Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Incarceration & Recession: A View From Inside

Fantastic op-ed in yesterday's NYT from Kenneth Harman, an inmate sentenced to life w/out parole for murder in California, on the effects of the recession on super-max facilities.

Prison is a world reflected in a looking glass, however. The past 25 years were generally prosperous for California; the economy boomed and fortunes were made in the sunny San Fernando Valley. But during this time, the lives of prisoners became much drearier. We were forced into demeaning uniforms, with neon orange letters spelling out “prisoner,” and lost most of the positive programs like conjugal visits and college education that we had had since the ’70s. Money was flowing outside the prison walls, but new “get tough” policies against criminals were causing our population, and our costs, to soar.

It is a quirk of California politics that it is among the bluest of states but has some of the reddest of laws. No politician here ever lost an election for being too tough on crime or prisoners. Consequently, all through the ’80s and ’90s billions of dollars were poured into a historic prison-building boom. Private airplane pilots tell me it’s easy to navigate at night from San Diego to Los Angeles and on up the Central Valley to Sacramento by simply following the prisons’ glowing lights. Good times in the free world meant, in here, ever-longer sentences, meaner regulations and ever-decreasing interest in rehabilitation. “Costs be damned; lock ’em up and be done with it” became the unofficial motto of the Department of Corrections.

For those of us who have endured a generation of policies intended explicitly to inflict pain, this has a surreal quality to it. After all, it was only a year ago that the state authorities were planning the next phase of prison expansion. Obviously, all the passionate arguments that have been made about the moral wrongs of mass incarceration, of disproportionately affected communities, of abysmal treatment and civil rights violations were just so much hot air. Only when society ran out of ready cash did prison reform become worthy of serious consideration. What this says about the free world is unclear to me, but it doesn’t feel like a good thing.
No, it doesn't feel like a good thing and it isn't. What this is is the hangover, the bar tab come due, of a 25 year imprisonment binge. It's the end of a bender we've been on in this country where the politics of punishment and political capital trumped sense, research and, most importantly, the cast-off classes in society.

And it's not going to be pretty.

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