Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Limits of Savings: Cutting Prisons but Not Populations

Inmate working on a flag at the Prison Industries Autority at CCWF.
Image from story on struggle to maintain
vocational programs in prison.
Credit Lea Suzuki for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Over the last five years, we've spent a considerable amount of time on this blog discussing the impact of the financial crisis on reversing the punitive trend, a phenomenon that I refer to, in my forthcoming book with UC Press, as humonetarianism. A recent story by Truthout's Victoria Law is more skeptical about the potential of the crisis for changing real policies, and in fact highlights the perverse ways in which closing prisons and shifting populations negatively affect prison conditions.

Law provides some examples of how consolidating inmates in fewer institutions makes overcrowding worse:

In December 2011, on the heels of the US Supreme Court's decision that the overcrowding in the California state prison system is unconstitutional, the CDCR proposed converting Valley State to a men's prison and transferring its women and transsexual prisoners to the neighboring Central California Women's Facility (CCWF). That month, CCWF was at 160 percent capacity with 3215 people.

"The CDCR has been talking about gender-responsive and gender-humane prisons. They said that women have different needs than men, but look at us now - women are overcrowded with eight to a room," Wendy stated. A room, according to the Merced Sun-Star, is 348 square feet.

After the CDCR announced the conversion, despite threats of retaliation, 1000 people inside VSP and 200 inside CCWF sent letters against the plan to advocacy groups the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) and Justice Now. "Women are not cattle. You can't just shove us into a barn and [expect that] we will be all right," wrote one woman. As of January 16, 2013, with Valley State having been emptied of all but five women, CCWF is at 187 percent capacity with 3748 women, making it the state's most crowded prison.

During the transfers, medications were withheld. Once at CCWF, women reported difficulties receiving them. CCWP campaign coordinator Colby Lenz told Truthout that one woman was taken off her medications for two weeks before she was able to appear before a 12-doctor panel; they reassigned a new medication regimen.

Medical staff reportedly told an 81-year-old woman that she was old and going to die anyway, so they weren't going to give her anything. Others complained about a particular nurse who was randomly withholding medications.

In addition, those in VSP's mental health programs must be placed on a waiting list before accessing any mental health counseling. Wendy noted that, although CCWF only has six self-help groups, VSP's 56 self-help groups, run by the women themselves, have been discontinued.

"No one was able to take their materials to start a [new] group. They [prison staff] are citing overcrowding and the cost to taxpayers of shipping these papers across the street," said Lenz.
"People [transferred] are in a really horrible state. They are really traumatized," she said. "The prison wasn't giving people blankets, pillows, toilet paper, tampons or cleaning supplies."

Claiming a shortage of staff to supervise the increased numbers, the prison placed many under lockdown. CCWP has been told that some women were transferred from general population at VSP directly into segregation units at CCWF. In addition, women reported that guards were provoking violence against the VSPW "bitches." The mother of one transferee told Truthout that her daughter had said that conditions were so awful that she was contemplating suicide.

I don't doubt any of this for a moment. Not only good things have happened in the correctional world since the financial crisis; bad and ugly ones abound. This is not just about increased overcrowding in consolidated institutions. Private prison companies have been making more profit offering local governments savings. Educational and vocational programs have been slashed (in fact, here's an example of that in the very prison Law writes about). More inmates are housed in presumably more efficient out-of-state settings, taken away from relatives and friends. The trend of rolling incarceration expenses on the backs of the inmates themselves has increased as a "creative solution" for incarceration costs.

But I maintain that a lot of this comes from a misguided, short-term view of the expense argument. When seeking an emergency way to save money, correctional policymakers are likely to make these mistakes, ignoring the potential expensive implications they might have on the future in terms of recidivism rates. It is easier to adopt emergency measures than to think holistically about the challenges of mass incarceration and how they affect our spending later.

Short-term thinking about incarceration is not a new mentality. In a way, you could say this is what started the whole thing. What characterized our thinking about prisons in the 1970s was lack of actually thinking about them. The Nixon administration fueled money into law enforcement, and the expansion of prisons was an afterthought, a result of the increased number of arrests by a better funded and empowered police force. Even our way of funding prisons is a way of passing the buck to future generations, not through taxes we pay in real time but through hidden bonds that will be due later. Is it any wonder that, when trying to patch up the hole in our finances, we're not considering the possibility that unprogrammed, overcrowded institutions, are a recipe for deteriorated health and decreased skills, which mean more costs and more recidivism?

The key to changing this is to transform the cost argument in a way that incorporates consideration of future recidivism rates into the assessment of everything we try to do. This is not easy to do, because measuring recidivism is tricky, and so is predicting recidivism. But I really hope we can do it, because there doesn't seem to be any other motivation for change that holds the same amount of public appeal.

Props to Caitlin Henry for the link.

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