City on a Hill Press – May 22, 2014 by Aron Garst
California already spends more than 60,000 on each inmate while only spending 9,200 on each K-12 student, and to add to that Jerry Brown is adding $500 million to the states budget to expand county jails.
Last week, organized protests took place across the state in San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento in a coordinated effort to halt Gov. Brown’s revised May budget. Protesters from the coalition Californians Reunited for a Responsible Budget (CURB) gathered outside the Santa Cruz County’s Superior Courthouse last Wednesday to stand against California’s proposed budget.
“It’s really illuminating to see where the state’s priorities are,” said community organizer Tash Nguyen. “We’re in a place where we really need to follow the money to see how lawmakers are addressing our issues. Clearly they’re not.”
In addition to CURB, the newly revised budget received criticism from Sin Barras — a community organization dedicated to abolishing prisons and the prison-industrial complex — and a report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a bipartisan organization providing fiscal and policy advice to the governor’s office.
The report stated that Gov. Brown’s administration had not conducted enough research concerning to what extent California counties would need more incarceration funding. Currently, 15 of 36 counties that requested funding for jails are receiving money from Gov. Brown’s budget.
“We’ve heard the governor’s planning to open about 5,000 new beds, open four new prisons and add $500 million to jail construction,” Nguyen said. “Last year, there was $500 million to jail construction and before that there was $1.2 billion.”
CURB has been successful in stopping bills headed through California state legislature before, namely SB 1377 and AB 2356. Each would have added 32,000 beds to prisons, as well as an additional $1.2 billion to jail construction funding.
The $500 million in question is aimed to develop rehabilitative programs and spaces within local jails, and the expansion is part of Gov. Brown’s public safety realignment. Under the governor’s realignment program, the state is shifting many non-violent offenders from state facilities to county jails to stop the “revolving door” of lower-level offenders and parole violators through state prisons.
As part of the revised budget, Santa Cruz is receiving over $24 million in funding for a “new Type III 64-bed transitional housing unit with day room, and to remodel existing space into program and vocational space equipped with audio and visual technology and security system upgrades,” according to the Board of State and Community Corrections website.
California’s prison population is so large, the state had to transfer prisoners to private out-of-state prisons to meet a court order to reduce the prison population. As of November 2011, around 143,643 prisoners are housed in California’s 33 adult facilities that are designed to hold 84,130. About 9,439 are housed in private facilities in other states like Arizona and Mississippi.
“When I look at it, it doesn’t make sense. Why are we doing it in the first place? Why are we locking up more and more people?” said community activist Simba Kenyatta. “We have more people in jail than anywhere in the world — 5 percent of the [U.S.] population and 25 percent of the world’s jail population.”
Kenyatta said drug courts were his preferred alternative to the expansive jail policies. Drug courts keep eligible individuals who committed drug-related offenses in treatment long enough for patients to stay clean and sober rather than hold them in incarceration facilities.
Other alternatives for the allocation of the $500 million include civilian police review boards, mental health awareness and care programs and funding to higher education.
Frank Alvarado, a two-time offender and former inmate, said he’d rather see the funding allocation for jail expansion go to re-entry programs designed to help former inmates with the transition from living in prison to living in society.
“Now that I’m released, I don’t have anything to go to — there is nothing to go to, except for the people who I and others hung around with to get in prison in the first place,” Alvarado said. “What happens then?”
He found it difficult to find any opportunities after being released — very few employers would take him on in his hometown of Salinas and his schooling options were next to none. Many states enforce laws requiring applicants to verify that they are felons before getting the chance to interview.
“I would love to see the funding go back into anything that has something to do with re-entry from federal prison, state prison or county jail and back into the world,” Alvarado said.
California prison expansion is nothing new. From 1982 to 2000, California’s prison population grew 500 percent and 23 new prisons have been built to match the growing number of inmates.
“They’re building gender responsive prisons, and they’re building family reunification centers and mental health centers inside prisons,” Nguyen said. “We know these things are much more viable in a community. A cage is a cage.”