mobility? When prompted to speak on his vision for CA in 2018 if elected, he responded by mentioning the pressing need to address income inequality. He was off to a good start and didn’t slow down.
More impressive was his knowledge about the Correctional climate in CA. Mass incarceration is profoundly expensive, but invests very little in prisoners. It’s an extraordinarily poor return on our investment when 7/10 prisoners return to prison walls within three years of release. In order to get more bang for our taxpayer buck, Chiang emphasized the ‘R’ in CDCR (Rehabilitation). He dived into why incarceration is so expensive and correctly identified healthcare for aging prison populations as a huge factor. The fiscal ramifications of having to provide adequate healthcare for prisoners in their late 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s drove him to advocate for reevaluating sentence structures. We are locking up and forgetting about these souls, but our pockets aren’t forgetting about them. As these individuals get older and reconsider their lives, how long should they have to pay for actions as a young adults? Chiang elegantly zeroed in on the pragmatic approaches for second chances.
He concluded by pointing out that correctional reform is small fish, for if we really wanted to reform our prison system we’d be investing more in earlier resources like K-12 education so there wouldn’t be such a massive need for human caging in CA. Targeting the front end and disrupting the prison pipeline is the real key to prison reform, not hemming around the edges by pursuing low-hanging reform fruit. He connected his prison reform arguments to his earlier positions that until income inequality is remedied, prison reform can never be fully actualized. CA would be lucky to have Chiang steering the ship in 2018 and beyond. #Chiang2018
Earlier, we took an in depth look at the contours of capital punishment in CA. As we awaited challenges to the constitutionality of Prop 66 to be clarified by the CA Supreme Court, this blogger predicted that capital punishment would be upheld but the five year cap on the appeals process would fail to survive judicial scrutiny. As it turns out, that prediction was pretty accurate. In typically ambiguous legal language, the CA Supreme Court declared the five year deadline as a mere ‘directive, not a requirement’. For 731 inmates on CA’s death row population, this means their appeals process will continue at a glacial pace and they won’t be headed to the gas chamber any time soon. But for the remaining 15 condemned souls who’ve exhausted their appeals, this means only Governor Brown can save them from death. Whether Brown chooses to commute their sentences remains to be seen, but he didn’t take a public position on Prop 66 last November. Rumors have spread that Brown is deeply opposed to capital punishment due to his Jesuit upbringing, but until he acts, a deadly game of wait and see will play out in CA.