California’s Prison Leviathan

| 11/9/2007 1:44:20 PM

“The current American prison system… is a leviathan unmatched in human history,” writes Utne Reader" href="/2007-11-07/America-Incarcerated.aspx" target="_self">Glenn C. Loury in the Nov./Dec. issue of Utne Reader. And nowhere has this leviathan grown to more epic proportions than in California, whose prisons currently house 1 in every 200 residents. 

In the October issue of In These Times, Sasha Abramsky reports that while the annual cost for California’s prisons has swelled to nearly $10 billion per year, the percentage spent on rehabilitation programs is in decline, tracking what Loury identifies as a national trend away from rehabilitation and toward punishment. Currently, only about 5 percent of California’s inmate spending goes toward rehabilitation. Consequently, the recidivism rate for the state’s parolees is near 70 percent, the worst among all states.

Until the late seventies, Abramsky writes, California maintained “one of the most progressive prison systems in the country, one that emphasized rehabilitation, drug treatment, education, and alternatives to incarceration.” Then three consecutive “tough-on-crime” governorships from 1983-2003 ushered in legislation that has filled prisons and sent rehabilitation programs into freefall.

“There are no rehabilitative programs,” says federal judge Lawrence Karlton, who held hearings with another federal judge in June to discuss prison overcrowding in the state. According to Abramsky, the judges discussed how “overcrowding was making it impossible to deliver constitutionally acceptable levels of medical and mental health care to prisoners.”

“They barely have the ability to house people,” says Karlton. “Where are you going to find the space to meaningfully rehabilitate people?” — Jason Ericson

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