Gymnasiums that once provided a necessary outlet for inmate aggression now house prisoners bunked three high. Lines run 50 inmates deep for those seeking rehabilitative services while incarcerated. Deteriorating facilities result in at least one inmate death per month.
Pushed to the brink as a result of mandatory prison sentences and consistent cuts in funding, a federal three-judge panel tentatively ordered the State of California to cut its prison population by nearly 60,000 inmates over the course of the next three years to prevent inmates regularly dying from a lack of adequate care or from suicide.
Despite their status as prisoners, these men and women have Constitutionally guaranteed rights that include access to adequate health care and to live in conditions that meet minimum standards of health and safety. It may be hard to drum up sympathy surrounding the horrific conditions at most American prisons, but it is a reality facing over 2 million Americans. More than 1 in every 100 Americans currently serve time. This accounts for 1 in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 living behind bars. These statistics vary by race and ethnicity, by far hitting the black community hardest. We currently incarcerate 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 34. The United States locks up more citizens than any other country in the world, outpacing countries such as Iran.
Expert testimony presented to the three-judge panel recommended California divert non-violent offenders and parol violators away from prison and into county programs, offering that such diversion would have little to no impact on public safety. The reduction in these populations alone could save the State of California between $803 million and $906 million annually. California’s budget woes are well documented, but California is not alone in trying to manage corrections costs. Between 1987 and 2007 the amounts states spent on corrections grew 127 percent, matched by just a 27 percent increase in higher education.
The Pew Report offers a sobering account of our current corrections policy. The bright spot, if any, may be the economic crisis facing this country. Constitutional problems with prison overcrowding aside, our fiscal emergency mandates that we take a hard look at our sentencing and incarceration policy.
Do we want our tax dollars going towards jailing our citizens when research shows such efforts have very little effect on reducing crime rates? Or, do we want our tax dollars going towards providing affordable education, poverty reduction, substance abuse programs, and criminal justice reforms such as drug courts that have a proven record of reducing incarceration and recidivism but are currently withering on the vine due to anemic state budgets? The time to make these decisions and to demand action is now. Let your state and federal representatives know how you want your tax dollars spent. With any luck we can reverse this trend and reaffirm our commitment to upholding the Constitutional protections for all our citizens.