Friday, January 18, 2008

California's Prison State

California in the early 21st century, looks like a casebook example of a "carceral state", or a state that has placed imprisonment at the heart of its practices of governing. With 180,000 prisoners, twice as many prisoners locked up as its own design specifications very liberally allow, California has a massive human rights crisis on its hands and an impending show down in federal court over whether population caps will be imposed. Notwithstanding its failings, the prison system already absorbs more of the state budget than all of higher education and much more will be required to bring it up to constitutional standards.

Keeping the prisons full is an ever growing body of laws, many of them added by ballot initiatives, which provide long prison sentences for a wide range of serious and petty crimes. These laws leave county prosecutors with the power to transfer troubled local bad actors to state prison with no central mechanism to reduce or adjust sentences in response to disparities with other counties or overcrowding.

A feature on San Quentin prison in today's NYTimes suggests that this carceral state is not an altogether new thing. The infamous prison visible to all who travel the Richmond/San Rafael bridge to the Bay side of lovely Marin County, was built in 1854 by inmates held on a nearby prison hulk anchored on the Bay. Designed to house 48 in dungeon like solitary cells, it soon held more than three times that number. The feature by Patricia Leigh Brown points out that the prison was the very first public work created by the state, ahead of any public universities, roads, or aqueducts.

In an eerie anticipation of today, the state was recovering from the frenzy of the gold rush, and faced a mistrustful citizenry composed mostly of immigrants from other states and countries who shared little beyond ambition to strike it big, and lots of fear of their neighbors. The prison started out with hopes of rehabilitating its inmates, but soon resorted to flogging to enforce order.

If California has always had the propensity to be a carceral state, in which public order is constituted primarily through tough punishment, it has not always run that way. In between, for much of the mid-20th century, California kept its prison population relatively modest and concentrated on huge public investments in infrastructure and human capital including the complex technical systems that turned a largely desert state into a major food crop producer, the highway system that turned it into an automobile utopia (for a while), and a public university system that positioned it to become the leader in post-World War II technology development. During this time prisons were not forgotten, instead they were reinvented with the ambitions of this new technical scientific giant to be sites of applied human engineering to address the underlying causes of criminal behavior. While its managers never discovered a silver bullet to stop crime, they presided over a relatively small prison population most of whose inmates were paroled and succeed in staying out of prison. Today, in contrast, more than 2/3 of a hugely swollen population returns before the end of their parole period.

California did not change its population in between, although it may have stabilized and become more rooted in secure jobs rather than the highly entrepreneurial economies of the 1850s and the 2000s. The most important difference is in the vision of its leaders. From Earl Warren through Jerry Brown, California leaders governed through broadly optimistic visions of how the state could optimize its human talents. Since then our politicians have largely competed to articulate and respond to our fears of malevolent strangers.

If Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to go down in history as the change agent he is capable of being, he needs to persuade Californian's to abandon their carceral state for one that will pursue the technologies and skills necessary to tackle our looming environmental, health care delivery, and infrastructure problems. Once those problems and the solutions they will create are given central place, the carceral state can shrink down to the secondary state service it always should have been.

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