Thursday, January 24, 2008

Second Class Universities and World Class Prisons?

Cal State University Chancellor Charles Reed got it half right yesterday when in a speech to the University's Board of Trustees he blasted the proposed 10 percent cuts being imposed on higher education (and most of the rest of public spending) in Governor Schwarzenegger's proposed budget (read Tanya Schevitz's account in the SFChron). Reed asked the trustees (rhetorically one assumes):

"What kind of California do we want? I do think we are heading down the road to funding and building world-class prisons and second-class universities.."

We may well be on the road to the latter, and Chancellor Reed is correct to see California's three decade long incarceration binge as a significant factor in the declining state of our universities (roads, bridges, water systems, etc.). However to call our bloated and now catastrophically overcrowded prison system "world class" raises troubling questions.

World class prisons might be imagined to be places where wrongdoers are held accountable for crimes that seriously harm or threaten violence against others, in safety from each other, while being prepared for release through the application of tested methods of controlling substance abuse, and aggression while treating post-traumatic stress disorders of all sorts that frequently lead people on the paths to serious crime.

Such prisons may exist in parts of Europe. California's prisons, however, are nothing like that, and were not designed to be. Indeed, as the recent Plata and Coleman cases which have now brought the system under federal court control have revealed, these prisons were designed to function without consideration for rehabilitation or even minimal health and hygiene. As overcrowding has gotten worst over the last few years, conditions have deteriorated to the point of endangering the basic health of both inmates and staff. Moreover, they hold a tens of thousands of people for drug and property crimes as well as technical parole violations that often amount to little more than the crime of being homeless and or addicted.

Bluntly put California's once world class prisons (in the 1960s) are becoming little more than concentration camps without ovens (hear those last two words, I'm not accusing Californian's of genocide, but of building high security warehouses for the long term containment of people they are angry at and afraid of).

So cheers for Chancellor Reed for pointing out the fateful choices we are making. But lets not mistake world class prisons for unconstitutional and internationally scandalous detention centers.

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