Incarcerated California


Inmates sit in a classroom at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

In 2011, California had a problem. State prisons were massively overcrowded, with some at 300 percent capacity. The Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Plata (2011) that such conditions violated the Eighth Amendment and constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court ordered California to reduce the state prison population. One measure taken by the state to address this crisis was Assembly Bill 109, or Public Safety Realignment. This policy of forgiveness resulted in 27,500 state prison inmates being sent to county jails or released on parole over the span of 15 months. While this alone did not solve the overcrowding problem, it significantly reduced the strain on prison resources. In 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47, which reclassified six drug and property crimes as misdemeanors, leading to the release of an additional 4,700 prisoners and lessening the number of people incarcerated by 3,300 annually. These measures have been implemented without causing an increase in crime. Many see California as a leader in the fight against mass incarceration, but is the state really doing enough to combat the prison industrial complex?

California’s prisons are still at 135.8 percent of maximum capacity. While this number aligns with the Supreme Court’s mandate to the state in Brown v. Plata, this overcapacity should leave Californians wary of celebration. In an attempt to meet the court-mandated reduction in overcrowding, California began housing a large portion of its prison population in out-of-state private prisons. Private prisons are for-profit institutions run by private corporations rather than the state or federal government. For-profit prisons have been heavily criticized for failing to provide adequate services for prisoners, including insufficient food and medical care. It is difficult to know if private correctional facilities are providing adequate services for inmates due to a severe lack of transparency. Private prisons are not required to release the same public records as state-run facilities. They do not have to release how many individuals have been subjected to solitary confinement, which is particularly troubling considering American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports excessive and unjustified uses of the solitary confinement in private correctional facilities.

Under the Obama administration, the federal government worked to distance itself from privately-owned prisons by declining to renew contracts with them. This shift in policy occured after the Department of Justice found an astounding number of safety issues at for-profit prisons, including high numbers of assaults on both prisoners and guards. The business model of private prisons relies on a high recidivism rate, which discourages companies from investing in education and job training programs to help prisoners re-adjust to society.

Private correctional corporations, including the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), write occupancy agreements into their contracts that require the state to pay them fees if a certain number of inmates are not incarcerated in their facilities. This incentivizes states to incarcerate more individuals to meet these quotas and avoid paying the fine. Private prisons perpetuate and profit off mass incarceration. CCA currently operates one immigration and two federal detention facilities in California, as well as 61 facilities across the country. California’s partnership with a corporation that encourages increased incarceration rates is a clear conflict of interest. Subjecting prisoners to potential abuse in for-profit institutions with a lack of government oversight and transparency is inexcusable. Until contracts with private prisons are eliminated, prison conditions cannot truly be improved and the justice system cannot truly be reformed. Now that California’s incarceration rates have dropped, there is no longer an excuse for sending incarcerated individuals to these facilities. Transferring incarcerated individuals to private prisons is in no way an adequate solution to state prison overcrowding. The state cannot allow the well-being of prisoners to be jeopardized by relying on for-profit institutions to solve the prison overcrowding problem. California should immediately move away from contracts with private prisons because they are for-profit institutions that benefit from the exploitation of their largely minority inmate population.

In California, and throughout the rest of the country, the prison system is still racially biased. Latinos and African Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population. African American males are incarcerated at drastically higher rates than any other group in the state. Disproportionate incarceration rates are particularly drastic with juvenile incarceration. While the number of juveniles incarcerated in California dropped by 41 percent between 2001 and 2011, the number of minority youth incarcerated actually increased. California cannot claim to have mastered criminal justice reform until these larger issues of racial bias in the justice system are addressed.

Prisons have unfortunately become a business, with private corporations profiting off of incarceration, both through the for-profit prison system and prison labor. Prison labor is alive and well in the state of California. Perhaps one of the most visible forms of prison labor is the use of incarcerated individuals to fight California’s wildfires. Inmate firefighters make up between 50 to 80 percent of state personnel. They face dangerous conditions and back-breaking labor for $1 an hour. This pay is high compared to what many inmates make. Prisoners can be paid as little as 16 cents an hour for their work and are frequently contracted by private corporations as a cost-saving measure. All able-bodied federal inmates are required to work. The compulsory nature and low pay makes prison labor a form of modern-day slavery. Unfortunately, this practice is legal under the Thirteenth Amendment, which allows for involuntary labor. This forced labor, combined with the fact that the majority of incarcerated individuals are people of color, is extremely problematic. California’s extortion of inmates for labor is part of a larger system of mass incarceration and prison privatization. Companies that use prison labor have an incentive to keep incarceration rates high so that they have more access to subsidized labor. The use of prisoner laborers by the state to combat wildfires represents California’s potential interest in using prison labor to cut costs. California should end the use of prison labor as a means of production and profit. Instead, inmates should be provided with education and job training programs to help them build a stronger skill set that will allow them to thrive upon release, which would in turn lead to a lower recidivism rate.

California has taken some steps in the right direction to reduce mass incarceration, such as how the state allocates financial resources. Prop 47 has been estimated to save the state $150 million and $250 million per year. The savings from the bill are supposed to be contributed to programs that will help prevent future incarceration, with 35 percent going towards school truancy programs and 65 percent going towards mental health and drug addiction treatment. In June, $100 million was redistributed to local programs to combat recidivism and addiction treatment. The largest recipient of funds was the Los Angeles County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, which is using their $20 million to help house those with drug addictions and mental health issues after hospital or clinic stays. The decision to use the funds gained from Prop 47 to fund community initiatives is revolutionary in the fight against mass incarceration. California is currently the only state with such a program in place, but it still spends significantly more on prisons than on the University of California and California State University school systems combined. The state needs to prioritize its spending to emphasize education rather than incarceration. While drug treatment, job training, and housing assistance programs for formerly incarcerated people are still underfunded, the redistribution of funds from Prop 47 is helping to close this gap. In at least this one respect, California has become a leader in reducing incarceration rates.

California has taken some steps in the right direction in terms of combating mass incarceration, including the implementation of Prop 47. However, if the state truly wants to be a leader in prison reform, California must move away from prison privatization, address racial biases in incarceration rates, and tackle forced prison labor conditions. This issue of mass incarceration is complex and encompasses systematic issues within the judicial system, drug policy, and institutionalized racism. While these issues cannot be corrected overnight, the state can do more now in order to enhance prisoners’ rights and end the cycle of mass incarceration.

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