Sunday, August 16, 2009

Prison spending hits a brick wall

In a season of deep deficits and alarming program cuts, why aren’t states more seriously focused on reducing their swelling prison populations?

The Vera Institute of Justice reports unusual progress–22 states, pressed by recession, reluctantly starting cutbacks. But with a world-leading 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States has a long, long ways to go.

California’s case is extreme–but illustrative. In the mid-1970s, it was jailing 20,000 offenders. Today the total is 168,000 inmates–an increase of 740 percent. In 1999, its prison system cost an already massive $4 billion to operate. Now, with more prisoners, more penitentiaries, more guards, more health costs, the budget figure has topped $10 billion–a big contributor to California’s $26 billion budget shortfall.

And the money’s producing more horrors than cures. After 14 years of lawsuits by inmates alleging cruel and unusual punishment, a three-judge federal court panel Aug. 4 ordered California to reduce its prisoner roll by 43,000 inmates over the next two years.

The state, the judges wrote shortly before a major riot at the state prison at Chino, has created a “criminogenic” system that actually pushes prisoners and parolees to more crimes through “appalling,” “horrific” prison conditions:

“Thousands of prisoners are assigned to ‘bad beds,’ such as triple-bunked beds placed in gymnasiums or day rooms, and some institutions have populations approaching 300 percent of their intended capacity. In these overcrowded conditions, inmate-on-inmate violence is almost impossible to prevent, infectious diseases spread more easily, and lockdowns are sometimes the only means by which to maintain control. In short, California’s prisons are bursting at the seams and are impossible to manage.”

Mentally ill inmates are left without access to health care, said the judges, noting that in the last four years “a California inmate was dying needlessly every six or seven days.”

Click here for the rest.

See also: At least 26 states spend less on prisons

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