First Solve Prison Crisis, Then Fix California’s Budget

Prison Industrial ComplexTo get a handle on the damage California’s current approach to incarceration is having on its citizens, consider this: In a recent 23-year period, California erected 23 prisons—one a year, each costing roughly $100 million dollars annually to operate, with both Democratic and Republican governors occupying the statehouse—at the same time that it added just one campus to its vaunted university system, UC Merced.

Speaking at an American Civil Liberties Union meeting in Pasadena this past Tuesday, prison reform activist Gary Gilmore pointed to several root causes for California’s move away from its earlier leadership role in progressive prison management:

  • A prison guards’ union that can and does intimidate politicians at all levels of government in California,
  • A three-strikes law that incarcerates those convicted of even rather minor crimes for unconscionably long sentences, and
  • A failed war on drugs that has pushed the state’s prison population from less than 30,000 30 years ago to over 170,000 inmates today—each costing $50,000 per year to house.

“But the real problem is a lack of political will to change an intolerable situation,” said Gilmore, who works in the Bay Area with The California Prison Moratorium Project and Californians United for a Responsible Budget. “So it’s up to us, regular citizens.”

From Top to Bottom
California’s public education system has been hard hit by the state’s preoccupation with building more prisons and locking up more people. Since the late 1970s, California has fallen from first in the nation in per-pupil spending, nearly to the bottom at number 48. With California’s annual budget falling from $103 billion three years ago to $80 billion currently during what’s often called the Great Recession, schools—including the world class University of California system—continue to face deep cuts in funding, fewer teaching positions, and a reduced ability to educate students.

Gary Gilmore

Meanwhile, the prison budget and population has grown in lockstep with its expansion: “Thirty years ago, 2% of California’s budget went to prisons,” Gilmore said. “Now it’s supposed to be 9.7%, but the Department of Prisons has already overspent its budget by $1.2 billion and nobody seems to care.”

California’s prison system has gotten so far out of hand that the federal government has taken over the states prison medical system—“One prisoner per week is dying of medical neglect and mistreatment,” said Gilmore—and the entire system is under federal court order to cut the prison population by 40,000 beds. Otherwise the federal government might step in to take over the entire prison system.

The nature of the people we incarcerate bears scrutiny as well, according to Gilmore, who cited these facts:

  • “Half the people in California’s prisons held a job for the year before going to prison. So, if you’ve got 174,000 people in prison, that’s 87,000 people who had jobs, going to work everyday and paying taxes.”
  • “Over a third of prisoners are in prison for drug possession or possession of drugs with intent to sell.”
  • “Nationwide,70 to 90% of crimes were committed when the person was high on drugs or drunk or were trying to get drugs.”

California has a program called the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act—also known as Prop 36—which passed in 2000 and which provides drug treatment for first- and second-time nonviolent drug possession offenders, but it’s seriously underfunded.

“In any case,” said Gilmore, “it would be far better if people got drug treatment before a conviction”.

How We Got Here
In looking for culprits in California’s interrelated budget, education, and prison crisis, many observers look immediately to Prop 13, the antitax initiative California voters passed in 1978 to limit annual real estate taxes to 1% of a property’s value, along with a two-thirds legislative majority requirement to pass a budget and raise taxes.

Clearly, there’s a direct link between Prop 13—especially the fact that commercial and industrial property that changes hands slowly is included in the antitax protections—and the widespread destruction of California’s education system. And clearly the two-thirds majority budget requirement has made a laughing stock of our state legislature, calling into question California’s ability to govern itself.

“But Prop 13 doesn’t explain everything,” Gilmore said. “Each decade after that initiative passed, California’s budget doubled—from $20 billion in the 1970s, to $40 billion in 1980s, to $80 billion in the 90s. So the State had money to build its prisons, but the local communities and school districts couldn’t build and operate their schools.”

The change had more to do with a shift in approach—you hesitate to call it a philosophy—toward incarceration. Gilmore cited this example:

“In 1978, then Governor Jerry Brown planned to tear down Folsom and San Quentin prisons, which even then were considered antiquated and inhumane, and build instead, small, therapeutic 500-bed prisons designed to rehabilitate prisoners and return them to society,” said Gilmore. “But then Republican Governor George Deukmejian took over and instead built standard 5,000-bed prisons that were quickly filled.”

And so the “build it and we’ll make them come” program began that has landed us in our current fix. Historically, California had led the nation in progressive prison management:

“In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, California embraced a philosophy that the state could successfully treat individual offenders through education and psychotherapy. Wardens wrote books, including the groundbreaking 1952 study “Prisoners are People,” and held advanced degrees in social work. The department’s research wing had 80 experts on staff.

California was leading the rest of the nation,” said John Irwin, a professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State University who is a living example of the rehabilitative philosophy. Before he got his degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in the late 1950s, he spent five years in Soledad Prison for armed robbery.”

Calling All Sheep
“It’s political suicide to suggest that we’re going to incarcerate fewer prisoners—that’s what you always hear,” said Gilmore. “But it’s interesting to note that Ronald Reagan, when he was governor before Jerry Brown, shrank the prison system by 30%, largely through sentencing reforms. So it can be done.”

The key questions are how do you fight the entrenched interests—principally the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA)—which hold so much sway in Sacramento.

“Sure, CCPOA is the 800-pound gorilla here,” said Gilmore. “So what you need is a few 500-pound gorillas on our side, like the Service Employee International Union (SEIU), the two teachers unions—California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT)—the California Nurses Association (CNA), and other pubic sector unions.”

Their members are affected by this emphasis on incarceration—both in their jobs and in their communities—and some of them, like the SEIU, are already working on prison reform.

Then there’s the question of political leadership. Who’s going to step up and advocate for dramatic prison reform when everyone thinks its political suicide to even raise the topic?

“Senator Mark Leno is good, and Shiela Kuehl was a strong advocate when she was in the Senate,” Gilmore said. “Jackie Goldberg was a real dynamo on prison reform when she was in the Assembly, too. But she got worn out when she couldn’t find enough others to follow her. So in her last couple of years in Sacramento, she turned to education reform.”

“What you need is not more leaders,” concluded Gilmore. “What you need is 40 sheep to line up and follow the leaders. That’s what we don’t have.”

Dick PriceTo that end, the LA Progressive plans to begin a California prison reform report card, much as other groups have them on progressive environmental or labor or immigration issues. Like them, we’ll reach out to prison reform activists across the state to help us determine which of our California Legislators are stepping up to the plate on prison reform, which are phoning it in, and which are actively pursuing the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach that is harming so many Californians.

Dick Price, Editor, LA Progressive


  1. Mike Bowden says

    Please watch Dr. Gabor Mate, on Youtube, speak about the developmental problem possibly shared by all ADHD/Addicted/Autistic adults (underdeveloped dopamine circuits), and how prisons treat these individuals exactly how you’d need to to make them violent and worsen their addictions.
    So, we all know prisons don’t work, and now we know they actually do the opposite of rehabilitation, and now we know that for political reasons the “eye for an eye” tradition is being kept warm at the expense of science. Not looking too good unless we can share this recent psychological data with the public, and get them to thinking about how Hollywood and the Networks spin justice in a way that makes it hard to imagine any other avenues.

  2. John Dewar Gleissner says

    California Prison Crisis Cure

    Profound reforms most generally follow disasters, major crises and first-class fiascos. California is therefore ready to solve its prison crisis with the following reforms:
    1. With regard to manufactured goods now made exclusively in foreign countries: (a) repeal the federal statutes that killed prison industries (Hawes-Cooper Act of 1929, Ashurst-Sumners Act of 1935, Walsh-Healey Act of 1936) and any state statutes that bar the sale or transportation of prison-made goods, (b) exempt and provide immunity for prison industries and employers from and against all labor and employment laws, wage & hour requirements, ADA, FMLA, discrimination laws, and all other worker protections; except OSHA should remain in full force and effect, (c) encourage secure private work communities and workhouses run by private businesses and religious organizations providing spiritual support, hiring prisoners to work under wages, hours and conditions of employment to be freely negotiated and agreed upon in writing, (d) make appropriate deductions from prisoners’ earnings for crime victim restitution, child support, court costs and costs of incarceration.
    2. Enact laws providing for judicial corporal punishment in lieu of incarceration, particularly for non-violent drug-related offenses and crimes carrying sentences of less than 5 or 10 years; with the following safeguards:
    (a) Administer corporal punishment only for offenses carrying potential sentences of confinement or incarceration. Allow incarcerated offenders the option of taking their sentences as corporal punishment after some period of incarceration. A court could enter alternative sentences in its discretion, using all available punishment options and sequences. One of the purposes of re-introducing corporal punishment is to reduce incarceration with community corrections. Corporal punishment would take place in the community.
    (b) Take into consideration the age, weight, health, physical condition and gender of the defendant in order to determine the offender’s ability to take corporal punishment. A formula or sentencing guideline could take account of these factors. Medical personnel could monitor the administration of punishment.
    (c) Administer corporal punishment only pursuant to a final judgment entered by a court of law, after a fair trial or plea agreement, and only in the discretion of the sentencing judge.
    (d) Impose corporal punishment sentences within a pre-determined sentencing schedule using standardized instruments, force and procedures.
    (e) Conduct corporal punishment in public, supervised by the judge who sentenced the defendant, and videotape it for a public record.
    (f) After corporal punishment, the convict should work full-time, go to school full-time, or participate in substance abuse rehabilitation. Required work would include employment in a work community or workhouse, at a job offered by the private sector, at a job provided by the public sector, as a fulltime volunteer, or as otherwise ordered by the court. Some juveniles from bad homes would need to recover in a better moral and physical environment.

    3. Enact laws providing for the placement of color-coded metallic or plastic collars on convicted felons or juvenile offenders in lieu of incarceration. Variations in weight, comfort, composition and color are based upon the gravity, type and time of the offense and current behavior. Shades of red = violent crimes, shades of green = property crimes, shades of yellow = sex crimes. After entry of a judgment by a court, allow probation officers and school officials to adjust the collars, within limits set by statute or the judgment, up or down depending upon the current behavior of the offender.

    For supporting authority, rationale, details and suggestions, please read “Prison & Slavery – A Surprising Comparison,” a brand new book by John Dewar Gleissner, Esq. (with “Look Inside” feature and Kindle): and (with “See Inside” feature)

  3. alangrus says

    Very well written article, Dick Price! I hadn’t realized what a fine writer you are.

    I was there and commend you for a deep and detailed report on Gillmore’s presentation.

    Keep up the good work.
    – Alan Gruskoff

  4. says

    It is interesting that Reagan was able to reduce the prison population, while Brown was not. It reminds me of Nixon’s ability to normalize relations with China, when no Democrat could. I presume this was a matter of political trust and political power: the conservatives would have fiercely attacked either of these terribly needed reforms if they had been advanced by a liberal they feared, but were silenced when the move came from their own side of the fence. Liberals, of course, may have been suspicious of underlying motives, but they recognized the need. And thus both sides were on board.

    Who is creative and clever enough to understand this phenomenon, and make it work to solve some of our other desperate problems? Making us all less fearful and cynical would address the deepest darkest problem of course, but practically, tactically, what are good ways to do that?

    — Bill W

  5. annieR says

    As long as we have privatized incarceration facilities, including those for juveniles, we will continue to have an exploding prison population. Recall the recent situation in which two judges were railroading juveniles to prison facilities, even illegally denying them a lawyer, because they were getting kickbacks from the incarceration facility owners. If there’s money to be made, forget justice!

  6. says

    Very good article. Michelle Alexander was on Democracy Now this week. Past shows are archived.

    Also main stream media has a “if it bleeds it leads” mantra. Most
    local stations in California cover local crime but not Sacramento. De-industrialization and globalization also added to the prison boom. European nations confronted the de-industrialization with re education, we built prisons , arguably because we’re more racist. Society was also bruised by inflation , which drove people to the right, inner cities were red lined by the banks and blighted encouraging segregation. The Republicans were also politically bancrupt so they signed a deal with the devil.
    A college student movement with organizing at sporting events could raise the issue of a double standard on drugs, maybe.

    • says

      Gary Gilmore had lots of good things to say about Michelle Alexander and her new book. She speaks this coming week in West LA:

      Is Mass Incarceration the New Jim Crow? — Wednesday, March 17, 7 p.m., The Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles. Michelle Alexander signing her new book, “The New Jim Crow.”

  7. says

    Thanks for this article — an important and informative view of the factors responsible for an extreme imbalance in social priorities. Correcting the situation will be difficult but hopefully not impossible.

    Ron Wolff

  8. says

    Dick Price’ piece on Prisons is totally cogent, as are the comments. Arguably prisons policy constitutes the state’s biggest and wackiest departure of recent decades from budgetary (and other) sanity – and in large measure it’s largely an artifact of utterly wacko shoot-in-fiscal-foot drug wars and prohibition.

    Let those who are thriving on smaller but notable insanities help us get rid of the bigger ones. Chevron wants to avoid oil stiff severance taxes. We must demand that, if Chevron is to have even a prayer at that, Chevron must help us end drug Prohibition, to make marijuana as well as oil a taxable rather than criminal substance.

    And maybe let’s look carefully at policies which (for many) convert high schools to near-prison or super-time-waste.

  9. Steve Lamb says

    Well, yes indeed it is a mess and its not Prop 13’s fault. The blame for the prison overcrowding, costs and gross inhumanity isnt the prison guard unions fault either. It’s the fault of a Neo Con philosophy thats really all about locking up poor and minority people and taking them out of competition for jobs and other resources. Its about a “Philosophy” that maintains government can not work and then sets about hobbling it to make darn sure it wont work, but that there will be a pile o money for the well connected to feast, at.

    First we need to organize to elect Jerry Brown governor, then we need to do what we failed to do with Obama and organize around making Governor Brown be progressive. He needs to be flooded with calls, letters, and visits from citizens who will not take no for an answer. The special interests have hundreds of pimps(An old word I hear for lobbyiest) swarming like vultures around Sacramento, their cachophony is the only noise Sacramento can hear. We have failed as a people to do our job and drown out the bastards. We don’t need 40 sheep for every leader. We need every American Progressive Citizen to be that leader, be that activist TO TAKE ACTION and write, call and visit, When we stop being sheep and start acting like FREEE MEN AND WOMEN, then the special interests money and favors will become worthless, not until then.

    • says

      I did a bit of disservice to Gary Gilmore on the 40 sheep. He was talking about the California Legislature, saying that there have been legislative leaders over the years willing to bring forward prison reform plans, but they haven’t gotten enough support from fellow legislators — the needed 40 votes or “sheep”.

      He certainly felt that the real impetus for reform has to come from us, California citizens concerned about these issues who are willing to join activist groups, make our voices heard, and give our representatives needed support or pressure to rectify the deplorable state with California’s approach to incarceration.

  10. says

    Thank you for this commitment!

    People are understandably appalled when violent offenders get early release and go on to commit horrendous crimes, including the recent murder of Chelsea King for which a parolee has been arrested. What is less understood is that thousands of people — including juveniles as young as 13 — are being handed life sentences, including life without any possibility of parole. Children routinely receive harsher sentences than do adults. These include convictions for incidents in which no one was injured. Multiply handicapped inmates in wheelchairs, in weak and even dying condition, are being denied parole. Parole Board decisions are arbitrary and capricious and in the rare instances when parole is recommended, almost all of these recommendations are overruled by Governor Schwarzenegger.

    As for obstacles in the way of reform, I don’t blame all corrections officers. I know of cases in which guards would have testified in favor of parole for an inmate but the system does not permit this. Only people opposed to the granting of parole are allowed to speak–and this includes victims rights advocates who have no direct knowledge of the case and have no connection whatsoever with the prisoner.

    I also know of one corrections union official who believes many prisoners do not belong incarcerated, who has led demonstrations for reform, and who blames overcrowding and negative conditions for the absence of education and vocational programs and for much prison violence and prison rape.

    The conditions in California’s prisons today make it near impossible for the best corrections officers in the system to do their jobs in a meaningful way. At the same time, incessant media coverage of the most heinous crimes makes it difficult to advance a case for prison reform.

    We need to speak!


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