Rather than reduce the state’s prison population to meet federal court orders to ease overcrowding, Governor Jerry Brown has proposed spending hundreds of millions of dollars—money otherwise earmarked for social services, education and infrastructure—on expanding inmate facilities.
The proposal split the state’s Democratic Party. Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Assembly leader John Pérez appeared with Brown at a press conference announcing his plan to shift inmates to private prisons in and out of state and local jails, while Democratic Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg expressed opposition.
“More money for more prison cells alone is not a durable solution; it is not a fiscally responsible solution; and it is not a safe solution,” Steinberg said in a press release. “We must invest in a durable criminal justice strategy, which reduces both crime and prison overcrowding.”
The governor’s opponents say the prison reduction can be met by using strategies like expanded parole for low-level felons, elderly inmates and the terminally ill along with additional credit for good behavior.
Brown’s plan would cost $315 million the first year and probably around $415 million for each of the two succeeding years, according to Los Angeles Times. The money would ititially come from the state’s $1.1-billion reserve.
Brown, who has fought court rulings that prisons hold no more than 137.5% of the penal system’s design capability, lost twice before the U.S. Supreme Court. The state managed to reduce the population from a high of 161,000 to 120,000 through a controversial realignment that shifts the flow of nonviolent, nonserious offenders from state prisons to already-overcrowded county jails. But it wasn’t enough.
The state is still 9,600 inmates short of reaching the court’s mandated target and facing an early release of prisoners if it can’t come up with another solution.
The federal government has been in charge of prison healthcare since 2005 and overcrowding since 2009. The takeover followed years of prison horror stories, frequent inmate deaths, severe overcrowding, deficient health care, defiant mismanagement and, in the end, lawsuits.
The state’s showdown with the courts is unfolding as a prison hunger strike, which initially involved 30,000 participants, is entering its sixth week. Brown is showing no sign of giving into inmate demands that solitary confinement conditions be improved.
The state is preparing to force-feed scores of inmates who have toughed it out so far. Prisoners and their advocates complain that the 5,000 inmates serving indeterminate terms in isolation—for years at a time—were suffering what Amnesty International described as a “breach [of] international standards on humane treatment . . . that amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in violation of international law.”
The state has until December 31 to comply with the court’s order to reduce the prison population. If it fails, the court has indicated it will order the release of prisoners.