Feb 18, 2013
Last month, more than 400 people protested against the overcrowding, the deteriorating health conditions of prisoners and their persistent lock-downs in the women’s prisons at Chowchilla, California.
California is converting Chowchilla Valley State Prison for Women into a men’s prison. And they are squeezing more than 1,000 women into the two remaining women’s prisons. The population of women in these prisons is now close to 4,000, even though their maximum capacity is 2,000.
In California over the last three decades, many “tough-on-crime” laws were enacted extending prison terms many times, even for minor crimes. In 1994, the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law caused life imprisonment even for people who are convicted of three minor felonies.
As a result, many people were sent to prison for too long relative to their offenses. People were sentenced to 25 years to life for shoplifting a VCR, breaking into a soup kitchen, stealing a few videotapes, taking cookies from a restaurant or submitting a false application. Others were imprisoned for very long terms for non-violent crimes – using drugs, which hit the poor very hard but don’t affect the rich, who use drugs that were exempted from these laws.
Prison population skyrocketed. In 2011, California’s 33-prison network confined more than 160,000 people, although it was designed for 80,000.
Prisons became a booming “industry.” Today’s existing prison network was built through a massive prison construction program. Winners of this cruel deal were companies that built, operated or were involved in operation of these prisons. The companies also used this burgeoning prison system as a cheap source of labor for manufacturing goods like jeans. Prisoners were also used outside the prisons in some industries, for stacking warehouse shelves, for example.
Building more prisons only enriched the companies while cutting into other essential services, like education, infrastructure, health care and pensions. It was not an answer to crime. And in fact, the horrible conditions in these severely overcrowded prisons only served to turn people sentenced for minor offenses into hardened criminals. Today, California, like the rest of the U.S., imprisons more people than any other country in the world. One quarter of the world’s prisoners are in the United States.
The ills of crime and imprisonment can only be solved by addressing real economic and social problems like providing necessary and useful education and having well paid, decent and secure jobs.
But this capitalist system and its politicians only offer more prisons and prisoners. Under this system, workers will lose to the crime it causes and pay for the prisons it builds.