February 21, 2024 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

Spring, When Our Thoughts Turn to Prison…:

Steve Stajich, Mirror Contributing Writer

No, they don’t.  Easter hats, tulips, prison overcrowding…?  Not a likely sequence of thoughts at this, or any other time of the year.  Which might be part of the problem.  Most of us don’t react to the status or conditions of prisons because we never expect to be in one or have concerns about a loved one who is.  Talk about out of sight, out of mind; few of us are planning on doing a “stretch” soon.

Yet we all pay taxes for prisons and we lay out heads on our pillows at night believing that, for the most part, the prison system is functioning and warehousing individuals who have broken our laws.  We believe the walls will hold, and that conditions inside are properly, even fairly, maintained because, after all, it is prison.

But the LA Times reported last week that overcrowded California prisons are already dangerously unstable and that over the next five years 23,000 felons will be added to state prison populations.   The forecast would mean enough new convicts to fill five prisons and bring California’s overall prison population to more than 193,000 inmates by 2011.  Officials say that any way you cut it the numbers mean that more people will be breaking the law, something we can all look forward to.

Not all statistics for the next five years in California are that depressing.  Cheese production in our state reached a record 2.14 billion pounds in 2005, according to a preliminary report by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.  At that rate, we’ll have 10.7 billion tons of cheese at the ready as our state prison population swells to more than twice the capacity of the Rose Bowl.  Even with the cheese joke, there’s nothing funny about it.

You can’t crowd and stack humanity as though they are boxed inventory in a business.  And it’s naïve to hope that rehabilitation will occur in an environment where there are terrible living conditions, long waits for basic hygiene and no way to effectively administer programs to assist in the inmate’s transition back into society.  California’s prison crowding makes it difficult to believe that recidivism is going to be prevented by any factor other than anguish and suffering from conditions in prison.

I would argue that DNA testing has at least provided a path for more and improved justice in our country, but there’s still something profoundly archaic about prison punishment.  We feel that chilling regret as more of a sharp pain every time we execute a convicted criminal.  Still prisons are not something that preoccupy us in the same way that the war or even gay marriage do because prisons are away.  They’re designed to be away.  Few of us could name the cities housing California’s prison population, although San Quentin and Folsom stay with you because of their pop cultural heritage.

Prisons are by definition outside of society, but that doesn’t give us license to deny basic human rights to those populations.  Further, it serves no one if the experience of prison becomes more consistently that of manufacturing broken, angry humans void of any good feeling about life.  Still, California is not on the brink of a reform crisis; it’s on the brink of making ticking time bombs of these facilities by way of simple overcrowding.

Portland’s Multnomah County, which includes Portland, has a shiny new $58 million dollar prison that’s sitting empty due to lack of funding to run it.  Should California rent it from them if we have the money?  We seem perfectly willing to give three dollars a gallon to oil companies.  Maybe we should focus our largesse on the future of others who have robbed and cheated us.  Plus you want room for those oil company execs if they end up doing a “stretch.”

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