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Overcrowded and Going Broke: A Look Inside California’s Massive Prison System

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California has the most prisoners in the nation with some 160,000 people behind bars. California jails hold more than double the designed capacity and are so overcrowded that a federal court last month ordered the state to reduce the prison population by more than 40,000 in the next two years. The ruling comes as California is in the midst of a severe budget crisis. We speak with University of California, Berkeley professor Jonathan Simon, author of Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Here in San Francisco, we’re going to look at California’s massive penal system. California has the most prisoners in the nation with some 160,000 people behind bars. California jails [hold] more than double the designed capacity and are so overcrowded that a federal court last month ordered the state to reduce the prison population by more than 40,000 in the next two years. In their ruling, the judges said overcrowding is the primary cause of substandard healthcare and mental healthcare in state prisons. Last week, Governor Schwarzenegger asked for a delay of the order, but was denied. He filed a formal appeal to the US Supreme Court Thursday.

The ruling comes as California is in the midst of a severe budget crisis. Facing a $24 billion budget deficit this summer, lawmakers agreed to slash penal spending by $1.2 billion. Last week, the State Assembly passed a bill that would reduce California’s prison population by 17,000 in the next ten months. Democrats passed the bill without any Republican support. It now goes to the State Senate. The bill would allow certain prisoners to be released early by completing rehabilitation programs, eliminate parole supervision for some nonviolent convicts, and allow probation violators to be housed in local jails.

Well, Jonathan Simon joins us now. He’s associate dean of jurisprudence and social policy and professor of law at University of California, Berkeley, author of the book Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear, joining us here in San Francisco.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Describe the crisis here in California.

JONATHAN SIMON: Amy, in the last thirty years, we have been on a prison building binge. Basically, the dominant public policy in California is that the way we can improve our communities is by putting a large number of our fellow citizens in prison. We’ve gone from about one in a thousand Californians in prison to something closer to one in 200. And in that thirty-year period, we built twenty-two prisons, one University of California campus and one Cal State University, during that entire thirty-year period. So our priorities completely were captured by prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this number of prisoners, the highest in the country?

JONATHAN SIMON: Well, we are the largest state, so the department will point out that our incarceration rate is not much higher than the national average. The point is, though, that that’s a national average that includes the old Confederacy, very high numbers of prisons. California is essentially a — it’s like New York with Alabama criminal justice policies, which means we have a lot of prisoners, and we pay a lot of money for them. And that has created a bankruptcy situation that you don’t find, say, in the South.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the budget crisis here in California affect the crisis of the prisons?

JONATHAN SIMON: As long as there’s been a lot of money to spend in California that generally is tied into our real estate booms, then people have been essentially comfortable with expanding the prison system. And this has really been a coalition of Democrats and Republicans that have built this prison system over the last three decades. With the budget crisis, really for the first time in this thirty years, there’s some serious talk about whether or not we actually can afford this level of incarceration and what job it does for us. My real concern now is that we’re going to find a way to muddle through rather than really revisit this basic strategy of trying to create security through prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the court’s ruling and the appeal to the Supreme Court?

JONATHAN SIMON: The court’s ruling is a huge help in getting Californians to focus on this problem. They’ve been — this is really the end of about a twenty-year cycle of litigation, mostly involving medical care and mental health, that has brought us to this point. The problem is, again, we might be able to muddle through. All the courts can do is order us to have a certain level of care in our prisons or a certain level of confinement capacity. We could decide to build our way out of this crisis, in which case we could spend another couple of decades, you know, eventually starving our education system into really nonexistence.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you recommending right now?

JONATHAN SIMON: I think we need a whole new paradigm change about public safety in the state. We treat public safety as if it equaled prisons. It’s sort of like treating hamburgers as if they were the only food that one could consume. We need police. We need probation officers. We need first responders. We need drug treatment and mental health caseworkers. And they’re actually a much more flexible workforce that can address multiple threats, whether it’s an earthquake — you know, if you take the situation of Hurricane Katrina that happened, our large urban areas really face a lot of serious kind of environmental, social threats to public safety. Crime is just one small part of that. And prisons really can’t help us address those really growing threats.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about the alternatives that you see.

JONATHAN SIMON: I think the alternative is a much more human capital-centered public safety program. Police actually can do a lot to fight crime. We didn’t used to believe that they could do much more than be kind of doormen into the penal system. But police can actually do their best work when they prevent crimes from happening altogether. Then you don’t need to incarcerate people.

The problem is, you know, when you grow your police force, you have to pay for it up front. When you grow your penal system, you pass the laws up front; you don’t have to pay for it for decades. And, of course, now we’re at the point in the cycle where we have to pay for it, and it’s very painful.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re here in San Francisco at a time of this controversy that led to Van Jones resigning in the White House his position as green jobs czar. But Van is known for many years here in the Bay Area as head of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, working on issues of crime, starting Copwatch with others. What about this controversy and Van Jones?

JONATHAN SIMON: Well, I’ve just been so disappointed. Van Jones has just been one of the most dramatic change agents you can imagine on this issue. I mean, he’s basically brought the environmental issue and our criminal justice issues together in a whole new synthesis. It used to be the only way we ever thought about those together is sometimes using prison as a break on suburban growth to spare open lands.

What Van has helped us realize is that the future of the environment is basically increasing the diversity and sustainability of our large cities. And when we have as much fear and essentially crime created by over-incarceration in our cities, as we do, we really can’t attract the middle class back. And so, his vision is create jobs greening our cities in a way it will actually solve our crime and incarceration problems. As long as he was in the White House, one could have confidence that Obama was hearing that line. Now I’m very concerned that that incredibly important voice is going to be missing.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Simon, can you talk about the thesis of Governing Through Crime, your book?

JONATHAN SIMON: I think a lot of people, since 9/11, have been aware that the war on terror has sort of transformed a lot about American governance. In this book, I really argue that that’s sort of got the history wrong, that it’s really the war on crime that began to deform American democracy. And by the time we got to George Bush and the war on terror, he really had to just extend the same basic logics of government that we had developed in this war on crime, beginning with Richard Nixon forty years ago. So, everything you think happened to America in the last nine years is really a picture that’s taken four decades to get here, that’s going to take a real change, a sea change, in American politics to get us out of this.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you propose as the solutions in this?

JONATHAN SIMON: We need to actually take a hard look at what America fears. Sort of the conceit of this book is what we fear is very important, because it tends to change who we are. And we began to fear crime in a big way in the 1960s. That wasn’t irrational; it was part of the picture of problems that were facing America. But our obsessive focus on crime has basically deformed not only our ability to address other problems like earthquakes and hurricanes, but also our democratic institutions, because fear of crime tends to erode trust in collective solutions. And as we can see from our healthcare debate, our ability to trust ourselves and our government is a big barrier to solving a lot of these problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Back here in California, the prisoner uprising in Chino, can you describe what happened and also talk about the issue of race in the prisons?

JONATHAN SIMON: What people have to understand is that our prisons are basically a day away from a riot every day, and it’s because they are so intensely racially defined. A lot of people don’t realize that when you walk into a prison in California, you might as well be walking back into the Deep South of the 1940s. I mean, literally, I’ve had an attorney describe to me seeing a sign up on the door saying “No black visitors today,” because when they have a lockdown of black prisoners, which they frequently will lock down prisoners based on their race, they will exclude visitors of that race from coming to the prison. So it’s a logic of governance that is completely racialized.

AMY GOODMAN: How can you base this on race?

JONATHAN SIMON: Well, the Supreme Court has said that, you know, you can use race in very limited circumstances where it’s a compelling governmental interest. And prison security arguably is that kind of an interest. But what you have to understand is that we’ve created a prison system that’s really got a vacuum of control on the inside. We have strong walls, but inside there’s no real effective culture or organization. And that has thrown the prisoners back on race, just like we’ve seen in Bosnia and other countries, that when organizational capacity disappears, race tends to show up as sort of a least common denominator.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Jonathan Simon is the author of Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. He’s a professor at University of California, Berkeley.

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