California Prison Reform amidst Private Prison Profiteers

California prison reform movements seeking to overcome serious problems, such as prison overcrowding, prison violence, and insufficient health and education services for prisoners, are particularly challenged by the State’s litigation efforts against prison reform class action lawsuits, the State’s unwillingness to abide by court orders mandating positive changes in the prison system, and questionable political decisions by California’s Governor and underlings that may be influenced by campaign contributions and economic influence by major corporations that build and maintain private prisons for burdened states like California.

The California prison system is the largest in the nation, and it suffers from serious problems of overpopulation, violence, and insufficient health and education services for its juvenile and adult inmates, especially for those with special needs. It is unconstitutional for a State prison system to operate at such dilapidated levels, because “cruel and unusual punishment” is illegal under the State and Federal Constitution.

At best, it is ironic that the California prison system is itself illegal. At worst, the terrible state of affairs in the prison system is the result of very questionable political choices who only seemingly benefit private companies who build and manage new mega-prisons meant to deal with overpopulation, violence, and prison services for states buckling under such problems. The three largest private prison companies in the USA are Wackenhut (newly renamed as G4S Secure Solutions USA), Corrections Corporation of America, and Bechtel.

Their lobby efforts and influence in national and state politics is infamous. In April of 2006, the National Institute of Money in State Politics published a major research paper entitled “Policy Lock Down: Prison Interests Court Political Players,” which noted that between the years of 2001 and 2004, major private prison corporations donated over $150,000 to California politicians’ campaign efforts. In turn, these companies were awarded multi-million dollar governmental contracts by the State of California. This raises the question: Is California’s crumbling prison system merely a pawn in quid-pro-quo (“this for that”) politics, i.e., “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours”? More broadly, the National Institute of Money in State Politics summarized their April 2006 report as follows:

“Companies involved in building, financing and operating private prisons gave $3.3 million over two election cycles, channeling nearly two-thirds of the money to candidates and party committees in states with some of the toughest sentencing laws. This report looks at overall giving, as well as contributions by the companies and their lobbyists in 10 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.”

The problem in California is shockingly clear to any person who has personally spent any time in the walls of a state prison here, or had a family member who has. There are presently about 160,000 adults in the California prison system, which is about twice as many as are supposed to be kept in such facilities. Such prison overcrowding has caused extremely high levels of violence, emotional difficulties, and psychological disorders among the strained prisoners. Also, there are insufficient resources for providing medical attention and education to the ever expanding number of prisoners, again in direct violation of Federal and State Constitutional laws.

Two class action lawsuits were filed to stop the problems caused by prison overcrowding, Coleman v. Schwarzenegger and Plata v. Schwarzenegger. These two cases were combined because they were so similar. In January 2010, the three judge federal district court hearing the combined cases of Coleman and Plata ordered that California’s adult prison populations be reduced from nearly 200% of the safe design capacity to 137.5% of that number. This court order has been “stayed,” or paused from being applied to the cases, pending California’s appeal of the decision to the US Supreme Court, which will hear the cases soon.

Problems of overcrowding, violence, gang warfare, and insufficient health care and education also plague the juvenile prisons in California’s Deparment of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). In 2003, a class action lawsuit, Farrell v. Cate, was brought in California state court to address these concerns. The state signed a Consent Decree (a settlement agreement) to remedy these changes, and a Special Master was assigned to the case to oversee and make quarterly reports on the progress of such changes. In July of 2010, the Special Master in the Farrell case released its fifteenth quarterly report, which shows that little has been accomplished by the DJJ to remedy the serious dangers in the juvenile prisons. In fact, the State of California and the DJJ have violated the Farrell court’s order every single quarter for all the years since the Consent Decree was signed. Many of the dangerous conditions in the California juvenile prisons were well documented by an independent report issued in March of 2006, entitled the “Safety and Welfare Plan: Implementing Reform in California”.

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