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Prison time with Fabian and Arnold

By Jordanna Thigpen

June 2, 2006

Suddenly, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez has come out in favor of constructing more prisons. He recently launched legislation that would call for bonds (ie, more debt for my generation) for more prison cells. Interesting, because this is also one of Arnold Scharwzenegger's pet projects.

Nunez has his heart in the right place. California experiences some of the worst overcrowding of any state prison system. Recent Department of Corrections data indicates that California's 33 state prisons are overcrowded by an average of 187.93%. Overcrowding leads to increased disease, riots, gang activity for survival, and risk to staff. It also leads to inhumane behavior such as staged gladiator competitions that would rival Nero's. It's only natural - California runs the largest prison-industrial complex in the world.

Judge Thelton Henderson, the most outstanding member of the federal bench in the entire country (sorry Antonin, it was so close), placed our state's prison health care system in federal receivership last year. Receivership is a drastic step which typically comes only as a last resort. Total receivership - for the entire system - remains a specter. Is this a system for which we want new debt?

And don't think it will be any better with privatization - private minimum security facilities are just as likely to experience problems. Moreover, the corporations responsible for running private facilities for the state are more likely to donate to candidates who promise to "get tough on crime" and sponsor legislation which will place more individuals in prison. Whole PACS have been formed with revenue from these companies to promote mandatory sentencing, and defeat alternative sentencing initiatives or attempts to weaken 3 Strikes and its accoutrements. If there was ever a poster issue for placing limits on the free market system…

So if the state can't run the prisons, and the private companies are ensuring need for them, where does that leave the political state of our sorry system? Mr. Scharwzenegger, at first, stuck true to his Republican roots and shunned the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, one of the most powerful unions in the state. But that didn't last long. The CCPOA raised dues last year to finance campaigns against the debacle that was our special election. Suddenly, building new prisons is a really good idea for everyone. Earlier in May, at his infrastructure love parade, Scharwzenegger reminded us, "As you know, I have always wanted to build more prisons." Really?

The Nunez proposal is ridiculous. If Nunez wants to have a dialogue about prison reform, fine. There are many fine CSOs and legislators who would love to discuss it. If Nunez wants to work on prison overcrowding, that's fine too. There are many legislative solutions - such as a new initiative launched at eliminating Three Strikes and mandatory sentencing guidelines. But spending more on prisons - when our prison budget this year will surpass $8,000,000,000 - does unconscionable violence to California's future. Where is the dialogue on the multi-faceted and spectacular failures of the farce War on Drugs? Where is the dialogue on the scandalous California Youth Authority, which has failed its target population? Where is the demand for resources for African American communities, who are disproportionately more likely to be incarcerated?

Getting in bed with Scharwzenegger may be thrilling for a moment (just think of the Conan years if you must). And it may be thrilling during campaign season when the CCPOA contributions start rolling in or when GEO's President does an IE for you. But the People of the State of California are watching, Speaker Nunez. Will you mortgage another generation's future to manifest more violence in the State?

District 6 resident Jordanna Thigpen is an attorney, small business owner and President of the San Francisco Small Business Commission. You can usually find her at work and she doesn't get to Ocean Beach often enough. Email Jordanna at jgthigpen@gmail.com.




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