Any Delay in Shrinking the Prison System is a Plan to Expand It

by Isaac Lev Szmonko or Critical Resistance and Craig Gilmore of California Prison Moratorium Project

Two bills that claim to address the Supreme Court Order to immediately reduce the prison population by 9,600 are moving rapidly through the California legislature.

While these plans seem vastly different, they both explicitly seek to delay any moves to actually shrink the prison system.  Implicitly, they both plan for its growth.  As 30 years of California history has taught us, this also means planning for cuts to life-affirming social programs that combat poverty.

CDCR is in the middle of environmental review for constructing 2,376 new “in-fill beds”—which simply means building new yards alongside existing prisons. Because of the agreement that CDCR can stay at 137.5% of intended capacity, this actually means permanently adding capacity for 3,267 to the prison system.

Accordingly, CDCR is planning not to shrink their population, but to grow it. Their latest population projections (Spring 2013) show increases, not decreases, in the projected prisoner population over the next five years.

Unless we stop the state from expanding its capacity to hold more prisoners, we lose whatever chances we have of permanently reversing the growth of both the prison population and the prison budget.

We can meet the court-ordered deadline to reduce the prison population by December 31st by immediately expanding the use of earned credits, and elder and medical parole, all of which were part of the plan the Governor submitted to the Court, but has failed to submit to the legislature.

Giving the state another 2-3 years to avoid further downsizing of the prison population — whether through prison leasing or an extension — does not create time to make real reforms. It shuts the door on reforms and locks it tight.

All those new cells will cost money to staff forever, far more than the hundreds of millions Gov. Brown is threatening to spend on leasing. The increase in Corrections spending will mean further cuts in housing, education, public health and other vital social services, including programming for prisoners.

But the danger isn’t just about money. It is also about how we imagine the future for the state and for poor kids of color. What we build now depends on how we imagine their future, and what we build will in large part determine what that future will be.

A long-time prisoner in the decrepit Sing Sing prison surprised author Ted Conover by opposing New York’s plans to build more humane prisons. He said:

Anyone planning a prison is… planning prison for somebody who’s a child right now. So you see? They’ve already given up on that child! They already expect that child to fail. Now why, if you could keep that from happening, if you could send that child to a good school and help his family stay together — if you could to that, what are you spending that money to put him in jail?

 If we’re planning a future with fewer of today’s kids in prison and jail, we need to stop Sacramento this month from building more prison cells.


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